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The FlatGround revolution and what it means to baseball

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A few thoughts about new technology that could help pitchers.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

A part of assessing the baseball landscape includes knowing what you don’t know. For years and decades, teams would aggressively use recent signings in pitching scenarios. High school and college players, fresh off of a full season, would get used for fifty and more innings before their season ended. While this worked well for some, it was career disaster for others. After all the decades, pitching is still a combination of “that doesn’t work” and “that might work sometimes”. This is a look at a new pitching development.

Al has taken a few brief looks at DriveLine technology, specifically about former Cubs draft choice Luke Hagerty. DriveLine is a concept I’m generally bullish on. It’s a different way of assessing pitchers. Instead of a scout going to a game, setting an eye on one or two specific players, watching their practice, the player (through DriveLine) kicks out measurables. An electrode here, and a chip there, and a computer-generated readout.

Spin rate is in vogue, now. DriveLine merges baseball skills with a physical stress test. How is the player’s balance? Does his delivery represent one that should produce positive results in the future? It provides answers we don’t necessarily have questions for. For “old-timers” DriveLine is scary.

For veterans of scouting, the area scout is in charge of his domain. To run an inaccurate (though convenient) example, imagine you were paid to be an area scout in Illinois. You’d want numerous looks at the University of Illinois, Bradley, and Illinois State. Toss in looks at the top twenty or so top preps, and information on the junior colleges, you’d assess what you see, and file reports.

However, with DriveLine, how should a team proceed? Setting aside Hagerty for a moment, facilities like DriveLine provide a stress echo battalion of numbers. Should you buy them? Which should you believe? Which players deserve offers? And how big? Over which numbers?

It’s a different mindset. It’s scary. Teams that know what they’re looking for are more comfortable in what they should find. So far, my read is that the Cubs deserve a C- on DriveLine technologies. A few teams have signed employees (as opposed to players) from the revolution. Houston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay have aggressively welcomed the new numbers. The Cubs have been a bit more reticent.

However, this article is about the FlatGround revolution, not the DriveLine revolution. With revolutions, you need names to distinguish them. With DriveLine, players who have been a bit maxed out in the current system (often by injuries or relative age) spend time and money to develop at a site. Again, I’m a fan, but DriveLine tends to be for a certain type of player. It usually involves money.

FlatGround is different. A computer application, FlatGround is a very low-tech clearinghouse for information on pitchers of any level of experience, seeking exposure, and a chance. Run by Rob Friedman as a free service to the baseball world, FlatGround has gone viral. Three general types of people are using Flat Ground. One would be the (for instance) father of a 10-year-old. “Here’s video of my son pitching. Do any of you have any recommendations?” People sometimes respond. Once I noticed a player getting tips (to be followed or ignored) from retired MLB pitcher C.J. Wilson. Giving tips to a kid he’s likely never met. How cool is that?

The second general participant in FlatGround is the high school junior or senior. He likely hasn’t played the “travel ball” scene, which is kind of expensive. However, he’s up to 82 running up to his high school junior campaign. He wants hints on how to get better, or better noticed. Also, he’d kind of like a college coach to show an interest in him. D-1? Junior college? Whoever is watching.

There have been relative success stories. College coaches, from the warmth of their own computer room, see reports of kids “with great character” and “throwing 87” (or whatever). “Send me your particulars.” The middle man is being left out. As the revolution is beginning, people running “middle-end baby DriveLine facilities” are inviting kids to their site for free readings, to be posted on FlatGround.

Teams who have been gleefully firing scouts now have FlatGround showing them a hundred names a day. Each one is a pitcher with a story. Perhaps three percent of these stories should be pursued. These kids might be worth signing, or at least taking a look at. And they’re not the guys that are necessarily already on watchlists.

The third type of pitcher using FlatGround is the player who is either at a Junior College now, or could be. Plenty of reasons might have “kicked a player out of the system.” Many (schools/MLB organizations) ignore pitchers who don’t throw 90-plus. Some guys weren’t 90 plus then, or now, but have eligibility remaining, and want a chance. FlatGround is a fantastic tool for a “smaller school” coach to grab some possibilities.

Similarly, some of the pitchers are tossing 92 at JC games, and their season starts soon. As such, the area scout who thought he knew everyone in his region? He probably doesn’t. If a team can have access in the draft to “91 with late sink and a developing breaking ball,” and all the coaching they’ve had is their baseball coaches in high school and college, they seem worth an actual look.

Does this mean that FlatGround guys will go on the first day of the June draft this cycle? Probably not. However, the Cubs have three short-season rosters to fill come late June. If a kid who’s a college freshman at a previously non-valued JC is tossing 93, or 89 with filthy motion, doesn’t that sound worth a 35th round selection? Yeah, he’ll probably wash out, but later round guys usually do.

These “gift options” deserve a degree of scrutiny. Some will be worth ignoring, at least for now, over lack of pitching skills, character questions, or bad form. The vast majority, likely. However, I’m seeing about 100 fly by my screen per day. My hunch is, all 30 organizations ought to have someone with some scouting prowess looking at all of these deliveries flowing through. For the two or three percent worth adding to a watch list, boot the name and specifics to his applicable area scout.

And, if the Cubs don’t have enough scouts to look at the pitchers being introduced by the FlatGround revolution, hire some of the scouts someone else just released. Might as well hire one of the ones who the Braves or Marlins recently canned to look at the numerous useful-looking options floating through Flatground every month. I’d imagine a capable scout with a degree of experience could tell which of the scores of names/videos I see every day could get out Arizona League hitters, at the very least.

Being in front of a bad trend beats being behind on a good one. Neither DriveLine nor FlatGround is a panacea. However, if a team can add a useful late-round choice from watching a few videos and adjusting a travel schedule, that seems a reasonable fee for improvement.