The picture at the top of this story is one of Reds right-handed pitcher Trevor Bauer. He’s in Cincinnati because the organization traded for him in July, sending away their hottest hitter at the time, outfielder Yasiel Puig, and top prospect Taylor Trammell to acquire his services for the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2020. He’s also in Cincinnati because he worked tirelessly to develop big league pitching ability, turning himself from a good high school arm to a co-headliner in UCLA’s rotation with Gerrit Cole to the No. 3 overall pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2011 MLB draft. He’s also in Cincinnati, in large part, because of Kyle Boddy*.
Boddy is the founder of Driveline Baseball, a data-driven baseball training laboratory based in the state of Washington. He and Bauer met in 2013, when the then-22-year-old pitcher was coming off two straight failed attempts at attempting to stick in the majors. Bauer came to Boddy’s facilities, where he began working on various drills designed to help pitchers build velocity and command, all while teaching their bodies healthy habits meant to minimize injury risk. It sounds like an unrealistic promise, but Boddy’s just happened to deliver. After just one offseason of using Driveline training, he had added so much velocity that his average fastball in the spring of 2014, 97 mph, was the same as what he peaked at in college. He had his ups and downs during the following season, finishing with a 4.18 ERA and 4.01 FIP, but he ultimately stuck around. And he hasn’t looked back since.
Since that first offseason of training, Bauer has been a Driveline staple, and one of Boddy’s biggest advocates. He credits his training there for the development of two of his signature offerings: His two-seam fastball, which he nicknamed the “Laminar Express,” and his knockout slider. He’s made Boddy’s techniques one of the focal points of his training, and the results have spoken for themselves. In the first five seasons after his initial introduction to Driveline, Bauer improved upon his fWAR every year, culminating in a 5.8 fWAR season that landed him a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting. His first stint with Cincinnati didn’t go according to plan, but there is no arguing with the fact that Bauer’s MLB career has been a success. And one of the biggest parts of his success now shares a professional organization with him.
It was announced on Tuesday that the Reds hired Boddy to be their new Minor League Director of Pitching Initiatives/Pitching Coordinator. That’s a wordy title, but according to Bobby Nightengale Jr. of The Cincinnati Enquirer, it essentially means that Boddy will be working with pitchers throughout the Reds’ farm system in an instructive position, while also coordinating with big league pitching coach Derek Johnson, newly-promoted assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham, and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell on developing strategies for the entire organization.
If you’re a casual baseball fan, there is a good chance this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. Boddy’s only previous MLB experience has been as a consultant with several organizations, and his job title isn’t one you’ve likely thought of as playing a significant role in the direction of a franchise. If that’s where your mindset is right now, then I have good news for you: This is one of the most exciting hires the Reds have ever made, and might be the single biggest one of the entire baseball offseason.
Oh boy. This might actually wind up being the biggest news this winter, when we look back in a year or three. https://t.co/iiI8TEDMP6— robneyer ⚾️ ♂️ (@robneyer) October 1, 2019
For the more devout baseball fan — and specifically, baseball reader — the name Driveline Baseball is one you’ve likely seen before. It has produced viral stories, such as that of Casey Weathers, who entered the facility’s training program as a pitcher coming off two elbow surgeries and topping out at 88 and emerged just months later throwing 98 with improved command. But its practices have also begun to seep into the training of everyday major leaguers, like Adam Ottavino, who found Driveline after 2017 and broke out as one of the best relievers in baseball the very next season.
This is because Driveline emphasizes some of the most important aspects of pitching — velocity, spin rates, pitch shape and repeatability in delivery — and largely caught onto the importance of those skillsets before many Major League Baseball teams did. They train those skills using drills that would be completely foreign to your typical baseball practice. They use weighted balls to train intent in mechanics while building velocity. They use high-speed cameras to capture a number of flaws in things such as grip and release point. And they hit everything from a doggedly scientific perspective, embracing biomechanics as a method through which pitchers can get the most out of their talents.
Boddy and his company’s influence in baseball has exploded in recent seasons, making him one of the most sought-after voices in player development. He was consulted by ESPN’s Jeff Passan for his 2016 book The Arm, and was was profiled in greater detail by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh and FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik in The MVP Machine, released earlier this year. He was the subject of a three-part series at The Athletic in 2018, and was profiled by The Washington Post in May. Baseball Prospectus caught up with him all the way back in 2015. There is a lot of very good reading to be done about the innovations Boddy has led at Driveline, so much so that it would be silly for me to try and summarize it all here.
Instead, it’s more important to point out what Boddy represents for the Reds. For years, Cincinnati lagged well behind the rest of the baseball world in terms of analytics and the information it fed to its players. One of the areas most hurt by that, especially in recent seasons, was in the development of their pitchers. A study by Driveline itself found that from 2012-2019, the Reds were the third-worst organization in all of baseball at developing minor leaguers it drafted, signed, or traded for. The teams at the top of that list are no surprise — the Dodgers and Astros, ranked first and second, respectively, have built juggernauts because of their ability to improve players once they break into the organization, as have the fifth-ranked Yankees — while the teams surrounding the Reds at the bottom of the list are a good hint as to why the latest rebuild has dragged on as long as it has without many concrete signs of improvement on the field.
The 2019 season did bring about some of those signs of growth. Johnson, hired from the Brewers last winter, taught the pitching staff to embrace their strengths and catch up with the direction the rest of the game was heading in in a way no coach had done before in the organization. That meant Luis Castillo throwing more changeups, Sonny Gray throwing more breaking balls, and Anthony DeSclafani chasing smarter four-seam locations up in the zone. It also meant breakout seasons for Robert Stephenson and Amir Garrett. Most of all, though, it meant getting a team that had pitched worse than anyone else in baseball over the previous five seasons to emerge as the ninth-best pitching staff in baseball by fWAR in 2019. If that kind of turnaround is possible, what else might be?
Boddy is the kind of person who will ask those questions, because Boddy is always asking questions. When he started his blog in 2009 — ironically enough, also operated under the SBNation umbrella — he did so by questioning as much about the game as he could, and that hasn’t changed. He pursues data and innovation in baseball in a way few before him have. In The MVP Machine, he’s quoted as saying, “I want to be talked about as the next Branch Rickey.” It’ll be near-impossible for Boddy to have the transformative impact on the game that Rickey did, but he’s damn sure trying, and at long last, MLB finally had enough of keeping him as an outsider. Shortly after the Reds’ hiring of Boddy was announced, it was reported that he had offers from the Cubs and Mets. There is speculation that the list ran longer than that. But it was Cincinnati that won him over.
I had a lot of interest, and multiple offers. The direction the Reds are going blew me away. Throughout the two months of interviewing, the Reds' opportunity just *felt right*.— Kyle Boddy (@drivelinebases) October 1, 2019
I am so thankful for the opportunity. It is time to get to work. #BornToBaseball
Obviously, Boddy alone won’t get the Reds back to contention in 2020. What I’m betting he does do, however, is help make Reds prospects throw harder, develop better mechanics, and stay healthier in the long term, while guiding the big league staff into using even better data-driven methods that allows them to make another collective step forward. His presence could be instrumental in the advancement of top arms like Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, as well as lower-round draft picks who could surprise everyone after buying into Boddy’s training. This move isn’t about winning the World Series in 12 months. It’s about the Reds recognizing a top-to-bottom overhaul was needed in its player development process, and making a decision to go against the grain and take a serious step into the future. It’s one of the boldest moves I can remember this team making. And it will take a lot for them to make another this winter that excites me more.
*Story on relationship between Trevor Bauer and Kyle Boddy was summarized from chapters in The MVP Machine. If you’d like to learn more about Boddy and the modern player development wave the Reds are catching onto, you can buy Lindbergh and Sawchik’s book here.