By: Cole Bradley
ORLEANS, Mass- On a hot July afternoon in Cotuit, Massachusetts, Brandon Smith lugs a large black box and an iPad to the away bullpen at Lowell Park, located just past the right field fence.
He places the wedge-shaped object roughly ten feet in front of home plate, with the built-in edgertronic camera facing the pitcher's mound. Afterwards, he flips the on-switch, calibrating the unit before going into an app labeled “Rapsodo” on his iPad.
Following this routine, Firebirds Pitching Coach Mathew Troupe and right-handed pitcher Hayden Thomas (Texas A&M Corpus Christi) saunter over to begin a 30-plus pitch bullpen session. Smith taps away at his iPad and Thomas begins to throw as a variety of different data appear in a matter of seconds on the screen.
Then the box starts to really work its magic.
“I didn’t feel like I spun that one well,” Thomas notes after throwing a newly adopted curveball.
A moment of silence passes as Smith’s iPad buffers, waiting to confirm whether Thomas' observation is indeed true. Turns out, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“Actually,” Smith interjects, “That was one of your best yet.”
“What was that at Brandon?” Troupe asked.
“Almost 2000 revolutions per minute (rpm),” Smith answered.
While that’s still over 500 rpm below the Major League Average spin rate, it’s a number that confirms just how much Thomas has improved since the start of his summer in Orleans.
“Hayden came in working on his curveball a little more and trying to experiment with different grips,” Smith said. “The beauty of Rapsodo is that it’s instant feedback so if he’s sitting there talking to Troupe and he says, ‘I think I felt that,’ the Rapsodo can verify that data.”
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the work that Smith and two of his colleagues — fellow Firebirds analytics interns Jackson Thomas and Zorian Schiffman — do on a daily basis.
The one thing they all have in common is an undeniable passion for the game and an understanding for data that has only just begun to break through to amateur baseball. The group works with data tracking programs like Rapsodo and Trackman, which are set up at every Cape League venue to archive in-game analytics.
“I think the data that’s available in baseball is just incredible considering how far it has come,” Smith said. “Ten years ago, to my knowledge, the only pitch-tracking metric out there was PitchFX. Now we have Rapsodo, Trackman, Statcast and Hawkeye, which debuted in the MLB last year.”
Their backgrounds are all very different, where they came from, how they got into baseball and how their roles with the Firebirds have been forged, but no one man is more important than the other.
Smith has worked in pro ball since high school, starting as a batboy with the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, and eventually working his way up to becoming a clubhouse assistant.
When the Minor League season was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19, Smith landed an internship as an advanced scouting and player development assistant in the Interstate Collegiate Baseball League. However, he only spent about a month in the ICBL before getting a very important phone call.
“One day I was sitting behind the plate at an ICBL game and I got a call from my boss back in Rochester, and he asked me what I was doing,” Smith said. “He told me that the Toronto Blue Jays would be in Rochester and they need someone there because he wasn’t taking the job. I pretty much walked into that.”
Before long, Smith was back in New York doing clubhouse operations at the Blue Jays alternate site. It was here that he was first exposed to various advanced analytical resources and tools, and he learned how to interpret and effectively communicate the data that it produced.
Smith’s role with Orleans lies within the player development realm, where he uses his experience with Rapsodo, Trackman and more as a medium to help relay information to the coaching staff.
“A lot of the stuff you are seeing in-game is stuff the coaches have access to,” Smith said. “I view my role as collecting data and giving tendencies to the coaches so that they can coach the players, that’s what I really enjoy about player development.”
Fellow analytics intern Jackson Thomas stumbled upon his opportunity after spending the previous summer with the Portland Pickles of the West Coast League, where he ironically began the season doing a little bit of everything except analytics. That quickly changed after meeting and connecting with multiple scouts, including a Tampa Bay Rays crosschecker who helped him land his current position in Orleans.
He now focuses on developing write-ups and pitch-by-pitch reports, which he sends to Troupe to discuss with whomever throws on any given day. The write-ups are coded with charts that feature heatmaps, which display where one’s pitches play in the zone the most, and tunneling graphs, which show the general point of release a pitcher has on all their pitches.
The key to delivering data this complex is simplicity, which is why he likes to keep everything concise on his reports.
“I make the reports super simple to read,” Jackson Thomas said. “If you can’t understand it after looking at it for ten seconds, it’s not a good graph, it’s game changing information but if it can’t be communicated in a simple manner, it’s useless.”
He and Smith have both worked with players, particularly pitchers, to assess what is good and bad while suggesting the next step to take. Those players then try to focus on ironing out those details before implementing them in a game setting.
That’s exactly where Schiffman comes in, zoning-in on in-game strategy and analysis. Schiffman hails from Miami (OH) University, where he is one of the head student managers for the RedHawks.
He and a few other student managers adopted an analytical approach that is still present today within the program. His knowledge expands far beyond advanced metrics and data — he’s found a feel for scouting and even delved into the mental skills side of the game.
Schiffman curates game-by-game scouting reports for Orleans, going over the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses with players before every game.
For hitters, he uses the ‘Binary Approach,’ which zeros in on a pitcher’s weaknesses and a hitter’s strengths, providing an in-depth look at how to attack an at-bat against a variety of different arms. On the pitching side, he analyzes their repertoire and sees how it matches up against every hitter in the opposing lineup to determine how each batter should be handled.
“I’m really into game planning and advanced scouting,” Schiffman said. “I’ll look at reports coming in to see what works, what doesn’t, what can be changed. What I’ve learned about the binary approach is keeping it super simple, this is what I’m gonna focus on based on my strengths and the pitcher's weaknesses.”
The trio of Smith, Thomas and Schiffman has been the bridge between the data and the dugout, taking the numbers from Trackman and Rapsodo and breaking it down for players to make their own assessments.
Hayden Thomas in particular has taken full advantage of that data, and in his pursuit to develop sharper break on his curveball, he has narrowed down a small list of metrics to take a closer look at.
One of those categories is spin-tilt, which describes how a particular pitch is spinning and uses a clock as a model of how pitches break. For example, a curveball profiles vertically, spinning and breaking straight down around 6 to 8 o’clock.
“With my fastball I’m looking for an efficient spin and I’m looking at the velo and the axis it’s spinning on,” Hayden Thomas said. “Mine was on a 1:15 tilt, so on the flip side, I’m gonna want my curveball on the 6 tilt, so when I see what that shape is and I look at the iPad, I can see that it’s exactly what I want it to look like.”
During his bullpen session in Cotuit, he went through a progression in which he spun curveballs from a shorter distance to get a better feel for the grip before going back to a standard distance. Doing so helps him get on top of the pitch to get the proper 6-to-8-o’clock tilt he is looking for.
“Using the Rapsodo machine that we have, I wanted to compare it to my curveball now and it was a lot better,” Hayden Thomas said. “It was a tick slower but in a game situation that will climb, that’s kinda what I’m looking for is something with shape and good depth to it.”
After his bullpen, and all of his starts, Hayden Thomas immediately gazes over the Rapsodo and Trackman data with Troupe, with a load of questions in tow. They both then compare Hayden’s profile to Major Leaguers, study video, dissecting, analyzing and processing every pitch to gain a better knowledge of what’s in front of them.
Smith in particular liked what he saw from Hayden Thomas’ bullpen in Cotuit, labeling his curve as “the best I’ve seen this year based on the metrics.” The process is detailed and thorough, but Hayden has seen massive improvements in his breaking ball because of it.
“We can go back and watch curveballs on video and Hayden can say ‘I remember that one and it felt good,’” Troupe said. “We can go back to our chart and match those pitches up and circle them because that’s what worked. Then when we go back to the Rapsodo bullpen, that's what we’re looking for. Coaches talk about ‘feel’ a lot, but being able to back that up with data is just more ammo for us.”
Across his next three outings, Hayden’s curve improved drastically, increasing in average spin by almost 300 rpm. He still feels there is room for improvement, but he’s found a good launching point to build off of.
“It’s nice having it here, I get that feedback from the guys after every game,” Hayden Thomas said. “I’m still learning because there are tons of analytics out there and with each pitch you have to learn what you’re looking for, but I’ve learned a lot more over this summer with my curveball.”
Coach Troupe has worked with countless pitchers this summer, who all have differing opinions on the data and its impact, trying to help educate himself and the players who find it valuable. The validation that comes from the technology proves how impactful analytics are in terms of player development.
With all the numbers and data that is available, advanced metrics are often miscommunicated, especially when there are only a select amount of people who know exactly what they’re looking at. Troupe feels the exposure to the data benefits players for a future in pro ball where it has already become a major influence.
“The education surrounding this is the most important part,” Troupe said. “Some use it and some don’t, but all of these guys are going to be pro ballplayers and this is what they use. We're all in the trenches together trying to learn and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Analytics are not going away, which garners a slew of alternating opinions from people within the game and mere spectators alike. There aren’t many things that go uncalculated, unnoticed or even unanalyzed in baseball, and it’s just beginning to transition into the collegiate and high school ranks.
The same goes for the Cape League, which further proves just how important Jackson Thomas, Smith and Schiffman are to not just the Firebirds, but the game itself. They are the next generation of baseball minds connecting the numbers to what is tangible, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
“You won’t find an organization in this day and age where analytics aren’t used,” Schiffman said. “Probably the most valuable thing I’ve gathered from here is how coaches and players view the game and how these things are important to them and trying to bridge that gap. The fundamentals aren’t going away, and I think that while some people are pessimistic about analytics ruining the game, I’m hopeful because it’s a resource to help the players get better.”