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Moneyball: High-tech analytics key to NIACC baseball's success
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Moneyball: High-tech analytics key to NIACC baseball's success

From the ICYMI: Stories from the weekend you might have missed series
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Adapt or die. 

Those words are spoken by Brad Pitt's character Billy Beane in the movie version of "Moneyball", and are more true than ever at all levels of baseball.

As college and professional baseball clubs look to the future, being on the cutting-edge is vital, maybe more than in any sport. No longer can a team depend solely on scouting to make judgments on players. 

Instead, teams from high school to the pros are diving into baseball technology and advanced analytics, just so they can keep up. 

Several years ago, former NIACC baseball coach Travis Hergert decided that his program needed to change. After a 25-31 season in 2014, Hergert revamped the program and started to focus more on the advanced statistics and training methods that have made Major League Baseball teams like the Houston Astros so successful (present scandal aside, of course).

Not only did that require a change in training methods, it required a change in baseball philosophy. 

“We were very results oriented, in terms of wins and losses,” Hergert said. “At the JUCO (junior college) level, we all want to win. We’re very competitive, and we all want to win more games than we lose, we all want to get to the World Series.”

The shift was in changing the team’s measure of success. When that happened, the Trojans became one of the first junior college programs to publicly embrace advanced analytics and training methods.

Hergert, who now works for the Philadelphia Phillies, began with having his players train with weighted or under-weighted bats, and also hung strings around the batting cages to test exit velocity, or how fast the ball is coming off of a player's bat. 

On the pitching side, the Trojans began to use weighted balls and velocity training to strengthen pitchers’ arms and increase pitch speed. 

“We had to get guys to throw harder and we had to get guys to be more efficient within their deliveries,” Hergert said. “That’s when we adopted a lot of those training techniques. Really, it was about hitting that place and getting that player better, so he could get to the highest level possible.”

After adopting these new-age techniques, the program began to see results right away. In 2015, the team went 49-16 and made it to the third round of the NJCAA Division II World Series.

“Offensively, we saw a huge jump,” Hergert said. “On the pitching end of things, it took a little bit of time to evolve. We ended up winning 20 of our last 21 going into that regional tournament in 2015.”

The technology

The most often used piece of equipment the team uses is called Rapsodo. The system sits in front of home plate in the batting cage and measures the balls' spin rate and speed as it comes off the bat, as well as projected ball distance. Results are projected onto an adjacent wall when players take their swings in the cage and these numbers can be used to determine a player’s training regimen. 

“It eliminates a lot of guesswork,” Hergert said. “I think it is a validation to what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, and it gives us a road-map to how we can enhance both of those. It’s never forced on a guy. We were trying to get the most out of every single guy.”

The Trojans can also measure a players’ bat speed and launch angle with a tool called Blast Motion, which is a small attachment to the bat handle. Launch angle is the angle at which the ball comes off the bat, the idea that a higher launch angle leads to more fly balls and more home runs. 

The team also uses Rapsodo for pitching, and is able to measure things like spin rate, velocity and a pitcher’s release point, all factors that go into turning an average pitcher into a great pitcher. 

Spin rate is just what it sounds like, how many times the ball spins while in the air. The higher the spin rate, the more upward motion that pitched ball has as it approaches home plate, meaning more swings and misses from batters. 

The program also just got a new Edgertronic camera, a device that can capture 2,000 frames per second, and show pitchers their delivery in super slow-motion. It can also be used to analyze hitters' swings. 

It’s the newest toy for the team, and they seem to be having fun with it. 

“As a pitcher, it allows us to see down to the frame that the ball leaves our hand,” NIACC pitcher Patrick Pridgen said. “What we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We can make adjustments really quick.”

The journey

Over the past five seasons, NIACC has become a known entity in the baseball world. These days, it’s a part of the pitch to recruits. If they want to eventually transfer to a Division I program, or get drafted into the pros, NIACC is one of the places to be.

Before the program’s analytical shift, that wasn’t the case. 

Since the beginning of the 2015 season, the Trojans have an overall record of 204-97-1, with two trips to the NJCAA Division II World Series, and regional tournament appearances in every season. 

“We’d never had a draft pick up until 2016, when Malique Ziegler got drafted,” Hergert said. “So, that is where the shift in our thought process changed. We had to be more development oriented, and we had to come up with ways to be more creative with the resources that we had at the time.”

Since Ziegler was drafted in the 22nd round of the 2016 draft by the San Francisco Giants, a series of NIACC players have followed suit. Former Trojan and Newman Catholic star Bryce Ball was picked in 2019 by the Atlanta Braves. Former NIACC pitcher Brandon Williamson was drafted in the second round in 2019 by the Seattle Mariners. 

NIACC players also began to go to Division I colleges in higher numbers. Ball eventually transferred to Dallas Baptist, while Williamson was drafted out of Texas Christian. Just recently, Pridgen signed on to play at the University of Oregon, the first NIACC pitcher to eventually play for a Pac-12 team. Teammate Tyson Tucker signed with UNC-Charlotte. 

“The nice thing about being here is that we always have tools put in front of us that give us feedback,” Pridgen said. “Coaches that are able to explain it to you in a way where you can use it every day to get better. You’re not struck trying to take a guess.”

For hitters especially, it can be gratifying to take batting practice and get instant feedback, with their numbers projected onto the wall next to the cage. It leads to a lot of friendly competition between teammates.

“The tech is the tech,” interim head coach Drew Sannes said. “It is what it is, and it’s going to be objective and provide that stuff, but ultimately what it does is create an environment where kids want to get better. They have physical evidence of 'I don’t do as well in this area. I have to get better, automatically.'”

Driveline

NIACC has a friendly relationship with Driveline Baseball, a Seattle-based company that has revolutionized the baseball training industry. Founded by Kyle Boddy in 2012, Driveline was among the pioneering companies to use advanced analytics and things like weighted ball training for pitchers, and is now one of the premier training organization for major league baseball players.

Driveline is known for its forward-thinking and analytical approach to helping pitchers gain speed on their fastballs, and helping hitters improve metrics like bat speed and launch angle. It specializes in what it calls "Data-Driven Baseball Performance Training."

According to Hergert, Boddy retweeted the team in 2015, calling them “Our JUCO partners at NIACC.” Being recognized by such a respected organization was huge for the program.

“That made me as the head coach at the time say ‘We’re going about this the right way,’" Hergert said. “That organization has revolutionized baseball. It’s the reason I’m in the position that I am right now with the Phillies. It changed me as a coach, and it changed how we develop.”

As Driveline made its mark on the baseball world, and NIACC’s performance continued to improve, the school started to recruit better ballplayers. Which, in turn, led to more wins. 

“It would help us get a type of player that we weren’t getting before,” Hergert said. “To have Bryce Ball stay home and play here, I don’t know if that would’ve happened three or four years prior. Those type of guys, and Patrick Pridgen right now, the ace of NIACC, he’s going to Oregon. I don’t know if Patty walks in the door three years ago. What we did to change it in the grand scheme of things was about relevance. We wanted a relevant program.”

Transition

This offseason has been one of change for the NIACC baseball team. Pitching coach Brett DeGagne and hitting coach Shawn Schlecter both recently accepted jobs with the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, respectively. In early December, Hergert took a job as assistant pitching coordinator with the Phillies. 

Into Hergert’s role as the skipper of the team slides the 24-year-old Sannes. A year ago, Sannes was playing college ball himself. Now, he pilots a college baseball program. Not just a college program, but one of the most forward-thinking JUCO’s in the country.

Sannes has been on staff for just four months, but already has the respect of his players.

“Drew is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever worked with,” Pridgen said. "He knows what he is doing.”

In contrast to the usual macho, perfection-focused sports world, Sannes wants his players to know that failure is an option. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Baseball is a game of failure, as the old saying goes.

“The biggest piece is that our players understand that failure is OK, as long as we’re learning from failure,” Sannes said. “We never want to waste a failure, we’re always teaching off of it. Not every failure needs to be a negative thought process. We want to be positive and continue to think that way.”

Winning baseball games is important to Sannes, but even more important is his duty to help his players develop as people.

“This isn’t just about baseball,” Sannes said. "This is so much bigger. It’s not about the angle of the bat or the spin off a breaking ball. It’s about building people that are going to be responsible in society and workers in whatever line of work they are, being good husbands and being good fathers.”

Baseball season is fast approaching. The Trojans’ first game is in just 20 days, against Crowder College. Even with all of the changes this offseason, the coaches and players are excited and extremely optimistic about the coming year. 

All of the numbers, the machines and the data are useful, but ultimately they are means to an end. 

“We know what we need to get done every day, so we can go do our job on the field,” Pridgen said. “It’s almost like a guidance counselor for us. I don’t think we’ll skip a beat at all. We’ll be ready for the season.”

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