Kansas City’s Drew Saylor Talks Hitting

The Kansas City Royals have made some significant changes in player development since the end of last season. Most-impactful might be the hiring of Drew Saylor as their new hitting coordinator. The 36-year-old Ohio native brings a progressive, technology-meets-behavior-theory mindset to the organization via the Pirates and Dodgers systems. He spent last season as Pittsburgh’s assistant minor-league hitting coordinator, a stint that followed three years of hands-on experience tutoring Los Angeles farmhands. Saylor was named Baseball America’s 2018 Minor League Manager of the Year.

In this year’s first “Talks Hitting” interview, Saylor discussed the philosophies he’s bringing to the Royals, and the developmental goals of talented-but-enigmatic outfield prospect Seuly Matias.


David Laurila: What is your approach when working with young hitters?

Drew Saylor: “One thing I talk a lot about is being curious. The more we can get our players and staff to be curious about what is going on… for instance, what makes the player successful? What are some of his gap margins? From there we can go to, ‘OK, let’s look at this from a batted-ball data perspective. Let’s work this back to swing decisions, to movement assessment, to his training methodology.’ All of this to see how he’s able to transfer the skill to where it shows up in the game.

“That’s a big piece I like to see put into play: Working it back from the objective to the subjective, then working in tandem with the player. And not just the player. Also the other coaches, coordinators, and consultants. Maybe he has an off-season hitting guru? So, everyone who has touches with this player. Ideally the process is understood by everybody, and at the same time we’re able to go, ‘Hey, this process is leading to this product.’ If we want the product to change, we have to be able to work our way backwards from the product to the process. Then we can make more concrete, solid lines between those two areas.”

Laurila: It is often said that you can’t clone hitters.

Saylor: “Absolutely. Some of the smart people I’ve worked with talk about the individualization, the understanding of human capital — what they’re able to do, what the vision is from a physical-mental-social-emotional-spiritual perspective. Looking at your players with a more wholistic viewpoint.

“A second component is being willing to exhaust all options, and all available information, to make sure we have the most detailed definition of what your players can and can’t currently do. From there we’re able to formulate an objective measure of how we want them to grow.”

Laurila: Technology is obviously playing a big role in today’s game. Based on our earlier conversations, that’s something you’re definitely tuned into. What are you most interested in at the moment?

Saylor: “Something I’m really interested in now that TrackMan is stepping away from MLB is what Hawk-Eye can bring. I’ve gotten some information in terms of what can be gained from that. I think baseball is in a really unique phase right now. We’re at a moment where the gap between data/technology and old-school theory is starting to close. Organizations have people who are cross-pollinated in both spaces. That’s where the game is headed right now.”

Laurila: What can you tell me about Hawk-Eye?

Saylor: “Hawk-Eye is a camera-based system that so far has been used mostly in tennis. I think the hitting space is what’s really going to benefit significantly from that. We’re going to be able to have better angles, and better technology in terms of our swing paths and our body positioning. TrackMan gives us a lot of batted-ball data, but this is going to be akin to union-ing of a KinaTrax with a TrackMan, and even some of the additional bat-sensor information.

“A lot of baseball people are visual learners, and Hawk-Eye is going to help us look at the player in a more-360 component. It’s going to show us the spin of the ball, the trajectory of the pitch, and how the swing path is mirroring some of those things. The embedded bat sensors we have right now give us a lot of information, but what’s challenging is that we have to couple what the bat sensors are telling us with what TrackMan is telling us. Again, I think Hawk-Eye is going to be able to union those things together. It’s going to be more of a granularly-detailed explanation of how those things are coinciding. I think it will help close the gap between where pitching analytics and hitting analytics are right now.”

Laurila: It takes more than just good player-development tools, technology-based or otherwise, to produce a big-league quality hitter. Raw talent has to be there as well.

Saylor: “That’s true, and I think some of what we’re learning ties into that. I think it’s possible to take bigger chances now, because we can have a quantifiable plan as to what we can do with the players. I think that’s going to continue to evolve throughout the game. Hopefully, as we move forward, we can tell the scouting department, ‘Take bigger risks. We can make this system better, but we need you to give us these types of tools and weapons.’”

Laurila: Does that mean drafting more high-upside players out of high school, as opposed to college players who, while more-reliably projected, may have lower ceilings?

Saylor: “On the surface level, yes. I believe that with the right process you can have better development, and faster development, with certain types of characteristics. Because of where they went to school — or maybe it’s young Latin player — they were taught to do things a little bit differently that didn’t accentuate the talent God gave them. We can say, ‘Take a chance on that,’ because we can open that up. These markers are telling us that this guy has more in there.’”

Laurila: You’re working with a new group of hitters. What have you begun to implement?

Saylor: “After getting hired, I went out to Arizona to finish out fall instructional league, to get my eyes on some guys and start relationships with all the staff members down there. I tried to get a scope of where everybody was at, and slowly but surely help institute our skill-acquisition group. We brought in some of our hitters, using them almost as a testing ground of sorts, to see how they are going to react to using K-vest information, looking at TrackMan information, looking at their heat maps, seeing where their gap margins are.”

Laurila: Seuly Matias went into last year ranked as the top player in the Royals system, only to have a terrible year [.148/.259/.307 in High-A]. What are your early thoughts on him?

Saylor: “First, he’s a guy with incredibly-gifted skills. God blessed Seuly with the type of prodigious power you dream on. I can see him hitting a lot of home runs into the fountains at Kaufmann Stadium. That said, what we’re trying to do with Seuly is get down to the whys and hows — some of the swing and miss, some of the approach. And also just him as a person. This is a guy who is very physically gifted, but he’s also a young guy [21 years old] who has a child and is trying to learn his way there. We need to wrap our arms around him and tell him that we care about him.

“A lot of times, what we’re trying to do isn’t from a technical, tactical perspective. It’s also letting a player know that we’re there for him, and that includes off-the-field challenges like having a young family and being away from your child for such a long time. Manuals don’t come with that.”

Laurila: What about the technical aspects? Based on his strikeout rate [44.3% last year], Matias seemingly has some serious holes in his swing.

Saylor: “One of the first things is making him aware of just where those holes are — on what pitches, what counts, what types of base states. The first step in adjusting, with any issue, is getting a sense of where everything is at the current state. Is it a physical issue? Is he a guy who gets into these situations and tries too much? Are there things outside of his control that he’s trying to overcome? What’s the genesis of it. Where are the gaps? Where are the holes?

“From there, you continue to get more information from the hitter, and more information from the data and technology. Once you get down to what that root is, then you can put a plan into place.”

Laurila: Is plate discipline one of his core issues?

Saylor: “What we’ve seen from Seuly is that because of the power… you see that natural reaction when he hits a ball 500 feet. He’s a young player, so he wants to do that every single at-bat. Our job is to help him manage some of those natural thoughts and emotions. We need to gain his trust and get him to understand that you don’t need to hit a ball 500 feet. A hard-contact ball in the middle of the field is valuable. If you’re trying to put a ball over the fence and end up fouling that pitch off and getting into a [bad] count, the pitcher can nibble a little more. With Seuly’s presence in the box, guys are going to shy away from throwing the ball in a bigger part of the zone where he can do damage.

“Development isn’t a linear path for anybody. There are going to be setbacks and struggles. What we’re trying to create is an atmosphere where players can feel free and open to expressing their thoughts. Then our job, as staff members, is to welcome those pieces of information and be almost counselors. We need to help filter out the inconsistent thoughts — the ones that are going to take you away from being able to execute your plan at the plate — from the valuable thoughts.”

Laurila: How has Matias responded to the feedback?

Saylor: “He’s had a chance to go ‘Wow, that’s me. That’s my fingerprint. That’s my performance.’ For instance, when you get a chance to show someone their heat map — what they do damage on, and what they’re not doing damage on — it gives them a truer picture of where they’re at. When you talk about the power of visuals… as human beings, our first language was pictures. So, when you get a picture put in front of you, it can give credence to what you’re thinking. It can allow you to manage those thoughts a little more.

“But Seuly’s ability to hit the ball 500 feet… when you have a Ferrari, sometimes you want to drive it at 180 mph, even though you may not control it. So I think it’s him just learning how to drive the car. From there, we just need to know when to gas it up.”

Laurila: The Royals organization has been known for favoring contact over power. In a more general sense, how do you view that balance?

Saylor: “It is part of our identity as an organization. Knowing the type of ballpark we play half our games in, you need to have a plus power tool in order to hit balls out. Notwithstanding that — regardless of what your profile is — a hard line drive in the middle of the diamond works in any ballpark. Whether it’s Kaufman, Progressive Field, or Yellowstone National Park, getting guys into the mantra of hitting balls hard, and doing so with pitches that you can drive… we’re really trying to drive home that point with all of our players. And our staff. We want more than home runs. We want well-rounded hitters.”


Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Luke Voit, Jesse Winker.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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4 years ago

Saylor is really something.