In 2006, Kyle Boddy was a 27-year-old college dropout who had just left a server job at the Olive Garden for one in tech. He coached Little League baseball in his spare time, using a cautious approach based on drawing walks and increasing on-base percentage that earned him the derision of rival coaches.
Boddy, who had pitched in school, was taken with how the old ways predominated in the sport regardless of their effectiveness and the “glaring lack of knowledge, data and objective methodology when it came to training athletes.”
He couldn’t understand the resistance of Little League coaches — the first to shape young players — to getting kids on base as opposed to swinging for the fences and hoping for the best, the approach that was long in vogue.
“Why wouldn’t this be accepted? It’s just obvious that having the most runners on base makes the most sense,” Boddy says in the new book “The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players” by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.
Boddy “devoured roughly 30 books and 120 papers about athletic training” in one year, intending to train baseball players. But many of the topics he was learning were foreign to most in the sport, such as biomechanics and concepts like “the kinetic chain of the athlete.”
For most of baseball’s history, player development was informal, left up to the human eye and a veteran’s judgment.
Players would throw a ball or swing a bat, and coaches watching from the sidelines would provide feedback on changes the player could make to improve. Then everyone would hope it worked.
“The MVP Machine” (Basic Books), out now, tells how a series of new tools, advanced statistics and technology are changing the game of baseball, led by innovators like Boddy.
Boddy started a blog on the subject, Driveline Mechanics, in 2009. By the following year, he wanted to test new methods, which he could only do with his own biomechanics lab.
But with costs into the six figures plus no experience as a scientist or engineer, there was no way for him to create one. Or so it seemed.
Defiant, Boddy rented a space next to a trailer park, negotiating cheap rent by helping care for the entire facility. He installed a batting cage, brought in barbells, and built a 3D imaging cage out of PVC pipe.
He re-tooled inexpensive software to suit his equations, and in order to create these equations, the college dropout also taught himself linear algebra.
He created his biomechanics lab for around $2,000.
Boddy advertised on Craigslist for athletes to train, but given the primitive nature of his facility, he could only accept a few people at a time.
His approach got a boost when a set of weighted baseballs was delivered to Driveline by mistake. He ignored them at first, since weighted balls weren’t used to train pitchers, as they were believed to increase the risk of injury.
But Boddy, employing a scientific approach, did his research and learned that the few studies on the subject had shown the opposite.
After moving to a larger facility in 2011 and becoming the strength-and-conditioning coach for a local youth-baseball organization called RIPS Baseball, he now had players who could test his theories. Integrating hard throws of weighted balls into his training, he found that his pitchers increased their hurling velocity by 7 miles per hour.
But whenever he’d post a video of his training online, he’d be met with derision, with posts like, “I bet this stuff doesn’t transfer” and “Yeah, but these guys don’t focus on throwing strikes.”
“None of it was embraced by any coach I knew,” Boddy says in the book.
Boddy, who made Driveline his full-time career in 2012, would soon be vindicated. He was contacted in 2014 by Casey Weathers, a former baseball star at Vanderbilt and first-round draft pick whose career had been derailed by injuries. He wondered if Boddy could help get his pitching arm into big league shape.
At Driveline, Boddy put him to work throwing weighted balls while recording and analyzing the results with high-speed video.
When he first arrived, Weathers was throwing at 93 mph. After working with Boddy for two weeks, his fastball had risen to 98.7 mph. Boddy’s training worked, and Weathers signed a minor-league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.
But Boddy’s most valuable collaboration would be with Cleveland Indians pitcher and fellow iconoclast Trevor Bauer.
A self-described terrible natural athlete, Bauer’s childhood coaches trained him in unconventional methods he’d carry into the majors. He was training with weighted balls from 8 years old and doing long tosses and resistance training to strengthen his shoulder from age 12.
He began carrying a “semi-rigid 6-foot pole with weighted cylinders attached to each end” and would shake the pole in every direction to warm up and stretch.
Boddy watched Bauer pitch in the 2010 College World Series on ESPN and heard the commentators criticize his routines. Former big-league All-Star Nomar Garciaparra called it “odd,” saying that “he would not be able to continue with the exercises in professional baseball due to the injury risk,” according to the book.
Former All-Star and manager Robin Ventura added that Bauer was “only allowed to do all those things because he is so good.”
Boddy saw things differently.
“We should not fear things like Trevor Bauer’s unorthodox mechanics and training protocol,” he wrote on his blog. “We should be amazed by them, and we should investigate them.”
Bauer was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 and traded to the Cleveland Indians two years later. At the end of the 2013 season, he became concerned about pain he’d been experiencing.
Rather than reach for the Advil, he decided his entire mechanical approach to pitching needed an overhaul.
“It was very clear I needed to make a [mechanical] change if I was going to last 10 years in the big leagues,” he said.
Bauer’s agent, who admired Boddy’s writing, brought the two together, and the pair bonded quickly over their shared approach to the game.
Rather than make suggestions about what to change, as most coaches do, Boddy had developed a series of exercises that helped a player’s body learn the right moves through muscle memory, such as pitching a ball while twisting his torso but without moving his feet.
Bauer noted that a past coach of his “didn’t have a whole lot of teachable drills or thoughts. Kyle had a way of doing it.”
“After their first sessions together, Boddy wrote that Bauer ‘was able to reproduce an excellent, high-level pattern that should set him up for vastly improved control, velocity and health.’ ”
While his following season was uneven overall, Bauer’s fastball averaged 94.9 mph — 1.5 mph faster than in 2012 — and one of the top 10 velocities in the majors for starting pitchers.
Bauer has returned to Driveline every offseason since.
After the 2015 season, Bauer wanted to replicate a specific two-seam fastball made famous by Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
He showed Boddy an exciting new toy he had purchased: the Edgertronic SC1, a high-speed video camera manufactured by the Sanstreak Corporation that helps players to infinitesimally break down their grips on the bat or the ball to help retool them for better performance. (See how the Edgertronic slows down time in these videos here and here.) Costing $5,500, Bauer was the only person in baseball to own this camera at the time.
When Boddy saw the Edgertonic’s slowed-down footage of a pitch, he was in shock.
“Boddy saw every aspect of [the pitcher’s] delivery at several thousand frames per second, including the ball coming off his hand in unprecedented detail,” the authors write.
He “dropped his head into his arms, [realizing that] he was not on the cutting edge of pitch design. He stood up and went to his computer. Five minutes later, he returned. ‘I bought one.’ ”
“That meeting changed the entire landscape of professional baseball,” Bauer later said.
Previously, pitchers had usually needed an entire offseason of trial and error, or in some cases multiple seasons, to develop a new pitch.
But using the Edgertronic to “provide constant feedback as [Bauer] experimented with different grips,” he and Boddy built the exact pitch they desired in a matter of days.
“Multiple hitting coaches . . . saw us develop the two-seam fastball,” Boddy said in the book, “and were like, ‘That is why hitters could be f–ked for basically the next 10 years if they’re finding out new ways to move the baseball.”
As of the book’s publication, at least 15 major-league teams now own an Edgertronic. The Houston Astros embraced these advancements far sooner than any other team — they currently own 75 of the high-speed cameras — and have a 2017 World Series title to show for their open-mindedness.
By 2018, the benefits of Bauer and Boddy’s work couldn’t have been clearer, especially as Bauer made the American League All-Star team.
Now, his teammates seek him out for his expertise. When Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin had sudden trouble finding the strike zone last summer, walking twice as many batters as usual, Bauer told him he needed to spend a few days practicing as a shortstop.
Tomlin was baffled, but Bauer, who has studied the psychology of athletes, correctly reasoned that the problem was in Tomlin’s head and that he needed to get out of it to solve the problem. He spent two days working out Tomlin at shortstop, having him make long throws with weighted balls from the edge of the infield.
Tomlin’s problem was solved.
“Just getting him to do something else to get him out of his head,” Bauer later said. “It cleared everything up.”
While Bauer and Boddy have had an undeniable effect on the game, Boddy hopes to influence the sport where it’s played. The next step of his dream is to become a major league pitching coach.
Last October, the Los Angeles Angels named Doug White as their new pitching coach. White, like Boddy, had never played professional baseball before. After the news broke, Bauer and Boddy had the following exchange on Twitter.
Boddy: “Christ sakes they let anyone become a big league pitching coach these days. (Congrats, Doug!)”
Bauer: “I guess there’s hope for you after all Kyle. Big if true.”
Boddy: “Pitching coach of the Phillies, 2023, here we come.”
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