There have been more than a few posts on how to break into the game we all love, but not many on the player development side of baseball; most focus on the scouting and/or operations departments. I’ll talk a little bit about how I got my start in the game.
For those who do not know me – and I can hardly blame you – my name is Kyle Boddy. I’m 31 years old and the President and Founder of Driveline Baseball, which is my company based out of Seattle, WA that not only provides consulting services to 3 MLB teams and 25+ colleges (including 2014 CWS Champions Vanderbilt and Pac-12 champions Oregon State) but also trains 25+ professional baseball players and another 100 or so amateur players across various levels of the game – youth, high school, and college. I also designed and led the initiative to develop different types of weighted balls for training purposes (Driveline PlyoCare and Elite Weighted Baseballs). I have two rotating employees, one of whom is playing professional baseball for the White Sox, and another who just finished college. I run the business with my partner Mike Rathwell, who bought a percentage of the business and became the CEO of the company in 2014; he now runs the business operations side of Driveline Baseball while I head up research and development.
I’ve been flown to Spring Training camps in both the Grapefruit League and the Cactus League to interview for jobs and pitch my services; in fact, I just got back from a team-paid first class roundtrip flight from an unnamed complex. I’ve given seminars across the country, Canada, and Europe, and will likely do 15 or more visits in 2015 as we begin our push to become a more global company. I’ve secured meetings with some of the most important agents in the game to discuss training their pitchers. An assistant general manager of a forward-thinking team told a national reporter that I am the most advanced pitching coach or trainer in the nation due to my strong analytical background, not common in the coaching ranks. I’ve turned down two full-time offers to work in MLB organizations and one offer to become a competitive national team’s pitching coach.
I have a lot of plans to expand and become even more relevant in the game of professional baseball, but it all had to start somewhere. Most other posts on the subject will talk about the years of self-sacrifice and the long hours it will take, as if that’s some sort of deterrant. If you’re reading this, then you already know that you will have to work 60-80 hour weeks and get paid worse than minimum wage to get your start – and you’re willing to do that. What you probably don’t understand is the amount of self-doubt and emotional turmoil you – and your family – will have to endure as you try to make it. Entrepreneurship is almost always viewed with rose-colored glasses and spoken about like the road was well-worn and totally worth it.
I can’t say I always agree.
Let’s begin with the first thing, shall we?
You are underqualified.
If you happen to want to work in baseball operations – which most younger Internet baseball nerds tend to – then my god, you are so far behind you have no idea. To put it into context, I am merely a guy who primarily works on the player development side along a bunch of coaches who either didn’t go to college or saw it as a three-year fun ride to continue playing baseball before entering the pro ranks. There’s a few guys who are incredibly intelligent and educated, but most were former players who prioritized playing the game – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I am a former Microsoft employee. I studied Economics and Computer Science before dropping out to work for an online poker company, then founded my own international boutique asset management company with three other partners. My last job in software development before I worked in baseball full-time was a Data Scientist. I have strong command of probability theory, statistics, programming, mathematics, game theory, database analysis, machine learning, and technical documentation.
I’ve written for years at the fringes of sabermetrics for The Hardball Times and my own blogs, discussing the marriage of player development and how wins are generated.
I am vastly, vastly underqualified to take ANY job in baseball operations.
The people in operations that make actual decisions – not interns that get chewed through on a regular basis – are so incredibly educated and knowledgeable (and usually intelligent) that it makes my background look like a joke. They usually have a much stronger grasp of statistics – generally at a Ph.D. level – than I do, whether it’s formal or not. In most cases, the people in operations are so much stronger intuitively about baseball than I am that the rest doesn’t matter. What they think of off-hand about the game dwarfs what could take me an obsessed 20 hours to just roll around in my head.
With all that being said, here’s what is hot now and what you absolutely need to know if you want to get your start in operations and stick around – all of these are at master-level ability, by the way:
- Stats packages (R being the most popular)
- Database analysis (MS SQL server for whatever reason is the most popular here)
- Data mining / scraping
- PITCHf/x analysis
- Trackman analysis (optional, but you should have a good grasp of the operating physics and understand applied physics / laws of motion)
- General software development (preferably Python, also can be optional but you better have a very good grasp of programming in general)
It goes without saying you should be able to calculate all of the major metrics (wOBA, WAR, wRC+, etc) and understand their limitations. You also need to have a strong intuitive sense for how things get put together. After six years of working in software development I can tell you that the vast majority of programmers have little – if any – creative ability, since they think it’s unnecessary. The truth is that the best developers are on par with the best artists and liberal arts majors when it comes to intuitive sense and creative thinking; writing code to solve unique problems is not any different than penning a new novel.
But I want to work in scouting or player development!
First of all, almost no one in the scouting or player development departments have respect for those who come from outside of the game. If you didn’t play professional baseball at a reasonable level, you will ALWAYS be looked down upon. (This still holds true for me, and always will.)
Secondly, they have a point. So you’ve written 50 or 60 articles on scouting players and given your opinion on amateurs and pro players. So what? So has basically everyone on the Internet and everyone inside of baseball organizations. Your opinions are probably not anything new, and even if you were lucky enough to get sponsored to get into MLB scout school, everyone there already has that base level of knowledge.
Consider that it’s nearly impossible to get an area scouting job that pays something, and that these jobs pay well under minimum wage if you factor in all of the travel and work you have to put into it. The same goes for coaching at affiliate levels – and you can forget about coaching unless you’ve played minor league ball, it basically never happens.
What are your unique insights going to be? You might think it’s novel to point at someone’s swing or throwing mechanics and say “This looks bad,” but it isn’t. Scouts have seen enough baseball that they have built a neural network – flawed as it may be – that does that job just fine. The era of trying to break into the higher levels of the game by visual analysis is fast coming to a close. What teams need – even if they don’t yet understand it – is how to apply unique knowledge to actually improve their athletes. Sure, a random guy in AA has a swing that won’t translate – this isn’t a hard thing to figure out once you’ve watched enough baseball and coached enough athletes. But can you teach him how to develop a better swing beyond saying “This particular flaw will lead to you bottoming out in three years?” That cue is not helpful. What training methods and instruction can you give the athlete to become a major league average player? If you can do THAT, you are very useful.
However, here’s the rub – NO ONE THINKS YOU CAN DO THAT. Literally. Almost everyone inside professional baseball believes that talent is innate and ability cannot be changed, even though it’s obvious this is false. They believe it because they have likely seen thousands of prospects flame out when all they had to do was make a small change to their swing. So there’s that wall you must climb.
How did you do it?
I got my start by coaching 13 and 14 year olds in Little League baseball in Northeast Seattle. I have Ray Moser to thank for that. It was amazing to me that even at that age, generic scouting lingo still persisted through parents. They grew up watching these kids play baseball and applied their heuristic of how good they were at age 10 to how good they should be at age 14, even if it was totally incorrect. After that, I coached at Roosevelt High School, one year as an assistant freshman coach and one year as the head freshman coach. Both years our team outperformed the JV and Varsity teams despite having players poached from it, yet I was fired after the 2nd year since I wasn’t buddies with the head coach (who would be fired the next year anyway). I got sick of coaching teams and decided to coach individual athletes out of my townhome garage in North Seattle, which was 300 square feet at best.
Throughout all of this, I voraciously read every single research paper on biomechanics, training, and kinesiology. I bought 15 textbooks on anatomy and sports science and annotated them all. I set up interviews with medical directors, emailed tons of people, even flew out to meet baseball writers to learn from them. I gave lessons and trained pitchers, then bought the first consumer-grade high speed cameras available at a sub-$1000 price point, the Casio Exilim EX-FH20. I emailed back and forth with the people at ASMI, and when they expressed their surprise that I’d want to build my own biomechanics lab, I reverse engineered the solution by reading the groundbreaking papers of Dr. Jesus Dapena and Michael Feltner, as well as Dr. Fleisig’s own dissertation.
(I told a variant of this story at the 2014 ABCA convention, and a coach said: “You’re really fucking smart, aren’t you?” I said: “More like stubborn. With Google and a relentless mind, all things are possible.”)
Building a biomechanics lab seems impossible, and make no mistake, it’s not easy. But it’s just math. Once you see the matrix logic that goes into DLT, you probably can’t figure it out. But if you just Google it and buy the relevant textbooks, constantly grinding down level after level until you reach a place of familiarity, then you can build up from there. For me, my knowledge stalled out at Discrete Math I and Calculus II. I started from there and built my way up, teaching myself post-graduate mathematics and physics to get the job done, eventually building the control object in the aisles of Home Depot.
I opened up shop in a dilapidated warehouse in North Seattle and built a weight training area out of plywood, hinges, and chicken wire. We trained athletes there that would go on to play college baseball, win track and field meets, and break through velocity barriers I never thought possible. Of course, I was running the business at a loss the entire time while working full-time as a software developer or data scientist. I’d train athletes for 15-20 hours per week, work 50 hours per week, commute 10 hours per week, and study baseball another 20-30 hours per week – all while having a new family, as my wife and I would have our first son around this time.
Here’s what they don’t tell you – you start to lose contact with your friends. If you do this for any length of time and can outlast the initial spark that every writer gets, then you settle into the slow burn and realization that if you want to do this for the next 25 years, you’re going to have to work harder at this than you ever worked at anything in your life. Which means that your friends who don’t share this kind of passion go by the wayside, because you start to become unable to identify with them. Your daily job becomes even more of a grind, since you know you don’t want to be there, but you have to provide for yourself – and in some cases, a family. Baseball isn’t paying the bills, and life comes before your hobby. If you have a loving and understanding partner in a relationship, they’ll support you, but it will still place unbelievable strain and stress on the structures of the relationship. Ever wonder why so many players, coaches, and scouts are either single or divorced?
If you weren’t lucky enough to be born into the baseball track by being a gifted athlete or the son of a high-ranking scout, you will fight tooth and nail to gain every edge possible, and this will warp your very soul. It’s not that you don’t have free time, it’s that you start to wonder why you would ever spend this free time on anything but bettering yourself and advancing your career. Priorities begin to violently shift.
This is no different than successful entrepreneurs, of course. However, most people who want to break into baseball don’t have a good grasp of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. It is impossible to understand sacrifice until you are extremely deep into the subject material; I always use this quote from David Foster Wallace on Michael Joyce about his tennis career:
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be. They’ve allowed him to visit and test parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, et cetera).
Joyce is, in other words, a complete man, though in a grotesquely limited way. But he wants more. He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media. He wants this and will pay to have it — to pursue it, let it define him — and will pay up with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant a long time ago. Already, for Joyce, at twenty-two, it’s too late for anything else; he’s invested too much, is in too deep. I think he’s both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.
It is probably worth noting that this is not the only way to focus on a career in baseball. There are a lot of people who put in a decent amount of work and get noticed through writing for years at little/no pay on Fangraphs or their SB Nation blog, eventually scoring a low-paying and low-ranking job in baseball. They work there for years, content with the job at hand.
But for those who want to work in decision-making roles, positions where you have serious impact, it takes a different gear. And it’d be criminal to write this post and tell you that it was just a simple shift in attitude.
After partnering with a local select team to expand my business, I eventually got my first flight to Spring Training to interview with a professional team in 2012 after completing a project at no pay to prove that I could perform basic scouting analysis of pitchers. It would take months to get an official offer from them; in the meantime, I presented at a conference in Houston, which drew enough attention due to our very thorough and scientific process on training that it scored me a few professional pitchers as clients, including Trevor Bauer. Word got around that I knew how to train pitchers better than most people, and clientele expanded. Colleges began to bite, and organic growth compounded our free blog articles on baseball training. Through this, I spent no money and little attention on marketing, since baseball coaches do not generally respond well to this – at least not the ones that will give you long-lasting opportunities. They want referrals from people that they trust, and this takes time. To the outside observer, I went from a nobody to a company that trains some of the best college programs in the world and multiple MLB pitchers in a year.
But in reality, the foundation for success was built through years and years of sacrifice, self-doubt, and constant sleepless nights with my resume in front of me, ready to submit it to various job portals and take a full-time job making 5 times what I was making while working half as many hours.
It’s not the lack of money, the reduction in your friend pool, or the increased stress that will cause you to crack. It is the creeping self-doubt and fear that you are wasting your time and life at a goal that is stupid – after all, it’s a dumb baseball game, does it really deserve this much attention?
Today I’m stable, though still making half as much as I was three years ago as a full-time data scientist. My salary isn’t likely to catch up for another 18-24 months, if I’m lucky. But I do love going to work and my ability to grind on a project for hours, days, weeks, and months on end remains my biggest competitive advantage. Those who know me will often ask: “Was it all worth it,” casually assuming the answer is “Yes, obviously.”
I still tell them that I don’t know. What I went through for years is what most will go through as they slog their way through 60 hour workweeks being paid absolutely nothing – usually incurring costs – to break into the game they love.
All I know is that this is the only way I’d approach it; either this way or simply quit. There’s no middle ground. And in working with more and more professional athletes, I can see that they have the same spirit inside them – it is no longer “an issue of choice” as DFW pointed out above.
We pay with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant a long time ago.
Perhaps that is success.