Catching Some Rays With The Rays: My Observations From Spring Training

by Randy Sullivan

Earlier this week I received and accepted an invitation to spend a day at spring training with The Tampa Bay Rays, my hometown team.

For the past 4 years, The Rays and The Florida Baseball Ranch® have been exchanging visits and information and collaborating on some interesting projects.  I’ve been honored to give several well- received presentations on topics ranging from throwing disconnections, the intertwined relationship of physical and mechanical inefficiencies, contributors to arm pain and sub-par performance, and motor learning concepts such as myelination, self-organization, repetition without repetition and the value of emotion as a learning accelerator.  I was pleased to consult  with minor league pitching coordinator, Dewey Robinson as he developed the team’s first ever off-season velocity enhancement program — a program that has helped several Rays pitchers resurrect their careers, rocketing them and their newly developed elite fastballs all the way to the big leagues.

Last fall, during instructs, the Rays asked me to present my ideas on SAVAGE Training to about 60 front office members and coaches.  In January, they visited FBR with several coaches including newly appointed, Triple-A Pitching Coach Rick Knapp and Catching Coordinator Paul Hoover. We gathered for a presentation entitled Evaluating Training Tools and Drills Through The Prism Of Motor Learning (an E-book on that topic is about 3/4 done and should be out soon).  In that forum we discussed several leading edge motor learning and teaching techniques such as differential learning and constraint led approach (CLA), as well as key principles in Dynamic Systems Theory as posited by Frans Bosch and JA Scott Kelso. Later, the Rays coaches observed with great interest as our hitting students demonstrated CLA training and differential learning actively applied in the motor learning hitting laboratory we call The Battery.

This week it was my turn to visit Port Charlotte.  I reported at 10:00 am, greeted at the gate by Dewey Robinson, a brilliant and forward thinking coach who has been in the professional game for over 30 years.  We started the day in the team cafeteria where we grabbed a snack and a bottle of water before heading out to the field.  The Rays nutrition program is directed by the hardest working sports nutritionist in the business, Ryan Harmon.  Ryan has an office on the second floor of the building but you’ll rarely find her there.  Look for Ryan to be perched at one of the round tables where players and coaches gather to eat.  There she deftly handles a relelntless peppering of questions from eager young players and veterans alike.  I asked her if she ever goes to her office.  “I can’t help anyone if I’m sitting upstairs,” she said.  “I need to be down here where they’re eating and working.  I love my job and I love talking to the players and helping them with nutrition planning.”

At that moment, catching coordinator, Paul Hoover approached and chided, “Who’s this guy Dewey? Does he even have credentials to be here?”  I quickly turned and whipped out the All Access Pass attached to my belt.  “All access, baby!” I quipped.  “I can probably get into more places than you Paul!”

“You’re probably right,” he responded with a chuckle.

Everyone laughed and we headed out to the back fields to begin the training day.  On the way out of the building we ran into my #1 favorite Ray of all time, Brad Miller who played travel ball with my oldest son (Chet Lemon’s Juice).  As we traveled toward the Rays freshly labeled Pitching Lab, Dewey re-introduced me to several coaches and upon arriving at “The Lab” (that’ how their plyo wall is now branded), the Rays’ new Major League Pitching Coach, Kyle Snyder approached with a warm greeting.  Kyle was promoted from Triple-A Durham after his pitching staff broke the minor league season record for strike outs per nine innings in two consecutive years and won a Triple-A national championship.  Kyle gathered the coaches and players together for a brief, impromptu meeting before they broke out onto each of the back fields to start the days’ work.

It was clear that the events of the day were well organized and the timing and framework of the practice was intricately choreographed.  However, within each station, individual players were given the freedom to experiment, fail, and self-organize the necessary corrections.  All of the work began simultaneously and it appeared that every player and coach knew exactly what they should be doing at every moment.  In one section of  The Lab, a set of pitchers in the velo program were executing familiar Ranch drills while bouncing weighted plyo balls off a concrete wall.  On an adjacent field, a group of guys on rehab assignments were executing their return to throwing programs under the watchful eyes of the athletic training staff and I was intrigued to see one major league pitcher performing full on mound reps with the Durathro® Training Sock.

Several catchers were working on receiving skills with Paul Hoover and Kyle was in the pitching lab bullpen with a few major league arms, using TracMan and video to collect data to be used for pitch design.  For now, though, Kyle observed and offered subdued but timely suggestions, asking poignant questions while gently guiding each player through his session. It was a joy to watch a master teacher in action.

In short order, we walked to another field where a hot new prospect recently acquired in a trade was throwing his first live BP while the major league coaching staff looked on.

On yet another field,I could see hitters taking BP, working on improving launch angles with what appeared to be a clone of the CLA “no grounders” wall of screens similar to what we use at The Florida Baseball Ranch®. You may have seen the picture on twitter.

When the live BP session ended, every catcher and 24 pitchers gathered around an 8-pack of mounds for voluntary free-style bullpens.  During this masterful episode in self-organization it became clear that The Rays were developing a culture of deliberate practice.  Each of the 24 pitchers — who threw bullpens in 3 waves of 8 — were focused and working with a purpose.  Four coaches supervised 8 pitchers, offering key insights and suggestions without inundating them with typical barrage of unnecessary and ineffective verbal cues.  Even the 8 catchers were locked in on every pitch.  Three coaches observed them and demanded  focus on the quality of every rep.  It was an energetic and inspirational demonstration of deliberate practice and self organization guided by master teaching and undergirded with highly effective motor learning strategies. It was a joy to see.

As the workout concluded Dewey and I retired to the club house, to prepare for the day’s big league game, but not before stopping by a food truck outside the building.  There I had to fortune of running into the team’s President of Baseball Operations, Matt Silverman.  When we shook hands, he surprised me by saying, “Randy, we sure do thank you for all you’ve done to help our organization.”  I felt compelled to share my impression of the morning workout.  “Matt, “ I said. “If I may, I want to congratulate you and your entire organization on the culture of deliberate practice that clearly runs through every aspect of training and development and was demonstrated by every coach and player I saw today.  I never once saw a single player take a single rep off.  It was a beautiful thing to witness.”

“We’ve been working hard on that” he replied.  “Thank you for noticing.”

After lunch, Dewey and I settled into our primo “scout section” seats for the game.  The pitcher from earlier in the day who had been throwing in the Durathro® Training Sock appeared in the game and had pretty good outing.  And, the CLA launch angle batting practice appeared to pay off as the Rays blasted 3 homers and came away with a 7-4 win.

When we stood to leave in the 8th inning, I asked an usher to snap this photo with Dewey who said, “Yeah, you need to be able to prove to Amy (our CFO/COO) that you were actually here and not home taking a nap.”

In total, it was a wonderfully refreshing day on many fronts.  I caught some Rays (literally and figuratively). I got to reunite with some friends.  I saw many of our Baseball Ranch® tenets being implemented at the highest level of the game.  I got to watch a big league game and I witnessed a masterful exhibition of superb teaching and deliberate practice.  The message I will take home to our FBR students is one they’ve heard often.

All talent is built, not born.

No player is naturally gifted.  When you observe the work being done at the professional level, it’s clear that more and more, clubs are understanding that the quality of their practice makes a huge difference.  Elite players practice deliberately, with clear intention and the best of the best take no reps off while willfully accepting and applying trusted guidance from master teachers and coaches.

Thank you, Tampa Bay Rays for an inspiring day.

I’m looking forward to seeing you all again soon.

Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS

 

P.S. If you’d like to improve your game through deliberate practice and master teaching, there are 3 ways to access The Florida Baseball Ranch® Process.

  1. Come to a 2-day weekend Elite Performance Boot Camp (EPBC)
  2. Schedule a Precision Strike One-Day, One-On-One Evaluation and Training Session
  3. Sign up for our Complete Game Summer Training Program

Call us at 866-787-4533 (866-STRIKE3) if you have any questions

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