Innovation is at the front of Miami's player development methods

April 14th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Christina De Nicola’s Marlins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MIAMI -- The Minor League season is underway, and there are plenty of new faces in charge of helping the Marlins’ system, which ranks 29th according to MLB Pipeline, get back on track.

Hector Crespo, who returns as the director of Minor League operations, has enjoyed watching new director of player development Rachel Balkovec spearhead discussions with staff, including assistant general manager Gabe Kapler and director of special operations Sara Goodrum, on how to impact players. Balkovec leads by example with her “relentless” work ethic, in Crespo’s words.

“No doubt it's outstanding,” Crespo said. “I think it's cool to get perspectives from Rachel, from Gabe, from Sara, because they come from organizations that are known for having really good development systems. Bringing a lot of philosophies, ideas and practice designs I think is only going to help us in the future. It's been cool to see us all get in a room and kind of merge our ideas together, and kind of go through each process to ensure that we're doing what's best for the guys.”

Balkovec, who was hired in mid-January, faced a quick turnaround filling out the department. She sold those interviewing for roles on the opportunity for personal growth and the chance to develop a system.

In an industry where organizations tend to copy one another, the Marlins intend to innovate. For example, rather than having practice follow traditional fungo work and batting practice, players would participate in game-like competition before Spring Training contests. The idea is that competition brings out the best in someone, and practice should be just as competitive as games.

“It’s what we want to do, and it's who we are as people, and the leadership team, and it's also what we have to do,” Balkovec told in early March about her vision. “That's definitely No. 1 on the list. And then just really thinking three years in the future, thinking five years in the future, thinking ahead. And then lastly is being a good teammate. That's what we've been talking about, and that takes on many forms. But definitely accountability is front of mind. Definitely taking care of your own job is front of mind. And so those are the things that we've been talking about a lot, just [a] broad perspective of the Marlins.”

In Balkovec’s opinion, success begins with being clear on KPIs -- or key performance indicators -- quantifiable measures of performance over time for a specific objective. KPIs provide targets for teams to shoot for, milestones to gauge progress and insights that help people across the organization make better decisions. In the case of the Marlins, Balkovec wanted all players to leave Spring Training knowing what to work on and why.

While things might be done differently moving forward, one thing remains the same: Carrying over the winning mindset that saw Single-A Jupiter capture the Florida State League championship and Double-A Pensacola reach the finals for a second straight season in 2023. Balkovec believes achieving success can be done by following the college model where every day is about winning.

“It’s a trickle-down effect of like every practice counts, every time running the bases, every time we're doing batting practice,” Balkovec said. “It all counts, everything matters. And thinking about how to transfer that mentality into professional baseball is something I've wanted to do for a long time. …

“A very overarching idea is there's a lot of talk about injury risk in baseball, and we want to talk more about performance risk. The injury risk is, ‘If we do this is, we're doing a really intense practice drill, and this person is going to dive and maybe they'll get hurt diving.’ The performance risk is, ‘If we don't do that really aggressive drill, what happens? Our players don't get better, we're not able to make the play in the game, we don't win.’ So really focusing on winning from the perspective of aggressively attacking development from every angle.”

Here’s a roundup of notable performances from the Marlins’ Minor League affiliates:

Triple-A Jacksonville
Infielder , who was a non-roster invitee at big league camp, is tied for second among all Minor Leaguers with six homers.

Double-A Pensacola
Right-hander tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball last Sunday in his first start in nearly two years. He struck out five batters in his comeback from 2022 elbow surgery.

High-A Beloit
Catcher (No. 25 prospect) has a .974 OPS with three doubles, one homer and as many walks (four) as strikeouts (four) in seven games.

Single-A Jupiter
Center fielder (No. 22 prospect) has a 1.039 OPS thanks to one double and four triples in seven games.