Using technology to help hitters on the O’s farm

He was new to the Orioles organization in 2019 and was one of the first minor league coaching hires by the new front office after Mike Elias was hired as executive vice president and general manager last November.

Tom Eller was already close by geographically. Eller had spent the previous 12 seasons as the head coach at Harford Community College in Churchville. In his tenure from 2007 to 2018 the Fighting Owls went 433-230-2, winning five Region XX championships, including back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018, and a trip to the JUCO World Series in 2016. Eller, 36, was named Maryland Junior College Coach of the Year four times while at Harford. He grew up in Rising Sun, leading the Rising Sun Tigers to the 2000 Maryland high school state baseball championship.

During a five-hour interview at Camden Yards with Elias and assistant GM Sig Mejdal last fall, Eller explained how he used some new technologies with his Harford Community College batters and the O’s duo was impressed. They quickly hired a new school-style hitting coach, one versed in both hitting coach basics but also the new technology.

“It’s a different time right now and it’s really exciting,” Eller said in a recent interview about both his role with the organization and what has come to batters on the O’s farm.

“Yeah. I mean, we want to use the best information available to us. Player development is becoming more scientifically oriented using technology, measuring and tracking and we’re in the process kind of evolving the Orioles approach toward those areas. It is something that, if you are in the coaching business now, you get exposed to and you learn.”

Tom-Eller-Headshot-Sidebar.jpgEller believes the O’s American League East rivals got a jump with this on the Orioles, but the club is trying to catch up fast and is making up ground.

“I think the Rays and Yankees have it pretty figured out,” said Eller. “I think it’s why they are so good in the minors and contending just about every year. If we can do what the Rays do, we’re going to be really good. And I think that’s what we’re doing.”

The Orioles initially planned for Eller to coach in 2019 at short season Single-A Aberdeen. But when one coach that was hired backed out of the job, Eller was sent to Single-A Delmarva to start the year and moved to Aberdeen when the season began there in June.

Essentially, what was available on the farm this year for hitters was an approach that produced data and information on how their body works while batting, how their bat works through the zone and data to record the results when the ball was hit.

“We have three things that we used. We used K-Vests, Blast (Motion bat) sensors and TrackMan,” said Eller.

“I believe 28 to 30 teams use K-Vest. It’s pretty common. Same thing with Blast sensors. If teams are not using this right now, they are too stubborn to do it. It is just a way to collect data on each hitter. Once you get the data, you can start figuring out what you like and don’t about the swing.

“K-Vests is basically measuring the body to find out how the body works and how it moves and if it’s in sequence with the kinematic sequence. We have four sensors on our body and it measures how many degrees per millisecond your body moves. It is how the body moves before the swing. You use this in cage work and BP work and it’s not allowed during games.”

On Oct. 10 the producer of the K-Vest, K-MOTION, a leader in three-dimensional evaluations and biofeedback training solutions for coaches and athletes, announced an agreement with the Orioles to become the organization’s player development partner and official 3-D motion data technology.

Eller explained further how the newer technology is used.

“The Blast sensors are measuring your swing,” he said. “We can get some of the same type information as the vests. But it also measures barrel plane, bat plane, vertical bat angle, rotational acceleration, bat speed and hand speed. There is a lot of stuff in there. That is just what the bat is doing. The problem is that in measuring only what the bat is doing, sometimes the hitter can almost manipulate the bat to make it look better than it really is.

“And then we have TrackMan data, which we use in BP and during games. That is the product of the swing. It is a ballistic missile radar. So it’s tracking every ball on the field. We can find all the exit velocities, launch angles, the strike zone. Basically anything that comes off the bat. At the end of the night, we look at everyone’s exit velocity, launch angle and strike zone discipline.”

So, yeah, this is a little more involved than getting a good pitch to hit and trying to keep your swing level. Old school is moving out and new school is moving in.

“So those three technologies are used and used in different fashion. A lot of people don’t understand that TrackMan data is just a product of the way your body and bat moves,” Eller said.

The data and technology is moving lightning fast in the sport right now. While Eller had some previous knowledge that helped him get hired by the Orioles, he also had some learning of his own to do before the 2019 season.

“I had used the Blast sensors at Harford, but had never used the K-Vest,” he said. “It was pretty new technology in the last couple of years. But I knew about it. Last January, I took a course out in Arizona with Dr. Greg Rose - he is the head professional for Titlelist Performance Institute. I learned a lot then and once I got to Delmarva, it was, ‘Hey, figure it out.’ “

The Orioles and any organization really needs young players to buy into these new methods for them to have maximum impact and really help players get better.

Eller said one way he could do that was take data points and video from major league players and show his young hitters how they compare and what they need to do to improve. During the year, players can see data that shows their actual improvement. It helps better understand the why: why this technology is being used and how it can help.

“No doubt. It is not just a coach saying this. It is right here: science and a fact,” Eller said. “We know for a fact that your body is moving this way or for a fact that the bat is moving in this direction. We know your barrel is in and out of the zone too early. It eliminates a lot of the guess work, which is great for today’s coach.

“We can look at what Trey Mancini did last year. This is his swing, we can show them. These are his Blast sensor numbers and this is the product that helps him hit 30-plus homers.”

During the 2019 season, Eller found some young hitters very versed in some of this technology and some not up to speed at all.

“Even the guys I had at Delmarva, a lot of them didn’t know what this was and were reluctant to use it,” he said. “It was new to them. We had to work slowly. But, everyone at Aberdeen was completely on board. The newer draft guys had used stuff like this and knew how it worked. Just a couple of years of difference and you can see guys knowing what it is and what it isn’t.”

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