This series of posts got their genesis when my brain started stewing on the idea of player development after bloggers and Twitterers had been talking about the Blue Jays’ lack of success in this area over the last little while.
With over 15 years of experience teaching music, most frequently wind instruments, at all levels and in many contexts (up to and including the university level), I can comfortably say that I know a thing or two about developing talent into skill. I’ve been thinking about the issue of player development for a while and this series is the result of my (somewhat) unique take on the subject.
In part one of this series, I discussed what I call the three pillars of player development: tools, skill acquisition aptitude and finesse. Then I applied these principles to explain why I think that Kevin Pillar, while a tremendous success for the Blue Jays’ scouting department, is not a “developmental” success.
To sum up, tools are the innate talents that a players might have; these tools include a player’s ability to hit a ball a country mile (power tool), the hand-eye coordination that enables him to make contact with the ball (hit tool), his straight-line speed, his arm strength, his size, etc.
Skill acquisition aptitude is the ability for a player to learn the skills that allow him to use his tools. This is tougher to quantify than a player’s tools. A pitcher’s ability to learn how to repeat his delivery to command and control his pitches falls into this category as well as his ability to learn new pitches. For a hitter, it’s the ability to learn how to close up holes in his swing, recognize different pitches out of a pitcher’s hand and learn the strike zone. For the fielder, it’s skill to develop skills in smoothly fielding the ball and using proper footwork to make plays effectively.
Finesse is even more ethereal, encompassing the mental aspect of the game. In the adversarial competition between the pitcher and the hitter, it’s the ability for one of them to gain the upper hand by out-thinking the other. In the field, it’s a player’s ability to understand a hitter’s tendencies and how a pitcher is approaching him and position himself accordingly, anticipating where he’s going to hit the ball.
For a further refresher, you can read the full article here.
Now that you’re caught up, the second part of this series deals with the the important key concept of personalized instruction and coaching. Most instructors have an array of proven techniques, drills and exercises that they apply with their students first, going beyond them only when they fail to get results. These techniques are used in conjunction with an overall philosophy that the teacher espouses. In baseball, you can see these philosophies with the different hitting coaches that the Blue Jays have had over the past couple of seasons. Dwayne Murphy‘s philosophy was to be aggressive with the pitch you were looking for: when you get your pitch, hit it hard and don’t be afraid to pull the ball. New hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has a different approach that emphasizes using the whole field.
While philosophies are big-picture ideas, players’ development comes at much more detail-oriented level. It’s even possible to have two coaches with widely disparate philosophies who use the same types of drills and exercises to achieve their goals. Philosophies generally address the finesse (or mental) aspects of the game while actual drills are geared towards developing the physical skills and while some philosophies might change physical aspects like batting stance or arm angle, they’re usually rooted in similar physical principles.
Coaches develop (and/or borrow) a series of drills and exercises designed to improve skills but it’s whether or not (and to what degree) a player is able to internalize and improve these skills that will determine his development. Players with high skill acquisition aptitude will intuitively understand the goal and methods of these drills without much explanation. They’ll perform the drills (perhaps with some mechanical adjustment from the coach) and improve their abilities in the game fairly quickly. Other players, without the same level of skill acquisition aptitude will need to have the coach explain the drill and its goals, perhaps in multiple ways, before the player understands and internalizes the drill, if he ever does.
Good coaches are able to reach and help the largest cross-section of young players by developing a wide range of linguistic tools to communicate his ideas. These can range from analogies or metaphors to simply the choice of words he uses to describe certain actions. In my own teaching, I’ve found that certain words, phrases or images connect better with different individuals. I frequently encounter students who don’t always understand what I’m trying to explain and, since some of the motions that I teach occur inside a person’s mouth, it’s vital to be able to offer metaphors that will allow the student to internalize a concept that I’m explaining outside of his or her self. I always seek to explain and analogize using every day objects, processes and images that allow my students to visualize and conceptualize the skill that I’m teaching in as many different ways as possible. Sometimes, just changing a single word is enough to trigger a deeper understanding on the part of the student.
The coach is also responsible for grooming more than just the physical skills; in professional baseball, where players generally come into the organization with a solid foundation of baseball movements, he is expected to help a player develop the mental part of his game. Once again, coaches develop diverse methods to help a player think the game. Whether through metaphors, inspiration, mental checklists or “trigger words,” coaches do their best to find the right frame of reference and terminology to help the player prepare mentally for the rigours of high-level, professional baseball.
While every coach tries to help every player, his personal philosophy of how the game should be played (or at least how the aspect of the game for which he is responsible should be played) is often an obstacle to complete success. Good coaches will adapt their philosophies to the player to try and reach them but a 100% success rate is just not possible. One of the big reasons that clubs will replace one coach with a certain philosophy with another one who has a different philosophy is to try to get better results from the players who weren’t being reached by the original coach.
This is why, in professional baseball, teams don’t want all of their pitching or hitting coaches in the organization to preach the same gospel. By having some variety in their positional coaching styles, the club is able to maximize the number of young players that they are able to reach. A player’s lack of development in one year could be due to being unable to understand the coach he’s working with from a pedagogical level. A change of level to a different coach and a different way of getting the message across (via his different drills and verbal and physical language) can be just what makes the message “click” to the player. Other times, coaches who find success with a particular group of players could be moved up a level along with those players. This allows the organization to continue to reap the benefits of a good match between players and a coach beyond one season. I believe that Ken Huckaby, the hitting coach in Bluefield last year, was moved up to Lansing for 2014 for just this reason.
There are times, however, when even the most diligent student and patient teacher exhaust all of the possibilities that a teacher can think of and the student doesn’t improve or successfully address weaknesses. This can continue even when the teacher (or instructor) is changed. In many of these cases, the blame cannot be placed on the teacher or the system but must be shouldered by the student. This can be caused by a stubbornness on the student’s part (which can be due to overconfidence) or it can be caused by the fact that the student’s consciousness is just not able to process the new information and how it can/will help. The student not only has be able to understand and accept the teacher’s teaching but he must be ready to do so.
One of the most prominent examples of this type of coaching/development is Jose Bautista. Bautista was always known for his tools (particularly his hitting tools) and his work ethic but he had a couple of major obstacles in his development. The first was being drafted in the 2004 Rule 5 draft and totaling only 96 plate appearances that season, leaving him unable to develop at a normal pace with a large number of in-game repetitions at the minor league level. The second obstacle was that none of his coaches had figured out how to unlock those tools. It wasn’t until he joined the Blue Jays and had the opportunity to work with Dwayne Murphy and get everyday at bats (in September of 2009) that he was able to hit his stride and figure out what worked for him. It was a case of getting the right instruction at the right time in his career and he was able to reward the faith that the Blue Jays had in him with massive production and reward himself by cashing in with a big, five-year contract.
Unfortunately, this type of breakthrough doesn’t happen with every player. In my teaching career, I have come across promising students to whom, over the course of a couple of years, I was never able to get through. While they may have had some great tools and desire, I was never able to get that right piece of information to them at the right time in order to get their engine to ignite. In baseball terms, you see lots of highly-touted players who get drafted early but never get to the majors. It’s not always the fault of the coaches or the organization who drafted them. Some players just never figure it out and languish in obscurity. Whether the money of a big signing bonus goes to his head or he doesn’t feel like he needs to improve after being lauded as the next great thing throughout his entire amateur career, in most cases, the player is the one who gets in his own way the most. While very few resources are expended teaching coaches to be better teachers, there are enough different coaches on hand in an organization that if a player isn’t getting any better or responding to coaching after three or four years, it’s likely the player who has either reached his ceiling of his tools, is unable or unwilling to acquire the skills required to move forward or is just unable or unwilling to “think the game” at the level he’s playing at.
The important thing to remember is that for a young baseball player or music student to improve, he or she has to receive the right piece of information through the right medium at the right time in his or her development. When you see sudden, rapid and sustained improvements coming from either an athlete or a musician, you can usually credit this to the right piece of information coming at the right time, unlocking the potential that was being built up. It’s the “Aha!” moment that makes teaching and coaching especially rewarding, knowing that you’ve helped the student overcome an obstacle.
This is why I don’t believe that Kevin’s Pillar’s success in his three professional seasons should be ascribed to “player development,” unless there was some “Aha!” moment that occurred after he joined the Blue Jays organization but before he starting playing professional games. From the evidence available, Pillar was able to play at a very high level right from the beginning of his pro career, showing that he was already ready to do so beforehand.
A player that I would suggest has benefited a great deal from player development is Daniel Norris, who had struggled in pro ball until early May of 2013. After that, he demonstrated sustained, considerable improvement to his ability to maintain control of his pitches. I’ve heard of other success stories ascribed to pitching coach Vince Horsman who remains in Lansing in 2014, probably to deal with a large group of talented young pitchers coming up from Bluefield and Vancouver. There are pitchers for whom his tutelage didn’t pay big dividends and it shows that no single coach will be able to fix everyone.
This is why I think that we should be looking at player development from an individual level rather than a systemic level. Saying that the Blue Jays are bad at developing talent completely marginalizes the work that individual coaches are doing with individual players and, while few have bubbled up to the majors yet, there are tangible signs of players improving and developing with the Blue Jays’ system.
Part 2 of this series has dealt with player development and the important role that individualized coaching (and being coached) takes in the process. Stay tuned for Part 3 which will discuss the blurry lines between scouting and development.