Had the baseball season started on time, or whenever it does begin in the minor leagues, the Orioles are excited to see several first-year pro coaches at work. There is a heavy flavor of youth, especially among the organization’s hitting coaches.
Among the new hitting coaches on the farm as of 2020 are Tim Gibbons at Double-A Bowie, Ryan Fuller at Single-A Delmarva, Anthony Villar at short-season Single-A Aberdeen and Patrick Jones with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles. Tom Eller is slated to be at Single-A Frederick in his second season with the organization. Sean Berry, who was with the Orioles from 2015 to 2017, returns this year to coach at Triple-A Norfolk.
Of the four coaches new to the Orioles listed above, Gibbons, Fuller and Jones are first-year pro coaches. The Orioles are tapping into their youth and enthusiasm in addition to their knowledge of new methods and technology.
Click here to review an article with Orioles vice president and assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal. During a Birdland Caravan stop in Frederick early February, he discussed how the organization was hoping to make the strides with its young hitters in 2020 that it had made with minor league pitchers in 2019.
The O’s hitting coaches quickly developed a chemistry in spring training in Sarasota. They helped each other, worked with great energy and introduced some new technology to players. They were also told not to be afraid to try things. Collaboration and communication were key words. They discussed process over results. The hits might not ring off bats right away, but the long haul was most considered and the bottom line was to produce a future major league hitter.
“We have no hitting coordinator,” Fuller, 29, told me during an interview at Twin Lakes Park in March. “So all the hitting coaches, we get together every day. We come up with a plan and we kind of say, ‘Was it a red light, yellow light or green light day. Was this something we want to do again? What worked, what didn’t work. And if it didn’t work what can we do to make it better.’ Every day is super collaborative and super fun to get together and say, ‘How can we make these guys better?’ “
Fuller was an English teacher who also worked as a hitting instructor at Power in Training, a baseball facility in Connecticut, when hired by the Orioles. After a college career at UConn, he played one season in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in 2012.
I asked Fuller how the young coaches had formed a close bond so quickly
“I think that’s a credit to (director of player development) Matt Blood,” he said. “We got together in Baltimore back in November. We got together again for a week of mini-camp in January and then we came down here early. It’s been from the beginning, what do we value in collaboration and everyone is incredibly humble. So even if we have disagreements, we do it in a great way. So it’s just a credit to spending a lot of time together, valuing each person’s opinion and then being OK to have those tough discussions as well.”
Jones, 28, was born and raised in Cincinnati. He played at famed Moeller High School and in college at nearby Xavier. He played two seasons of independent ball in 2016-2017.
“It (coaches’ chemistry) was awesome,” Jones said. “One of our big things is having humility. It’s awesome to see an entire staff have that trait. No one is trying to be a hero. Everyone was collaborating and working together. And just trying to grow and help these players grow and get better. I think it goes back to us having good quality people. So good to be around co-workers that you want to be with. They are really smart, want to learn and get better, but also have humility, too. It’s a great staff.”
And the players were getting versed on some of the technology before the end of spring training. Some minor leaguers reported to a mini-camp in mid-February. Others had only been in Sarasota a few days when baseball shut down.
Back in November, I wrote this article with Eller, who was a first-year O’s hitting coach last season. He helped explain some of the technology some hitters learned about in 2019 to include K-Vests, Blast (Motion bat) sensors and TrackMan (ball tracking data).
Some of the young hitters seemed to be embracing the technology in Sarasota.
“Yeah, we were doing a lot of that,” said Jones. “We had a mini-camp in January where we started that then and continued it with other players in Sarasota. Unfortunately, everything was cut short. But it was really cool to see the players were really buying into it and liking it overall.
“A player’s swing is like their baby. They want to make sure if they are going to make changes to that, it’s objective feedback, not just subjective. So it was making sure there is no stone unturned, if you will. And using information, not to solely make changes based off some of those numbers, but maybe let it help guide us if we see something that can help the player.”
The young coaches know there are doubters out there about the use of technology and data among the so-called old-school baseball scouts and coaches.
“Why not utilize more information? It would be no different than going to the doctor and your knee is hurting, you don’t want the doctor to just eyeball it. So you get an MRI to make sure. It’s kind of the same thing,” said Jones.
“That being said, I still utilize greatly, some of the old-school methods as well. I think there is a place for both. I’ve been combining that with helping players with their mental game and approaches and things like that, too. That is when you start to get something really, really good when you can combine everything. It’s all important.”
Fuller said more than just the hitting coaches are involved in this long-range process of trying to develop a big league hitter.
“It’s the entire staff,” he said. “So once they get in here, it’s the strength and conditioning staff along with the pitching and hitting coaches putting them through a physical assessment to see what their bodies can and can’t do so well. And then making a plan based off how they move, how the swing looks and what the technology is telling us to make individual plans. This is not a cookie cutter approach here. Every guy has their own player plan that we’re going to attack and hopefully help them get to the next level.”
When Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias overhauled the player development staff late in the 2019 season, he brought in new coaches. Some of the coaches see this as kind of a blank slate. They are sort of on the ground floor of trying to produce what Elias has called the “elite talent pipeline.”
“It’s a huge opportunity here and the best part is that the players have bought in totally,” said Fuller. “They see that this is not only a collaboration between the coaches, but with the players, too. We want their input. What do they think is a good part of their game and what they do they need to work on? We blend it together, so it’s a conversation with everybody here. We are not just telling them what they do. We want them to be part of the process, too.”
Is he surprised young players have bought in?
“I am in a sense of, this is so new it’s a lot more challenging,” Fuller said. “They are not taking comfortable batting practice each day. We get that this is new. But the technology, everything we are using and the conversations we are having with them, I think they feel very valued. Not just as a hitter, but they are part of the organization and we value them as people. We want them part of the process. So building trust has been a huge key for us.”
Coming soon: I’ll talk further with Jones and Fuller about process over results. How do they handle it when a young hitter might be part of a solid process but the results are not there on the stat sheet?