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‘Pitching Ninja’ is turning Twitter into a digital scouting showcase. MLB teams have noticed.

Lance McCullers Jr. of the Houston Astros is a strong backer of Rob Friedman, who runs the "Pitching Ninja" and "Flatground" social media accounts. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Rob Friedman, a pitching coach outside Atlanta, felt unleashed. The man who runs the “Pitching Ninja” social media accounts had been locked in a battle with Major League Baseball and Twitter last spring over the suspension of his popular account, which features captivating videos of baseball’s nastiest pitches.

Now Friedman had his account back, with Major League Baseball’s blessing to celebrate Noah Syndergaard’s “Black Magic Sinker” or Blake “The Witch” Treinen’s 99-mile per hour fastball that shimmies in and out of the strike zone. His online following nearly doubled between his April 2018 suspension and the new year, pushing him over 100,000 followers. (He also signed a modest deal with Major League Baseball when his account was restored; terms were not disclosed.)

“It was almost like I came back with a vengeance,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I wasn’t mad at anybody, but I knew I could tweet whenever I wanted to. More people noticed me. Pitchers came to my defense. I felt more confident in what I was putting out there.”

And so the man who once characterized his digital struggle with the most analog of major American sports as a contest between “the suits” and “the people” decided to bring his two decades of coaching experience to social media. This month he launched an entirely new service, called “Flatground,” named for a type of training session for pitchers.

Instead of showcasing professionals, he solicited videos of high school and amateur hurlers. He’d retweet the footage and ask “Pitching Twitter” — an online community of college and pro evaluators, coaches and pitchers — to weigh in with tips and advice and to connect prospects with college recruiters or professional scouts.

“I just saw a need in the baseball community to prevent people from falling through the cracks,” said Friedman, whose son pitches at Georgia Tech. “This is something I’ve seen over and over again with my son coming up in travel ball and high school. And now there were guys who were asking me to retweet them so they could be seen.”

Two of those pitchers were playing independent league baseball, meaning they were not signed with an affiliated professional team. Both could hit 102 mph on a radar gun.

“If you’re throwing 102 and can’t be seen, what about all these other guys I’ve seen who are good and throw 88 and 90?” Friedman asked. “They’re not going to be seen or go to college.

“Showcase ball and travel ball is expensive. Not everyone can afford it. And that means not everyone can afford to be seen. Maybe this way we could break down some barriers and help people get noticed in the process.”

At least for some of the prospects who have submitted footage to Friedman in recent months, the publicity has helped them connect with college and pro scouts. Both independent league pitchers Friedman mentioned have signed, with the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles.

Major and minor league pitchers, including Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr., and Washington Nationals minor league prospect Sterling Sharp, have chimed in to offer advice. Sixty-six baseball training facilities across the country (plus three in Canada and one in Australia) have offered pitchers free access to mounds to tape bullpen sessions to tweet at Flatground.

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That footage also has college coaches paying attention. Preston Orr is a senior right-hander from Princeton High 50 miles north of Dallas. For years, he attended showcases and put together tape to send to college recruiters without any luck, he said in a phone interview.

Then last Wednesday he tweeted clips of an after-school bullpen session, and Friedman retweeted the videos on the Flatground and Pitching Ninja accounts. By Friday, 12 college programs — mostly Division III and junior colleges — had asked him to visit their campuses. Two offered partial scholarships. By Monday, Orr’s video had been viewed more than 25,000 times and he’d been contacted by more than 20 schools, he wrote on Twitter.

“We’re down to our last few scholarships, and I’d love to put one on you for pitching,” one junior college coach from Montana emailed, saying he’d seen Orr via Flatground.

“Playing baseball in college is what I’ve been trying to do for years, but I thought it was not for me,” Orr said. “So this was my last try. I thought maybe [Friedman] could help me get a few more miles per hour on my fastball and then, boom. All this attention.”

Scouts have asserted for generations that they will go and look wherever they must to find talented prospects. But even major league coaches and pitchers say they’ve seen capable players passed up because scouts never found them or didn’t notice them.

Lantz Wheeler spent a decade coaching college baseball and now consults with 25 major league clubs’ pitching staffs. Many big-time scouts, he said, will “chase the radar gun,” disregarding anyone who can’t touch 90 mph. But there are plenty of talented pitchers who throw better than 85 mph and could become solid ballplayers with a little coaching.

Even within the Astros organization, McCullers said in a phone interview, some players will say they were lucky a scout happened to be at their game or workout when they had a good day. And the chance to be seen in elite baseball circles can sometimes cost thousands of dollars and necessitate cross-country travel.

A digital clearinghouse such as Flatground, which is free for prospects and scouts, can act as an online showcase, McCullers and Wheeler said, where pitchers who fly under the radar can get noticed.

“[Rob] is giving these kids a chance for exposure, and free exposure,” said McCullers. “And it’s great because there’s a lot of kids I’ve come across in my life who play basketball or football or other sports or just don’t play baseball anymore because they just didn’t get noticed.”

The most successful videos on Flatground include camera angles either behind the pitcher or catcher to show a pitch’s movement and include a radar gun, so evaluators can get a true reading of velocity, Friedman said. A side angle is also important so a pitcher’s mechanics are clear.

But that new tradition flies in the face of one of baseball’s “unwritten rules,” that pitchers don’t widely share their grips, releases or other tricks of the trade. They’re considered proprietary and get passed between coaches and teammates with an unspoken honor code that they won’t be distributed.

But McCullers, one of Pitching Ninja’s most active backers, has tweeted entire threads dissecting how he throws a certain pitch. He has even shared videos over direct message with Friedman and other young players with step-by-step instructions on how he throws his curveball or sinker.

“We want to continue to see the progress of the game, even if that means sharing your secrets,” McCullers said of like-minded pitchers and coaches. “I was lucky. My father pitched in the big leagues and I was exposed to knowledge and secrets about pitching early on.

"No kid who loves pitching and baseball shouldn’t have the access to learn about the game. That’s what social media is all about . . . I just think there’s a lot of kids out there — who knows if they’re the next great big leaguer or not, but they deserve a chance to show what they’ve got.”

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