FORT MYERS, FLA. – John Anderson is early in his 39th season as the Gophers baseball coach. His team will play the Twins in an exhibition game Friday night, then head back home on a rare charter flight for a three-game series, Saturday through Monday, against TCU at U.S. Bank Stadium.
There was a phone conversation with Anderson earlier in the week, in which he was discussing the technological aids in the Gophers’ version of what are now being referred to as “pitching labs” — at pro, collegiate and amateur development levels.
“We’re still in the process of reaching ‘lab’ status,” Anderson said. “We have high-speed video cameras showing the ball coming out of the fingertips. We have the Rapsodo for spin efficiency; we have the K-Vest and the hit-track system for hitters.”
This wasn’t the extent of the Gophers’ plunge into technology — merely the highlights — and caused the reporter to ask:
“What would ‘Chief’ think of this baseball revolution?”
Dick Siebert was “Chief” to all in his 31 seasons as the Gophers’ coach from 1948 through 1978 — a run that included College World Series titles in 1956, 1960 and 1964, and CWS appearances in the 1973 and 1977.
Anderson was a student coach on the ’77 team, and Siebert was his mentor.
“I think Dick Siebert would be all in on this search for data that might help players improve,” Anderson said. “He kept the most sophisticated scorebook you’ve ever seen during games.
“He would watch batting practice and keep track of well-hit balls in the cages, vs. righthanded pitching, lefthanded pitching. We tracked pitching data.
“We were one of the first to videotape players. You would replay it on a six-inch, black-and-white TV, and the ball was a blur coming out of a pitcher’s hand, but it was the best available technology for the time.
“Chief was in that space. I think he would love this era.”
The Gophers will be walking into a technological Nirvana when they arrive at Hammond Stadium at midafternoon Friday. The Twins might even be feeling kind enough to have a couple of Gophers throw off the force plate mound, allowing said pitcher to discover if he is pushing off and landing with full biomechanical efficiency.
How cutting edge is this device?
“There are five in the world right now, and we have two of them,” said Wes Johnson, the Twins’ pitching coach.
Apparently, if you land with proper force, the wrist comes along and can create the much-desired higher spin rate. The Twins’ advantage in this technology comes from the fact Johnson basically invented the force plate mound during his time as pitching coach at the University of Arkansas, from June 2016 until he being hired by the Twins in November 2018.
It seemed novel at the time, with Johnson alleged to be the first big-league pitching coach hired directly from college. In truth, Johnson’s hiring merely was a high-profile case of big-league organizations bringing in college coaches in droves.
The Twins have added another wave of coaches and coordinators to their minor league staffs from colleges for 2020. This includes Aaron Sutton, the manager for high-A Fort Myers after four years as head coach at Montana State-Billings.
“This is the technology age for the players coming into professional baseball,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations. “They already have worked with Rapsodo, Trackman, other tools.
“The players expect analytics to be part of the coaching they receive. And college coaches, with analytic minds and backgrounds, might have an advantage in filling that role.”
Johnson, 48, and Anderson, 64, both made the same comment about coaching today’s players — and particularly pitchers: They learn differently.
“Some of our pitchers just want you to tell them what to do: ‘You’ve been emphasizing the slider, but the curveball will be a better breaking pitch for you,’ ” Johnson said. “And others want to see the why on a screen in front of them, not just the how.”
Anderson got his start in analytics with long nights, assigned to take the data written down by Siebert — hard-hit balls in BP, effectiveness of various pitches — and run numbers through a calculator to provide data to be used for lineups and pitching decisions.
Forty-some years later, Anderson has dived into new-generation analytics to the best of his ability, but he also relies on the same talent pool the Twins are now using to provide full data interpretation in the minor leagues:
Young college coaches.
“I have a couple of outstanding young assistants, Pat Casey and our pitching coach, Ty McDevitt,” Anderson said. “They can provide the old coach with whatever data he needs.”
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.