For the second straight offseason, a top task for the Washington Nationals is filling a number of new roles, many of them aimed at modernizing an operation that has lagged behind the times.
- For the major league staff: a biomechanics expert working with pitchers.
- For research and development: two baseball systems engineers, two analysts and a web developer.
- For player development: an assistant director of player development technology and strategy; a biomechanics expert working with pitchers; a biomechanics expert working with hitters (consultant); an assistant strength and conditioning coordinator; a manager of minor league logistics; two clubhouse assistants in West Palm Beach, Fla.; and five performance associates (one each at an affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Wilmington, Del.; Fredericksburg; and West Palm Beach).
A guiding motive of the positions — or at least the bulk of them — is to effectively process and analyze a new stream of information from Hawk-Eye technology.
At the end of this past summer, the Nationals outfitted six of their ballparks with Hawk-Eye systems: Nationals Park and team facilities in Rochester, Harrisburg, Wilmington, Fredericksburg and West Palm Beach. Hawk-Eye data, unique in its ability to track player movement, will be the top responsibility for the performance associate at each affiliate. The data also will be critical to how the three biomechanics experts function within the organization, with one joining pitching coach Jim Hickey, quality assurance coordinator Jonathan Tosches and manager of major league strategy David Higgins — all members of Manager Dave Martinez’s staff.
When the team began installing the Hawk-Eye technology, multiple members of the front office were worried about not having enough personnel to sift through the coming wave of biomechanical information. Beyond giving the Nationals fresh and current ways to develop their players, the partnership with Hawk-Eye adds them to a data-sharing network that spans much of the majors, which Washington can use to evaluate opponents and possible acquisitions.
Before the 2020 season, MLB switched from TrackMan radar to Hawk-Eye cameras to collect data for Statcast. By opting for Hawk-Eye’s best available tech throughout the organization, the Nationals will have access to industry-standard ball-tracking information and cutting-edge player movement data for their biomechanics experts, analytics team, coaches and strength and conditioning staff.
The personnel additions build on a facelift that started a year ago. After the Nationals’ tear-down began in July 2021, ownership greenlit the expansion of what was the smallest player development staff in Major League Baseball. Washington brought on more coaches, more coordinators and — perhaps most importantly — a new director of player development technology and strategy, David Longley, who will soon oversee an assistant director and the five performance associates. And though limited plans to improve the major league roster made it easier to spend on personnel, this second effort is intriguing for a few reasons beyond trying to win more games.
The first factor is the potential sale of the franchise. As the Lerner family continues to talk with prospective buyers, investing in technology and data-focused positions could help present the Nationals as healthy and growing in the right direction.
That doesn’t mean Washington will be mistaken for the Tampa Bay Rays or Los Angeles Dodgers when it comes to modern practices in player development and scouting. But making these changes — which are far cheaper than running a competitive payroll — can’t hurt outside perception and evaluation of the team.
Another factor, then, is how General Manager Mike Rizzo fits into the narrative of overdue growth. Rizzo, 61 and a traditional scout to his core, could soon be pitching himself and his front office to a new owner (or ownership group). If that happens, showing tangible gains in data and technology would reflect well on him, even if they are mostly in service of playing catch-up.
According to two people in the front office, Rizzo has been “very open” to adding analysts, programmers, biomechanics experts and performance associates — as well as Hawk-Eye technology at every minor league site — whereas in past years he may have been more likely to push back.
Part of that might be recognizing the need for adaptation after three consecutive last-place finishes. Looming for Rizzo, though, could be the challenge of keeping the job he has held for more than 13 years.
“We’re getting there,” Rizzo said at MLB’s general managers meetings in early November, answering a question about the first year of player development under De Jon Watson. “We’re not there yet. We have plenty of room to get better.”
Any conversation about the Nationals, data and technology should include familiar caveats. If they want to really improve their scouting, player development and game-planning processes, they can’t stop at hiring more forward thinkers. Those forward thinkers must also be empowered by key decision-makers, whether that’s Martinez, Watson or Rizzo himself, and not be pushed into the background with their work watered down before it gets to the players — or kept from the players entirely. An increase in direct contact with the players would be a critical step.
So far, advancements of the past 12 months have not been met with necessary shifts in organizational culture. But there are still opportunities to fix that.