ST. LOUIS -- With his choice of diversions slim to none while at the Cardinals’ alternate training site this past summer in Springfield, Mo., Nolan Gorman acted on a recommendation that veteran teammates Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter had given the prospect last spring.
Gorman purchased the WIN virtual reality system and began strapping on the headset when he had free time in his hotel room. The system immerses a hitter in a VR ballpark and allows him to face any big league pitcher in hologram form, drawn from game footage to recreate pitchers and pitches in three dimensions. There are various drills to train a hitter’s swing timing, pitch recognition and pitch tracking. One drill makes the ball vanish halfway to the plate, asking the hitter to identify it.
It gives life to the scouting and film reports players use to prepare for the next day’s pitchers. In Gorman’s case, it helped him prepare for his teammate, Cardinals left-handed pitching prospect Zack Thompson, in live batting practice.
“I would take someone comparable to him -- so, like, Blake Snell,” Gorman said Saturday during a virtual Winter Warm-Up panel with his teammate and childhood best friend, Matthew Liberatore. “Honestly, I felt it turned the summer around for me a little bit as far as progressing and getting better at pitch recognition. Swinging at pitches I want to swing at. It’s an unbelievable device, and it’s just one more thing that’s going to improve hitters quite a bit.”
Technology was a large part of the Cardinals’ alternate camp this summer, bringing a different look of development for the prospects selected for the club’s player pool during the shortened season. Gorman and Liberatore, the Cards’ No. 1 pitching prospect, talked at length Saturday with moderator Dan McLaughlin about how that technology helped them take advantage of a year without Minor League games. Liberatore explained how the Cardinals put Trackman data on the scoreboard at Hammons Field, so with every pitch he threw, he could see the velocity, spin rate, movement profile, location and how the pitch played -- even if there wasn’t a batter in the box.
“I feel like I didn’t throw a pitch that didn’t have a purpose behind it, which is a really good thing, developmentally,” Liberatore said. “This is how my fastball’s playing, this is probably why I’m not getting swing-and-misses on this pitch, because it’s not tunneling properly with this pitch. And then I go out the next outing, and I make the adjustments and I get three swing-and-misses in the first time I try it.
“Go back in, look at the numbers, see what changed and boom. You get to roll straight from there. You don’t have to make game-to-game adjustments, season-to-season adjustments. I was able to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments, because I could get the feedback instantly.”
In the first virtual experience of Saturday’s virtual Winter Warm-Up lineup, Gorman and Liberatore -- who have known each other since they were 5 years old, and whose families are now close friends -- discussed everything from growing up in Arizona and playing on the same club baseball team, to the trade that brought Liberatore to the Cardinals a year ago, to their development in 2020 and what it was like facing each other so much last Spring Training and throughout the summer.
“It’s a good battle every time,” Liberatore said. “If I’m sitting 92-93 [mph] for four innings and then he steps up the plate, I’m going to throw nothing below 95 for that at-bat. It ups the ante quite a bit.”
Gorman agreed: “Not only does his fastball jump in velocity, but for some reason his slider’s a little tighter, his curveball breaks a little more and he’s just throwing them a little harder, so it’s not just his fastball that he’s pumping out. He could have a rough outing with his slider that day, but when I step up to the plate, for whatever reason, it’s the best one he’s ever thrown.”
The summer brought new tools for Gorman and Liberatore to add to their development, but nothing can replicate live game action. That’s what they hope 2021 brings -- and it might deliver them to the Majors, too. Liberatore’s progress so impressed the Cardinals that many see him arriving in St. Louis sometime in ’21, likely as a reliever late in the season.
Liberatore hasn’t pitched in a meaningful game since August 2019, and he’s itching to get back on the mound.
“I have about a year and a half worth of fire built up in my stomach right now, ready to go out and let it unload on some hitters,” Liberatore said. “I think expectations-wise, what I’m looking forward to most in 2021 is seeing all the hard work that I’ve put in behind the scenes this past year finally come to fruition.”
Saturday’s final panel saw Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler -- Jack Flaherty was scheduled but couldn’t make it -- speak with St. Louis native and Glamour Magazine editor Jessica Radloff about their wardrobe when they’re not on the field. It was a candid conversation, ranging from what their fashion means to them to Fowler taking fans on a tour of his home to see his shoe collection.
Fowler, a Jordan athlete and known sneakerhead, revealed he has three storage units full of shoes -- two of regular shoes and one of cleats -- and that even though he recently donated 500 pairs, he still has over 1,000 in his collection. Bader and Fowler discussed outfits they’ve worn to the ballpark and on road trips with Radloff, and they emphasized why they take so much pride in what they wear.
“It’s an art to me,” Fowler said. “It shows your personality.”
“It reflects who you are,” Bader added.
Other panels Saturday included Spanish broadcaster Polo Ascencio talking with Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos and assistant hitting coach Jobel Jimenez about their baseball lives and roles on the team. KMOX broadcaster Mike Claiborne then moderated an infielder session with Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, Andrew Knizner and coaches Pop Warner and Stubby Clapp.
The infielders discussed their defense, including infield signs and situational awareness, footwork and arm strength, the shift and the toughest play to make on the infield. Edman said gauging a ball at third base with a weird hop, while Carpenter and DeJong both mentioned that any play with a plus-runner on base puts pressure on the infield.
“I would say any average or above-average runner and a ball hit up the middle, where I've got to do a 360 spin,” DeJong said. “And you got that clock rolling in your head, like, 'I've got to get rid of this ball and you’re spinning in space.' To me, that’s the hardest.”
When technical difficulties kicked Claiborne off the screen, the chat briefly turned into this weekend’s NFL playoffs debate before the players began answering some questions from fans in the Zoom chat function.
Cards announce 2021 Minor League coaching staffs
The Cardinals' Minor League coaching and player development staffs were finalized Saturday with their four affiliates as well as an extended Spring Training structure that will give the organization another level in their farm system. Tim Leveque will return as the Minor League pitching coordinator, Russ Steinhorn as the Minor League hitting coordinator and Jose Oquendo as the Minor League infield coordinator. Triple-A Memphis manager Ben Johnson will also return in that role.