Down on the Farm is an ongoing series where we conduct a deep dive with the minor league affiliates. We will interview coaches, players, and executives to gain access to some of the cool stories that ESPN would never touch. Sometimes fun, sometimes informational, we aim to give you the full minor league experience. Today, we sit down with Travis Fitta, the brand new Hitting Coach for the Class A short season Eugene Emeralds.
During the pandemic shutdown of baseball, there have been a lot of baseball people with a little more free time on their hands. One of those guys is Travis Fitta, new to the Cubs organization as a hitting coach. A mutual friend introduced us over Twitter, and we got to talk on the phone for over an hour about baseball. Travis shared a ton of insight with me about minor league operations and player development.
Travis is young, just turned 30. I bring this up because we would have both been in high school at the same time for a year. It seems that as baseball shifts into a more data driven phase, there are some younger guys with fresh ideas who are getting opportunities they couldn't get just 10 years ago. Plus it's super cool to think that someone my age can be a professional baseball coach. I'm not that old (yet).
Travis served in the military for almost 6 years, then had a meteoric rise as a hitting coach over the last 2 years. Travis is too modest to admit this, but he has a fantastic approach to coaching hitters. He's been very successful and has risen through the ranks at a pace I've never seen. He literally went from coaching 13 year olds in 2017, to high school, to college, then to the pros in 2019. At that rate, maybe we'll see him in Chicago by 2021 (half kidding). Travis had so much insight that was hard for me to process it all. Talking with him was like drinking from a fire hose, in terms of all the info he shared with me.
Given the handful of years you've been coaching, and how many different positions you've held, do you feel like it was a quick rise through the ranks?
A lot goes into it--more than just moving somewhere new. It's taking the idea that I have to pack up my life into my car again, which for the last few years that car has been home, taking me from one state to another all across the country. I didn't make a ton of money. I was really doing this because I loved doing it and each step was further up. And for me it was just, how high can we go with this? How far can we get with this? Money has never been a motivating factor for me with coaching. So every move that I made, every step that I took with this, I think was coming from a place of, "I just wanted to be around the best people."
What is your process for coaching and helping players improve?
I think first and foremost I have to do my homework. I have to understand the type of player you are based on your background and data. There's so much technology that gets passed around with player profiles, it's an actual package that comes to to us. We really want to collect as much information on hitters as possible. None of it is viewed negatively. We just need to understand what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are and maybe what your mobility looks like.
On day one, I think my job as a coach is to get to know you beyond just what you do on a baseball field. I think that is is important to really understand who these guys are as people, because if you understand who they are and what makes them tick, they'll listen and they'll be all about it. For my hitters, it's "you don't work for me. I work for you. Whatever you need, I'm here for. If you want to stay till four in the morning in the cage, I'll do that with you." This is what I love to do. I'm going to be there.
We do everything starting with physical assessments. We have batted ball profiles where we can see what your ball is doing off of the bat. We usually talk a lot about how your swing is doing now. We will measure everything that we can measure. We use a lot of team cameras, and a lot of devices to generate individualized programs for the players. And then all of the coaches are all on the same page, whether it's the manager, myself, or even the mental skills coach.
How do you sort through the data to generate these individual reports for hitters?
Every professional organization has an R&D department and their job is to really go through all those raw numbers and give us a packet and profile for each player, which contains abbreviated versions of what that data's telling us. My job is to take that information and come up with a program for the hitter. I have to give the data to the player in a way that he understands it. When players are comfortable with information, they only want more because these guys are very smart.
We use video with ultra slow frames per second. We can see the tiniest little details going on. But as coaches, we will look at the data platforms first, because it can give us a good indication of what's going on with your swing before we even look at that video. We have to be wary of forming a bias just from observing one piece of data. Video allows us to see the entire swing from the beginning, and see if a popup is because of foot placement, instead of what coaches used to assume as a shoulder dip.
The more we go along, the more my mantra becomes "I'm supported by data." When things are going well, it's all on the player because he's the one in the box taking the swings. When things are going wrong, it's on me. I'm going to build you a better program so you don't have to fail anymore. And that's an organizational philosophy laid out by Justin Stone (the Cubs' new Director of Hitting). From top to bottom, all the coaches are going to be on the same page helping players improve.
With players at the Class A level, are you doing more complete revamps of their approach or just polishing things?
It can go either way. Again, we are trying to individualize the hitters, instead of force feeding a once size fits all kind of plan. We go back to all the building blocks of hitting, and use that to build up our hitters for both a solid season, but also a solid career.
We will do things like understand more about the player's bodies and how they are capable of physically moving. We spend a lot of time on fundamentals like diet. Because each year of baseball always has an adjustment period. There's always foundational needs that go into hitting. So what we try to do as an organization is building that base, and giving you the information to both maintain and grow.
Success at the Class A level isn't always about an increase in OPS. It can be a low whiff rate, or a low chase rate. It goes beyond just statistics and is a player having good at bats. We hope that better at bats translate into higher stats. Those two things work together. At my level, we try not to focus on results when a player is working on something. You have to have success, but we are also preparing you for Wrigley Field, not just to be a career low A player.
Do you work a lot with pitch recognition? Or do players at that level know how to tell the difference between say, a fastball and a slider?
We try to teach what pitchers are going to throw based off arm slot and spin. Technology has come a long way where players can basically take 30 at bats before a game, so that allows us to help them recognize what's coming based off the little details. They are constantly getting more comfortable at recognizing pitches.
Beyond the standard metrics like batting average, OPS, etc, are there any stats you place an emphasis on when determining a player's success?
Everybody is going to have their own ideas as to what they think is important for judging success. For me, exit velocity is king. Especially at the lower level, if you're not hitting the ball very hard, at say a 95 MPH average, you are just not going to have much success the higher up you go. The harder you hit the ball, and the more often you hit the ball hard, the more success you'll have, no matter what level of baseball you are at.
Low strikeout rates are important, but more so, I want to see low out of zone chase rates. I want to see good decisions at the plate. A lot of times, a player might have what's considered to be a good at-bat if they foul off pitches. I like to see guys own the strike zone, and control that area. The guys that own that square go far.
How does the Chicago Cubs organization stay connected from top to bottom, from Eugene to Chicago and every stop along the way?
Most of the guys live in Chicago. Justin Stone does things like bring in every single hitting coach in the organization to Chicago for a week. We got to be at his facility, and meet with Theo as well as everyone in hitting. What we are doing is connected to help at the major league level. The Cubs work on not just developing players, but also developing coaches. In my short time, I've worked closely with people in Chicago. I'm in constant communication with people from the R&D department and coordinators.
How well do the Cubs take care of their people?
Coming in, I was told the Cubs were the envy of the league. They are an organization that I believe has taken care of everybody. They treat you with nothing but respect... the way that I've seen them take care of players, especially with the COVID situation. They helped players find their way home and found a home for the players who couldn't go back home. Everyone is extremely happy to be a Cub. Every time we get news from the upper level. It's always "we're going to take care of you."