The Virginia Tech baseball season is a little under a month away from opening day on February 14. I talked with head coach John Szefc and assistant coaches Ryan Fecteau and Kurt Elbin at length to discuss a variety of topics about the Hokies. This is the final part of a three-part article series in the leadup to the start of the season.
Baseball has and always will be America’s pastime. However, the new age of technology has come to evolve the sport.
The “Moneyball” method set off a string of analytical and statistical approaches that now pervade the game of baseball. The analytics that have taken over the sport professionally exist collegiately, too, with the staff and technology that certain programs are able to institute.
Virginia Tech baseball has both in its hands now. Kyle Sarazin was hired in July as the Hokies’ Director of Player Development with a specialty in analytics and statistics. The team also has all the technology in place with TrackMan, Rapsodo, and Blast Motion programs.
“It really came up pretty quickly over the last two years,” head coach John Szefc said. “We were fortunate when the administration invested the resources to the ballpark, they also invested in the analytics equipment too. It’s pretty much stocked with stuff that you would need to evaluate numbers.
“It’s not just about having all the technology that can produce the numbers to put a coaching plan together for players, but it’s about having the guy that can interpret those numbers and put the coaching plan together. We went from two years ago to not having either and now having both.”
Kyle Sarazin came on board as a recent graduate from Elon University, where he was the Director of Analytics and Video Coordination for the Phoenix program. Sarazin’s bio indicates that his responsibilities include “assisting the staff with coaching and development strategies, which includes technology enhancement and opponent scouting, while also providing administrative and recruiting support.”
If the early returns from the fall are any indication, then Sarazin’s hire is already paying dividends for the Hokies.
“Kyle has been a great addition to our staff, very knowledgeable, players respect him,” Szefc said. “He’s got a knowledge of this stuff that is on a whole other tier than what your average baseball guy would understand. He’s able to take it and not just help us coach the players, but his ideas on how to help coach guys, and he’s also educating our staff day to day on certain things. That’s the way the game is moving, and we’re fortunate to have him.”
Sarazin works hand in hand with both pitching coach Ryan Fecteau and hitting coach Kurt Elbin to help them develop plans of attack for the respective players. It’s given Fecteau and Elbin a new way to look at things and evaluate the players. In a sense, they now have an eye for aspects of a player while coaching that they never had before.
“Kyle Sarazin, our Director of Development, has taken all that TrackMan data and funneled it into some approached-oriented graphs and just some app type things that he’s given to our hitters,” Elbin said.
Seeing the evidence right in front of them gives the players confidence to make a change for the better. These personalized plans that Sarazin builds for the players goes a long way in creating adjustments that previously wouldn’t have even been noticed.
“He’s basically an analytics whiz. He’s been unbelievable,” Fecteau said. “It’s hard for me to quantify what he’s actually done for our staff, and our hitters too. He’s in the bullpen watching stuff with us. He’s taking all the data from TrackMan for our intrasquads, from our bullpens with Rapsodo. He does Blast Motion with our hitters.
“He’s just able to present a lot of data to me specifically. A different way to look at our pitchers basically. Their strengths and their weaknesses, that you might not notice just by watching guys. We’ve used a lot of the stuff he’s shared to make some changes with guys. It’s good for our guys to take some of that information and try new things. They buy into it a lot easier when they see that hard data.”
All of Sarazin’s expertise would be for naught if not for the technology that spits out the data. Beginning on the pitching side, Rapsodo analytics gives all kinds of feedback for pitch development. It can show velocity, spin rate, spin axis, flight analysis, etc.
Pair that with the slow-motion cameras that are put to use, and the pitchers can see all aspects of their delivery. Szefc explained that one of these cameras takes 913 pictures per second.
So what’s a specific example of how this technology is put into effect?
Senior reliever Jaison Heard concluded his first year with Virginia Tech as a JUCO transfer from St. John’s River SC with 3.40 ERA over 27 appearances. He was primarily a fastball-slider guy who mixed in a changeup at times.
That changeup lacked movement, and when it wasn’t finely located it got hit pretty hard. Who has one of the best changeups in the MLB? Anyone who watched the Nationals’ historic run to a World Series took notice of World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg’s changeup that dove away from hitters while resembling a fastball. It sparked the idea to see if Heard could begin to improve his own deceiving changeup from the same metrics.
“Watching Stephen Strasburg in the World Series, they do all this slow-mo stuff in between pitches and you can see how he’s coming through the release,” Fecteau said. “We’re looking at the metrics of Stephen Strasburg’s changeup and thinking, ‘OK, I think Jaison Heard would be able to emulate that same hand action.’ We have Rapsodo that’s telling you how the ball is spinning off the hand.
“He could pair that up with our slow-motion video, and he could make an adjustment within honestly like three or four pitches and get those same metrics as Strasburg’s changeup. He’s able to see, ‘OK, this is how my hand is coming through the ball’ with the slow-motion camera, along with the metrics of Rapsodo and the spin axis of the ball and he also sees the result of the pitch.”
On the hitting side, TrackMan is what the team uses to develop an approach at the plate. The program gives feedback and data to show what hitters handle and don’t handle well.
“You can break it down to what they do really well inside the zone, pitches away, pitches in, pitches up, pitches down, breaking ball, changeup, slider,” Elbin said.
Blast Motion on the other hand takes into account everything before the bat meets the ball. It’s all swing metrics that Elbin, with the help of Sarazin, uses to build the swings of the hitters.
Blast Motion helps create a more efficient swing path. One of the metrics that Elbin focuses on is early connection. This measures to see that hitters enter the zone at the right plane and are able to make an adjustment to whichever pitch is thrown.
“They talk about where the barrel is when it starts to enter the zone and you want it at 90 degrees,” Elbin said. “All Major League hitters enter the zone at a 10-degree variance. If a guy is very steep and he’s got a steep swing, his early connection is 120. There’s drills to adjust that. It means he doesn’t have room for error in the zone and he can’t adjust from fastball to breaking ball. Sometimes you can see that with a naked eye, but if you can put a number to it and explain that to the hitter, you can do drills and have real-time feedback when you’re trying to change his swing. That’s one of the ways we used Blast.”
Another metric that Elbin emphasizes is attack angle. It measures if a guy is swinging up or swinging down at impact. Elbin preaches an ideal attack angle range of five to 10 degree to his players. After a few swings in the cage, Elbin can relay what angle each player is swinging at and they can make the necessary adjustment.
“If guys are really, really high or really, really low there’s drills you can do to change that on the spot and fix it,” Elbin said. “Those guys can then take that information in the drills and go work on their own. You’re just trying to give them the tools to be their best swing coach. We’re trying to give them the idea of what it means when they see all these numbers. Those are two different metrics that Blast spits out, and we used them in the fall with our hitters.”
It all must work in tandem with the old school approaches that have been taught from the beginning of time. Along with the buzz words of launch angle and exit velocity that have come to dominate baseball, there’s still the old-fashioned techniques and drills of choking up and moving closer to the plate to battle with two strikes.
Elbin began with these old school drills this fall to form a good base for the hitters’ approaches before moving into the more advanced techniques to create the optimal launch angle.
“We subscribe to it, but it’s not the end all be all,” Elbin said. “We went backwards this year. We did a lot of approach. We did a lot of two strike work, try to make guys work a little bit. All of that data stuff is good in bits and pieces, but it’s all about how you deliver it to the players. If they can’t apply it, if they don’t understand it, and they can’t use it, you might as well throw it out the window. It’s old school, new school and you have to combine it.”
What Virginia Tech baseball has isn’t any different from the top tier programs in college baseball. There’s an arms race for the best technology, and the Hokies are now catching up with the upper echelon of the ACC.
A recent article in The Athletic from Eno Sarris highlights the technology found in Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Wake Forest’s programs. Wake has even gone as far to hire Kirsten Nicholson, PhD, as the lead of biomechanics research for the Demon Deacons’ pitching lab.
“The rest of the teams in our league have the same thing,” Szefc said. “Now we’re having pro organizations calling to have a feel for what we’re doing on that side because a lot of those organizations have older school guys working there who are trying to understand it themselves.”
Szefc and Co. intend to keep improving the program’s arsenal of technology or staff to follow the trend of analytics that is sweeping the game. If you’re not evolving with the game, it will leave you behind wishing you had.
“Coach Szefc is not scared to spend money on any of the new technology that produces that type of data,” Elbin said with a grin. “It’s just finding what works with your guys.”