Here is just one example of how the organization can and will change.
Across America weighted ball training has become an integral part in pitching development. Out east, Eric Cressey’s Cressey Performance Center has used those training methods since 2007. Down south, just outside of Houston, Ron Wolforth’s Texas Baseball Ranch has launched and re-established the careers of numerous arms, including the resurrection of Scott Kazmir. In Seattle, Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy has made weighted ball training a household name. At baseball training centers everywhere in between young pitchers are picking up heavy spheres and throwing them in the name of velocity.
Major League Baseball’s evolutionary process moves at a glacial pace and pro teams are slow to embrace change. MLB.com’s Lindsay Berra pointed out in December, organizations such as the Dodgers and Indians have tapped into the benefits of the systems designed by Cressey, Wolforth, Boddy and company. Still, there are some teams who have flat out refused to allow their pitchers to participate in those kinds of workouts. Perhaps not surprising, as recently as last year the Twins have reportedly discouraged some of their prospects from throwing heavy baseballs, suggesting that the practice can lead to more arm injuries despite the science saying otherwise.
Thanks to new leadership, that mentality will change.
Falvey arrived in Minnesota touting “evidence-based practices” at his introductory press conference, signaling that the days of discouraging new methods for unfounded reasons are over. His time with Cleveland’s player development system -- a more forward-thinking front office by comparison -- enlightened him to the benefits of working with weighted baseballs and other programs not necessarily on the mainstream radar. That said, even with the successful track record Falvey was not so quick to say that the Twins would be distributing heavy baseballs across the organization tomorrow.
“Everything has to be individualized,” Falvey told Twins Daily. “I think what we need to do if find out what systems work for some of our players, what they are already doing. We need to learn what they are doing now and ask how do we build toward a vision and if that vision means a different type of arm care, or maybe a different type of velocity and growth, we’ll employ those tools for those players. I never like to shut the door on any of those systems. I like to evaluate them and see where they fit within the mix of what we are doing.”
To be clear, this is not about weighted balls. Throwing weighted baseballs is not a magic elixir that is going to help someone’s arm suddenly from throwing pooh to pumping one-oh-two. What Falvey is saying is about more than that. For the Twins front office, this is about a bold step in exploring new methodologies for improving performance -- not restricting ideas based on gut feelings about a practice.
In 2015 Cleveland’s minor league pitching coordinator Ruben Niebla provided a peek behind the Indians’ development curtain. One of their organization’s main objectives was to help their pitchers reach their maximum velocity in the minor leagues. In order to do so, Niebla told Fox Sports that they try to “enhance our pitchers’ flexibility, explosion, and athleticism” overall and feed the arm through various long-toss, symmetry bands and weighted ball programs. More importantly, Cleveland did not have a one-size-fits-all program in place in order to achieve their objective; they learned from Trevor Bauer’s experience with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who bristled at Bauer’s unorthodox conditioning and pre-game warm-up routine, that pushing a prospect into a team-mandated regimen can have backlash. Individualization is key.
Furthermore, Niebla said that Cleveland emphasized building strength in their pitchers, which means dabbling in some powerlifting. That’s why in the offseason, Bauer can be found at Driveline’s squat rack or Corey Kluber deadlifting at Cressey Performance. Other flamethrowing pitchers like Aroldis Chapman and White Sox prospect Micheal Kopech both owe part their eye-popping radar gun readings to their adherence of lifting heavy things. The Twins, on the other hand, historically haven’t pushed their pitchers in that direction. Locally, you will find stories about Trevor May’s yoga practice or Glen Perkins’ avoidance of weight lifting.
That doesn’t mean that one or the other is better.
”Ultimately we’re going to blend some of the things I think we do well here with maybe some of things that I felt was part of developing in Cleveland over time,” said Falvey. “I talked to [pitching coordinator] Eric Rasmussen about it and [Director of Minor League Operations] Brad Steil and what we are going to do in the minor leagues and I think we’re going to open the doors to new ideas that haven’t existed here in this organization before but I have every expectation that there is an embracing of that conversation.”
In addition to the physical contributions of the player, Falvey also believes that leveraging data -- even at the lowest levels (an area in which the Twins might actually already have a head start) -- will help improve pitching development. Understanding through the numbers what works best for them and what they may need to improve upon quickly.
Baseball is enamored by its new tool, StatCast, and the data it has produced at the Major League level. That left teams wanted to measure and analyze pitching prospects with the same lens so they have installed the Trackman systems in their minor league parks. One significant credit to Terry Ryan’s leadership was the Twins got ahead of the industry when they installed the same system in their top four minor league affiliates, providing the same velocity, spin rate and other metadata as their big league counterpart.
“I can’t speak to how it was utilized in the past [in Minnesota] but I do know how we used it in Cleveland,” Falvey said, “and I felt that it was really something that was a difference maker for us.”
How big of a difference maker can that be? So much so that the Los Angeles Dodgers, the second largest employer in the state of California, have created a “Pitching Department” which consists of six people including three former pitchers and an ex-Driveline Baseball medical expert dedicated to researching the hell out of it. Fangraphs’ David Laurila recently interviewed Brandon Gomes, a former pitcher added to that staff, who discussed how they will leverage that data.
“The biggest thing is to understand the characteristics,” Gomes said. “It might be, ‘Hey, this guy has elite carry, so we want to look at pitching in this part of the zone.’ Or maybe it’s, ‘This is a power-sinker guy, so we want this,’ or, ‘He has an above-average slider, so he should use it more than he’s currently using it.’ Those kind of avenues. Nothing overly new, but we’re implementing it in a slightly different way.”
Pitchers are not always certain about their identity. They may feel certain pitches are behaving one way when they are not. Providing them with the concrete data will give the a better direction or a quicker understand of what makes them successful.
Training systems and data analysis improvements aside, player development comes back to the individual and Falvey places great emphasis on the human side as well. In his vision, there will be more communication and dialogue between the front office and the players.
“It is a two-way conversation,” he said in regards to handling a player’s career. ”You go to a player and you talk about who do you want to be. How do you want to develop? All these guys have goals. All these guys want to be big league pitchers. What’s that look like?”
It is honesty.
“Let’s not be afraid to have a candid conversation about that. Let’s not be afraid to have some feedback on here’s where you are and here’s where you want to be. There’s a gap, how do we close the gap? And not focus on limitations but focus on opportunities to build and grow and develop. Build goals.”
You could take that entire last statement from Falvey and apply it to the redevelopment of the pitching pipeline overall. Build goals not only applies for the individual, but for the team as whole. As Falvey said himself, there is a gap, a gap for where the Twins are as an organization when it comes to developing talent and where they want to be. How do they close that gap?
It is not an easy nor quick fix but Falvey appears to have the right plan in the works.