I’ve been running Driveline Baseball for some indeterminate amount of time, since the beginning of the experiment was a money-losing training center in North Seattle. It started turning a profit in 2013, and I brought on Mike Rathwell (CEO) in mid-2014. Since then, the business has grown exponentially and our products and training programs are used all around college and professional baseball, both domestic and internationally.
Much has been written about the sports science aspect on the detailed Driveline Baseball blog, but I haven’t written much about the actual business in awhile. I decided to solicit some questions from my Twitter following to get me some inspiration instead of writing at length about stuff I’m not sure anyone wants to hear, so let’s get started!
I'd like to read about what your idea of how it would be was like before you started
And what made you start
— Pocket Chad (@Ghost_Chad) June 1, 2017
When I was just doing it for fun, I did it to learn and because I was training myself as a powerlifter and amateur baseball player anyway. I figured I could learn more by training high school athletes alongside, and get a place to work out at, which was then the North Seattle Baseball Association batting cages – a warehouse located next to a strip club’s office, trailer park, with 55 foot batting cages and a chicken-wire-enclosed “weight room” that was 9 feet wide and 35 feet long.
I had no preconceived notions that it could be something big. I simply didn’t know enough about the Internet baseball business, or baseball at all. I had only been coaching Little League and High School for about 4 years. I was blogging consistently on my SB Nation site Driveline Mechanics which was getting around 200-300 unique hits per day, and eventually started writing on my own site. I reached out to industry leaders like Eric Cressey and Pete Dupuis, who were kind enough to give me some very solid advice that I take to this day:
- Don’t do private lessons, switch to a semi-private membership model
- Constantly put out new content in both written and video form
- Be as rigid as possible with scheduling
I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t know what Driveline Baseball would become.
And any moments of "ok, this is really happening, I'm going to do it" and/or "should I really do this, go forward with this"
— Pocket Chad (@Ghost_Chad) June 1, 2017
This point came to a head rather abruptly. As I’ve written about in the past, I suffer from anxiety. In 2012 I was working as a Data Scientist, making about $125,000/year with great benefits. My first child was born, and we just bought a house in South Seattle for $230,000, which I felt was exorbitant at the time and possibly not something we were ready for despite my high salary. I felt this way because I was harboring a secret and had been for years – I hated my job, and had for a long time.
I was chasing higher and higher salaries in the IT industry, having worked my way up from making $32,000/year as a business analyst with zero programming skills to a Data Scientist in under three years.
I started working in IT because the professional gambling climate around that time was turning rapidly against gamblers with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, snaked through Congress via the Safe Port Act. It became increasingly difficult to move money online, poker sites were collapsing, and it was time to jump off the ship before it fully capsized. My father-in-law greased me into his company, where I worked my way up to software development after maintaining a set of lead generation scripts.
I mistakenly thought I would like working in technology, since I’m a huge nerd. Very wrong. The culture of the IT industry is one that I frankly can’t stand and think is incredibly disgusting. Any number of examples will suffice: Uber firing 20 employees for sexual harassment, people being lied to about options being worth anything, overworking young kids and feeding them dinner just to coax 90 extra minutes out of them, and generally working on products and services that don’t fucking matter, like the next web gaming portal to squeeze microtransaction dollars out of bored housewives. A lot of it exists to separate people from their money by exploiting their free-to-play hole in their brain, to provide over-charged B2B services that build products on top of open source code without crediting them, or to develop vaporware and play the venture capitalist game to become the next unicorn (Dropbox, AirBnB, etc).
And just, like, how did you take the first step, what was the first step, and did you know at the time that it was the first step
— Pocket Chad (@Ghost_Chad) June 1, 2017
Around the time I was suffering regular anxiety attacks and seeking professional help with my mental issues, Driveline Baseball started to gain a foothold locally. I was working out of a select baseball team’s facility and making about $3/hr, which was a better result than breaking even or losing money. I approached my very understanding wife and told her I wanted to quit my job making six figures and to do Driveline Baseball full-time. I would augment my income by playing mid-limit live poker, conserve money by eating mostly at the casino / bringing meals home, and be at home as much as I could with Tycho while she worked. To this day, I have no idea how she was okay with this, but she was supportive from the beginning.
From there, I threw everything I had into the business. I told Cedric Phillips on his CEDtalks podcast that I remember working 18 hours in a row, teaching myself machine learning methods and summarizing a ton of research papers, and as I took a shower before bed, I distinctly remember that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that I could put in 80-100 hours/week without burnout for years. While that wouldn’t guarantee my success, I knew for a fact no one could possibly outwork me with the passion I had. To this day, I know this to be true. No one in the industry outworks the management of Driveline Baseball. It’s legitimately impossible.
Was baseball always your niche? If not, what was it? Why is it baseball and not something else?
— Paul Hiller (@atomicathletix) June 2, 2017
No. I wasn’t a particularly good athlete growing up, owing mostly to a lack of work ethic and desire at a young age to be good at athletics. I pick up games quickly; when the playing field is level and no one has previous experience in something, I generally dominate the field for a short period of time. I am very good at layering previous experiences over brand new ones to intuit what the best course of action is. Examples include being very good at new/unfamiliar gambling games, being a better evaluator of new Magic: The Gathering cards than even most of my friends who play on the Pro Tour, and this was true about baseball at a young age too.
As often is the case with people who pick things up quickly, they get bored equally as fast. So I won’t blame my inability to be a good athlete on bad genes or anything; I simply just didn’t work hard enough. As a good counter-example, when I moved to Seattle 11 years ago and started playing in an adult baseball league, I was one of the worst players in the league. In 2015, I won the league batting title, batting .675/.731/.875. There’s no real reason I couldn’t have been a good small college baseball player. I just simply didn’t try hard enough.
Like many others, baseball gripped me after I read Moneyball. While I had studied Economics in college and found the baseball operations side of the book interesting – valuing players using on-base percentage, drafting players differently – something nibbled at the back of my mind: Why aren’t they talking about developing the next Scott Hatteberg? Why was Billy Beane so sure that players couldn’t change? Was it because of his personal experiences in the game, leading to a rare blind spot?
That was the question that started me down the path of Driveline Baseball. I started coaching Little League, and I was consumed by the idea of finding the root cause of pitching injuries. That question is probably unanswerable in totality, as we know today, but that’s how the fire was started and continues today with the formation of the Research and Development team at Driveline Baseball, full of nerds, college dropouts, and young 20-something adults who have little to no experience in the game but all share one trait: We think we can do something no one else has done by virtue of the fact that we think about it differently than almost anyone, and that our company’s financial resources back up that belief.
How do you handle an idea/decision that you are 100% certain on, yet your staff doesn't buy in? (Stubbornness vs determined)
— Radical Larry™ (@McMoody17) June 1, 2017
I give my employees a ton of autonomy. All full-time employees – from customer service to middle management – have the following authority:
- Ability to make a customer happy by spending up to a certain amount of money, no questions asked. No asking a manager if a refund is appropriate, no escalating tickets, no wondering if we can re-ship products.
- Access to credit cards and purchasing accounts in the company’s name. If you need something to do your job better, buy it. I guess if it costs a lot, ask. If it doesn’t, and you can justify it, buy it.
- Ability to choose R&D and independent projects mostly at-will as long as they further the company’s goals.
- A research stipend for any on-floor trainer or R&D member to spend, no-questions-asked, on anything they think that will improve their careers at Driveline Baseball and beyond. Examples include: Postural Restoration Institution certification, Graston/FAKTR certification, trips to Atlanta to attend a sports science course on injuries, and trips to ALTIS in Phoenix to learn how Olympic sprinters are trained.
I say this because it sets the tone for the relationship I hope to have with my employees. So, with all that in mind, very few times have we had serious clashes. A few months ago I lost my temper and yelled in a sustained manner at three employees for exposing the business to a significantly unnecessary risk due to multiple lapses in judgment. These are the most unacceptable offenses in the company; when three or more things should have set your mind off to either not do something or to check with management who is ultimately responsible for your decisions, and you simply don’t do it. Again, though, this is very rare. It’s only happened once.
I’m very willing to change my mind on things that I am set on. It’s probably one of my better traits. I also don’t hold very many things at “100%” conviction, since I look at the world in a very probabilistic way. I assign ranges of probability to my beliefs, thoughts, and projections for the business and life in general. I remind my employees and clients here about that as well. I force rigor when it comes to research and experimentation; there are a lot of internal peer-review processes where employees shoot holes in each others’ ideas – including management’s – to make sure we do enough sanity checks before we go public with things. That doesn’t mean we always get it right; that’s impossible.
But challenging ideas is not a problem inside this company.
How do you test and implement new ideas and methods? How do you evaluate if they are successful?
— Jacob Howenstein (@j_howenstein) June 1, 2017
We ask our employees to document a process where a new modality, idea, process, whatever will be tested, and what they think a good pass/fail criteria will be. That process is modified by management and other employees until we come up with a good way to test/retest something, then go from there. It’s important to set guidelines and specific pass/fail markers to evaluate something on.
Our lead throwing trainer, Matt Daniels, invented a metric that aimed to measure throwing efficiency. We ran with it in “read-only” mode for months, not using it for anything but just collected data. It became clear after enough time that this metric wasn’t really all that helpful. It wasn’t useless, but it wasn’t justifying the additional complexity it brought about. So we scrapped it. Most of our competitors make shit up about biometrics, metrics, analytics, and whatever the buzzwords are these days, and immediately go live. They don’t understand the long-term damage they are doing to their brand by constantly talking about things they’ve never tested. We very much hope to never be those people, for a variety of reasons – it’s not good for business, we think, and it’s also just lying to people by asserting you know something you actually don’t.
As Richard Feynman once said:
I know how hard it is to know something.
Something about finding the right "tone"- when so many are critical of new approaches- how do you resist engaging and keep moving forward?
— stephen chung (@coolspacestv) June 1, 2017
As many have said, science doesn’t depend on your belief to make it true. That’s what’s so great about it.
That’s the tact we take at Driveline Baseball. You’re allowed to disagree with the stuff we publish. We publish open data, methods, procedures. We welcome peer review from the Internet, and we’re better for it. But if you want to sit there and tell us that we’re fraudulent, that we make up stuff, that weighted balls have proven to be harmful to pitchers (no data exists, the only preprint that is out there is an experiment on a group with a mean age of ~15 years old with an unusually aggressive throwing program that does not resemble anything we do), then fine. You’re allowed to argue that the world is flat, too.
I’m no longer in the business of convincing people that what we do is right. I couldn’t care less what various GMs, AGMs, pitching coordinators, coaches, Internet denizens, players, my parents, or whoever think about my business. As long as we are acting in an ethical, logical, and scientific way, I can live with that process, regardless of the results.
At the end of the day, Driveline Baseball develops and publishes more qualified information on baseball sports science as it relates to player development than any single organization or MLB team due to our structure and how we’ve designed the company. That’s a fact. And people can get on board with facts, or not. That’s not up to me.
How do you balance value now vs valule later decisions? Such as increasing revenue vs research.
— Jacob Howenstein (@j_howenstein) June 1, 2017
In theory, we probably should do a better job quantifying the value that the R&D team provides to the company as a whole.
In practice, I really don’t care. I want to learn everything there is to know and I’ll spend company resources doing it until my partner Mike tells me I shouldn’t. That hasn’t happened yet, so…
Really it’s not about expected value or ROI of R&D, but rather the speed at which the R&D team can implement new products. We don’t have very expensive force plates yet because we don’t think our process can take sufficiently take advantage of the data that comes out of them. We only recently invested in a five-figure motion capture setup because we have the right information and people on board to make it worthwhile for the R&D department.
would welcome hearing more on your recent decision to expand in place vs adding location in AZ, other.
— D Souza (@Dmikesouz) June 1, 2017
Driveline Baseball is not yet the best it can be in Kent, WA, where the pressure is minimal. We are still a rapid growth company and still working out the kinks in a lot of areas. For example, we don’t have a unified training software tracking solution. The ideal platform tracks results not retroactively, but automatically on its own, making suggestions globally to the program and locally to each athlete for both performance and health. This requires better software, better metric tracking, and more solidified partnerships with companies like WHOOP, Rapsodo, Motus, Omegawave, Optitrack, and even MLBAM.
Remember when I said that I used to be into machine learning? That’s the vision we have for Driveline Baseball. It isn’t a weighted ball company, or product sales company, or training center. It’s simply the best developer of tools to further baseball player development like no one ever has. We have initiatives over the next 12 months that I think will change the way we are perceived in a big, big way.
We have a desire to move to warmer weather, no doubt. Expansion is almost certainly not in the cards. We want a single place to come to. We do not think spreading our best resources – our people – thin is a good idea. Phoenix is an attractive option, but not something we could do for years to come. And if we did, we wouldn’t be opening a 10,000 sq. ft. place that is simply an upgrade. No, we’d do it way, way bigger. I’ll shut up now before I disclose too much, but know that we are always thinking about how to best grow the company.
I would love to hear about where the different cross-sections of what you do come together. Where medicine, kinesiology, physics, etc. meet
— Bryan (@BryanWrites) June 1, 2017
And how you navigate those fields. Also, where you look for new research/information, and what research you do yourself/in house.
— Bryan (@BryanWrites) June 1, 2017
This is definitely the key that makes Driveline Baseball so successful – we are able to tighten the feedback loop between physical therapy, training, rehab, performance enhancement, sabermetrics, and other fields like no other company. When we visited ALTIS in Phoenix and spoke to Dan Pfaff and Stuart McMillan – legends in the track community – they blew our minds by showing us how the staff cannot be segmented. You can’t have manual therapists, pitching coaches, physical therapists, and strength trainers. No, you must have employees that can do all of that. They need to be able to do basic manual therapy, they need to know how to triage issues before handing them over to the “rehab” department, and they have to have enough knowledge to communicate effectively. This was a paradigm shifter for us.
It made total sense at the time and only became more clear as I looked into it further. When doctors hand patients off to their colleagues, mortality rate and negative health markers explode! Every single time you pass a client on to a new party, you lose a huge amount of information, and 100% of the context of how it was offered. Think about how much data loss there is there, and how frustrating that can be not only to the athlete, but the training staff as well.
Closing that feedback loop as tight as possible around our facility is one of our biggest goals. Efforts to improve there have predictably led to much better results for our athletes and for our staff.
As for researching new information, Michael O’Connell started off as a customer service agent and moved into the R&D team as the analyst and researcher in the group. He constantly combs PubMed and journal repositories for new research, downloads it, and organizes it locally. He will summarize the most important papers for our staff and for the public. You can see the study list in a huge Google Doc:
I stay on top of what my friends and colleagues inside college and professional baseball are doing, and get a lot of good research leads from them. They’ll come up with ideas to test inside our facility with a larger sample size, and that’s led to some solid results. Having a group of dedicated athletes when we’re consistently sold out in the summer leads to a unique testing environment that any academic researcher would kill to have. It’s one of our biggest advantages, if not the single largest hammer we wield in the marketplace.
This will be a good read
— Pirates Breakdown (@pbcbreakdown) June 1, 2017
If you made it this far, you tell me. Shoot me a comment below and repost this article to Twitter!