What Rachel Balkovec’s Hiring Means
As many of you are aware, the Yankees continued re-shaping the organization’s coaching staff this winter by hiring Rachel Balkovec to be the first full-time female hitting coach in MLB history. If Balkovec’s name is familiar, it is because she had received public recognition for yet another trailblazing hire a few years back when she was named the first full-time female strength and conditioning job in affiliated professional baseball. Balkovec is expected to serve as a roving hitting instructor throughout all of the Yankee organization’s affiliates.
Our Editor-In-Chief, Dr. Semendinger, published numerous great links to give you some more background about Rachel Balkovec over the weekend. I highly recommend reading each of those links, but I’ll give you a quick summary here. Rachel Balkovec holds two advanced degrees in the science of human movement; has been working in professional baseball since 2012; most recently worked at Driveline Baseball, the highly advanced baseball academy and research center, which also produced Yankee Director of Pitching, Sam Briend; and she has been studying and teaching batters’ eye tracking and hip movement in pitchers.
So, what does Rachel Balkovec’s hiring mean for the Yankees?
The Yankees Commit to Progressive Analysis
I’ve talked about it a lot recently, but the popularization of movies like Moneyball or Trouble with the Curve have seemingly created a popular stigma that their is a separation between statistical analysts and baseball people on Major League staffs and front offices. This perception is simply false, and the type of analysis that is truly progressive in baseball front offices today have moved beyond numbers on a page. Not to say that the numbers on a page are no longer important, far from it, but the next frontiers in baseball research and analysis will be found in kinesiology and its impact on the ways in which pitchers deliver baseballs from the mound and hitters deliver the bat to the ball. Obviously, traditional baseball coaching has certain ingrained opinions about how each of these tasks should be performed, but new and emerging technologies have opened the door to new teachings and understandings that can give players and teams an edge. In short, the lines between the coaching staff and front office are blurrier than they have ever been.
The Yankees have proven this off-season that they are committed to finding new ways to gain an edge. Larry Rothschild has been a well-regarded MLB pitching instructor and coach for over 2 decades. Instead of old school experience, the Yankees went with youth and new techniques by hiring Matt Blake to be the new Pitching Coach. Prior to the off-season, the Yankees hired Sam Briend, another Driveline Baseball alumnus who signaled the Yankees’ commitment to kinesiology and its impact on the modern game. Rachel Balkovec’s hiring represents the next logical step to ensuring that all facets of the Yankees’ program meet the progressive standard they have set.
Rachel Balkovec’s Current Research is Important
The fact that Rachel Balkovec’s most public recent research is about the way in which hitters track baseballs with their eyes is significant. If I’m being honest, I had never really considered the important of this type of research to Major League Baseball front offices until this summer, when I read Alex Speier’s book, Homegrown, about the building of the last Red Sox World Series team (I know, I know, but it really was interesting). In talking about the Red Sox’s evaluation of Mookie Betts as a prospect, Speirer dug up information about a pitch recognition test that the Red Sox give their prospective players that involves how quickly the player’s eye can recognize and react to different visual information.
Obviously, if the Red Sox were doing this years ago, I’m fascinated by old news as far as baseball front offices are concerned. However, it is obvious that research on this topic continues, and Rachel Balkovec has been at the forefront of this research at the most technologically advanced independent baseball facility in the US. Check out an example of her research:
Are you really ‘keeping your eye on the ball?’ Survey says: Likely not. #trackingofthegazes #ownyourdata @DrivelineBB pic.twitter.com/1jHnxdPkg1 — Rachel Balkovec (@damselndadugout) September 5, 2019
Obviously, there is more to this research than meets the eye (OK, I’ll make that my last and only bad pun). The Yankees obviously are putting stock in what Rachel Balkovec’s research can provide the organization’s players.
The social impact of the Yankees’ decision to hire Rachel Balkovec cannot be ignored. I have been very openly critical of the Yankees’ past decisions with regards to Aroldis Chapman, and what those decisions say about the Yankees’ commitment to protecting victims of domestic violence and equality more broadly. I have also long said that there are plenty of women who are every bit as capable as men to work in baseball, not just in front offices, but on the field as well. Rachel Balkovec sure seems like a worthy hire, and I have to give the Yankees credit for hiring the best person for the position. We should have been holding MLB franchises to this basic standard long before this, but the Yankees deserve credit for making a hire that other franchises have shown a reluctance to make prior to now.
I hope this opens the floodgates, and that more women who are qualified to coach and work on the field get positions they deserve in affiliated baseball.
Training and Conditioning
This is where I’m going to go out on a limb. Many observers of the Yankees in 2019 have assumed that the Yankees would be making major changes to their training and conditioning protocols after the multitude of issues their players had with injuries and rehabilitation. Thus far, we have not heard about any major announcements with regards to the training staff, or conditioning protocol changes. Frankly, I would not necessarily expect to hear the Yankees admit to many of these changes publicly unless part of the shake-up involved staff firings.
That said, I don’t think that we can ignore Balkovec’s background in kinesiology and strength and conditioning when we discuss the impact of her hiring. For sure, I can’t honestly say that I have any concrete information to back up my assertions, but it would not surprise me if Balkovec has her own ideas and implementation strategies with regards to training and conditioning for hitters to maximize performance and increase durability.
Based on the way this year went, I think that new voices from outside the organization should be welcome as the Yankees look to improve player durability and training protocols this off-season, and Balkovec’s hiring fits this objective.
Time will tell whether Rachel Balkovec’s hiring makes a significant positive impact on the Yankees in 2020 and beyond, but I am excited by all facets of what her hiring represents. Balkovec’s hiring further highlights that the Yankees are using this off-season to continue to build an organization that has the structure to build and sustain on-the-field success for 2020 and beyond. Congratulations to Rachel Balkovec for becoming the first female hitting coach in affiliated baseball, and I am excited by the Yankees’ continued commitment to advanced research and analysis to improve the organization.