We sat down with Director of Player Development Kyle Sarazin to talk about the analytics and new technologies that Virginia Tech baseball is using in the 2021 season. In this first part, we look at the big picture of the resources that have been dedicated to Hokies baseball to make it all possible. Part two will look at specific ways that the analytics and technologies are used by Sarazin to give the Hokies an advantage.
When John Szefc was announced as Virginia Tech’s new baseball coach in 2017, he knew he had a tall task ahead of him. The Hokies were coming off four straight losing seasons following the 2013 season where the team hosted a regional.
Still, Szefc knew he wasn’t going to be left out to dry. Director of Athletics Whit Babcock promised more support and resources for the program that had long lagged behind other ACC schools in terms of resources and facilities. Now, four years later, the effects of that promise are beginning to take shape.
The vast improvements and renovations to English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park and inside the James C. Weaver Baseball Center are noticeable. However, there’s more to it all. More resources have been added, particularly with the hiring of Kyle Sarazin, Director of Player Development, back in 2019.
With the addition of Sarazin and his background in analytics and statistics, the Hokies have poured all kinds of resources into technologies where Sarazin’s expertise can best be put to use.
“Coach Szefc has been awesome in all this,” Sarazin said. “The thing is they added a Director of Player Development position. Not all teams have Director of Player Development positions in the ACC and [those who do], if you read each guy’s bio, it’s very different. Some teams use it as another coach, some teams to get the analytics realm, and we’re one of the few teams who does that.”
Szefc and Co. realize the way that baseball is shifting toward using the technology for analytical approaches. And the Hokies are chock full of all these exciting programs. There’s TrackMan, Rapsodo, Blast Motion, Synergy, and even the new virtual reality training, Win Reality, that Virginia Tech uses to gain an advantage.
It’s not just about having those technologies, though. Nearly every program in Power Five baseball has access to them. For Virginia Tech, it’s about having the right guy in Sarazin who can interpret it to make sense for everyone involved.
“Kyle does a really good job of managing and putting together the best plans for the player technology wise and all the data he collects, not just for hitters, but for pitchers too,” Szefc said. “We invest a good amount of dollars in that technology to prepare guys. I think it’s really helped us… We’ll keep utilizing the video and leaning on Kyle for a lot of the information that he provides us. He’s a really big part of the preparation process.”
“He’s basically an analytics whiz. He’s been unbelievable,” pitching coach Ryan Fecteau said back in 2020. “It’s hard for me to quantify what he’s actually done for our staff, and our hitters too.”
This is where the Hokies differentiate themselves. A lot of teams have to adapt or die with the analytics that are taking over baseball. Virginia Tech puts together these individualized development plans based upon the findings from the technology.
For example, throughout the fall, Sarazin takes all the data from the players’ rounds in the batting cage or in the bullpen to create a Google drive for each player. It’s here where all of that data is interpreted to show a hitter where he hits balls hard and where he best controls the zone, or where a pitcher gets the most swing and misses.
“We make a big financial commitment from year to year on it, but beyond that it’s just how I work with Coach Fecteau and Coach [Kurt] Elbin to immerse it in the plans for the players and in the scouting reports,” Sarazin said. “That’s the adapt or die part. It’s not just having the technology, it’s putting it into plans for guys to be able to digest it because the way it comes in is this big spreadsheet with 70 columns on it. What I do is put all the shadows on for guys. Just like on MLB The Show where they have hot and cold zones, our guys get hot and cold zones based on their exit velocities. I think that’s the adapt or die part is the visuals and putting it into actual plans and actual action.”
It doesn’t just end with Sarazin. He’s found a group of students who are walking in the same shoes that he found himself, looking to gain experience in this field. It’s all formed a small analytics department on the team.
“I’m fortunate enough to have what I do myself and also have about six students who are working with me,” Sarazin said. “These guys are young dudes who are in the same boat that I was in when I was in college, and they want to get involved with the program and wanted to see how the analytics are used in day-to-day practice. They’ve done a really good job for me. One of the kids came up with a framing report for the catchers. He had some stuff that he had already done for MLB catchers. It’s like a full analytics department that we have here, and we’re fortunate to have guys who are really engaged.”
It also helps on the recruiting side, too. The Hokies have a variety of testimonies for how these individualized plans have already worked.
Last year, the data suggested Ian Seymour needed to develop a four-seam fastball that he could run in the top half of the zone to counter his plus-plus change up in the lower half. Sure enough, with the addition of this fastball to his arsenal, Seymour’s strikeout rate jumped to 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings in the shortened 2020 season.
This year, Shane Connolly was brought in from The Citadel. Nothing has really changed from Connolly stuff-wise, but the coaching staff has changed the way he’s used. As a result, Connolly has become a feared pitcher in the ACC with a 2.83 ERA this year.
“When we get close to making an investment in a player, we want to show him that full experience. I’ll get on a Zoom call with Coach Fecteau or Coach Elbin and we’ll take them through guys in our program,” Sarazin said. “As guys continue to learn and grow, we share those stories with our recruits. We hope they’re excited to be a part of that culture.”
Especially in the COVID-era where all recruiting is done through video, the Hokies can now use the data found through the different programs on recruits to find the best fits.
The coaching staff still relies on the eye test, with Sarazin estimating that it makes up 70 percent of the decision-making process when evaluating a recruit, but the different metrics and data that are also available allows a new filter for recruiting.
“It’s really nothing different than what Coach Fecteau and Coach Elbin have done in the past, we can just quantify it,” Sarazin said. “Instead of saying that guy has really good bat speed, we can actually quantify it with Blast. Instead of saying, ‘It looks like that guy’s fastballs plays up in the zone,’ we can actually see the numbers on it. We can compare it to our current guys and the database of guys. We have a similarity model that runs and says based on this guy’s TrackMan stuff, his release height, and his movement numbers, all of these characteristics, these are top 10 pitchers he is similar to in college baseball. We can see that as well. It’s all about just making informed decisions is how I put it.”
The best part of it all is that it hasn’t changed the way Virginia Tech baseball operates. The Hokies still swing in the cages, they still have their bullpen sessions, and there’s still field work, so the technology and analytics are built into what has already become second nature. And through it all, Virginia Tech has formed an identity where they’ll continue to build it in Blacksburg.
“For our guys, it’s not about, ‘OK, we’re going to go have an analytics talk with Kyle.’ It’s part of their daily routine,” Sarazin said. “It’s not even, ‘Hey, this is analytics.’ It’s part of their daily routine and they’re immersed in it here at Tech.”