The baseball landscape is an ever-evolving and innovative scene. Each team understands that to stay competitive they must find new and exciting ways to be resourceful and squeeze every bit of value out of their players, both minors and majors, as well as their staff. With the cost of 1 Win Above Replacement (WAR) being somewhere between $8-10million (source) to get just a few more starts or slightly better performance from a player could mean big time $$$ as well as potentially making it into the postseason.
We're seeing new positions every day in organizations that include the performance, skill, medical, and analytic staff's. The industry is finding ways to blend multiple skills from some of the brightest minds in the sport, in rehab, in strength, in analytics, and in movement. You're seeing more movement specialists being included in the discussion on free-agent signings, draft picks, and trades. The nature of the beast is that Major League Baseball (MLB) is a business and the athletes are their assets. The best teams are the ones that do whatever is necessary to get the most value out of their assets and to make sure that any investment made into a player is a well-vetted one.
In a weird year like 2020, we saw an alarming rate of injury due to many reasons but more specifically the lack of workload buildup that should lead up to being in a game-ready state. (Source) This is a year that we won't forget for a long time, but one major thing it did show us was that it highlighted any and nearly every weakness in MLB from the team's and player's perspective. Teams that didn't have the systems in place to deal with recovery and the workload spike were exposed, as well as players who maybe have less than efficient pitching mechanics got exposed by a lack of muscular endurance protecting them from those stressors.
My guess is that we're going to start seeing more teams look at various situations that occur during the year and find ways to solve whatever negative actions result from them. Let's take the scenario of the overworked pitching coach. The standard pitching coach is expected to be a master in kinesiology, a doctor in psychology, a physicist, and a military strategist. Now, this does seem a little extreme, but there are elements of each of these that are expected. Now let's consider an in-season scenario where the pitching coach and the starting pitcher are warming up in the bullpen before the game. The pitcher is 10 pitches in and is telling his pitching coach that "something just doesn't feel right." The pitching coach is left with a few options, he can tell the pitcher to throw a few more pitchers and try work out of it, he can give him some form of a verbal cue to think of or try out, or he can totally downplay it and let the pitcher run out there and try to figure it out. Nothing against this pitching coach because they are doing a job with the tools that they have.
Ok, now say in this scenario the pitcher worked out a little heavy earlier that week and just didn't recover right, or he woke up with a weird sensation in his back. The pitching coach doesn't have the tools to address this 30 minutes before game time. But then you ask, "Isn't that what the medical
staff is for?" In theory, yes, but not all players want to be on the training table, and the problem may rear itself only after getting on the mound. In steps the Performance Pitching Coach, or the Performance Therapist. Someone that has the knowledge of movement, the understanding of the pitching motion, but also has the ability to manipulate and alter muscle tone and joint range-of-motion through various manual and movement therapy techniques. This is NOT a replacement for the pitching coach, but instead a complementary piece. They should work together using what each is great at to maximize the abilities of the pitcher and to provide the greatest amount of benefit to the organization.
Another scenario where this secondary pitching coach comes into play is when a pitcher is getting warmed up in the bullpen before a game and his pitches aren't quite working. If a pitcher is unable to get into their typical spinal angle due to some muscular tension then the spin axis on their pitches could be off rending them much less effective and appearing to have lost the ability to "spin it". This is the game where the pitcher just "didn't have it". The start potentially cost the team a win in this scenario.
This Pitching Coach tag-team now not only takes enormous stress and workload off of the
pitching coach that they may not feel fully trained to do, but it also makes the performance of the athlete greater and the overall value to the organization even greater. Now the pitching coach can focus more on in-game strategy and zero in on every pitch of every at-bat. The Pitching Coach can communicate with the performance therapist or Performance Pitching Coach on what they expect out of a situation or what they'd like to see out of their pitchers and Performance Pitching Coach can adapt their movement strategies to fit their individualized needs and vice-versa where the performance therapist can relay info about pitching mechanics to the Pitching Coach to potentially help not only improve overall health and performance but also potentially adjust deception of the pitcher's release and how that might change against different hitters swing profiles. This is a scenario where you're using all available assets to maximize the return on your investments from an organization's perspective, but also the player gets the attention they deserve and they also get a deeper look into what needs to happen in their body and on the mound.
Let's talk about what the makeup should be of the performance pitching coach (PPC). Ideally, this is someone that should have experience with the skill of pitching, obviously. Working with pitchers is different than working with general throwers or hitters, so to be able to identify differences in pitchers' physical and biomechanical makeup you'll need to have some experience working with that group of athletes. The PPC needs to also have an advanced understanding of human movement and kinesiology. These concepts are integral for deciphering the subtle difference in pitchers' mechanics. If the movements are understood then we have the capability of potentially stepping in and changing something we see that could become an issue, or we could potentially be improving the overall movement of that athlete which creates that potential for increased power output and improved performance. The overlap between injury reduction and performance enhancement is much greater than people realize.
The PPC must also be proficient in manual therapy and be at the forefront in different approaches to also make changes to the athlete when issues are identified. If assessment is their only tool, they won't be able to make impactful same day changes that would be necessary. On top of having movement knowledge, they must also be up-to-date on the latest motion capture and ball flight technology. When you understand that the tech can help guide your decisions as a coach or therapist you start multiplying you effectiveness with that athlete. Combining all of these factors will turn this person into the ultimate complimentary piece to the pitching coach. This is someone that, in combination with the pitching coach, can help potentially add a win or 2 a season based on your work.
This position currently doesn't currently exist in Major League Baseball, but it is only a matter of time before we see this turning into a reality. As the industry shifts to creating more hybrid roles, which can more effectively utilize the skills and abilities of their staff, we'll see more of these unique positions pop up. Those that don't adapt to this quickly will be behind, and those that refuse to adapt will stay behind. This will probably be the case not only in the big leagues, but in the minors and also at the collegiate level. If the teams don't adapt to it, the players will be seeking this privately for their own benefits. Give it 2-5 years, it's coming.
Thanks for reading.