The Cubs’ dynamic and gamified infield defense training
On the backfields of Arizona, familiar sounds fill the air: bat cracks, glove pops and laughter. But on some mornings you’ll hear Ryan Serena, the Cubs Infielder Coordinator, shouting out the word “safe” just after he looks down at a stopwatch.
“Too slow,” he says as Ed Howard puts his hands on his head in disbelief. Serena pauses and makes a note on a sheet of paper before a pitching machine sitting behind home plate spits out another ball towards 2021 2nd-rounder James Triantos at third base. The drill continues.
This is a new way to train infielders. No longer do coaches stand and hit ground balls with a fungo at well below average exit velocity of a typical ground ball at the major league level (which was 84.4 mph in 2021). And now coaches time how long the players take to get the ball to first base, giving them immediate feedback on whether they would’ve nabbed a speedy base stealer.
“The machine stuff is a little different,” Triantos said. “It’s very challenging, it’s high velo, and they can change the spin on the ball to be backspin, topspin, sidespin.”
Adjusting the kind of spin allows coaches to create more game-like ground balls with substantial variance to quickly progress a fielder’s defensive aptitude. It’s just one example of how the Cubs are changing the way players train to progress players skills quicker.
The Cubs hired Serena from Rogue Baseball Performance in Englewood, Colorado in January of 2022. Serena has owned Rogue since 2014 after playing college baseball at Colorado Christian University. The high-speed machine and timing of a player’s speed in getting the ball to first base is something he has used with players, both old and young, in his facility.
“There are some days [at the Cubs facility] where we want to get a bunch more reps or it’s focused on a certain type of ground ball and we won’t do this,” Serena said. “But trying to balance those days out with lower-rep days like this, where we’re like, ‘alright, we don’t care how you do it, just get the ball [to first base] in under 4 seconds,’ helps the energy a lot.”
But there’s even more to Serena’s infield drill than just a high velocity pitching machine “hitting” ground balls and a stopwatch. There’s a competition going on between two groups of players.
On the red team stood Triantos and Luis Verdugo at third base, Reginald Preciado at shortstop, Howard and Luis Vazquez at second base and Matt Mervis at first base. They squared off against another group that featured Yeison Santana at third base, Kevin Made and Cristian Hernandez at shortstop, Pablo Ramirez at second base and a coach at first base.
Every time a player fails to get the ball to first base in under 4 seconds — about two-tenths of a second slower than the average major league home to first run time of 4.2-4.3 seconds — Serena deducts a point from the team’s total score. For about 2 minutes, the machine spits balls out to individual players who make throws to first base. Then the group will turn double plays for another minute, and the inability to do so in less than 4 seconds results in a loss of 2 points. Then the infield moves in for another minute and tries to cut off an imaginary runner at home plate in less than 3.5 seconds. A missed rep there is a loss of 3 points.
“These guys love to compete,” Serena said. “And if you throw competition at them, it sparks them.”
Serena’s role will have him jumping around to various levels throughout the season although most of his time will be spent in Arizona. He hopes to bring this level of challenge to all levels of minor league infield work, but it’s still too early in his role to know whether that will be the case. He even has aspirations of tracking the points system over the course of a season, bringing down the target time below 4.0 to match some of the fastest runners in baseball, and even video taping the infield work to help players tighten up their ability to speed up the transfer of the ball from glove to hand.
And as to who won the March 2nd competition on the backfields, just ask one of the players and they’ll be quick to let you know:
“Our team won,” Triantos said with a big smile. “By a lot.”