Cotham ready to crunch data for Reds' pitchers

Former big leaguer joins Bell's staff to break down analytics

January 9th, 2019

CINCINNATI -- The data analysis side of baseball is often generalized as being handled by young people with Ivy League degrees parked in a cubicle with eyeballs fixed firmly on a computer screen. Information gained is delivered impersonally to clubhouses.
But what if there was someone who was not only highly skilled at poring over analytical information, but was also a former big league player? That's what the Reds believe they have in former reliever , who was named their assistant pitching coach on Jan. 2.
"I think he's going to bring a great deal to not only our pitching staff but personally to me as well," Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson said. "He's got a really good handle on some of the analytical information that's out there."
Cotham, 31, did not have a distinguished Major League career, with a 7.15 ERA over 35 appearances in two seasons. After spending 2015 with the Yankees, he was sent to Cincinnati with three other players for closer . Following 23 games with the Reds in '16, a knee injury ended his playing career.
However, Cotham caught the early wave of pitchers using analytics. In 2013, he began learning techniques at Driveline, a data-driven baseball performance center near Seattle that's been embraced by big leaguers such as , Dan Straily and .
"It really opened my eyes about player development, in terms of what pitching could be and the types of tools that are out there," Cotham said. "Everybody is talking about the same things, but what really spoke to me is that this was a bit more objective. It was a bit more factual. It was, 'Here's what's going on. Here's what you're good at, and here's what you stink at.' I liked that."
For the past two years, Cotham was director of pitching for the Bledsoe Agency.
"He was doing a lot of ditch work, so to speak, just a lot of digging and deep dives with the different players they have," said Johnson, who coached Cotham at Vanderbilt University. "That's what he'll do with us too. He's a guy who takes a pitcher and dives really deep into some of the things he's doing and maybe some things he could do better."
Cotham believes he can absorb volumes of data for the pitchers and break it down into simpler terms that are easier to understand and integrate into games.
"Without some of these tools, there is still an element of guesswork. But when you combine all of those, you work hard to make it simple and digestible for the player, what I've seen turns into real big conviction into the work," Cotham said.
Cotham already leverages data provided by Statcast™ and Trackman but plans to utilize other forms of technology. That could include using Rapsodo, a ball-tracking radar in the ground that measures velocity, spin rate and spin efficiency and shows horizontal and vertical movement along with release point and extension.
Other tools include Edgertronic, a high-speed camera that films from 1,000 to 20,000 frames per second and can show hand positioning on the baseball, and FlightScope, a 3D Doppler-tracking radar.
The goal is to have Reds pitchers working smarter and more efficiently.
"Because feel, a lot of times, just isn't real," Cotham said. "A lot of guys think they're throwing a 12-6 curveball, but then you look at it and it's closer to a slider. Without high-speed cameras or really chewing into the Trackman, you could be practicing and working on your curveball for months, and it could have been addressed maybe in one session. It's dealing more in the reality and what are some absolutes."
Only a handful of teams have coaches like Cotham. The Red Sox employ former starter Brian Bannister as a vice president of pitching development and assistant pitching coach. Others, like Dan Haren for the D-backs and Jeremy Sowers for the Rays, work behind the scenes as pitching strategists. For several clubs, coaches already mine data but must fit in time for it among their myriad duties.
Besides number crunching, Cotham will also assist Johnson in working with pitchers and helping them prepare for opponents. He will be part of a relatively youthful staff under new manager David Bell. Assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker is 32 years old, while Bell is 46 and Johnson is 47. Like Cotham, Ecker was brought in partly because of his strength in analytics.
"I think it's a good mix for our group," Johnson said. "You have some guys who have been around and have done it for a while. Then you have some younger guys who are just breaking in but are really very bright and energized."
Being only a few years removed from his big league career, Cotham played alongside a few current Reds, including , and . During rehab assignments, he saw and .
Cotham felt familiarity was an asset despite a lack of coaching experience.
"I think the player is just really interested in getting better and being good at baseball," he said. "It's just trying to facilitate that, communicate really well, paying attention to the language we use and how we communicate. Since I am close to these guys in terms of age, I view that as a decent skill set of mine. I'm still speaking this language, thinking about these things, and tie into how they think about it."