Warning: The Jocks Talk Like Nerds Now

Scott Kinser-USA TODAY Sports

“Oh hi, Tyson,” I said, slightly startled. “We were just talking about you.”

Tyson Neighbors, the star closer from Kansas State, had appeared at my shoulder suddenly and completely noiselessly. He was shorter than the other pitchers I’d interviewed at the draft combine, not much taller than six-foot, but with the kind of upside-down triangle body you’d expect from someone who’d been a standout linebacker in high school. In 2023, his sophomore season at K-State, Neighbors had struck out nearly two batters an inning and won All-America honors for holding opponents to a .135 batting average. He’s one of the top reliever prospects in this year’s draft.

All of that made the expression on his face hilariously incongruous. He was staring at Eric Longenhagen’s laptop, wearing the exact mix of curiosity and excitement you’ll see from a kindergartener who’s about to ask if you have games on your phone.

I don’t really go to the MLB Draft Combine to watch the players work out. That’s what Eric is there for, and Travis Ice. I was there because, throughout the course of the week, prospects are made available for interviews. It’s a press junket, the likes of which I attended frequently when I was covering TV earlier in my career. While I talked to the players who came through our suite, Eric was usually either behind me or down at field level watching the action.

Neighbors had been added to my dance card late. And in contrast to other prospects, whom I’d seen play either on TV or in person, I’d never actually watched Neighbors pitch. I had about a page’s worth of questions scribbled in my notepad, but in the few minutes I had between interviews, I’d turned around and asked Eric what else I should know about my next subject.

That’s how Neighbors was able to sneak up on me; I had my back to the door as Eric was looking at a spreadsheet on his laptop, telling me, among other things, that Neighbors had a whiff rate of 73% on his slider in 2024.

Neighbors immediately wanted to know where that ranked in Division I (near the top among pitchers who threw a slider that much), and lamented a couple cheap home runs he’d given up this past year to hitters using aluminum bats. One against Texas went out at just 88 mph, he said, while another — a three-run home run at Arkansas — came off the bat at 91 mph.

“I was like, ‘I’m making good pitches!’ ” Neighbors said. “And it’s not showing that way.”

He also expressed concern that his cutter, which he throws maybe 5% of the time, was getting tagged as the wrong pitch type.

“They probably get tagged as a fastball, because I threw a couple ride cutters at, like, 15 to 17 [inches] of induced vertical break. I got one that was -7 horizontal, which is ridiculous,” Neighbors explained. “If I could throw that every time I’d be Kenley Jansen. The other ones were, like, 12 to 14 IVB and -2, -3 horizontal.”

This is not how pitchers talked about their craft when I was Neighbors’ age. But that’s how Neighbors understands and talks about his game.

So does Wake Forest junior right-hander Michael Massey, who’s also considering adding a cutter to his repertoire. These days, adding a new pitch is like buying a suit. You start with measurements as a starting point, and only then can you adjust for fit and feel.

“Does it fit in the arsenal — ride fastball down to a gyro slider and then a curveball?” Massey explained. “If we throw the cutter, we want it to have, say, 10 vert and -2 to -3 horizontal. You start there, and then, well do we want eight vert? Like, where do we want this to be? After that, we have the idea of the pitch. How do we get it to move that way? How do we mess with seam orientation?”

Across the various interviews I did at the combine, I was struck by how many players expressed an academic interest in math and science. Every ballplayer has his own tolerance of and curiosity for data, but modern coaching — especially pitching coaching — is heavy on hard science. A pitching prospect doesn’t need a master’s in biomechanics or applied physics, but it’s easier to learn when you can speak intelligently with people who do.

“I’ve always been a nerd on the analytics side,” Neighbors said. “Pitch shape, pitch type, and all that stuff.”

Massey also used that word — nerd — to describe himself.

“I wanted to go to school to be an engineer,” he said. “Sophomore year of high school, I was like, ‘I’ve got a real chance to be valedictorian. I want to do this.’ Then that summer, I go to summer ball and schools start talking to me. And [maybe] I’d be putting my eggs in the wrong basket if I try to be valedictorian. I know I’m smart enough to do well in school, but baseball is kind of where I need to put my time.”

You wouldn’t know it from watching Massey on the mound, where he pitches with flaring nostrils and an expression of bug-eyed rage. He says it’s an affectation, the product of psyching himself up to compete, and he’s calm and methodical off the field.

“I’ve had many people tell me I turn into a different person on the mound,” he said. “Some people see me and say, ‘Watching you pitch, I think you’re a mean guy. Then I talked to you and you’re not.’ I didn’t get that until after my sophomore year. I guess when I’m in a competitive state, I’m just focused on the task at hand.”

Massey started this season as the Sunday starter on the preseason no. 1 team in the country, a potential late first-round pick, but a back injury knocked him out of the rotation as Wake had an up-and-down season. The difference between starting and not could mean a difference of tens of millions of dollars over Massey’s career, maybe more, so one of the first questions I asked was how he’d addressed that issue in his interviews with teams.

Massey expressed confidence in his ability to start: “I think my arsenal holds up as a starter,” he said. “The one thing I have to get more consistent with is the changeup and/or splitter, depending on which route I want to go with that, but I think I’ll have time to work on that.”

From there, he explained why a more pedagogical minor league environment might help him refine his offspeed stuff and explained how he’s comfortable applying his Vulcan changeup grip mid-windup. “It’d be hard for me to pre-grip a pitch I’d be throwing at a 10% to 15% clip anyway,” he said. Massey spent about two minutes detailing the particulars of his changeup with only a brief interruption from me.

Neighbors gave a similarly long and detailed answer when I asked how he’d developed his slider. It’s not just about the slider, he said. It’s about how the pitch tunnels with his fastball, which began as a two-seamer at about 2,600 rpm with a lower arm angle and evolved into his current four-seamer. Neighbors said he started out as just “a thrower” until a friend introduced him to analytics.

“I just went down the rabbit hole,” Neighbors said. “Anything I could find on YouTube, just straight up on the internet, calling previous coaches to see if they have any contacts at the big league level. You got a bunch of those numbers, but not every time do we know what they mean. So I’m even trying to learn about numbers where we don’t see a correlation right now but could possibly see one in the future.”

In scientific terms, Neighbors, with his voracious appetite for new information from any source, is like a theoretician. Massey comes across as more of an experimentalist, trying to drill down on specific processes to find a particular outcome. Massey went to Tulane out of high school before transferring to Wake Forest, with its notoriously advanced pitching lab. That experience helped him take a more active role in his own development, thinking along with his coaches’ reasoning.

“The way I look at it is, if I agree with you, the results are going to be much better, because I can buy in all the way,” Massey said. “If I don’t agree with you, maybe you’ll tell me why. Why should I agree with you? And why do we want to go this route? … I’m very skeptical with everything, even if it’s my own idea. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into the arsenal I have and the way I’m moving already. I don’t want to change it just because.”

I mentioned to Massey that he talks about pitching like it’s a science experiment.

“You hit the nail on the head. Scientific,” he said. “I like the process. I like there to be a reason behind what I’m doing.”

Sounds like Massey might have become an engineer, of sorts, after all.

Even though draft prospects don’t have any say in where they’ll be working a month from now, both Neighbors and Massey said they’ve been asking teams about their organizational grasp on analytics and technology. They know how heavily a pitcher’s destiny depends on what he learns from his team.

“I like to learn what they think about the data analytics side, where they think I can improve on breaking balls, fastballs, maybe possibly adding a split or changeup,” Neighbors said.

“I’ve told teams I want a team I’ll be able to work with,” Massey said. “I want to be able to throw an idea off you and you tell me what you think. Do you agree or disagree? Why? Or if you throw an idea off of me, I’m not just a lab rat. I want to be able to push back.”

Neighbors has bumped up against an old academic truism — that you don’t truly understand a subject until you can teach it to someone else. He says he’s not only constantly asking coaches and other pitchers for information, but he’s also dispensing it.

“Honestly, it’s just something I was blessed with from a young age, regurgitating information, and also being able to word it in a way that works for someone else,” he said. “I’ve learned and asked other people for their mental cues. Like, maybe I don’t want that guy’s slider, but I want to know what he’s doing when he’s throwing that slider, or maybe his grip. Taking that all in, I’ll just draw on my memory. Maybe what I’m teaching you isn’t working, but someone taught me this. It didn’t work for me, but it could be the catalyst for you.”

Neighbors and Massey are far from the only pitchers who think and talk like this. Talking to them led me to flash back to other pitchers and coaches I’ve come across who had a similar gift for internalizing and, as Neighbors put it, regurgitating information. Zac Gallen, Spencer Strider, Gerrit Cole, Matt Strahm — the smart pitcher is hardly a novel development. But the way they talk about the game is changing. Especially younger guys, who came up in an environment that was beyond the imagination of coaches and players at the turn of the century.

Consider that Neighbors and Massey are both too young to remember a time before sites like FanGraphs were part of mainstream baseball analysis. Neighbors and Massey were 9 years old when Driveline opened and 12 years old at the start of the so-called Statcast Era. They might actually be nerds — Neighbors announced with some pride that he was first-chair violin in eighth grade, and Massey said he and several teammates read Dune this past spring — but they also learned the game after the nerds had already changed it. They’re only speaking the language.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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15 days ago

Hawk-eye and rapsodo have changed pitching forever. It used to take weeks/months/years of tinkering with a catcher who understood your goals to achieve similar results. Now it takes an afternoon to see results. The ability to hop on a rapsodo and tweak seam orientation and release with instant feedback has lead to a revolution of sliders/cutters (these pitches benefit the most from seam orientation induced movement — as opposed to curveballs whose movement is primarily magnus effect.)

If anyone is curious and wants to understand the physics more checkout Driveline or Baseballaero or just google “seam shifted wake”. It’s a brave new world.

12 days ago
Reply to  LeeMHerron

“the smart pitcher is hardly a novel development. But the way they talk about the game is changing. Especially younger guys, who came up in an environment that was beyond the imagination of coaches and players at the turn of the century.”

This is mostly about a kid that’s using a tool to shop for his collection of ball rotations and ball motion shapes. It’s cool and really useful that complex technology can help make this more accessible, but there’s nothing smart or imaginative about the act of “suit shopping to stock up your closet”. Where’s the context and imagination of pitching here?

I still only see this as a thrower’s mentality. On top of that, a thrower that thinks developing the “pitch arsenal” is what makes a starting pitcher, when he’s already having back problems from carrying it around.

I’m wondering when the nerds will temper obsessions with the physics of a ball a bit to bring back some well deserved attention to studying the physiology of the human body… to figure out a way to make these kids great pitchers without them having to tear their bodies apart. It pains me to see videos of these 15-20 year old pitchers in a laboratory cage literally stretching their bodies beyond limits throw after throw for a max spin rate and radar reading. Bringing these technologies into a “pitching independent of your fielding” philosophy unwittingly led to this max effort/torque/twitch approach to throwing… and it really isn’t imaginative and simply isn’t sustainable.

Why can’t we start using the advantages of a pitch lab to figure out a way to develop a modernized version of a pitcher/fielding interdependent defense against hitting philosophy and approach. We can push back a bit to save the life of a pitcher’s body by utilizing fielding defense. That’s the imagination and smart pitcher I’d like to see… a little of the pre 20th century and a little of the post 20th century.

6 days ago
Reply to  baty

Making it for one year is worth so much that compromise on stuff for your body is a trade-off that makes no sense for all but a tiny number of people.