How the Phillies plan to reboot their minors hitting program with a 28-year-old who’s never played or coached pro ball
By Matt Gelb Dec 21, 2018 15
An unconventional path led Jason Ochart to the same room at the same hitting seminar last month in Missouri as Phillies hitting coach John Mallee. Two coaches, two different backgrounds. Ochart, 28, had parlayed a volunteer role into a $5,000 salary as hitting coach at a small NAIA school in California. There, he devised a data-driven program and posted his ideas on Twitter, where an ambitious baseball mind took notice and invited him to work at a training think tank called Driveline Baseball. Whereas Mallee, 49, has spent the last 23 years as a coach in professional baseball.
But Ochart and Mallee began a conversation at the Slugfest Coaches Clinic in November, and Mallee — an admirer — challenged Ochart to think about how he’d solve some player-development problems. The Phillies wanted to revise their hitting development. The two men, both of whom had studied kinesiology, shared common ground. “That was the start of it,” Ochart said. And, now, the Phillies will hand the keys to their minor-league hitting program over to a 28-year-old forward-thinker who has never played or coached in pro ball.
Ochart was hired this week as the club’s minor-league hitting coordinator. He will have full latitude to design a program similar to the one he built at Driveline, which captured the attention of numerous major-league organizations. The Phillies reached an arrangement with Ochart that will permit him to still spend some offseason time at Driveline, located in suburban Seattle.
His hiring is the latest example of a financial and technological arms race in Major League Baseball that has spread to player development. More and more teams have paid higher salaries to hire big-name college coaches; others, like the Twins, paid Driveline as consultants. The Dodgers hired an unorthodox 32-year-old hitting strategist to be their major-league hitting coach. The White Sox hired a hitting consultant who built his reputation on social media.
The Phillies have invested in recent seasons in technological upgrades at the player-development level. Their former farm director, Joe Jordan, resigned in September as philosophical differences over the hitting program emerged. He was replaced by Josh Bonifay, who worked in development for the Astros, a franchise heralded for its technological advancements. A more data-reliant approach was implicit in the leadership change.
Bonifay was hesitant to describe this as a “revamp” of the hitting program.
“You want to provide a systematic approach for players,” Bonifay explained. “You want to provide them with as much information as you can. You want to provide them with the ability to assess, reassess and analyze hitting mechanics.
“As an organization, we want to make sure everybody is collaborative, that everybody is working together. We are using every ounce and every resource possible to analyze and watch our players. We want to use the technologies that are available to give our players the best chance possible to succeed night in and night out. That’s what we’re about. It’s going to be a unified group.”
In Ochart, the Phillies believe they have found someone to implement the technology while not just regurgitating the data it generates. Ochart said his task at Driveline went beyond creating a data-driven program for hitters — to researching a better way to teach hitting. He described his approach as, “applying fundamentals of sports science and utilizing all of the new technology correctly.” Now, rather than working with college hitters and curious pros who venture to Driveline’s facility in Kent, Wash., Ochart will be based at the Phillies’ complex in Florida.
“It’s something I have always wanted to do,” Ochart said. “I didn’t think it was possible, considering I never played (professionally). But seeing how things have changed in the last few years, it has been exciting. As soon as the opportunity arose, I was ready to explore that option.”
Jason Orchart (right), the Phillies’ new minor-league hitting coordinator. (Marques Gagner / Driveline Baseball)
In 2013, his senior season at Vanguard University in Southern California, Ochart hit .313 with a team-leading 25 stolen bases. In addition to kinesiology, he intended to pursue another degree in physical therapy. He instead veered into coaching because he wanted to tutor his younger brother, Adam. He volunteered as a coach for a year at Menlo (Calif.) College, and then served as the hitting coach for two more years. He played and coached one summer in the Swedish Elite League for a team called the Leksand Lumberjacks. Then, in September 2016, he joined Driveline to start a hitting program that would branch from the successful biomechanical and analytical pitching program imagined by Kyle Boddy, the company’s founder.
“It is our passion,” Ochart wrote in 2016, “to provide our athletes with the best possible program, not designed by mindless regurgitation of conventional wisdom, bias, and ego, but driven by science and data.”
Ochart said he fell victim to that conventional thinking as a player. He studied biomechanics in college, then applied them after his playing career to the physics of an optimal swing. It worked at Menlo. “The biggest thing that attracted me to him,” Boddy said in an interview last month, “was that he developed previously shit players into pretty good ones.” That continued at Driveline.
“Everything I wanted in a coach then and now is what Jason is,” Boddy said. “He’s an incredible worker, approaches things from a data-driven aspect, excellent feel, and not afraid to delegate and learn stuff on the fly. He is intelligent, no doubt about it, but he doesn’t rely on it very much, which is the hallmark of a good manager; he lets his employees do their thing and learn from failure.”
Bonifay said Ochart “fits our culture” and what attracted the Phillies to him were his understanding of swing mechanics and abilities to make data relatable.
“He obviously was an accomplished player in college,” Bonifay said. “He’s been an accomplished coach in college, as well. He was the director of hitting at Driveline. It’s not really unorthodox, I wouldn’t say. I think baseball is trending … it’s not unusual. It’s not like he does anything that’s different than anybody else. The Cubs, the Astros, other organizations are using technology. But, also, they have coaches in place who played the game and played it for a long time. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here.”
The Phillies will surround Ochart with hitting instructors who have pro experience. They have hired Russ Steinhorn, who worked last year at Clemson University and with the Astros before that, to be an assistant hitting coordinator. They hired Rob Segedin, a 30-year-old former big-league outfielder, as a minor-league hitting coach. They have hired Ed Lucas, a 36-year-old former big leaguer, as a player development information assistant. There are more hires and more technological investments to come. It’s all designed to improve the success rate in developing position players, an area where the Phillies can do better.
“I’ll reiterate this: There’s no fool-proof plan for hitting. There’s no fool-proof technology,” Bonifay said. “But if there are things that will help your swing path and things that will help your swing, then you can evaluate them and see them. Obviously, you can teach it a little better once you start analyzing. But you still have to get in the box. You still have to hit above 95 mph. You still have to compete. It’s just the hardest thing to do in the world.”
Ochart expects to use much of the same technology with the Phillies as he did at Driveline — HitTrax, Blast Motion, K-Vest, high-speed and high-definition cameras — and he was drawn to the Phillies because they have already invested in some of that technology. The analytics revolution swayed toward benefiting pitchers, but the gap has started to shrink, Ochart said. The technology is just another way to connect with a teenager in rookie ball who was raised in a digital world and exposed to some new hitting ideas through social media. Being at Driveline, Ochart said, provided him a two-year head start in constructing the kind of program he will bring to the Phillies.
Now, there is less of a stigma about enacting the type of change an outsider like Ochart envisions. It’s a bet the Phillies will make.
“I think in years past that would have been a big problem,” Ochart said. “But things are changing so fast, especially this offseason. Certainly, I’ll have to earn the respect. I hope to do it through hard work and being able to help. That’s how I’ve earned the respect of players throughout my career. Helping them. Communicating with them. At the end of the day, my experience with pros is, if you have information that can help them get better, they’ll listen.
“The fact that I didn’t play, it matters. But it doesn’t matter as much as it used to.”
The Athletic’s Eno Sarris contributed to this story.Top photo: Jason Ochart (right) spent two years as the director of hitting at Driveline Baseball and improved hitters using biomechanics and data research. (Marques Gagner / Driveline Baseball