Editor's note: Admit it - you're tired of reading about football, right? I'm tired of thinking about football, I'll tell you that. So maybe now is the perfect time for Ben to write about baseball. The Illini named a new pitching coach on Tuesday, so here's Ben with some literal inside baseball.
Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb is not a man prone to grand statements. Even when his squad was rolling to 50 wins and a Super Regional berth in 2015, Hartleb remained steadfastly humble.
So during the course of our conversation last Friday, when I asked him who his pitching coach was going to be, his reply was equal parts stunning and intriguing.
"I think it's going to make a splash," Hartleb said. "I'm pretty excited about it. It will come out Tuesday, you call me and tell me what you think."
My mind kicked into overdrive. (And it was a bad time for my mind to be in overdrive. Here Dan has just dropped a "clue" (can it be a clue without any hints??? Is a parentheses inside a parentheses the written equivalent of breaking the fourth wall??? Forgive, I digress.)
At any rate, Hartleb says this and now I can't look at my phone for the next 2 hours because I'm playing some truly high-stakes trivia. I spent the five minutes between each round of trivia feverishly Googling, trying in vain to come up with a name. I figured maybe Hartleb had an SEC guy in mind, maybe a guy from one of the high-level junior colleges.
I must admit, Mark Allen was not on the VERY short list I was able to work up. Here's a brief look at Allen's bio:
Welcome to the #Illini, Mark Allen.
?? San Francisco Giants Pitching Coordinator in 2019, oversaw all of the Giants' MiLB pitching development
??Spent 8 seasons with the Indians as a scout, national pitching cross checker, and pitching coordinatorhttps://t.co/vhW7abDEF5
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) October 8, 2019
My inability to see this one coming should in no way be taken in that Hartleb is overplaying his hand. In fact, Hartleb may be at the leading edge of a new trend. Here's a couple of things that stick out to me:
Over the last half-decade or so, Cleveland has become an organizational hotbed of pitching development. They did so by reaching out to the so-called Velo/Twitter Pitcher/Workout Warrior guys from places like Driveline Baseball, Ron Wolforth's Texas Baseball Ranch and the Arm Farm. Some baseball guys find this latest evolution in baseball training to be heretical in the religion of baseball. Me? I love it. I love listening to Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball talk pitching or training.
The average baseball fan is very much aware of how much velocity has increased in recent years. There's not many Greg Maddux types around anymore (that one's for you Eric Sim!). Just last night I caught myself wondering "who the (bleep) is that?" when the Dodgers brought in Dustin May. Kid is all of 22 years old, looks like the end result of Mark Fidrych and Carrot Top producing a child and throws absolute fuego that moves! (I'm digressing again, I know).
What you may not be aware of is how much technology goes into throwing hard. There are all sorts of tools that help pitchers refine and literally develop new pitches. The Illini have been fairly forward in this area already thanks to their use of FlightScope and Charlie Young's algorithms and data mining. FlightScope and similar devices like Rapsodo and Trackman can tell us all kinds of fun stuff, from a ball's spin rate to it's movement on the the X and Y axis'. That kind of information can help you tighten up a slider or give you feedback as tinker with a sinker. It's also the shallow end of a very deep pool.
Way back in 2011, when the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted right-hander Trevor Bauer, his lifting and throwing routines were thought to be insane. He quickly chafed under Arizona's direction, but when he hooked up with Driveline's Kyle Boddy (pronounced Boady) and got traded to Cleveland, he quickly improved. Boddy eventually did some consulting for Cleveland and a lot of those same principles that Boddy brought forth along with stuff from Wolforth's Texas Baseball Ranch as well as Max Weiner's Arm Farm are ingrained in Cleveland's pitcher development program today. The end result has been pretty impressive. Under Allen's tutelage, three of the Indians' 2016 draftees have already made their MLB debuts and one from 2017 has made his as well. All told, there are six homegrown arms on the Tribe's pitching roster. That's unheard of player progression. The Cubs, for example, have just four homegrown arms on their 40-man roster and it's taken them an average of six years to reach the big leagues (and not one of them has made any great impact).
I'll be honest, I had a second point here, but I had to step away for a bit and now I've lost it. I did notice, however, while I was gone that Giants, where Allen spent the 2019 season as their pitching coordinator, also hired Driveline's Matt Daniels as their Coordinator of Pitching Analysis. So that's another developmental mind that Allen undoubtedly picked while working with him.
Lately, the trend has been for MLB teams to poach some of the more forward thinking minds from the college ranks. Maybe Hartleb is starting a new trend of poaching the pro ranks. On the surface, it makes a little sense. The life of a scout, crosschecker or coordinator can feature upwards of 250-300 days a year on the road and your home base can change from year to year. At least at the college level, you're coming home to the same place every night. Plus, I'm guessing the money was comparable.
Either, way with Allen's track record of developing arms at the highest level, I'm excited to see what he can do for the Orange and Blue. Bottom line, as I told Hartleb on Tuesday when he announced the hire, "You better tell Josh (Whitman) to put more catchers' mitts and improved netting in the budget, because your guys are gonna throw 100."