The growth of analytics-based decision-making in baseball has impacted the game more than anyone could have imagined. We are seeing this utilization of data now more than ever before, and its influence on training, playing, and recovery practices are shaping the future of the sport. However, these methods don’t exist for women’s baseball. The lack of data-based training in the women’s game is due to, well, the lack of data. The constant evolution of statistics like batting average numbers and exit velocity speeds are much harder to track since there is very little to compare them to. While the men’s game has been advancing in the data world for the past decade, women’s baseball has embarked on a slower process and is yet to achieve the same success.
But there is reason to hope that this situation is changing. Last month, I got to experience this for myself by participating in a girls baseball hitting clinic arranged by Baseball For All, an organization focused on providing girls with opportunities to get involved in the sport, and hosted by Driveline Baseball. Driveline is an elite training facility drawing hundreds of professional athletes whose data-driven techniques are not only positively impacting and influencing players, they’re also creating the future of hitting.
Presented with the unique opportunity to receive coaching from Luisa Gauci, West LA College second baseman and current Driveline hitting intern, and Rachel Balkovec, a hitting coach for the New York Yankees, I was overjoyed to be surrounded by such amazing and insightful women. This clinic was the first of its kind, and the excitement and drive was unmatched as we were led through various hitting lessons and drills. What stood out to me most about this clinic was the work ethic of each and every one of these young women. It’s an atmosphere like no other. We all showed up every week eager to listen, to learn, and to work. The program spanned six weeks, and while we all individually benefited immensely from this experience, we were also part of a larger endeavor to help provide more opportunities for women in baseball by measuring performance.
During her scouting process and prior to the creation of this clinic, Luisa Gauci noticed a lack of baseball data specific to girls. Throughout our training, we had nothing we could use to compare our exit velocity or launch angle to except the men’s data already inputted into the various databases. One of the reasons Gauci came to Driveline was because she knew the facility and its training techniques would provide her with the means to address this issue.
“I saw a problem in baseball that I knew I could help solve, which was the lack of access girls in baseball had to elite (data driven) training,” says Gauci. “I started asking questions, created my own solutions, and documented the whole process.” Just before starting her work at Driveline, Luisa presented at the SABR/IWBC Women in Baseball Conference in September about a new scouting scale she created that is more accurate and specific to women in baseball. She focused on fastball velocity, batting average, isolated power, and base running speeds when creating the new scale, since those were some of the key components scouts were looking for. The Driveline clinic additionally provided her with important data to continue her research, and further her passion for creating more opportunities for girls looking to pursue careers in baseball.
In addition to having access to Gauci’s vision for this program and baseball expertise, we were also especially fortunate to learn from Rachel Balkovec, the first full-time female hitting coach to be hired by a Major League Baseball team. She began her career as a strength and conditioning coach at LSU before taking on the same role as an intern for the St. Louis Cardinals, and was later hired by the Houston Astros as the Latin American strength coach. With multiple MLB seasons already under her belt, Balkovec then decided to go back to school in Amsterdam to gain further insight into the processes in which the body functions. There, she studied human movement science and was introduced to Driveline’s facility for research. Her crossover from strength and conditioning to hitting started after working with the Netherlands’ baseball and softball teams, and after graduating, she came to Driveline to research eye-tracking in hitters. After connecting with a member of the Yankees’ staff while in Seattle, she was hired as a hitting coach by the team. Balkovec is currently working as a hitting coach for the Sydney BlueSox during the MLB offseason, and will return to the Yankees for the 2021 season.
In talking about her biggest accomplishment as a coach, Balkovec mentions that the most important parts for her are “…the opportunity to empower people, especially girls, and developing people as players.” At first, there were times where she faced rejection because no one had ever seen a woman do what she does, but sometimes being an underdog can be a larger advantage than one might think. Balkovec mentions that fighting from behind and pushing yourself harder than your counterparts is one of the most helpful ways to grow, and this is the type of mindset that helped her persevere through the early days of her career.
It was also a mentality that guided Gauci through her first teams, and one that provided her with the determination to continue improving her game. Originally from Australia, Gauci’s journey has also taken her to countless countries and teams, but her best baseball experiences are all in America. From summer ball in Virginia to 1 AM Wiffle ball games in Alaska to her current team at West LA College, she is excited to be able to expand the game and inspire girls around the world. “If a girl from Brisbane, Australia can travel to America, play college baseball, work at Driveline, coach, and train full time, honestly anyone can,” says Gauci.
This passion for creating more opportunities for women in sports is one that we all share, one that gives us hope for the future, excitement for how far we’ve come, but also a realization that there’s much work to be done. The Marlins’ hiring of Kim Ng, as well as the recent achievements of Sarah Fuller and Callie Brownson, add to the list of overqualified women reaching new heights in the sports industry during this historic year, but continue to prove that many of these barriers being broken are placed there by the industry itself.
Sentiments and congratulatory remarks can only get us so far; the change brought forth by these powerful women is what proves to be the most inspirational in this ever-lasting journey to equal opportunity. Luisa’s innovative pursuit of women’s baseball data is a major step in the right direction, and Rachel’s outlook on the advantageous nature of the underdog is one of the keys to a successful quest for overcoming obstacles. To have women in these fields to look up to is exciting in itself, but to have the opportunity to learn from them in this setting was truly a blessing.
The Driveline clinic brought a huge appreciation for women like Luisa, Rachel, and all the girls involved who are paving the way for more opportunities for women in baseball, and a reassurance that there are so many others who are ready to prove themselves if they’re just given a chance. “Anyone can learn if they’re given the opportunity to learn,” says Balkovec.
We are gradually seeing more spaces like this clinic that provide an environment in which young girls are encouraged and given the tools to compete. To have the ability to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing women before us provides an even greater excitement and optimism for the future of women in sports. This opportunity also revealed how helpful Driveline and this new data will be in this pursuit, as it will help women start to have the same advantages that data-analytics has been providing to men. I look forward to seeing advancements in baseball for women from the data gained from efforts like this.