Developing pitchers driven by data for Dragons, Reds

Dragons pitching coach Brian Garman tosses with Lyon Richardson the day after a start. Richardson said he is learning to be a better pitcher this summer under Garman's direction. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

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Dragons pitching coach Brian Garman tosses with Lyon Richardson the day after a start. Richardson said he is learning to be a better pitcher this summer under Garman's direction. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

Brian Garman remembers the frustration of pitching in the minor leagues and relying only on what he could see. He wanted to know more. He wanted the objective over the subjective. Data over feelings.

“We would get in trouble for asking to see our velocity charts after a game,” he said. “If you think about that being reality 10 years ago, compared to where we are now in baseball, it’s laughable – like, it’s actually disturbing.”

Velocity and statistics were the only measurements available to pitchers when Garman played from 2010-13. Coaching and scouting were subjective, Garman says. Some subjectivity no doubt still exists, but now there are more prominent objective components that have changed the way pitching is taught.

Baseball at many levels now uses data collected by radar devices and high-speed cameras with names like TrackMan, Statcast and Rapsodo to train and judge. These computer-driven tools measure velocity, spin rate, and horizontal and vertical breaks of pitches. With instant feedback on a screen, pitching coaches and pitchers pair data with high-speed video to make changes they can’t argue with.

“What I like about it is that there’s just no hiding and you can’t take an emotional response or a subjective stance to argue against the mountains of data that we collect on a daily basis,” Garman said.

Garman, in his first year as Dayton Dragons pitching coach, came to the Reds in 2020 after two seasons in the Los Angeles Angels’ organization. He said it was easy decision for two reasons. First, he would be near his home in Wapakoneta. Second, the Reds had recently hired Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline Baseball in Seattle, as their director of pitching.

Boddy is a trainer who has used new technologies to train hundreds of professional pitchers, most notably Trevor Bauer, who won the Cy Young Award with the Reds in 2020. Garman already knew Boddy because he trained at Driveline near the end of his two-year rehab from a torn labrum. Garman never made it back to the mound but loved what he learned at Driveline.

“Kyle, in my opinion, is maybe the most popular guy in the world of pitching development, and a guy who I trust a lot,” Garman said. “I believe in what he’s teaching, I believe in him as a person. I believe that he is capable of building a system necessary to win.”

Like any innovation, Boddy’s system has been met with skepticism. The question for the Reds and their fans: When will results reach the major-league level? Garman said good results have been seen in Bauer and in the emergence of Reds reliever Tejay Antone, who was never on a prospects list in the minors. Garman said the promotions of Dragons starter Graham Ashcraft and reliver Eddy Demurias to Double-A Chattanooga are more positive evidence.

The system is complex and involves pitch design and physical training. Garman said it’s far more than the buzzword spin rate. Coaches and pitchers analyze all the data to design pitches and help pitchers train their arms more effectively.

Creating a profile is another new concept. Garman said it’s about adjusting grips and pressure points, increasing velocity, changing arm slots and perfecting hand orientation at the point of release.

Garman said Bauer explains it this way: “When you’re learning a new pitch or when you’re talking about pitch design, and difference from pitch to pitch, basically what you’re trying to do is you put your hand on the ball to create an exit route for the baseball.”

For Garman, it further means: “We need to be able to alter hand orientation or finger pressure to get that ball to spin the direction that we want it to spin to create the profile. For me, it comes down to high-speed video paired with data, that gives us real time feedback, to see how the ball left the hand, and what the orientation of the hand and the ball were. So that we can continue to tilt the axis in the direction that we need to tilt it, to optimize profile or movement of said pitch.”

Pitchers also wear data-collecting sensors on their arms every time they throw in a game or practice to optimize their training to be at their physical peak for every appearance. The sensors are mandatory in Dayton, Daytona and the Arizona rookie league. The sensors are optional elsewhere, but Garman said there’s a push to make them mandatory at Chattanooga.

“If we can log every throw, and collect that data, we have a better idea of the workload and the amount of strength, the total stress that these guys are putting on themselves,” Garman said. “It allows us to formulate a better plan for their training.”

Dragons starter Lyon Richardson is one of the Reds’ top pitching prospects who has bought into the approach and what Garman is teaching.

“He’s doing a lot for me like learning how to throw pitches, learning the shape of pitches, the metric of pitches,” Richardson said. “Definitely the slider, cutter progression has been big.”

Garman said the improvement he’s seen this past year throughout the organization might be unprecedented in minor league pitching development.

“We are just crushing it as a system,” he said. “We’re just doing a really good job from top to bottom, in the minor leagues of improving the pitching and the pitching development. And we have plenty of data to support that.”

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