McKeithan looking to help Cutters analytically

In his high school, and even into his college, playing days as an infielder at Vanderbilt and N.C. State, Joel McKeithan didn’t really know much about analytics, except what he saw on Jonah Hill’s computer screen in the movie “Moneyball.”

He wasn’t so interested in the numbers, decimals and fractions until he realized they could be used as a tool to help players develop into stronger hitters and more effective pitchers. This is when he wanted to get involved. His recently developed passion for analytics, as well as a concerted effort from the Phillies to go toward more data-driven baseball helped him land his first coaching position as the Crosscutters’ new hitting coach.

“I didn’t really know what it was when I was playing. There’s two sides of it: You have the evaluation analytics and the player development analytics and more of the evaluation side I saw big league teams going to that. I saw that it was used as a tool for evaluation, not as much as player development side, which I was interested in as a player. After going to Driveline, I saw the ability to use it on the player development side and that’s how it kind of took off from there.”

Major League Baseball and the Phillies organization are both starting to lean toward analytics and sabermetrics. The traditional, and sometimes rigid, sport is looking for new ways to incorporate fresh teaching techniques into player development. More recently, the Phillies have made a concerted effort to get analytics involved throughout the organization. Jason Ochart, the Director of Hitting at Driveline and McKeithan’s old boss, was hired as the Phillies’ minor league hitting coordinator. The club is taking a grassroots approach in getting incoming players introduced with the new-wave thinking and implementation of analytics-driven teaching.

Last year, the Crosscutters added a complicated and pricey, yet helpful, TrackMan that provides an overabundance of information, including pitch spin, velocity, launch angle, tilt and any other metric that could help better a player at the plate.

“I think it’s a great way to think outside the box and it can help a team and an organization. I think it just goes back to what I said about other industries using analytics and using more information to evaluate what is actually best versus just traditional notions on anything,” McKeithan said. “… I think it’s just getting everybody on the same page and realizing that it’s just a tool to help. It’s not going to replace coaches, it’s not going to replace relationships you have to build or the knowledge. There’s so much experience with knowledge that coaches have that can’t be done with technology. I don’t think it’s going to replace anything. It’s just a tool that can be used to help our players get better. I think if everybody understands that, then we’ll move forward together.”

McKeithan was introduced to the analytical side of baseball when he took a job at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven baseball performance training center in Seattle. The service is widely renowned and Major League teams have taken notice, especially the Phillies.

After learning about analytics and how to use technology to develop players, McKeithan decided he wanted to come back east to his home state of North Carolina and develop his own training system. Thanks to his three years at Driveline, the 39th-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies in 2010 helped start PEAK Baseball in Asheville, North Carolina, and is the Director of Skill Development. In his position, he uses all resources available to assess and analyze the areas of strengths and weakness and, from there, he helps develop programs to aid improvement in specific areas, like hand placement and barrell speed.

“I knew it was around and I saw it throughout my career and how it developed and the importance of it and it was just something that we see applied in all other areas,” McKeithan said. “It’s just more information that’s useful. That’s kind of why I thought baseball could use this. It really doesn’t make any sense not to use it. I’m trying to use as much that’s available.”

Though McKeithan has some experience in tracking pitching analytics, he’ll strictly be focused on hitting. He’s excited to bring his blast motion bat sensors, which measures bat speed, attack angle of the bat and vertical bat angle. All of these measurements help break down a swing more accurately. Another piece of technology that he’ll be bringing is Rapsodo, which tracks how hard the ball is hit off the bat and where it will end up directionally. For example, if the ball is hit softly into the opposite field, the batter will need to work on getting the barrel zone deeper.

A favorite number of McKeithan’s is expected slugging percentage, which is the expected slugging percentage based off exit velocity and launch angle. To him, it’s the most accurate and quickest way to judge the skill and power of a hitter.

“If you see those areas that are lacking or are not within a desired range, then you know that there can be some swing changes that need to happen and you have a way to track that. It just allows you a way to identify what is wrong versus just using your naked eye and then you have a way to see if it’s actually getting better,” McKeithan said. “That’s the main way we use it. That just gives you information on how you can see what’s actually going on and what you can do to get better.”

Former Phillies farm director Joe Jordan resigned in September over philosophical differences in the hitting program. In came Josh Bonifay who came from the Astros, a franchise known for its technological advancements that helped it win a World Series in 2017. Ochart has never coached or even played pro baseball, yet he’s leading the Phillies’ minor league hitting system, showing more evidence that the Phillies are even more committed to jumping on the analytical train. Even McKeithan, on a staff with former professional players and longtime coaches, manager Pat Borders and pitching coach Hector Berrios, has never coached professionally and has only played in the independent Frontier League for two seasons. Showing that the organization, from top to bottom, is determined to change its player development philosophy.

“It’s kind of inevitable. The Astros have kind of been the pioneers on that front and have had some success,” McKeithan said. “I think teams are going to start jumping on board and I don’t know to what capacity or how fast it’ll happen, but I think sooner or later, we’re going to see the entire industry go to that.”