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Coaching with an analytics lens: How the Orioles' development coach role is enhancing their farm system and their player development department
A hybrid role as on-field coach and on-site analytics expert allows the Orioles' prospects and coaches to get the most out of the data that's driving this rebuild.
To anyone watching the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate in Bowie last summer, Grant Anders might as well have been just another coach: hitting fungoes and tossing batting practice in the sweltering heat.
It’s a long way from the air-conditioned confines that front-office analysts enjoy – only Anders was essentially one of them, too.
That’s the wide brief for the growing role of development coach, one that is relatively new to the Orioles’ organization but in Anders and so many others is proving a launching pad to more significant roles.
They must be competent enough on the field to coach and help players improve, yet deft enough with data and technology to be the affiliate’s in-house analytics expert.
Such duality makes the role vital for an Orioles organization trying to use collaboration to gain every advantage they can in their development-driven rebuild, which restarts with minor league camp opening Monday at Sarasota, Florida.
“There was a need for people who could effectively either use the technology or decipher the information, and help bring that on the field,” Orioles director of player development Matt Blood said. “So, it’s sort of a unique blend of someone who is familiar with and has on-field baseball skills as well as feel, but then also has the kind of in-depth knowledge of the computer technology and data. As technology and data became more prevalent, these types of skills were more sought after.”
The hybrid nature of the role was explained to Buck Britton back in 2019 when he was set to be the manager at Double-A Bowie, part of a four-man staff at the time.
At Bowie and High-A Frederick, there was a particular pitching focus with the development coach role to help implement the organization’s new programs where holdover pitching coaches were in place. Those two development coaches — Josh Conway and Adam Bleday — have been pitching coaches in the organization ever since.
The role took on a wider purview for 2020 as staffs grew to five coaches, with fundamentals coaches and their responsibilities separated out.
Blood was hired in September 2019 and helped fill those roles. In two of his development coach selections, he found relevant experience in former college student managers and bullpen catchers.
That applied to Anders at Radford University, where the responsibilities opened his eyes to possibly a scouting or front office job down the line. He took on minor league video internships in the summer, and was a baseball operations intern with the Cincinnati Reds in 2019 before a mutual acquaintance connected him with Blood.
The chance to be on the field before he was too stuck on a front office track appealed to him, as did the hybrid nature of the job.
A pitching coach or hitting coach has a specific lens they need to instruct through. His was analytics.
Anders said most of the major projects like coding or data queries happened in the offseason, but daily in-season work included being part of the offensive and pitching gameplanning. If a coach wanted a certain data-set for that, or to reinforce a development point to a player, he’d call on Anders.
Britton spent the year learning more about the organization’s platforms to better allow him to be part of gameplanning, and credited Anders for helping him along.
Front office analysts could serve the same purpose, but being part of the team fostered a more open exchange of ideas and information.
“The players and the coaches just see you as another part of the staff, so there’s a built-up level of trust,” Anders said. “I think a lot of that trust is built up by throwing BP, spending time with them in the cages and the bullpens. They get to know you, they get comfortable, and they start asking questions, whereas maybe someone from the outside, the players and coaches wouldn’t feel as comfortable to ask questions about anything related to analytics.”
Britton said: “They’re actually part of the team. They’re with you day-in and day-out. It’s kind of an easier process as opposed to somebody from the Warehouse once a month getting you on a phone call telling you you need to do X,Y, Z. … Having that guy there, especially a guy like Grant Anders, who knew baseball but also knew that side, it was so nice to be able to have a different perspective, a different lens from a guy that actually understood what he was looking at.”
Aberdeen’s development coach last summer and this year, Ryan Goll, had a similar path. He wasn’t able to play for his home-state Badgers at the University of Minnesota, but after not making the team asked if he could be a bullpen catcher. The coaching side began to fascinate him. He coached summer wood-bat baseball in the Northwoods League, and by his senior year he was made a student assistant coach – a role typically for former players who graduated.
While there, Blood brought the USA Baseball Under-18 national team to Minnesota for a camp before a tournament in Canada. He was recommended Goll was as a local who could help set up the field and keep his camp running smoothly.
Goll stayed in touch and got his first job in baseball from Blood in 2019 with the Texas Rangers. He followed Blood to Orioles as a player development intern in 2020 before jumping up to development coach.
Given his catching background, his typical in-season day features drills with that group, then similar responsibilities as Anders with gameplans and batting practice drills. The role is all about playing to an individual’s strengths, though, and with Goll’s detail-oriented nature and organizational skills, opportunities came in that area.
Blood tasked him with running logistics for the fall instructional camp this year, includin scheduling and budgeting, organizing travel, and field logistics. Blood called Goll “one of the most beloved and trusted people in our system” in complimenting how he took on the challenge.
“He made my life and Kent Qualls’ life and everyone in the front office’s life a lot easier by being down there and executing these camps in a way that we knew was going to be of high quality,” Blood said.
While the on-field role seems to be more in line with Goll’s skillset, he doesn’t want to limit his next step.
“I want to be able to trickle into each of the different avenues, whether it’s the analytics department or even the front office, then also be on the field,” Goll said. “Ultimately, for me, it’s going to be whatever the best opportunity is out there to grow.”
The position’s history shows plenty of paths for a development coach to grow into.
This year’s development coaches include Joshua Rodrigues at Triple-A Norfolk, Billy Facteau at Bowie, Goll at Aberdeen, Collin Murray at Delmarva, and Chase Sebby for the FCL.
Six of the eight development coaches hired for that role in the pandemic-hit 2020 season remain in the organization. Tim DeJohn and Matt Packer remained on the field, with the former becoming a fundamentals coach in 2021 at Aberdeen and holding that same role for Bowie in 2022. Packer was a fundamentals coach at Low-A Delmarva last summer, and will manage a Florida Complex League affiliate in 2022.
Blood said: “If that’s where their passion lies, and where they feel they bring the most value, then having someone with the capability of being a great baseball coach and also the capability of using all of the technology and the data effectively, that’s a really good combination for a baseball coach.”
For others, the Orioles created new player development roles to bring their strengths to a larger platform. Joe Botelho was meant to be Aberdeen’s development coach in 2020, but spent 2021 as the coordinator of technology and will reprise that role in 2022. David Barry, hired as Frederick’s development coach in 2020 then Delmarva’s in 2021, will serve as the newly-created player development hitting analyst in 2022.
Two of the new development coaches for 2021 – Goll and Ramon Lubo in the Dominican Summer League–are still on the field as coaches. A third, Adam Schuck, was the FCL development coach in 2021 and will be the new player development pitching analyst this year.
“We like to give people the opportunity to explore areas where they feel they can make an impact, and the development coach role in nature has flexibility built into the job description,” Blood said. “From that role, they’ve moved into another area in the org where they make even more specific impact. To me, that’s pretty exciting, to be able to have that vehicle to bring in really impactful people and allow them to do their thing.”
In the cases of Barry and Schuck, Blood said both brought forth the idea of taking on these new roles, with the Orioles’ “culture of psychological safety” allowing them to feel comfortable doing so.
Same goes for Anders and his new role as the major league player development analyst for 2022.
Anders clicked with the major league staff at spring training before the 2020 shutdown, and his new charge will be to ensure players maintain and reach development goals after they make the big leagues. In addition to keeping their own prospects ascendant, his role could help the Orioles join the ranks of the clubs that take a fringe player from another organization and turn him into an All-Star.
He’ll travel with the Orioles while still maintaining a connection to the analytics department that will be helping to inform so much of what he and the club do.
“I like to tell people I’m half-good at both — not quite as brilliant as some of the people we have here with the analytics team and not as experienced as the coaches on the staff,” Anders said. “I just try to fall somewhere in the middle.”
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