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Joe Dillon, the ‘best assistant in baseball,’ has brought a novel approach to the Nationals

Assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon is introducing cognitive drills to the Nationals’ hitters usual routines. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A few weeks ago, as he explained how he fosters relationships with players, Washington Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long abruptly shifted topics to Joe Dillon and his innovative techniques.

“This guy’s amazing,” Long said. “I’ve got the best assistant in baseball.”

Long, for all his groundbreaking expertise and success, has been learning from Dillon, the Nationals’ assistant hitting coach, over the past several weeks. Dillon has brought revolutionary methods to the batting cage, methods even Long hadn’t incorporated in his lauded work with the New York Yankees and Mets. Rather than the standard half-speed drills, the banal soft tossing and tee work, Dillon is a proponent of creating game-like conditions outside of actual games. The concept is standard across sports. It’s novel in baseball.

“We’re the only sport in the world that doesn’t train at game-speed,” Dillon noted.

Dillon, 42, is a baseball lifer born of conventional methods. He reached the major leagues for his hitting ability using conventional methods and began his coaching career teaching conventional methods. That all changed two years ago because of a discussion between two scientists in Nashville.

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Sometime after the 2014 NFL draft, Scott Wylie and Brandon Ally, two faculty members in Vanderbilt’s neurology and neurological surgery department and former college athletes, had a conversation in a hallway one day about how draft prospects were evaluated. They realized the measurables discussed were nearly all physical. There were 40-yard dash times to determine speed, three-cone drill results to assess quickness and bench press reps to gauge strength.

Cognitive skills, however, were always deemed immeasurable, blanketed with vague terms. Players possessed great or poor instincts. They played faster or slower than their speed. They processed information quickly or deliberately. Nothing concrete. No hard data. All determined by the naked eye. The two scientists, whose work in neighboring labs focused on more serious matters, spotted an opportunity to evolve from conceptual work on diseases to the application realm.

“We’ve got ways to quantify that,” they determined, according to Wylie.

Nearly four years later, Wylie, a former college baseball player, and Ally, a former track athlete at Tennessee, are co-founders of SportsSense, a Nashville-based company that seeks to quantify what was previously thought unquantifiable in evaluating athletes: the set of cognitive skills brains utilize to perform split-second decisions. In 2016, the company, which has hired four employees, nabbed an SEC football team as its first client — Wylie declined to specify partners in a telephone conversation. The clientele has since expanded to several college football teams, some Division I baseball and golf programs, two NFL franchises and five MLB organizations. Plans for basketball, hockey and other sports are in the works.

“We bring cognitive principles and they apply it,” said Wylie, who now serves on the University of Louisville faculty along with Ally. “It’s taking the guesswork out of understanding what players are seeing.”

Dillon happened to join one of the MLB clients two years ago when he became the Miami Marlins’ minor league hitting coordinator. There, he met Paul Phillips, then the hitting coach for Miami’s Class AAA affiliate. Before joining the Marlins, Phillips, a former major leaguer, was on Lipscomb University’s coaching staff. The Nashville school was, by chance, SportSense’s first foray into baseball.

Phillips brought the methods to the Marlins and converted Dillon. Working with SportsSense, which entered an official partnership with the Marlins, profiles were created for each interested player based on information derived from their tendencies — chase rate, contact rate in the strike zone, etc. Dillon took that data and built specific drills based on the findings on a trial-and-error basis to improve their cognitive skills.

“Everybody’s brains are wired differently,” Wylie said. “Some athletes can just see things faster. They can recognize, identify what they’re seeing faster than others. Some guys got great control of their impulses, they can shut down their impulses faster. Other guys take longer. It’s a tug of war for time between the pitcher and the hitter. The cognitive system contributes to the advantages and disadvantages.”

Dillon pointed to Isaac Galloway, a center fielder in the Marlins’ farm system, as an example of the program’s effectiveness. After batting .254 with 10 home runs and a .686 on-base-plus-slugging percentage across 129 games in Class AAA as a 26-year-old in 2016, Galloway batted .280 with a .909 OPS and seven home runs in 26 games at Class AAA during an injury-plagued 2017 campaign. Wylie, however, admitted the evidence of improvements is more anecdotal than scientific at this point.

This spring, Dillon had specific pitching machines, ones that can offer different types of pitches at various planes and angles, sent to the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach. With the machines, he puts players through voluntary drills designed to push their brains beyond their comfort zones. The key to the exercises, Dillon emphasized, is the batter doesn’t swing at every pitch like they’re accustomed to during a standard pregame batting practice session.

“If you think traditionally how we train, it’s swing, swing, swing, and then they go tell you to be patient in the game,” Dillon said. “So we’ll work on saying, ‘No.’ There’s a process to saying, ‘Don’t swing,’ just like there’s a process that says, ‘Swing.’ ”

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In one drill, utility man Matt Reynolds explained, there are four plates in front of each other. The machine is set up to spit fastballs at the average big league speed and release point. The hitter starts at the plate 60 feet 6 inches away and moves up after each pitch — whether he swings or not — and back down to the original plate. Reynolds said he moves up and back four times during a session. The point is to distort the brain. Each time the batter moves up, the perceived velocity increases by 10 mph. Reynolds had never done drills like that before.

“When you first step in, you’re like, ‘Damn, this is throwing hard,’ ” Reynolds said. “And then you get up to the very front plate and you’re like, ‘All right. [Shoot]. This is way too hard.’ And then you work your way back and get to the back plate and you’re like, ‘This isn’t throwing as hard as I thought it was anymore.’ And you’re actually early now. So it’s really slowing the ball down with your eyes. It’s a lot of vision work and mental process.”

While Reynolds said he’d been seeing only fastballs in drills with Dillon, Matt Adams, a powerful slugger whose kryptonite since breaking into the majors has been left-handed pitching, explained his drills have also included breaking balls from left-handed slots.

“This is a whole new world for me,” Adams said. “Everybody says that this game is more mental than anything because everybody’s got the physical tools to play this game. I think just being able to train your mind to have a better strike zone, pick up pitches better, I think that’s going to be huge.”

Trea Turner also said he’s worked with Dillon. Ryan Zimmerman recently said he hadn’t yet, but he planned to. Dillon’s methods aren’t for everyone, though, at least not yet. Bryce Harper, for example, said he doesn’t plan on incorporating the drills into his routine. Of course, Harper seems to have his cognitive skills in the batter’s box in order.

Wylie envisions a future in which cognitive drills will become the norm and clubs will incorporate cognitive data into the predictive analytic models they’re already using to construct rosters. For now, the Nationals don’t have an official partnership with SportsSense, though it’s on the table. Instead, Dillon is spreading the word every day in the cage, pushing batters and their brains to the brink, and perhaps giving the Nationals a head start in what could be the next frontier in baseball’s never-ending quest for an edge.

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