In any given lifetime, each person makes a few critical decisions that completely alter their trajectory. Sometimes the big moments in life are signposted, but other times the pivot point may seem insubstantial at the time. Turning left instead of right or saying “yes” instead of “no” can change everything.
For Ryan Pressly, getting traded from the Twins to the Astros on July 27, 2018, was a big, obvious life changer. Setting aside the physical move more than 1,000 miles south, he went from an unremarkable reliever in Minnesota to one of baseball’s best in Houston, accumulating 4.4 WARP in 317 innings before the trade and 4.6 WARP in fewer than 200 innings since. His strikeout rate jumped from 21% to 33%. He signed a three-year, $27.5 million contract in March 2019 and then a two-year, $30 million extension that begins next year.
Simply residing in Houston isn’t what turbocharged his career. The Astros analytics department reshaped his pitch arsenal and unlocked his talent, just as they did with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and others. But right at the beginning, Pressly had a moment of self-advocacy that made everything click. Here’s that moment as described in The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik (excerpt published at The Ringer):
No more than fifteen minutes after he finished unpacking in the clubhouse, Pressly was summoned into a meeting. In attendance were Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, bullpen coach Doug White, and multiple analysts from the front office. The Astros, Pressly learned, had a plan for him to be better, and the analysts launched into the details. “They sat me down and they put up all these x, y charts and all this other stuff,” Pressly says. “It almost sounded like they were speaking in a different language. I just raised my hand and said, ‘Guys, just tell me what to throw and not to throw.’” They told him his two-seam fastball to lefties was ineffective but that they loved his curve and hoped he’d throw it more. They also suggested he elevate his four-seam fastball and throw his slider slightly more to make his fastball more effective.
What would have happened if he hadn’t interrupted his new coaches? Had he never interjected, “Guys, just tell me what to throw and not to throw,” would his strikeout rate have skyrocketed? Would he have signed for $57.5 million in extensions?
Clearly, the Astros had a detailed plan to make Pressly more successful, but the way they initially presented it almost shut him down completely. If he lacked the wherewithal or comfort level to request a simpler explanation, he might have remained an ordinary reliever instead of becoming a two-time All-Star. Even worse, the team might have viewed him as “uncoachable” and given up on him altogether.
Employing the maximum information to unlock player potential is the primary goal of baseball analytics, and it’s undeniable that the Astros are among the best at it. However, simply having the information is only half of the battle. It serves no purpose unless the organization can make it actionable. The ability to teach, communicate, and transfer information between the front office, the coaching staff, and the players is just as important as gathering the information in the first place.
Modifications and Accommodations
In your K-12 education, odds are you had some teachers you loved and others you didn’t mesh with. Every educator has a different teaching style, but more presciently, every learner has unique learning needs and preferences. Sometimes, a teacher and a student are able to come to an accord better than others. The same dynamic exists in baseball. The right mix of coach and player can be transformational, whereas a clash can ruin careers. This occurs to different extents from MLB all the way down to tee ball.
Sometimes acknowledging one’s own learning preferences can lead to innovation. Early in Tony Gwynn’s career, he was suffering through a batting slump. He asked his wife to record his plate appearances on VCR so he could study himself and opposing pitchers. Not only did he amass more than 3,000 hits, but the practice of video review became prevalent throughout baseball.
Studying video is an example of a modification — a change to the content of the curriculum. Gwynn needed to watch himself face live pitching to become an elite hitter. Scouting reports and coaching alone weren’t enough, so he had to supplement what he was learning. Accommodations — changes to the method of instruction or learning environment — are just as important as modifications. When the Astros bombarded Pressly with information, he requested that they present it in a different way, and that made all the difference.
Specific modifications and accommodations are beneficial for anyone in an educational setting (including on the field), but they’re especially important for people with learning disabilities. They’re mandatory components of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a legal document that details the specific needs and supports necessary for every special education student. That’s not to imply that Gwynn and Pressly had learning disabilities. On the contrary, it demonstrates how the right modifications and accommodations can benefit any learner—including professional athletes at the pinnacle of their chosen field.
That being said, there definitely are ballplayers with special needs. Speculating on which ones would be grossly irresponsible, but just based on the sheer volume of professional baseball players, it’s a certainty. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 4.4% of adults have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that’s just one of many prevalent conditions that may affect learning. For these individuals, finding the right modifications and accommodations is especially crucial so they can put analytics and data into action on the field.
Scott Eyre was diagnosed with ADHD while pitching for the Blue Jays in 2001. He received treatment that included therapy, helpful organization strategies, and medication (which works well for some people but certainly is not the right fit for everyone). Suz Redfearn of ADDitude described the difference it made in his life and career:
Now, more than two years after that panicky moment on the mound against the Yankees, Eyre has turned his career around. He takes Concerta daily and works hard to stay organized. Eyre says he can focus, multitask, and listen when others are speaking, retaining what they have said — all new skills for him. A wall has come down and now he’s able to be the player he feels he was meant to be. “I can think about a pitch and also cover first base now,” Eyre says. “I can stand on the mound and not hear the 40,000 people screaming.”
Eyre bought a Palm Pilot, leaves himself sticky notes, and takes his medicine every day before his games. It’s become one of his superstitions, along with wearing the same socks with his uniform and not leaving the locker room for the bullpen until the first inning is underway. Not only has his pitching improved, but he no longer forgets to leave promised complimentary tickets at the ticket window for friends and acquaintances, something he did frequently before his diagnosis and treatment.
After recording a 5.66 ERA from 1997-2000, Eyre improved to 3.54 from 2001-2009. He always possessed the ability to succeed on the mound but needed the right support to help him get there. It evidently improved his personal life as well.
To be clear, MLB franchises are employers, and in no way should they be empowered to test or diagnose their employees for learning disabilities, nor should players be compelled to inform them. However, even without a diagnosis, organizations should seek to support their players as best they can, whatever their needs may be. Yes, it may help them win a few extra games, but more importantly, they have a responsibility to ballplayers as people who have entrusted them with their professional development.
Consequences, Good and Bad
How big of a difference can successful teaching and communication make? It’s about as large as the gulf between the 2021 Giants and the 2022 Angels.
The Giants shocked the baseball world last season by winning 107 games with a roster that most people predicted to finish around .500. It was even more surprising that they were led by a cadre of resurgent veterans who posted career years completely unexpectedly, including Kevin Gausman (4.5 WARP), Buster Posey (3.9 WARP), and Brandon Crawford (3.6 WARP).
It’s no coincidence that they completely revamped, expanded, and modernized their coaching staff prior to the season. They increased their total number of coaches to 13, specifically because they approached coaching as a form of teaching. From Alex Pavlovic on NBCSports:
The Giants had eight coaches in (former manager Bruce) Bochy’s (staff) last year. (Current manager Gabe) Kapler pitched (president of baseball operations Farhan) Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris on hiring more coaches to improve their “pupil to teacher ratio.”
“It didn’t seem like the most compelling analogy to me, comparing a Major League Baseball team to a classroom,” Zaidi said, smiling. “But I, Scott and others were just very open-minded to it, because we have a lot of belief in Kap and his process and you know that when he brings something up he has put a lot of thought and energy into it.
Teaching is all about making connections, and this extends to the Giants’ philosophy of coaching-as-teaching. As Farhan Zaidi told ESPN’s Tim Keown, “We bring guys into the office and ask, ‘How are you doing? Do you have your family with you? How are you finding camp, and how does it compare to the last team you were on?’ We’re just having human conversations because we’re finding it’s the best use of that time.” This shows the individualized, personal approach espoused by the organization, which stands in stark contrast with traditional one-size-fits-all coaching.
On the other hand, the Angels are in the middle of their seventh consecutive losing season despite having both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. On June 7, they fired manager Joe Maddon. A disconnect on the implementation of analytics was a core discrepancy between him and general manager Perry Minasian. Maddon explained in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:
It’s been kind of difficult overall. I’m into analytics, but not to the point where everybody wants to shove it down your throat. Real baseball people have felt somewhat impacted by all of this. You’re unable to just go to the ballpark and have some fun and play baseball. It’s too much controlled by front offices these days.
I actually talked to Perry about this. This isn’t anything new. I told him that. I said you just try to reduce the information you’re giving, try to be aware of who’s giving the information and really be aware of when it’s time to stay out of the way. In general the industry has gone too far in that direction and that’s part of the reason people aren’t into our game as much as they have been.
Clearly, the Angels felt like they were getting outcoached, but the front office itself has to share some of that blame. Rather than using the Giants’ model of more individualized coaching and personal connections, Maddon seems like he felt bludgeoned by information. He may or may not have been the right person for the job, but the front office didn’t seem to make any attempt to communicate analytics with the intention of accommodating different learning needs of coaches or players.
On the first day of my Education 101 class as a freshman in college, I was asked the easiest question of my academic career, which was immediately followed by the most difficult question of my academic career. Before he said a word, the professor wrote the following math problem on the board: 2+2=
He asked the class, “How many of you know the answer to this question?” Every hand shot up. “Great,” he said. “Now, how many of you can tell me seven different ways to teach ‘2+2’ to a six-year-old?”
It’s one thing to memorize that 2+2=4. It’s quite another to understand that if I have two pieces of candy and my friend gives me two more, I have four altogether. Furthermore, I might need to see the pieces of candy and count them, feel them in my hand, or (hopefully) eat them!
The same concept holds true in baseball (or really everything else). A pitcher might or might not lower their release point by two inches just by being told to do so. That works for some people! Others might need a visual chart to explain why a lower release point will be beneficial or what it will do to the spin axis of their slider. They might need to watch video of their pitching motion compared with computer modeling of what a different release point looks like. Perhaps they need a coach or teammate to grab their hand and physically move their arm to where it needs to go. More than that, maybe they need a trusting, preestablished personal relationship with that coach to be receptive to the idea of a new release point in the first place.
In general, players receive more superior coaching the higher they climb up the baseball ladder. In MLB, a pitcher will benefit from a cadre of the foremost experts, whereas in Little League, it’s a few potentially inexpert volunteers. That doesn’t mean a high school coach isn’t sometimes better for a given player than their minor league roving pitching instructor, but that’s probably not often the case. With smaller coaching staffs and less professionalism, there’s a lesser chance that a player with learning disabilities will have access to the information as well as the modifications and accommodations they require to succeed on the diamond.
It can also be difficult for players, particularly younger ones, to self-advocate the way Pressly did when he was a 29-year-old established professional. This creates a survivor bias. Some untold amount of ballplayers fail to reach the pros or the majors despite having the requisite talent simply because they didn’t get the support they needed at lower levels. This includes players who couldn’t self-advocate because of their communication needs, the lack of a trusting relationship, or a myriad of other reasons.
Four years ago, I wrote an article about learning disabilities and player development at Beyond the Box Score. Ever since it was published, I’ve had young players, parents, and coaches messaging me about it out of the blue every few months. They all Googled something like, “ADHD baseball,” were disappointed and disheartened by the lack of results, and reached out to me for help because they’re trying to aid a young player in reaching their goal. I share their exasperation that there aren’t more resources available. I’m afraid I’m not usually much help.
The best general advice I can give them—which admittedly isn’t enough—is to advocate for their own learning needs or find someone they trust who can advocate for them. If that isn’t the coach, it could be a parent, teammate, teacher, guidance counselor, or a faith leader. Sadly, young players are not always in a safe environment in which that is possible.
Rather than putting the onus on the players themselves—at all levels—coaches should approach their role as that of an educator. They should embrace and borrow from the Giants’ philosophy of making connections and differentiating instruction based on the needs of the player. This is especially important at the lower levels of the game. If a kid in Little League is kicking dandelions in right field because they have a hard time staying focused between balls in play, the coach can move them to a more involved position like catcher or first base. Simple modifications and accommodations can change lives and careers in unimaginable ways. Just ask Ryan Pressly.
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