As analytics have swept the baseball world, many coaches have expressed their displeasure the new ways to measure success based solely on numbers. However, new Stanhope Elmore baseball coach Kaleb Shuman is embracing the change and is looking to make a difference with how the Mustangs train at the plate.
“The change in culture has been crazy for us,” Stanhope senior Sully Stevens said. “It has gone from kind of unorganized to everything on a tight ship and military like. Everything is down to the minute. We are much more focused on everything.”
In the first practice of the year, the Mustangs opened with a new hitting drill Shuman said he saw from the University of Iowa. The team set up a wall of screens in front of home plate during batting practice and the goal is to hit the ball above the screens to avoid ground balls.
“I have always been a believer that ground balls are outs,” Shuman said. “So, I figure it’s better for the offense to do the opposite. Those screens are an external goal to help get that ball in the air and into the outfield grass.”
Shuman called it “The Great Wall of Ground Balls” and said he has seen it used by the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins during Spring Training.
The Mustangs have turned the drill into a team competition. Shuman creates groups at the start of practice and players get points at the plate based off how many they hit over the screens and how far those hits go while the other teams are in the outfield trying to stop the ball from making it to the fence.
“The goal is to not hit on the ground and so far, people have been getting longer drives than we have before,” Stanhope junior Chase Eddings said. “Competing every day and seeing that instant feedback, it has become a competition between the guys.”
Shuman has already seen improvements with the players’ swings but that is not the only drill the Mustangs have used. Stanhope uses an app called Blast to record players’ swings while feeding data back to find more ways to improve.
Blast records launch angle, exit velocity and projected distance which is what is seen on broadcasts of Major League Baseball games. The players enjoy competing to see who can hit the ball the hardest and they like getting the instant feedback to make changes when they need to.
“More than anything, it measures how hard they are hitting the ball,” Shuman said. “It gives them an actual number feedback so why guess when you can assess. The launch angle may not be as important to these guys but the exit velocity and the ability to see their swings on film so they can see what 70 (mph) looks like compared to 90 and why.”
Shuman said most of his players are visual learners so having the video to back up what he is trying to coach helps them understand what they need to improve on. The players have responded well to the changes and have shown plenty of excitement as they get to use something they thought they would never get a chance to use.
“It’s crazy because we are using it,” Eddings said. “I feel like we’re being held to higher standards. I think we’re becoming better.”
While launch angle and exit velocity are just baby steps in the world of analytics, Shuman said he believes it is a much-needed adjustment to keep up with the sport.
“I’m a big believer in adapt or die,” Shuman said. “This is what baseball is going to. College coaches want the guys that hit the ball for doubles and home runs. My job is not just teaching them how to win baseball games but preparing them and making them capable of playing at the next level.”