When the pandemic canceled baseball’s 2020 season, two of the team’s best hitters did not have to look far to find a way to keep improving.
Senior infielder Josh Nicoloff and junior outfielder/catcher Joshua Solomon, both Southern California natives who led the 2020 team in batting average (among players with at least 20 at-bats) and home runs, respectively, returned home to find themselves within five minutes of each other. They used the sudden influx of extra time to work together on their hitting, take swings, and take videos of themselves to critique each other’s mechanics, offering tweaks and improvements.
“Some of us, individually, just love to take videos of ourselves and look at that, but I think we definitely do that a lot more as a team than we ever really did before,” Nicoloff said.
The duo’s pandemic tradition is just one of many creative methods used by the Lions to maintain some semblance of normalcy during a period marked by constant uncertainty. As a whole, the team was in uncharted waters. No longer could coaches offer quick suggestions after a hitter struggled in the batting cage or in a game, nor could players talk through a tough at-bat in the dugout.
Suddenly, every action the team made had to be deliberate, from fine-tuning the mechanics of a pitcher’s release point to cultivating the team’s culture, which could not flourish in the same way in an online format. The Lions persevered, though, and the team’s determination led to workarounds, including the use of video, analytics, and extra practice wherever it could be found. With players hailing from 10 different states across three different time zones, finding times to get everyone on Zoom is no easy task.
“It’s been tough,” senior infielder Matt Cerfolio said. “I think the biggest challenge for us has been trying to keep the team and the culture the same as it would be if we were all on campus.”
The first challenge was not being together every day, Cerfolio explained. Adapting to the limitations, the captains found ways to get everyone together on Zoom. Cerfolio and his co-captains tried to create as much of a normal experience as possible through their Thursday hitter Zooms and team group chats. Through both player-only meetings and meetings with the coaches, the Light Blue has been able to not only improve its baseball mechanics but also its team chemistry, by “talking together in group chats, just joking around,” and “trying to get to know one another better,” Cerfolio said.
In addition to the work the team puts in during group sessions, each player has individually developed their own routine for how to continue improving their baseball skills. With players separated from their teammates, it is often harder to find the motivation to get their training done.
“When you’re at school, you’re all on the bus together, you get to the field, you have practice, then you have a workout, … but when you’re on your own and it’s just like a 30-degree day, it’s hard to find that motivation to do all that by yourself,” senior pitcher Billy Black explained.
The baseball team has also taken advantage of the abundance of technology available today to improve. Hitters benefit from digital training tools such as Rapsodo and HitTrax, which give them instant feedback on their swing using data such as the ball’s exit velocity, launch angle, and spin off the bat. The combination of these technologies and video analysis allows the hitters to constantly engage with their swing and make adjustments as needed.
For pitchers, the use of data and technology is even more important. By using sensors and motion capture technology, pitchers break down their pitching motion based on the stress it puts on their bodies. Black explained that in addition to using some of the raw numbers, he works with a data analytics team, which uses motion capture—including 47 sensors attached to Black—to help break down the numbers and note any biomechanical inefficiencies.
For both pitchers and hitters, the abundance of information these technologies provide can be overwhelming at first, although they can pay dividends.
“It’s definitely a lot of information that you have got to get used to,” Nicoloff explained. “But it can be super helpful if you use it in the right ways.”
In addition to the innovative methods the team used to facilitate progress, some players turned to more traditional training methods, with Solomon and Black playing on independent league teams throughout the summer. Solomon thrived on North Dakota’s Souris Valley Sabre Dogs, where he led the team in runs created with 38, slashing .342/.449/.547 to go along with seven homers. By a few metrics, he was one of the best hitters in the entire Expedition League: Both his seven home runs and his 38 runs created were good for fourth-best in the league. Solomon said that virtual classes gave him the independence to schedule his days how he wanted.
“[During] virtual [school,] you have a lot more time than you think because you’re not running from class to get food, and I’m lucky I had food at home,” Solomon noted. “And you’re more on your own time because there’s no more team practice. So you really just get to have free rein.”
Black pitched 20 innings and recorded two wins for the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, who went 35-11 throughout the season. He struck out 18 batters and allowed 18 runs.
Though summer baseball allowed each player to get live practice—a scarce luxury during the pandemic—it also presented unique challenges that each athlete had to adjust to. For both Solomon and Black, nutrition was a newfound difficulty. Solomon found himself eating “a lot of gas station protein bars,” while Black also had to adapt to eating on the road.
“Learning how to treat your body and what works in terms of recovery is definitely what’s important for me,” Black said. “We had some pretty long bus rides, so just managing if I needed to bring food or not, just so I don’t lose weight, was probably the biggest adjustment for me.”
More recently, pitching coach Erik Supplee helped organize another method of live practice: a team trip to a baseball facility in Arizona which was generally designed to help pitchers but was available to the team’s position players as well. Though Solomon had to adapt to the pitchers’ training schedule, he said the bonding experience made the whole trip more meaningful.
“They were doing more favors for me than I was doing for them. … I cooked and cleaned, so that was a payment,” he said. “It was so worth it, getting to be with the dudes, and I got to meet some of the new players, which was awesome.”
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the team has managed to maintain an easygoing camaraderie buoyed by friendly competitions. Hitters often wrap up a day of practice with an exit velocity or launch angle competition, while pitchers like Black draw motivation from competing to see who can throw the hardest.
“We’ve kind of made a competition out of everything,” Solomon explained. The ability to track their progress with these programs has allowed the players to have raw data to back up their improvements as well as stay connected and compete with each other despite not being physically together.
As the team prepares for next season, when team activities are expected to return to a more recognizable state, the group’s chemistry will be strong because of the work it has done this year, Cerfolio said.
“They’ve done a really good job of maximizing what they can do given the kind of hand that we’re dealt,” he said. “Not only getting to know one another because they’re new, and building on that team chemistry, but also getting the work in that they need to do to be prepared for next season.”