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The first time Missouri baseball assistant coach Dillon Lawson held a pitch-recognition training session, he looked at his players and realized they had no clue what they had just seen.
Lawson loaded up a video of a pitcher from a batter’s-eye view. The hurler went into his wind-up, but just as he released the ball, the screen went black.
The challenge to the hitters was to determine what type of pitch was on its way.
“First day, you’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Where’s the rest of it?’ ” junior Trey Harris said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s been so much fun to learn as I go. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”
Lawson, with the help and research of SIU Carbondale professor Peter Fadde, developed a pitch-recognition system in 2013 at Southeast Missouri State. Too many Redhawks were swinging at high fastballs or chasing breaking pitches in the dirt, and Lawson couldn’t coach them out of it. Lawson found Fadde’s research, and the two worked to put it into practice.
SEMO was the first program to use the system, but other schools have contacted former SEMO and current Missouri Coach Steve Bieser and Lawson about setting up their own version.
The video session forces the players to pick up cues from the pitcher — whether it be arm angle or the placement of a finger on the ball — so that the batters know what pitch is coming. When the hitter knows how the ball will track, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of hitting.
When Bieser accepted the job at Missouri, he rehired Lawson, who had been coaching in the Houston Astros system.
“It teaches you to pick up the release point and really zone in,” said infielder Robbie Glendinning, a junior transfer from Northern Iowa Area Community College. “It translates really well, because pitchers, they try so many different things now, and hitters are kind of falling behind. It’s a good way to catch up.”
During the past four years under Bieser and Lawson, the Redhawks became a dangerous offensive team. In 2013, when the system was implemented, SEMO hit .285 with 24 home runs while drawing 210 walks.
By 2016, when the Redhawks made the NCAA Tournament, they hit .309 with 60 home runs while drawing 335 walks.
Missouri’s best season in that time was the 2015 squad that hit .258 with 41 home runs. The Tigers have consistently ranked among the worst-hitting teams during their SEC tenure.
“We’ve struggled the past couple years on the offensive side, so maybe there’s a reason we should be working on things like that,” Harris said. “We played SEMO, and they always could hit, so I’m down.”
Lawson doesn’t yet have SEC pitchers in the study videos, but he’s got better. Among the clips are hard-throwing MLB pitchers such as Zach Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Seeing them has already helped.
“It’s good. You can turn a 95 mph fastball into an 85 mph fastball, it seems like,” said Kameron Misner, a freshman outfielder from Poplar Bluff.
The Southeastern Conference is loaded with pitchers who will be selected in the early rounds of the MLB draft. Teams can parade a succession of pitchers who top 90 mph regularly.
Any hint the Tigers can use to even the field will be a benefit.
“They’re not going to move the mound back. It’s going to stay 60 feet, 6 inches,” Lawson said. “But you’ve got guys on the mound that are seemingly throwing harder and harder. The only advantage hitters can get — or at least time that they can get back — is by recognizing the pitch sooner.”
Lawson also challenges his hitters in the batting cage to keep them mentally sharp. Rather than letting them step in and hack away, he’ll challenge the batters to only swing at a certain type of pitch.
“We’re asking them to be on point and attentive,” Lawson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get into good habits that way.”