If there’s one thing you can say about the Yankees, it’s that team leadership continues to push things forward despite its success. The team won 103 games last year — its most in a decade — but that has not stopped the team from making major institutional changes in the last several weeks. Last week’s overhaul of the strength and conditioning program, coupled with the Matt Blake hire, obviously stand out. The reality, though, is that these are just two moves in a flurry of changes that has now been going on for at least the last year.
It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when looking at these moves independently. It’s important to take a step back and take a holistic view of these changes for a clear sense of these changes and what they could mean. To that end, I’ve put together an overview here that details the overhauls as it relates to the team’s hitting apparatus, pitching apparatus, and its strength and conditioning. (Please let me know if I’ve missed anything significant and I’ll add it.) When you look at it all, you see that the Yankees are continuing to push the boundaries at every level they can.
Last year, Brian Cashman said that “there are loads of technology and analytics and data which we are on top of. What we are not on top of, we will close the gap.’’ As I think is pretty obviously clear, staying on top of things is the modus operandi of the Yankees these days. Let’s walk through this.
Pitching ApparatusEmbed from Getty Images
The Yankees began transforming their pitching infrastructure back in February, when they hired Desi Druschel to serve as Manager of Pitch Development. Desi, who joined the organization by way of the University of Iowa, is considered a leading thinker at the intersection of technology and pitching. At Iowa, he implemented innovative new programs to develop his pitchers, which you can read about here.
This was only the first step, as the team also hired Sam Briend from Driveline Baseball. Briend took over as the new Director of Pitching and is overseeing the team’s entire pitching development. As a major player within Driveline, it’s pretty obvious that Briend is an analytically-focused, forward-thinking mind — another person hired directly from the frontier of pitching development.
Shortly after the move, Danny Borrell, the team’s well-regarded MiLB Pitching Coordinator, left the organization for Georgia Tech. (Obviously, this was a good opportunity for him and may not have had anything to do with Briend.) Numerous other changes followed, including:
- Larry Rothschild: MLB Pitching Coach
- Scott Aldred: Pitching Coordinator, High-Minors
- Tim Norton: Pitching Coach, Double-A Trenton Thunder
- Gabe Luckert: Pitching Coach, Low-A Charleston Riverdogs
- Justin Pope: Pitching Coach, Gulf Coast Yankees
One interesting note here: the team kept Joe Migliacco, the Tarpons’ pitching coach, on board. Migliacco came with Drushel from Iowa; he’s presumably of a similar analytic cloth. The team hired Brett DeGagne to serve as an MiLB pitching coach. I don’t believe there have been any other announcements about who is filling the MiLB gaps — we should get those soon — but I think we have a good sense here of the mold of those future coaches. They will be like Briend, Blake, and Drushel. Forward-thinkers, data-heavy, etc.
The team, of course, hired Matt Blake from Cleveland to replace Rothschild. Blake, like Briend and Druschel, is considered to be another leading mind in the field. Terry Francona credited him as a major reason why Cleveland has developed so many young arms of late. Players rave about him. He represents a major shift for the Yankees. Obviously, that’s true across the organization.
The changes to the pitching structure are surely more complete, but the Yanks also made changes to their offensive development tree. That begins with Dillon Lawson, who became their MiLB hitting coordinator last year. He came to the Yankees by way of the Astros, where a colleague called him “the hitting coach of the future.”
Lawson preaches patience and pitch recognition. Multiple levels of Yankee affiliates credited him for better approaches at the plate in 2019. Said Staten Island hitting coach Ken Joyce:
“That’s been the approach since spring training started. We have a new hitting coordinator in Dillon Lawson that has brought in the philosophy to teach the strike zone and look for better pitches and do damage when we get them.”
At this point, it should go without saying that Lawson is a data-driven thinker. That’s the Yankees’ way, after all. He recently made the news when the Yankees hired Rachel Balkovec as a MiLB hitting coach. She is the first woman to be a professional full-time hitting coach — and, you guessed it, she has an eye for analytics. Like Briend and Lawson, she hails from a Driveline background. She also focuses on pitch tracking for hitters, which is also similar to Lawson.
She told the New York Times that she was “blown away by the Yankees hitting staff” during the interview process, adding that “they are making aggressive operational changes to compete in the rapidly changing landscape of player development.”
These changes are not as stark as on the pitching side, but they are changes nonetheless. The team is continuing to add new talent to its player development apparatus — even though they’ve been one of the best in the league at producing MLB hitters.
Strength & Conditioning
This brings us to this weekend’s news. Eric Cressey is now heading the strength and conditioning department. Steve Donahue is now “trainer emeritus.” Michael Schuk is the new head trainer. Two other coaches remained on staff, with other changes. We covered it all here, so check that out for more.
As you probably guessed, Cressey is a leader in his field. By all accounts, multiple teams were in on him. This is obviously the area where the Yankees had the most to gain and they went out and got the big fish in the sea. That’s good news. There’s not much more to say here that hasn’t been said already, but I think this move is clearly a part of a well-established pattern. We’ll have to see how it works out.
Overall, this is a pretty striking set of adjustments to make for a team that has been a few outs away from the World Series twice in the last three seasons — success that comes largely on the back of players that were developed just before these changes. Major changes have now come at nearly every level and across every department. (They have been for decades, really.) This does not even count the Tanner Swanson hire, who is the new catching coordinator and quality control coach. He is known for his progressive views on pitch framing.
We don’t have the level of information needed to have solid opinions here, though. All of this sounds good on paper — I suspect it will all work out just fine — but who knows?
Anyway, I think this is good. A bad organization is a stagnant one, after all. And no matter what else you can say about the Yankees — you definitely cannot say that they have been stagnant.