The Wall Of Ground Ball Prevention
In some ways, major league baseball grew stale in the sense that development people continued to trot out the same methods in spite of a game that was changing around them. Those who failed to adapt were not retained, and younger coaches from the amateur ranks replaced the lifers.Offensively, new data was telling people that hitting the ball in the air was a much more successful means of achieving positive impact yet old school training methods were still implemented. As Derek Falvey told me this winter, he had contact with numerous college coaches from attending various conferences that were rife with new ideas and new methods to training players. These sharp individuals were seen as an untapped competitive advantage.
In 2016, while working as an assistant coach for the University of Iowa, Pete Lauritson unveiled what he called "The Wall of Ground Ball Prevention" -- a system of setting up screens around the infield to encourage hitters to increase lift during batting practice. This was well received among the coaching and hitting ranks.
The beauty is in its simplicity.
If the goal is to increase launch angle, a coach needs to establish practices that would make players adjust their swing patterns to achieve that goal. It is one thing to say “hit the ball in the air” but it is much better when a player adapts on their own through repetition and instant feedback. It may be uncomfortable at first but after several days, weeks, months, it should become second nature to find the right swing pattern and optimal contact point. After all, the body organizes itself to achieve a desired goal.
Lauritson did not spend his time inside pro ball. He spent his time trying to understand what made college players better.
“My evolution into this is a little uncommon,” Lauritson said in 2017. “I didn’t play professionally and wasn’t even a good player – I was just OK. I made some sacrifices to try to figure out what really happens within a swing and what doesn’t. I wanted guys to learn this information. It wasn’t just studying baseball, it was studying golf, anatomy, psychology. How are going guys going to memorize this over and over?”
Committing the act to muscle memory is wildly important for an athlete. How will you get a hitter to “memorize” the act of hitting a ball above a 10 degree launch angle? Build a wall.
Lauritson was eventually hired by the Cleveland Indians -- a forward-thinking organization when it came to player development having already pulled multiple coaches out from amatuer baseball -- and brought his ideas to the Mohaning Valley Scrappers of the New York-Penn League as a hitting coach.
Yet there were still those who scoffed at the practice. Dragging screens all over the infield? Pfft. All you will accomplish is increasing the number of pop-ups, critics said. Or, worse, there’s nothing wrong with hitting ground balls.
Baseball, it is said, pivots with the efficiency of an oil tanker. It typically takes years before new ideas move past the old guard of players and coaches who are frequently resistant to change. The rise of the elevation nation, in comparison, caught on quickly. Less than two seasons ago, launch angle was not a part of the common fan’s lexicon. Now you cannot make it through a broadcast without it mentioned.
“You can’t slug by hitting balls on the ground. You have to get the ball in the air if you want to slug, and guys who slug stick around, and guys who don’t, don’t,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner explained. Even lifer and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was praising loft. “Your OPS is in the air,” he told reporters.
Fast forward to spring training 2018: Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Tompkins tweeted out a picture of the Rays using the “Wall of Ground Ball Prevention” in their camp.
It is amazing how ideas from outside pro ball make their way inside.
This won’t be the end of having new and interesting training methods spill over into professional baseball. With the increase in data and the greater understanding of what makes a player better (higher exit velocity, launch angle, spin rate, etc), will come new methods to improve those areas. Right now there are thousands of college coaches, hitting and pitching instructors trying to solve those issues. Finding the right ones for the organization could help produce talent at a rate superior than others.
In many ways this is a new Moneyball era.
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