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New Hires, New Tech Might Give Twins One of MLB's Best Player Development Systems

The Minnesota Twins minor league camp has a different feel in 2019.

“If you go out on our backfields right now you will see some really helpful and quality work being done,” says manager Rocco Baldelli. “It’s actually really cool.”

Really cool indeed.

The Twins organization has invested heavily in both people and technology to make significant strides in improving player development. What is happening away from the major league side should blow your doors off.
Image courtesy of © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
About three hundred yards away from Hammond Stadium – or, if you prefer the dinger system, one Nelson Cruz batting practice bomb – is the area commonly referred to as the backfields. The Twins’ backfield wheel contains three full-sized fields and a truncated infield-only one. There are two bullpen areas wedged between three of the fields, and an observation tower blasting tasty tunes.

Here, minor-league players will have almost every swing, pitch, throw and catch tracked.

The number of people gathering data has grown exponentially from the previous season. Then again, the number of tracking devices has also grown exponentially.

The Trackman units have been hanging on the fencing behind home plate at the three large fields for several seasons. The many Rapsodo 2.0 devices are new this year, as are the multiple high-speed cameras. Hitters have Blast motion sensors attached to their bats and will undergo a 4D body movement sensor session in the covered batting cages before the day's activity starts.

Meanwhile, when live at-bats begin, standing behind the pitcher's mound are Twins employees, protected by screens, charting everything on iPads. The Rapsodo devices in front of every home plate area are rapping along. Trackman, the all-seeing eye-in-the-sky, is tracking man.

The place is buzzing with data collection.

“Just comparing this year to last year, it’s drastically different,” says Tanner Swanson, the organization’s catching coordinator who was brought in before the 2018 season.

The data isn’t the only new element. Coaches and players both rave about the new schedule and some of the new training methods.

”Drastically more efficient,” Swanson says about the workouts. “I think there’s a lot of teaching going on, which you could argue may or may not be the norm for the typical spring training environment. It’s been a major upgrade, I think. Players have more energy, are excited, feels like they are progressing and getting better. It’s been a good start, no question.”

One bullpen area is filled with pitchers and catchers trading throws in a popping cadence. It may appear routine but the Twins have made tweaks to this activity as well. According to side-arming prospect Tom Hackimer, the bullpen sessions are separated into two categories – one for the pitcher to focus on his mechanics and one for the pitcher to focus on executing over the plate.

“It’s half of what we call ‘over the rubber,’ what you want to work on, the second half we work on is ‘over the plate,’ pitch sequencing, catcher calling the game, where you want to locate your stuff,” says Hackimer. “It’s definitely a big step forward having that structure.”

There’s classroom time for all practices. On the pitching side, Twins’ minor-league pitching coordinator Pete Maki holds meetings to discuss strategy, philosophy, and the technology to help players understand why they may feel like lab rats at times.

“We just had a meeting,” Hackimer says. “The Core Principles of Pitching meeting. It can easily be an hour, hour-and-a-half meeting but Pete Maki just cut it off at a half-hour. He’s like, most people can’t pay attention after a half-hour, that includes the coaches, that includes you guys, so we’re gonna cut it right here.”

On the other bullpen area, hitters stand in against pitchers. There are Rapsodo devices here as well. Cameras too. Staff members charting everything. Former Twins great Johan Santana observes the program. And paid umpires are calling balls and strikes. This was a concept Swanson and the minor league staff came up with to help replicate the in-season experience.



“It was an attempt to give our catchers more objective feedback,” says Swanson. “It’s one thing to say with your eyes, ‘hey, looks good’ or ‘nice job,’ but to really look and say, okay we gained strikes here, we lost strikes here.”

Another improvement is individualized hitting plans led by newly hired minor-league hitting coordinator Pete Fatse and his coaching staff.

While the bulk of the work happens inside the cages, hitters get to take small group BP on the field to see the fruits of their labor in the sun. With one group of hitters, Fatse throws batting practice. One hitter pulls his first pitch — a hard-hit one-hop smash down the third base line. Fatse shakes his head.

“That way,” he sticks out his arm and gestures toward the left-center field gap. “That way!”

Fatse says he wants the hitters to design their swing paths similar to Miguel Cabrera or JD Martinez, who laser baseballs into the middle of the field but can do damage pull side on pitches inside.


The hitter nods then rifles the next series of pitches into the opposite field gap like Fatse directed.

“See, that’s the way,” he exclaims. “I should hug you right now.” Fatse sticks out his arms from behind the screen like he was offering the hitter a squeeze from 50 feet away. The player laughs.

Michael Cuddyer joins another session to give his input. This is a newer endeavor, getting the former big league players to interact with the minor league players and staff. Earlier in the week, Torii Hunter spent time at the minor league cages.

“He was giving us some high praise in respect to how we were going about what we’re doing,” Fatse said of his experience with Hunter.

"We didn’t have too many big league players come down and talk to us,” recalled Cuddyer during his tenure in the minors. Players like Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew spent time with Cuddyer but only after he made the Twins.

For Twins prospect Taylor Grzelakowski, a catcher who finished 2018 third on the Miracle in home runs (8) and slugging (.458), he got the chance to tap into not only Fatse’s biomechanical expertise but with Cuddyer’s knowledge from his 15-year career.

Thus begins a master class in hip direction.

Cuddyer demonstrates how he would fire his hips in the swing behind the ball, imparting violent rotational contact. Fatse shares his piece. Grzelakowski nods, has a dialogue with the two instructors and goes back into the batting turtle to try to implement that feel to his swing.

“Perception is not always reality,” Cuddyer says about trying to translate a feel in the swing component to the young prospect. “What he feels might not always be what he’s doing. And same with me. What I feel in my swing, I might not be verbalizing well. That’s what hitting is, it’s conversations. There’s not one way to do it. There are many different cues that result in the same swing and certain language works for different players.”

Fatse echoes Cuddyer’s comments about the common language of hitting.

“We’re trying to get guys to understand how their body moves and how to execute their swing as opposed to just thinking about things that are like, ‘hey just take your hands to the ball,' ” Fatse says. “That can mean seven different things to seven different people.”

The hitting development component is heavily influenced by science and modern hitting theory. They have underload/overload bat-speed programs. They have two pitching machines which fire a high-spin fastball and a breaking ball, and the hitter doesn’t know which is coming, hoping to improve pitch recognition. De-emphasized are tools like batting tees, as Fatse says players should focus on hitting a moving target over a stationary one.

Some of the Twins players have taken notice of the new practices.

“When I first got here before camp, it was pretty crazy to see what they are doing on the minor league side with all the radar guns and using weighted bats to speed up their bats,” says outfielder Max Kepler. “I wish I had that when I was younger.”

The minor league camp, with its wonderful toys, isn’t an island unto itself. The team invested heavily in coaches – coaches who are constant learners and thrive in a data-driven environment, and they don’t plan to hide them out there.

“One thing that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about, and hopefully even more as time goes on, is the exchanging of ideas and bringing both sides instead of there being separation between the big leagues and minor league,” Baldelli says.

The cohesion happened almost immediately for some. Fatse says when he was hired, Twins’ hitting coach James Rowson invited him out to dinner to talk shop. The dinner discussion wound up lasting over four hours.

“I think the one unique thing about the Twins is that there’s no divide,” Fatse says. “They’ve made it (a) really transparent feel here. They want there to be constant collaboration and dialogue and the fact that there are big league players that come down and hang out on the backfields with players, you just don’t find that everywhere.”

“Rocco and his staff have been unbelievable,” Swanson added. “They have an open door policy for coordinators and coaches to come and go. I’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth. They’ve made it clear from the beginning that they want it to be an inclusive environment and they’ve gone out of their way to make myself and others feel welcomed and valued. There’s definitely a cohesiveness going on between our major-league operations and our minor-league groups.”

When you step back to appreciate the activities, the sheer logistics of the multi-faceted practice is mind-blowing. Hundred of bodies are accounted for and every one of them appears to be participating in something at any given moment. It’s a baseball development mosaic, a well-tuned symphony designed with a singular purpose: to make players better.

The Twins, indeed, are doing quality work back here.

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33 Comments

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operation mindcrime
Mar 10 2019 08:57 PM
Thanks for the info! \m/

Check in when the season begins and other teams with their own coaches and their own systems meet our system.A wonderful garage does not make a great car.

    • jjswol likes this

This is awesome, Parker!

 

And just from my one day here, these practices are different. The whole session is different, looks different, technology all over, coaches/coordinators/data entry folks all over

    • diehardtwinsfan, tarheeltwinsfan, Tom Froemming and 5 others like this

 

Check in when the season begins and other teams with their own coaches and their own systems meet our system.A wonderful garage does not make a great car.

 

This stuff isn't about immediate results. It's about process and player development. This is all positive. The players seem to really like it and appreciate it. There's no doubt that the goal is to make players better. 

    • luckylager, sorney, Twins33 and 8 others like this

 

This stuff isn't about immediate results. It's about process and player development. This is all positive. The players seem to really like it and appreciate it. There's no doubt that the goal is to make players better. 

So when should we expect better results? 3 to 4 years?

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The Mask of Zoilo
Mar 10 2019 10:47 PM
This is very exciting, especially the experiential learning/feedback drills instead of verbal cues and tradition with minor leaguers. Parker, keep reporting on this type of stuff if you can. It's great to see the Twins investing in cutting edge practices instead of the status quo.
    • birdwatcher, Twins33, USNMCPO and 5 others like this

All that really matters is wins and losses.

Two comments First, the title suggests the possibility of the best player development system. After the recent failures, I would settle for a league average player development system. Second, as is the blight of many companies, collecting data is not the problem. Using the data is. Yes, all the new “toys” are wonderful, but the ability to implement changes based on the data is more important. Your (great) article sounds like the new generation of minor league coaches co-ordinators are trying! It seems the Twins have finally joined the 21st Century.
    • Sssuperdave, Minny505 and jkcarew like this
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MMMordabito
Mar 11 2019 08:22 AM

 

So when should we expect better results? 3 to 4 years?

 

It could, but the key to these types of overhauls is getting buy in from the players.It will be easier with the younger players and the players that start in a system like this from day one.Perhaps this is another reason that the FO is avoiding much commitment in the FA world.The older guys are more likely to push back on someone telling them that "some dumb computer should be tellin' them the way to throw a ball".

    • Twins33, Hosken Bombo Disco, Minny505 and 1 other like this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 11 2019 08:32 AM
the title suggests the possibility of the best player development system.

 

 

The title suggests it is "one of" the best player development systems in baseball. It is not the top. You talk to people in the industry who have touch points with multiple organizations and they will tell you the Twins have made significant strides but still fall short of several other orgs (namely, the Astros). 

 

As people have said on here and on Twitter, "we'll see", that's absolutely correct. We will see. None of this guarantees major league success. But the fact is every organization is chasing one thing -- wins. That's the goal. The goal, however, is not reachable unless you have quality systems in place. The Twins have not had quality systems in place prior to this new front office. They invested heavily in almost all aspects of the org (...some of you can and have argued that they might have not invested as heavily in the major league payroll at times and that's a fair point...). 

 

In reading James Clear's Atomic Habits recently (sick reading brag, bro), there's a story he shares about how the British cycling team went from laughing stocks to world champions (it did involve drugs but that wasn't the only element). They focused on marginal gains and getting one percent better in all aspects of the sport

 

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

 

Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.

 

But they didn’t stop there. Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.

 

As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.

 

 

So when I talk to Tanner Swanson about what he has been doing with the catchers -- hiring umpires to call balls and strikes for bullpens and measuring against Rapsodo data -- I can see the marginal gains. The Twins have other coaches in different practices doing similar things. 

 

 

    • luckylager, birdwatcher, Twins33 and 6 others like this

Interesting read Parker - I can't think of a better use of team resources than player development, an area which has been kind of spotty for the Twins over the years. Hopefully it will bear fruit in the long term.

 

 

    • Twins33, brvama and MN_ExPat like this
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Aerodeliria
Mar 11 2019 09:12 AM
Impressed by this article. Thanks for intercontinental update.
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Ski U Mah Gopher
Mar 11 2019 09:19 AM

 

Check in when the season begins and other teams with their own coaches and their own systems meet our system.A wonderful garage does not make a great car.

 

I wouldn't call it a garage, but a manufacturing process.

 

Let's see how the players on the backfields develop before pooh-poohing the process.

    • birdwatcher, James, Twins33 and 3 others like this

The tricky part is that other teams are doing these kinds of things now too -- maybe not every team is doing the exact same things, but most are trying things in these areas.

 

Not that it's bad that we're doing them, of course -- just that it's not as easy to gain a competitive advantage from doing them now, as it would have been, say, 10 years ago.

    • ScrapTheNickname, adorduan, KGB and 2 others like this

An absolutely fascinating read!Thank you so much, Parker!

    • birdwatcher likes this
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birdwatcher
Mar 11 2019 10:14 AM

 

All that really matters is wins and losses.

 

 

That's why this is an article about something other than results. This is fascinating stuff. Many of us are hopeful even optimistic that this dramatically different approach to the whole skill development process will lead to more wins. This stuff matters, we think.

    • diehardtwinsfan, Twins33, brvama and 2 others like this
This old schooler could become a convert if we see positive measuresd results. Sooner than later, I hope. I enjoyed this info.
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SenatorsGuy
Mar 11 2019 10:50 AM

Parker/Seth/others - 

So the Twins are investing a lot in development through on-field technology and coaching. That's good news. Is there any sense they are crossing the the historical off-field barrier - and teaching the young minors guys about nutrition - and more importantly - figuring out a way to feed their bodies the way a professional athlete should be fed? Why buy a million dollars of camera, and then leave them on their own to eat Big Macs?

    • dbminn likes this
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Parker Hageman
Mar 11 2019 11:16 AM

 

Parker/Seth/others - 

So the Twins are investing a lot in development through on-field technology and coaching. That's good news. Is there any sense they are crossing the the historical off-field barrier - and teaching the young minors guys about nutrition - and more importantly - figuring out a way to feed their bodies the way a professional athlete should be fed? Why buy a million dollars of camera, and then leave them on their own to eat Big Macs?

 

Yes. This was a big endeavor when they opened the new facilities. They have nutritionists working with players and creating meal plans, etc. 

    • birdwatcher, gman, Minny505 and 1 other like this
Sounds like the players are buying into the program. That in and of itself should make them better. In this new age of technology that kids are growing up in I can see an easy buy in.
    • birdwatcher likes this

This could be the next wave of development for baseball and we will be leader in player development. I have my reservations about this it may work for percentage of players but my experience over the years has been players learn the most just playing the game of baseball. Today we are seeing flood of players from carribean and venenzula these are hot beds where kids are playing the game year around. I think the current labor contract has hurt major league development by teams worring about player service time instead of letting players come up learn the game by playing it and being taught it from the veterans. We have whole generation of people involved in baseball that have played MLB on video games and also now play fantasy baseball but this is not what it takes to build quality players. I think its working short term but I think were killing the future of baseball and why it was popular for so long. I may be totally wrong here but the game has become more boring for me to watch because of analytical thought put into the game we have taken the human element out and reduced the superior players ability to show case there talent in the games by doing their analytical analysis. Yes this is smart thinking on giving your team a chance to win but these shows of superior physical plays also have been reduced so the game is not as fun to watch or remember because we have less of these to remember from the games. This was part of the game that made it special in the past. The example being for instance instead of Willy Mays making spectacular catch over his head that is shown in replay about him instead we had shift on that predicted that tendency for player hitting that baseball hitting that ball there we had player positioned there same outcome out but nobody remembers that play. This may be over simplified but I think its happening now to many times in baseball the game has never been played better but it has become boring where in past this caused situations where superior baseball player had situations to show case there talent and was reason for there teams to win. Today this has reduced number of players to equals on the field to where game has come down to more of equation of whose game plan is superior to that opposition. I am having hard time to explain this but game was much more fun to watch when you had human element variability in the game not as pure a game but was much more entertaining game to watch. Just my thoughts on this I may be way off here but it what I have been thinking about baseball lately.  

Thanks for the great article. 

 

About freakin' time. An inability to get the most out of players is the organizations biggest, longest running weakness. The club's been a AAAA team for the rest of the league for way too long. The list of recent Twins players who've gone on to be far more successful elsewhere is embarrassingly long. 

    • brvama likes this
This absolutely a great progress. Tha adaption of this kind of approach will take a while. New technologies will make players better. Players get personal mealplans, weight lifting programs and development plans. Next step is to lift the monthly wages in the minors so they can keep up to these mealplans and nutrion plans. As soon as they leave the player development center they not always have much too spent on nutrion.
    • brvama and NumberThree like this
Sorry. Comment was places twice.
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Original Whizzinator
Mar 11 2019 04:42 PM
This makes me think of Presley going to Houston and getting some instruction that led to immediate results. You know if we can catch up to those bastards in player instruction we have to be more desirable than that crappy town and that crappy indoor stadium.
    • brvama likes this

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