How Is Baseball Player Development Like Product Development?

The Player Development Era is like rapid prototyping. Take a player, make some tweaks, test them and repeat until the desired results are achieved.

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Written by: Darren Garnick, PTC Onshape

(Image courtesy of Onshape.)

(Image courtesy of Onshape.)

With Major League Baseball caught up in a labor dispute, and the beginning of the 2022 season already delayed, diehard fans like me can at least still immerse themselves in the past.

When I was growing up, my childhood bedroom was blanketed in baseball cards. They were in neat little piles sorted by team, but it was really tough to vacuum in there without casualties. By pure osmosis, the numbers on the back of the cards seeped into my brain. I’d research how many seasons Nolan Ryan struck out more than 300 batters (six), and compare lifetime home runs between Red Sox slugger Jim Rice and enemy Yankee showboat Reggie Jackson (Reggie eventually won by a 563-382 landslide).

Those numbers were sacred.

Back in the 1970s, evaluating player talent involved fewer metrics.

When scrutinizing the back of a baseball card, the key stats I focused on were batting average, home runs and RBIs for hitters—and wins, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. That’s all that mattered.

Now sportswriters will talk about launch angle and exit velocity for hitters, and spin rate for pitchers.

Are you KIDDING me?

We are on the threshold of kids bringing Texas Instruments graphing calculators to the ballpark instead of their gloves. Surely, projecting future exit velocity is more of an adrenaline rush than catching a foul ball.

The ascendancy of math nerds in Major League Baseball was immortalized in the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball,” and the subsequent Brad Pitt movie, about the early 2000s Oakland A’s identifying undervalued baseball metrics (like on-base percentage and slugging percentage) and putting together winning teams on a shoestring budget. Future Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis, for example, was coveted as the “Greek God of Walks”—perhaps one of the most unglamorous stats, but still as valuable as a hit.

The Moneyball Era died when every team followed the same tactics, eliminating innovative GM Billy Beane’s competitive edge. We are now in the Player Development Era, where instead of teams drafting and trading for underrated and underutilized talent elsewhere, they are hyperfocused on continuously improving the talent they have.

After reading “The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players,” by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, I was struck by how many parallels there are between baseball player development and product development.

Whereas the Moneyball approach mined previous data to identify the player equivalent of “value stocks,” the intention was not to change the player, but to give him the opportunity to demonstrate his underappreciated value.

The Player Development Era, however, is like rapid prototyping. Take a player, make some tweaks, test them and repeat until the desired results are achieved (or not, and then move on to the next player/prototype).

Everyone is a work-in-progress.

Changing Processes: In the Batter’s Box and on the Mound

Are home runs today becoming too commonplace?

Are home runs today becoming too commonplace?

On his Super 70s Sports Twitter feed, podcaster Ricky Cobb wryly noted that hitting 30 home runs used to be an enviable achievement (that’s Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker and Ron Cey from the 1977 Dodgers in his tweet). But it’s become far less special. In the pre-pandemic 2019 season, MLB players broke the all-time record for most home runs in a month in May (1,135) and then broke that record again in June (1,142).

Some critics say the baseballs are “juiced,” but an undeniable factor is also launch angle, the uppercut swing meant to drive the ball in the air. Groundballs—even hard-hit ones—are now considered a sin. Hitting coaches for decades pushed for a level swing aiming for line drives.

“You have to get the ball in the air if you want to slug,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner explained to The Washington Post, “and guys who slug stick around, and guys who don’t, don’t.”

Turner speaks from experience. When he was swinging level at the beginning of his career, he was a weak-hitting utility player for five seasons with the Mets and Orioles—never surpassing four home runs in a season. He is now a 20-homer threat for the Dodgers every year.

Finding the perfect launch angle was even more transformational for Max Muncy, who was cut loose by the A’s in 2016. The versatile infielder hit .186 with two home runs when he was released. In 2018, after a year of making swing adjustments in AAA, Muncy hit 35 home runs and became a postseason hero, hitting the winning home run in the 18th inning of World Series Game 3.

On the pitching side, starter Rich Hill was the posterboy for mediocrity from 2005-2014, playing for six different MLB teams and being released three times. After the Red Sox plucked him out of the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League, pitching analyst Brian Bannister urged Hill to throw his underused high-spin curveball more. Perfecting that pitch eventually launched Hill into a stratosphere he never imagined: Signing a three-year $48 million contract with the Dodgers (a contract he has lived up to). At age 41, considered ancient in the baseball world, he’s expected to play a key role in this year’s Red Sox rotation.

These players all epitomize the business mantra, “Change or Die.” Granted, as in the business world, we seldom hear about struggling players who try different processes and fail miserably.

Embracing New Technology

Former Iandians, Reds and Dodgers star Trevor Bauer, perhaps best known for his temper tantrums and his love for flying drones, and is a passionate advocate of using technology to improve his pitching skills.

Players are now using sophisticated high-speed cameras to study their pitching delivery and make modifications. The Edgertronic camera breaks down the baseball’s spin at 1,000 frames per second. (Source:

Players are now using sophisticated high-speed cameras to study their pitching delivery and make modifications. The Edgertronic camera breaks down the baseball’s spin at 1,000 frames per second. (Source:

Bauer was one of the earliest adopters of the Edgertronic high-speed camera, which shoots at 1,000 frames per second and breaks down how the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and how it spins. He bought one of the $5,000 gadgets for his own personal training in 2015. Now it’s standard throughout Major League Baseball. According to Sports Illustrated, Astros ace Jason Verlander used Edgertronic footage after he was traded from the Tigers in 2017 to bump up his game in the postseason by changing the delivery of his slider.

Bauer, too, credits the Edgertronic freeze frames for helping to transform his slider as well—although he used footage of opposing pitcher Marcus Stroman to learn how to position his fingers and thumb. Bauer tried the new grip in a game and got shelled. He was excited by the movement on his new pitch, but he couldn’t control it.

Through trial and error, Bauer eventually perfected his own nasty slider using Stroman’s grip.

Many companies follow this approach with rapid prototyping, the idea that “failing fast” and learning from your mistakes can lead you to discover new innovative paths—even if some might consider Bauer’s case borderline corporate espionage. Is emulating good form considered stealing?

Collaboration Between the Front Office and the Dugout

The same inevitable tension that played itself out in the Moneyball Era—old school baseball instincts versus data-driven baseball analytics—hasn’t fizzled out in the Player Development Era. Some purists feel that baseball managers have become puppets, just following instructions from the front office (even in the middle of the game).

Those old-timers’ fears are well founded. But a more positive spin would be to call front-office meddling a more “collaborative process,” blending hard-nosed baseball experience with less emotion-driven analytics.

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the most innovative teams in the American League—pioneering the idea of starting a relief pitcher as an “opener” to keep arms fresh. They also made MLB history by hiring the first stat geek to be a uniformed on-field coach. Jonathan Erlichman, the Rays analytics director, was promoted to “process and analytics coach,” a role that requires him to sit with manager Kevin Cash during games.

The Philadelphia Phillies have a similar arrangement with Alex Nakahara, director of the team’s R & D department. Nakahara, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UPenn and a master’s in aeronautics from MIT, has also put on a Phillies uniform for in-game dugout consultations.

“Alex is our teammate,” former Phillie manager Gabe Kapler told NBC Sports. “Our R & D department are our teammates. Every person in the organization is a shareholder in our organization. We want to treat them like they’re part of our group, not they’re up there and we’re down here, which historically has been sort of the divide in baseball.”

At the rate that analytics and high-tech gadgets continue to shape the future of Major League Baseball, maybe kids will start worshipping their math and engineering teachers as much as pro athletes.

The State of Product Development

The parallels between what’s happening now in baseball player development and product development are striking. Are you the Justin Verlander or Trevor Bauer of your company? Are you always looking for new ways to improve your design processes?

Offering insights for small and large companies alike, “The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2019” includes the perspectives of a broad cross-section of executives, engineering managers, product designers, sales technicians, QA engineers and CAD administrators. (Alas, there is no baseball-themed content.)

This report from Onshape answers questions such as:

  • What are companies identifying as their top priorities to boost productivity?
  • What obstacles are slowing down product development teams and what can be done to eliminate or reduce those obstacles?
  • What impact do cloud-based technologies have on a company’s self-reported productivity and innovation?

To learn more, visit PTC Onshape or check out the full report.

This article was first published on, August 15, 2019.