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How the Phillies plan to reboot their minors hitting program with a 28-year-old who’s never played or coached pro ball

By Matt Gelb Dec 21, 2018 15 

An​ unconventional​ path​ led​ Jason Ochart​ to​ the same​ room at the​ same​ hitting seminar last month in​​ Missouri as Phillies hitting coach John Mallee. Two coaches, two different backgrounds. Ochart, 28, had parlayed a volunteer role into a $5,000 salary as hitting coach at a small NAIA school in California. There, he devised a data-driven program and posted his ideas on Twitter, where an ambitious baseball mind took notice and invited him to work at a training think tank called Driveline Baseball. Whereas Mallee, 49, has spent the last 23 years as a coach in professional baseball.

But Ochart and Mallee began a conversation at the Slugfest Coaches Clinic in November, and Mallee — an admirer — challenged Ochart to think about how he’d solve some player-development problems. The Phillies wanted to revise their hitting development. The two men, both of whom had studied kinesiology, shared common ground. “That was the start of it,” Ochart said. And, now, the Phillies will hand the keys to their minor-league hitting program over to a 28-year-old forward-thinker who has never played or coached in pro ball.

Ochart was hired this week as the club’s minor-league hitting coordinator. He will have full latitude to design a program similar to the one he built at Driveline, which captured the attention of numerous major-league organizations. The Phillies reached an arrangement with Ochart that will permit him to still spend some offseason time at Driveline, located in suburban Seattle.

His hiring is the latest example of a financial and technological arms race in Major League Baseball that has spread to player development. More and more teams have paid higher salaries to hire big-name college coaches; others, like the Twins, paid Driveline as consultants. The Dodgers hired an unorthodox 32-year-old hitting strategist to be their major-league hitting coach. The White Sox hired a hitting consultant who built his reputation on social media.

The Phillies have invested in recent seasons in technological upgrades at the player-development level. Their former farm director, Joe Jordan, resigned in September as philosophical differences over the hitting program emerged. He was replaced by Josh Bonifay, who worked in development for the Astros, a franchise heralded for its technological advancements. A more data-reliant approach was implicit in the leadership change.

Bonifay was hesitant to describe this as a “revamp” of the hitting program.

“You want to provide a systematic approach for players,” Bonifay explained. “You want to provide them with as much information as you can. You want to provide them with the ability to assess, reassess and analyze hitting mechanics.

“As an organization, we want to make sure everybody is collaborative, that everybody is working together. We are using every ounce and every resource possible to analyze and watch our players. We want to use the technologies that are available to give our players the best chance possible to succeed night in and night out. That’s what we’re about. It’s going to be a unified group.”

In Ochart, the Phillies believe they have found someone to implement the technology while not just regurgitating the data it generates. Ochart said his task at Driveline went beyond creating a data-driven program for hitters — to researching a better way to teach hitting. He described his approach as, “applying fundamentals of sports science and utilizing all of the new technology correctly.” Now, rather than working with college hitters and curious pros who venture to Driveline’s facility in Kent, Wash., Ochart will be based at the Phillies’ complex in Florida.

“It’s something I have always wanted to do,” Ochart said. “I didn’t think it was possible, considering I never played (professionally). But seeing how things have changed in the last few years, it has been exciting. As soon as the opportunity arose, I was ready to explore that option.”

Jason Orchart (right), the Phillies’ new minor-league hitting coordinator. (Marques Gagner / Driveline Baseball)

In 2013, his senior season at Vanguard University in Southern California, Ochart hit .313 with a team-leading 25 stolen bases. In addition to kinesiology, he intended to pursue another degree in physical therapy. He instead veered into coaching because he wanted to tutor his younger brother, Adam. He volunteered as a coach for a year at Menlo (Calif.) College, and then served as the hitting coach for two more years. He played and coached one summer in the Swedish Elite League for a team called the Leksand Lumberjacks. Then, in September 2016, he joined Driveline to start a hitting program that would branch from the successful biomechanical and analytical pitching program imagined by Kyle Boddy, the company’s founder.

“It is our passion,” Ochart wrote in 2016, “to provide our athletes with the best possible program, not designed by mindless regurgitation of conventional wisdom, bias, and ego, but driven by science and data.”

Ochart said he fell victim to that conventional thinking as a player. He studied biomechanics in college, then applied them after his playing career to the physics of an optimal swing. It worked at Menlo. “The biggest thing that attracted me to him,” Boddy said in an interview last month, “was that he developed previously shit players into pretty good ones.” That continued at Driveline.

“Everything I wanted in a coach then and now is what Jason is,” Boddy said. “He’s an incredible worker, approaches things from a data-driven aspect, excellent feel, and not afraid to delegate and learn stuff on the fly. He is intelligent, no doubt about it, but he doesn’t rely on it very much, which is the hallmark of a good manager; he lets his employees do their thing and learn from failure.”

Bonifay said Ochart “fits our culture” and what attracted the Phillies to him were his understanding of swing mechanics and abilities to make data relatable.

“He obviously was an accomplished player in college,” Bonifay said. “He’s been an accomplished coach in college, as well. He was the director of hitting at Driveline. It’s not really unorthodox, I wouldn’t say. I think baseball is trending … it’s not unusual. It’s not like he does anything that’s different than anybody else. The Cubs, the Astros, other organizations are using technology. But, also, they have coaches in place who played the game and played it for a long time. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here.”

The Phillies will surround Ochart with hitting instructors who have pro experience. They have hired Russ Steinhorn, who worked last year at Clemson University and with the Astros before that, to be an assistant hitting coordinator. They hired Rob Segedin, a 30-year-old former big-league outfielder, as a minor-league hitting coach. They have hired Ed Lucas, a 36-year-old former big leaguer, as a player development information assistant. There are more hires and more technological investments to come. It’s all designed to improve the success rate in developing position players, an area where the Phillies can do better.

“I’ll reiterate this: There’s no fool-proof plan for hitting. There’s no fool-proof technology,” Bonifay said. “But if there are things that will help your swing path and things that will help your swing, then you can evaluate them and see them. Obviously, you can teach it a little better once you start analyzing. But you still have to get in the box. You still have to hit above 95 mph. You still have to compete. It’s just the hardest thing to do in the world.”

Ochart expects to use much of the same technology with the Phillies as he did at Driveline — HitTrax, Blast Motion, K-Vest, high-speed and high-definition cameras — and he was drawn to the Phillies because they have already invested in some of that technology. The analytics revolution swayed toward benefiting pitchers, but the gap has started to shrink, Ochart said. The technology is just another way to connect with a teenager in rookie ball who was raised in a digital world and exposed to some new hitting ideas through social media. Being at Driveline, Ochart said, provided him a two-year head start in constructing the kind of program he will bring to the Phillies.

Now, there is less of a stigma about enacting the type of change an outsider like Ochart envisions. It’s a bet the Phillies will make.

“I think in years past that would have been a big problem,” Ochart said. “But things are changing so fast, especially this offseason. Certainly, I’ll have to earn the respect. I hope to do it through hard work and being able to help. That’s how I’ve earned the respect of players throughout my career. Helping them. Communicating with them. At the end of the day, my experience with pros is, if you have information that can help them get better, they’ll listen.

“The fact that I didn’t play, it matters. But it doesn’t matter as much as it used to.”

The Athletic’s Eno Sarris contributed to this story.Top photo: Jason Ochart (right) spent two years as the director of hitting at Driveline Baseball and improved hitters using biomechanics and data research. (Marques Gagner / Driveline Baseball

The powerful lessons of trailblazing sports psychologist Ken Ravizza live on with Phillies whose lives he touched

The powerful lessons of trailblazing sports psychologist Ken Ravizza live on with Phillies whose lives he touched

The Athletic

Not​ two​ minutes​ earlier​ he was​ talking​ about choking​ up on the​ bat,​ the scapular load in a swing​​ and bat control. Baseball things. Then, Phillies hitting coach John Mallee’s voice, once calm and confident detailing the kinetics of a swing, raised an octave. His eyes teared up.


What would he remember most, he was asked, about Dr. Ken Ravizza, a former colleague with the Chicago Cubs and one of the most renowned mental skills coaches in the world, who died last month.

“When I got let go by the Cubs, he called me …” said Mallee. His voice trailed off. The conversation was no longer about baseball. It was about life. “I don’t want to get emotional,” he said. Mallee took a second, gathered himself, and pushed forward, a most fitting tribute to Ravizza, who preached the absence of a past or future. There is only now, and how you deal with that moment that defines you.

Mallee remembered that phone call, and, for a second, he was not the Phillies hitting coach. He was back in that moment, unemployed one year after helping the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years.

“He helped me get past that moment,” Mallee said. “He was big on helping me get through that, because that was really tough for me, and he helped me get through it. He helped me get to the next pitch. Or the next team. Or the next moment.”

Ravizza passed away at the age of 70 on July 8, six days after suffering a heart attack. No one did more to push sports psychology forward to where it is today, to ease the long-held stigmas strangling athletes that urged, no, screamed to ignore the mental side of the most humbling sport. If you didn’t, or couldn’t, you were weak, unfit to be a professional athlete. The game has come a long way. Much of that is thanks to Ravizza.

Despite working with many major league teams, the Phillies were never among them. Still, the reverberations of his passing — the loss of a trailblazer who helped make baseball a healthier, safer place — were felt throughout the Phillies organization, from players, to coaches, to the team’s first mental skills coach. That was the reach of Ken Ravizza.

Cole Irvin sat with his University of Oregon teammates, not knowing what to expect. Ravizza stood up front. Irvin was about to be introduced to a mental preparation technique for the first time. During the sessions, Ravizza asked the players to put their feet on the floor of the locker room, or hotel conference room, or football practice meeting room, to sit up tall in their chairs, release deep breaths, and feel as if they were rolling a rubber ball from their toes to their brain.

“He just had a different approach to calming yourself down,” said Irvin, now a Triple A pitcher in the Phillies organization. “That’s kind of one of the first things that I took away. From then on I really bought into the whole mental side of baseball.”

“At the time it didn’t even cross my mind that there was one.”

Irvin was far from the first or last player Ravizza touched, whose mind he opened to the human side of baseball that was always there but often misunderstood, or neglected all together.

Ravizza brought this side of baseball out from behind the shadows. Although psychology is a medical field, Ravizza didn’t approach his job as a mental skills coach as a medical endeavor.

The Phillies first full-time mental skills coach, Geoff Miller, hired in 2017, has known Ravizza since Miller entered the field as a student pursuing a master’s degree in sports psychology.

“Ken was an educator,” Miller said. “Ken was a teacher. He taught at Cal State Fullerton for 38 years. He taught sports psychology. He was teaching it to students, he wasn’t teaching it to athletes. So the athlete performance work he did was an application of the lessons he was teaching in the classroom.

“And what Ken brought to the game was a big piece of the puzzle in baseball players and managers and coaches and GMs understanding that this is not a medical thing. This is an educational thing. This is something that we learn and can learn how to do. I think that was probably Ken’s greatest contribution to the game, helping people understand the educational side to this.”

Despite his prominence in the field, Ravizza wasn’t an intimidator force-feeding his beliefs because he was smarter, or held all the secrets. It was an education, a give and take from a world-class teacher who would have been just as content to be anonymous.

“He’s world renowned,” Irvin said, “and it’s not every day you get to really feel and be in the same room as someone of that nature. And he never tried to make it known. He was Ken. Ken was Ken, and he wasn’t going to change. He was in the room to make you better.”

Mallee worked on three different major league coaching staffs before Philadelphia (in Miami, Houston and Chicago) and saw varying mental skills resources along the way, both in availability and effectiveness.

“All the different places I’ve been, he was the best for me because he could relate to the player in baseball terms, not doctor terms,” Mallee said.

Because Mallee works with hitters who fail every day, his protégés must embody mental toughness. He learned from Ravizza how to get them through tough moments, just as Ravizza helped Mallee through his own difficult moment after his firing.

“Getting to the next pitch I think is a big deal,” Mallee said, bringing up one of Ravizza’s core concepts. “One thing that I learned that helped me with these guys is there’s no past, there’s no future. You have to play the game in the moment on this pitch. … That’s the thing I learned from Ken that I constantly bring to these guys.”

If you are in the moment, blissfully ignorant of the past or what lies ahead, there are no slumps. Slumps are elongated, agonizing stretches of inadequacy. In a moment, there is no agony. There are no oh-fers. There is only the next pitch.

“It’s about this pitch, right now, battling with the stuff that you’ve got that day,” Irvin said, recalling Ravizza’s teachings. “How are you going to make yourself better with one pitch? How is a position player going to get on at this one pitch when he just swung at a ball in the dirt?”

The mark of any good teacher, or “educator” as Miller called Ravizza, is an engaging dynamic that’s less like a lecture and more like a personal relationship. Ravizza’s pupils came out changed. Irvin didn’t just realize the mental side of baseball was important, he realized it existed. Epiphanies like these leave impressions, not just of the lessons learned, but of the teacher who opened those doors and the vehicles used to get the point across.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon knew Ravizza since their time together with the Angels in the 1980s. On the day his former mentor passed away, Maddon said, “I hear his voice in my head. He’s left an internal impact on all of us.”

Irvin still recalls that voice.

“Ken had a distinct voice,” he said. “One that you would try to, not make fun of, but you’d try to recreate his voice with friends and teammates.”

Ravizza didn’t just teach at his players hoping they’d absorb whatever they could. He turned them into conduits for his own lessons, an extension of himself to reinforce what they’d learned. His voice came out of their mouths.

“You do things, you say things in his voice, and it just resonates even more with you,” Irvin said. “You don’t think about it at the time, you just make guys laugh, and we loved Ken. You do those things because you enjoy being around the guy.”

Ravizza’s teachings turned into a subliminal ventriloquist act, burrowing away into the players’ subconscious only to be revealed when needed most, including by those who had never met him before.

“I’ve turned around and taught and helped my brother, who plays men’s volleyball, and I applied things that I’ve learned to men’s volleyball for him,” Irvin said.

There was only one Ken Ravizza, but pieces of him live on in those he taught, and those with whom they shared his wisdom.

It wasn’t just players. Ravizza was a welcoming presence for others like Miller when he was trying to enter the field 22 years ago. Miller was working on his master’s thesis at San Diego State, focusing on selection factors influencing whether high school MLB draft picks skipped college, and needed to connect with southern California baseball players.

“I was introduced to him and he was gracious, he was welcoming and inviting from the beginning,” Miller said. “I think he was that way to everyone in the field and I think that was one of the magical things about Ken is he was so personable and made everyone feel important.

“The field has grown a lot in the last 10 years,” Miller said. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and when I started I think there were maybe four of us doing it, and now we have over 40 people doing it. If you ask most mental skills coaches in baseball who was an influence, Ken was an influence in one way or another and part of it was just taking a call from someone he didn’t know and being encouraging.”

Miller spoke from the Phillies dugout on August 5, a few hours before the late Roy Halladay would be inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame. Halladay’s story is intricately tied to that of Harvey Dorfman, another famed sports psychologist. Many times, Halladay credited his success to Dorfman’s book, “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” which helped him regain his shattered confidence after a 2001 demotion from the majors to A-ball. Dorfman also authored “The Mental Game of Baseball,” which, along with Ravizza’s book, “Heads Up Baseball,” are considered the seminal works on mental skills in baseball.

“It’s ironic today we’re talking about this because Roy Halladay was so tied to Harvey, and Harvey touched so many lives, too,” Miller said. “Both Harvey and Ken, those are the two, if there’s a Mount Rushmore, there’s only two guys on it. It’s those two guys. … I don’t know if any of us would be here without Ken or Harry.”

Ravizza will be remembered for many things, including his catch phrases. He put a mini toilet in the Cal State Fullerton dugout in the mid 2000s as a reminder for players to flush away mistakes and live in the present instead of fixating on the past. “Flush it” became a signature phrase.

Irvin remembers Ravizza stressing, “Don’t poop on the mound. He used another word, though.”

“It was just recognizing at the time that in your failure, to recognize what you’re doing wrong and how to get back to calming yourself down to bring yourself back to whatever level you need to be at to succeed,” Irvin described. “And that’s really kind of cool to apply not just to baseball, but to your life as well. He taught me a lot more things than just that.”

Ravizza’s spirit lives on people like Miller as much as any other, being a prominent member of the field Ravizza helped bring into the mainstream. The two spoke a week before his death.

“That’s what’s interesting about Ken. There are so many phrases like that: ‘Flush it,’ ‘the focal point,’ all of the tweetable phrases,” Miller said. “But the thing I’ll remember about Ken is the friend, and just the amazing person he was. Because those phrases were the headlines, and there was so much more to him. I think that was his genius. Everybody knew ‘Flush it’, but when you sat down with him, he never said ‘Flush it.’ He asked people about themselves and asked them what he could do to help them.”

It’s not the catch phrases that will stick with Miller. It’s the person, a kind soul and his lasting impact.

“To the day he died,” Miller said, “he was not just a pioneer in the field, but someone who really cared and was a caretaker for sports psychology, and for the industry, and for mental skills coaches everywhere.”

Top photo: Dr. Ken Ravizza talks to Cubs players during spring training in 2016. (Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

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How J.D. Martinez Became a Red Sox Superstar—And the Astros’ Greatest Mistake

How J.D. Martinez Became a Red Sox Superstar—And the Astros’ Greatest Mistake

Ben Reiter

Sports IllustratedAug 08, 2018 8:32 AM

This story appears in the August 13, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated.

In the following exclusive adaptation from ASTROBALL, SI senior writer Ben Reiter discusses how the usually keen Astros made one of their greatest mistakes—cutting current Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. Adapted from ASTROBALL: THE NEW WAY TO WIN IT ALL Copyright © 2018 by Ben Reiter. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Of the 250 pieces of luggage that Red Sox clubhouse attendants keep track of during every road trip, one is most important. “If we lose that bag, we’ll be in trouble,” says Alex Cora, the rookie manager of a club that as of Aug. 5 had a major-league-leading record of 79–34 and that was on pace for 113 wins, fourth most in baseball history.

The bag doesn’t appear to be anything special. It’s a dark green duffel with a team logo. Its contents appear to be a haphazard collection—elastic bands, weights, Frisbees, a small kickball—except to the man who knows what to do with them.

The duffel is known among the Sox as J.D.’s Bag of Toys, and it is the key to maintaining the majestic swing that has since 2014 allowed J.D. Martinez, Boston’s first-year slugger, to post an OPS of .951 that ranks third in the big leagues, and this season to threaten to win a Triple Crown as the centerpiece of the game’s highest-scoring offense. As of Aug. 5, the 30-year-old outfielder ranked first in the majors in home runs, with 33, and RBIs, with 93, and his .324 batting average was third in the American League.

Martinez’s iPhone X stores 2,739 videos, and at least 2,000 of them are recordings of the same thing: J.D. Martinez taking batting practice. “Hitting, hitting, hitting,” he says, as he scrolls through the files. “Hitting. Fortnite. Couple on a boat. Hitting, hitting, hitting.” The video he views most often is from his pregame cage session last Sept. 4, the night he hit four homers for the Diamondbacks against the Dodgers. He studies the clips constantly, to detect any hint that he might be deviating from the cuts he took that evening. Each toy in the duffel has its purpose—its way of getting him back there.

Take the kickball. During BP, Martinez holds it between his forward elbow—his left one—and his torso, as he faces the pitching machine. “If the ball drops too early,” he explains, “then my elbow’s pushing back in a way that it shouldn’t.”

It’s all part of his ongoing effort to fight off his old swing, his natural one, the one that threatens to return every day. It was the swing that nearly drove him out of baseball a half decade ago, and which caused his first team, the Astros, to make its biggest mistake as it tried to lift itself from the laughingstock not just of baseball, but of all of sports, to champions.

During Martinez’s first few bus trips from his team’s hotel in Venezuela and its home ballpark early in the winter following the 2013 season, he didn’t understand why the driver always took a different route and always drove at terrifying speed, barely braking at red lights. Then a teammate on the Caracas Lions explained it to him. It was for the same reason that the men riding alongside the bus on motorcycles were strapped with semiautomatic rifles—to fend off hijackers.

Martinez was 26, and he had already spent parts of three seasons in the Astros’ outfield. He was accustomed to life in the big leagues, with its cushy transportation and reliable hot water. But he wasn’t playing in the Venezuelan league for its luxuries. He was trying to save his career.

Martinez had always believed he was doing everything right. Though he had been a 20th-round pick out of Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University in 2009, he had blasted his way to the majors in just two years. In 2012, Jeff Luhnow’s first season as Houston’s GM, Martinez led the 107-loss club in RBIs, even if that only required 55 of them. But over three years and 252 games, he had hit .251 with 24 homers. Each season, his production had declined.

One day in July 2013, Martinez was taking batting practice in a cage at the Rangers’ ballpark in Arlington. Looking on was Astros hitting coach John Mallee. Martinez noticed that Mallee was quiet. “How’d it look?” Martinez asked Mallee, when he was finished

“Looked good,” Mallee said unconvincingly.

“Dude,” Martinez said, “what do you want?”

Mallee beckoned Martinez to sit next to him. “J.D., you’re not even a career .700 OPS hitter,” he said. “You don’t steal bags. You’re not a Gold Glover. You have to hit. Your numbers are O.K. You can have a career. You can bounce between the big leagues and the minors. You can make enough money to live off of, at least until you become too expensive to keep around. But that’s it. Unless you change something.”

Martinez was taken aback. “You’re asking me to change my swing, to change my way of making money?” he said. “Are you coming with me when they send me to Triple A after I go 0-for-20 because I’m trying to figure out a new way to hit the ball? No. You’re going to stay right here—and I’m going to be screwed.”

Still, Mallee’s message stuck with him. A few weeks later Martinez sprained his left wrist while sliding into second base in Toronto. He began spending most of his time in the trainer’s room, which had a TV that was always tuned to ESPN. The channel kept showing highlights of Brewers slugger Ryan Braun: He had been suspended for the remainder of the season for using performance-enhancing drugs. As Martinez watched clips of Braun, a five-time All-Star with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage that was more than 35% higher than his own, hitting home run after home run, he realized something: My swing doesn’t look anything like his.

Martinez called up clips of the game’s other leading power hitters, like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols, and saw that their strokes were similar to Braun’s, which meant theirs didn’t look like his either. Then he began focusing on one of his teammates, catcher Jason Castro, who had just made the All-Star team and was on his way to tripling his career high in home runs. Holy crap, Martinez thought, Castro’s got the same swing they do.

While Martinez chopped down at the ball, the sluggers he studied were swinging with a smooth uppercut. The head of his bat finished low. Theirs finished high. He asked Castro how he had learned to swing like that. “You’ve got to see my guys in California,” Castro said.

The day after the season ended, Martinez had his first appointment with Castro’s guys in California: Craig Wallenbrock, who was in his late 60s, and his 27-year-old assistant, Robert Van Scoyoc. Neither Wallenbrock nor Van Scoyoc played past college ball, but they tutored players in a warehouse in an industrial park in Santa Clarita and had earned reputations as gurus of a modern approach to hitting. “I want to finish my swing the way Jason Castro does,” Martinez told them. He noticed an inscription on one of the many bats that hung from a rack on one of batting cage’s walls. “Thanks for everything,” it read. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without your help.” Below that was Ryan Braun’s signature.

Martinez was dedicated to self-improvement—a belief instilled in him by his parents. He had grown up in South Florida with five older sisters, all from his parents’ previous marriages. His mother, Mayra, was a nurse, and before another overnight shift at the hospital she would often drop J.D. off at the Domino’s where his father, Julio, worked. J.D. spent most of his grade school years popping slices of pepperoni into his mouth while Julio flipped pizzas. Julio eventually started his own roofing company, which grew until he had 35 employees. So when Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc told Martinez that his swing was the worst they’d seen from a major leaguer, he viewed it not as an insult, but as an opportunity. He had made the big leagues, and stayed there, with a garbage swing, one that he could now hardly bring himself to watch. How did I get this far with that swing? he asked himself. How good might I get if I learn to swing properly?

The problem wasn’t just the way he finished his swing. That was bad, but it resulted from everything he did that led to it. Martinez started with his hands low and, as a pitch arrived, raised them. Braun and Castro kept their hands quiet. Martinez tended to lurch toward the ball. Braun and Castro stayed balanced. In batting practice, Martinez’s goal was to drive the ball to the back of the cage. Braun and Castro targeted the cage’s roof, aiming for an elevated launch angle that would be more likely to produce extra-base hits. Martinez spent five hours a day for two weeks in Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc’s warehouse, revamping his stroke and consuming video that documented his rapid improvement. “It was like I was hitting in a room that was dark, and somebody turned the lights on,” he says. He went to Venezuela, a winter option that was rarely embraced by established big league players, to confirm that his improvements were real.

Officials with the Lions had one piece of advice for players staying at the team hotel. “You’re safe here,” they said. “But don’t ever, ever, ever go outside.” Caracas was soon to pass San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as the most violent city in the world. Martinez had no intention of sightseeing. “All I did was watch video and pray the Wi-Fi was working so I could watch more video,” he says.

When he arrived at Estadio Universitario, he encountered an environment different from anywhere else he had previously played. For rivalry games, the first row of the outfield bleachers was occupied by police with riot shields. The stadium held fewer than 21,000 fans, but during games they sounded like 100,000. They chanted, Ponche! Ponche!—“Strikeout! Strikeout!”—whenever a batter had two strikes, even if he happened to play for the home team. I’m not ponche-ing, Martinez said to himself. No way.

In his first game with his new swing, Martinez hit two home runs. He would hit six during his month in Venezuela, batting .312 with an OPS of .957. Better than the numbers was the way he felt when he hit the ball. “The first time, it was like, What just happened?” he says. “It felt like I was cheating. Like the ball was stuck to my barrel and I could do whatever I wanted with it.”

When he arrived in Kissimmee, Fla., for spring training in 2014, he sat down with Luhnow and Bo Porter, who was entering his second season as manager. “I’m not the guy I was before,” he told them. “I went down to Venezuela, and I discovered this new thing. Anything you want me to do, I’ll do it. Just give me the same at bats as anyone else. Let me show you what I learned.”

He thought they had agreed. They hadn’t. The algorithms developed by Sig Mejdal, a former blackjack dealer and NASA rocket scientist who was Luhnow’s chief data man, indicated that the probability that a player who was already 26, and who couldn’t run or field particularly well, would get better was vanishingly small. And Porter, eager to move ahead with younger outfielders, had little interest in giving Martinez the opportunity to demonstrate his new swing. He got just 18 at bats in the spring, half in pinch-hit appearances that prevented him from continuing the rhythm he had begun in Venezuela. “That’s not an opportunity,” Martinez says. “That’s an opportunity to fail.”

In his 18 at-bats, he had three hits. Near the end of spring training, Luhnow called him into his office. The Astros were releasing him. “I was in shock,” Martinez says. “Dude, I just got cut from the worst team in baseball.” Then he got mad.

“What happened?” he asked Luhnow. “I’ve always been cool. I’ve always been respectful. What did I do? What went wrong? When I asked for an opportunity to show what I’d learned, you said I’d get one. I only got 18 at bats.”

By the time Luhnow finished explaining that they didn’t envision him making the team, and that they wanted to go somewhere that he might, Martinez’s thoughts had turned to the future. As he packed his belongings in the clubhouse, longtime teammates José Altuve and Dallas Keuchel came by his locker to shake his hand. “I’m sorry, bro,” they said. “Keep your head up.”

“You guys are going to see me,” Martinez said. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be good. I promise you.”

Two days later the Tigers signed Martinez, and he made the hour drive from Kissimmee to Detroit’s spring camp, in Lakeland. A few days after that, he was back in Kissimmee to play in a minor league spring game. Luhnow watched from the stands, as did several of Martinez’s old teammates. Martinez went 3-for-4, with a home run and five RBIs. After his homer, he tossed his bat as far as he could. The next day, the two teams played again, this time in Lakeland. Martinez hit three home runs—which would have been four if his last shot hadn’t hit the top of the wall. After the third blast, the Astros’ shortstop, a prospect named Carlos Correa, playfully threw his glove at Martinez as he trotted past him. “Get out of here, bro,” he said. “Who are you?”

Luhnow knew who he was. Martinez was the new hitter he had promised he had become, and who hadn’t had an opportunity to show it. What did we just do? thought Luhnow.

The Astros had released, for nothing in return, the very thing that their rebuilding process had been designed to find: a cheap superstar, and one whose contract they would have controlled for the next four seasons. After hitting 10 home runs in 17 games with the Tigers’ Triple A affiliate in Toledo, Martinez debuted with Detroit in late April. In mid-June, he was named the AL Player of the Week after a seven-game stretch in which he batted .444, with four homers and 11 RBIs. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Houston for the first time as a visiting player. When he finished taking batting practice, he found a familiar face waiting for him on the dugout steps. “I just want to tell you a few things,” Luhnow said. “I want to tell you congrats. I want to tell you that I wish you the best, and that I’m really happy for you. And I want to tell you that you were right. But take it easy on us.”

“Thanks, I truly appreciate that,” Martinez said. “And I won’t.” Over the next four years, which he began with the Tigers and finished with the Diamondbacks, Martinez batted an even .300 and averaged 32 home runs. His OPS of .936 was nearly 100 points better than Ryan Braun’s.

Martinez acknowledges that every athlete who has ever been cut feels aggrieved. What hurt most was how the Astros had done it. “They had all this data, all these nerds and geeks, and I think they forgot that at the end of the day, everybody is still human,” he says. “And a human can adapt, and a human can adjust.”

In the years to follow, J.D. Martinez would serve as a reminder of a few things for the Astros – an inescapable one, as their executives rarely flipped on their TVs without seeing him hit another homer. One, as Sig Mejdal said: “The feeling that we are smart is our enemy. That’s what we strive to avoid. SportsCenter reminds us of that every couple of days.”

Another reminder was not to overreact to even humiliating setbacks, but to use them to evolve. When a player was adamant that he had made a change over the off-season, the Astros committed to gathering enough information to determine whether it was meaningful one. They did it, in part, by investing in a technology called Blast Motion, a disc containing an accelerometer and gyroscope that is attached to a player’s bat and measures its velocity and angle as it moves through space. If Martinez had one of the sensors stuck to his bat’s knob during spring training of 2014, the club’s coaches and executives wouldn’t have had to rely on just his word and a small sample of plate appearances to decide whether his revamped swing was real. They would have seen it.

“Nine out of ten times, when people tell you they’ve gotten better in winter ball, it turns out it’s not true,” Luhnow said. “Sometimes it’s actually real. I am so happy for J.D. I give him a big hug every time I see him. I think about what could have been. And I also feel disappointed that he didn’t get more playing time to show us the new him.” Luhnow’s disappointment had already revealed itself back in 2014. He fired Bo Porter and replaced him with A.J. Hinch, the manager who would—even without Martinez—go on to lead the Astros to their first ever World Series title last fall.

This season, finally, Martinez has gotten over his grudge against the Astros. “They did me a favor by cutting me—they really did,” he says. “I don’t really care about that anymore.”

Now he expends most of his mental energy on hitting, not just preserving his stroke but also helping his new, largely younger teammates take better cuts. Last year’s Red Sox hit just 168 home runs, fewest in the AL, but this season they’re on pace for 216, despite the presence of few new faces aside from Martinez’s.

The power boost has something to do with the aggressive philosophy espoused by Cora and hitting coach Tim Hyers. Cora was Houston’s bench coach last year, and the scouting report on the Red Sox—one the Astros exploited during their four-game victory in the ALDS—was simple: They take too many pitches, so it’s easy to get ahead of them in the count. On Jan. 4, Cora sat down inside the Hotel Commonwealth, just over the Massachusetts Turnpike from the Green Monster. Sitting across from him was Mookie Betts, the 25-year-old outfielder who had nearly won the AL MVP award in 2016 but whose production had modestly tailed off last year, along with most of his team’s.

“You’re going to lead off for us this year, and the first pitch of the season is going to be a fastball right down the middle,” Cora told Betts. “You’re going to swing at it, and you’re going to hit it out of the ballpark.” Three months later, leading off on Opening Day, Betts did get a first pitch fastball from the Rays’ Chris Archer, and he swung at it. While the ball fell just short of a home run—Tampa Bay centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier tracked it down at the base of the wall in Tropicana Field—the at-bat set the tone for all that was to follow. In 2017, Boston hitters swung at just 62.3% of strikes, the lowest rate in the league. Now they’re at 68.8%, the seventh highest.

But the Red Sox attribute their offensive surge to Martinez, too, and not just because of the homers he hits himself. In Detroit, Martinez’s teammates often mocked him for his strange bag of trinkets, but in Boston they use them, under his instruction. “I’m kind of like a third hitting coach,” he says, after Hyers and Hyers’s assistant, Andy Barkett. It is not unusual to find Betts—again an MVP candidate, alongside Martinez, and one who is on pace for a career high 37 homers—in the batting cage beneath Fenway with a kickball pinned under his left elbow, and Martinez whispering in his ear. They began working together near the end of spring training, and soon Betts was sensing the results. “I can’t keep the ball in the yard right now, bro!” Betts told his new teammate. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” It was a feeling that Martinez by then knew well, one he’d first experienced four years earlier, in a stadium ringed by police holding riot shields.

Martinez was late to arrive in Fort Myers this spring, because the Astros proved not the only team to undervalue him. He was a free agent last winter, the top talent on the market after batting .303 with 45 homers, but he lingered without a buyer until late February when the Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $110 million contract—much less than he felt he was worth. “I guess I don’t have the flashy talent other guys have,” he says. “I’m not Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Mookie Betts. I’m not going to blow you off the field. But in the box, I know what I’m doing.”

And so J.D. Martinez’s motivation now is to demonstrate that underestimating him was not just the greatest mistake made by one team, the Astros. It was the greatest mistake made by 29 of them.

Schererville resident, Phillies coach giving back to the Region

Schererville resident, Phillies coach giving back to the Region

Paul Oren Times Correspondent
Times Correspondents

Jul 18, 2018 Updated Jul 19, 2018

John Mallee went to the top of his profession when he won the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs as their hitting coach. Yet, every offseason he keeps going back to where the future of baseball gets started.

The Schererville resident founded the Northwest Indiana Shockers in 2009 and built a program that services Northwest Indiana and Eastern Illinois. Mallee has helped build a stable of qualified coaches, including longtime Region coach Jim Nohos, Highland product and former professional pitcher Jordan Smolar and former professional coach Tom McQuillan.

Mallee currently serves as the hitting coach for Philadelphia Phillies, who are in first place in the National League East. Mallee talked with The Times of Northwest Indiana freelance reporter Paul Oren during the All-Star break in advance of next week’s tryouts for the Shockers.

Q: What led you to start the Shockers?

A: My son was playing baseball in the area and there was an “A” team and a “B” team. The “A” team was going to practice all winter, so I said I’d take the “B” team and train them at my baseball school. I was told that only the “A” team could get the work. They weren’t going to let the “B” team have any instruction, so I decided to start my own program.
I had a tryout and I was hoping we’d get at least 10 kids. We ended up getting 60 kids going out for the team. I felt bad because I didn’t want to cut anyone, so I ended up having two teams. We split them up equally and kept everything fair. We built everything from there.

Q: How does the organization work?

A: We’re a not-for-profit organization and it took five years to get all that set up. It’s not easy to create a not-for-profit organization. We raise money and then all that money goes right back to the players. If your son goes out and sells $500 worth, that money goes right back to his players fee. The goal is to not have any kid pay at all. I get donations from Major League Baseball. … We have some scholarships available for people who need the help.

Q: Do players play full-time for the Shockers?

A: I believe in Little League Baseball. We have part-time teams for that very reason. We’ll train them all winter, they come and practice with us, but from age 8-11, we want them to experience Little League. I think Little League is important to play for your town and to play with your friends. Then when players get to 12 and 13, then we start looking at full-time travel baseball and putting more into it.

Q: How did you come in contact with your coaches in the program?

A: I’ve known Tom from our days of coaching with the Brewers. We’ve been around each other for a long time. I’m the godfather of his child. Jordan is someone that I gave lessons to when he was in school and then I brought my team to his Cy Young Academy later on. Jim and I have been giving lessons at the same baseball school and he’s great with pitching. He’s somebody I want my son to be around.

Q: You’ve coached at the highest levels of the sport and you’ve been around the youth. When do you see that spark where you can tell if they have a professional future?

A: You really start to see it going into their junior year of high school. You see their bodies mature and their arm strength. Kids that don’t make their varsity team as freshmen shouldn’t get discouraged. A lot of them haven’t had their growth spurts yet and it takes time for the body to mature. You can kind of predict who you think will make it as a junior and going into their senior year. I recommend all players to go to college first instead of going straight to the pros, unless you’re a supreme talent. It’s hard to turn down that money in the first two rounds, but you really become a man in college when you go away from home for the first time. It’s difficult to go straight from high school to the pros and that’s why you see so many guys who struggle in that transition.

Q: You’re in your first year as hitting coach with the Phillies. How did that job come about?

A: I was with the Cubs for three years and we won the World Series in 2016 with the youngest offense ever. We scored the (third) most runs and then we came back in 2017 and we still scored (the fourth most runs). We got to the playoffs and we were just gassed. We lost and then I was told they were going in a different direction. I chose the Phillies because they were the youngest team in baseball. I love teaching kids, I just love helping them. The Shockers are such a big deal to me because it’s about how we treat them and how we train them. One of the reasons I’m able to coach these kids (with the Shockers) is because it’s not my livelihood. I do this to truly help them out. I love teaching the game to younger players.

Q: What memories do you carry with you from Game 7 in 2016?

A: Well, there’s a bunch of things, but there’s two that stand out. The emotion of David Ross’ last game. Just the embrace we had in the batting cage and this feeling of going out and riding off into the sunset with him. The second thing that stood out is when they gave up that home run to Rajai (Davis). The stadium was shaking and it was so loud; I just felt so bad for Aroldis Chapman. Nobody wants to be in that position and I knew it would stay with him for the rest of his life if we lost that. Then the last one was the meeting during the rain delay. It was the confidence the players had. They got together, said “We ain’t supposed to be here, so let’s go win it. We’ve got the top of the order up, we’ve gone through all their pitching. These guys are done.” It was the best baseball game and I got to coach in it. I think about it every day.

Q: What is new with the Shockers this year?

A: We’re branching off to a 16U team. We pay the coaches and we’ve got the right people coaching them. We’ve got a feeder program to get players ready for their high school teams and to get ready for college. We start them off part-time, get the kids into Little League, which is important, and then when they turn 13, we turn them into a full-time Shocker. We’re excited for the 16U team. We had two 15U teams last year and now we’re moving them on.

We’re talking about launch angle? Ex-Cubs hitting coach John Mallee defends his record: ‘I’m a World Series champ’

The Athletic

By Patrick Mooney Jun 6, 2018

John Mallee was working a White Sox youth baseball camp in the mid-1990s and supposed to warm up the crowd and introduce major-league coach Ron Jackson. Except Mallee kept talking to the point where Jackson saw something in the young guy who gave private hitting lessons to local kids.

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