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Head Games: Donnie Dewees and “Neuro Scouting”

For a player coming out of college and making the transition to professional baseball, there’s a lot of newness to adjust to. The draftees go from playing just a few games a week to playing nearly every day, and the number of games in a season jumps dramatically. Consequently, the players have to adjust to the work that preparing for playing that much baseball requires. And for players taken in the June amateur draft who sign quickly, their journey through the farm system begins almost immediately.

Donnie Dewees, the Cubs second rounder taken out of the University of North Florida last year, made the transition pretty seamlessly, at least as far as the numbers are concerned. For Low-A Eugene in 2015, he posted a .266/.306/.376 slash line in 66 games and spent time at both center and left field defensively. This year, he’s building on that success even further, and is currently roasting Midwest League pitching with a .359 batting average since July 1. Really, he’s been nearly flawless at the plate since June 25, going hitless in just two games in that span. On the whole, his OPS in 2016 is up about 70 points from last year, and he’s making a strong case of late to make the jump to High-A Myrtle Beach in the weeks to come. While he’s still with South Bend, I got the chance to talk to him after the finale of a three game series against the Diamondbacks’ Single-A affiliate in Kane County. Dewees took the time to talk with me after carrying his own bag out of the clubhouse and hoisting it onto the team bus for a trip back to South Bend, and while he talked a lot about the physical work he did last winter between Arizona and Jacksonville, Florida, Dewees said it was the “head work” since joining the Cubs organization that has left the greatest impression on him.  In fact, he spoke more frequently about the importance of mental preparation, and even credited it with the strong month he’s been having this season.

What Dewees gave much of the credit to for this adjustment in the mental preparation was something he called “neuro,” an abbreviation for a program called NeuroScouting LLC, developed in 2007 and based out of Cambridge, Massachussetts (story on a group out of Columbia doing similar work here). NeuroScouting develops technology that “trains the neural mechanisms underlying the complex visuo-motor skill of hitting,” the company shared via email. The group at Columbia describes their process as measuring “what happens in a batter’s brain as a pitch approaches.” The idea is for players to work on their reaction time, but also for teams to get a sense for “how quickly hitters can correctly identify a type of pitch as well as the time it takes for them to make a decision whether or not to swing.” Batters work on recognizing pitches as they come in and have a very short amount of time to push a button indicating whether or not they’d take a swing at it, and teams get a look at what goes on in the heads of their players as they make those decisions.

Dewees spoke highly of his work with this program, likening it to a video game and crediting it for some of the improvements he’s shown in his plate discipline: “It tests your ability to lay off pitches in short amounts of time. It’s pretty much similar to in game, except you don’t have a bat in your hand.” Nueroscouting is still very, very new to the baseball world, and unlike Dewees, not all reactions have been positive. Theo Epstein brought the idea with him when he came to Chicago from Boston, where it’s been well received with minor leaguers like Dewees. The program has not been used much beyond the minor-league levels as far as the Cubs are concerned, but some major league teams are using it at the highest levels. According to a 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal, the reaction by players has been mixed. In Tampa Bay, for instance, players are fined small amounts ($25-$50) for not using the program when they are assigned.

As an organization, the Cubs are run a bit differently though, and Dewees spoke to that somewhat, sharing his excitement at being drafted by what he called “a great franchise with true, loyal fans” and his growing enthusiasm about playing for an organization that cares for its players in as many ways as possible to support their growth on the field. “It’s awesome, they really take care of their players, they do everything they need to ensure that we’re ready for the season. They give us nutritionists, strength coaches, great trainers. They just really look out for their players,” he said, echoing some of what Matt Murton told me during an interview last month and speaking again to the changes that have come to the organization since the ownership and front office turnover of the past decade.

It’s not all just in the head though. Dewees, a strong 5’11” outfielder who looks like he could as easily leg out a triple (he has 12 already this season) as take someone down on a wrestling mat, spent 4 or 5 hours a day last offseason hitting the batting cages, hitting the weights, and running on the treadmill. He has full access to the various facilities at North Florida, and when he wasn’t training in Arizona last winter, he was there in Jacksonville preparing himself physically. “It’s not like college where you play three games, you get a day or two off, you play a midweek game, get another day or two off. It’s the grind of everyday. The travel and everything in between–it’s definitely a big transition.” But again, Dewees had as much to say, if not more, about the mental preparations as he did about the physical efforts he put in, “The big thing this offseason was just breathing, relaxing, meditation.” The Cubs have well-founded faith in his physical tools, but right now he’s appreciating the emphasis on the mental aspect of the game.

This work was particularly important when, after a hot start in April, things cooled off at the plate for Dewees through May and much of June, months in which he hit .221 and .223 respectively. I asked him about what had sparked the offensive explosion that started near the end of June, expecting at the time something in his mechanics after he’d alluded to changes in his swing, but that wasn’t the case, “When times get tough, you get a lot of stress, and you put a little tension in your body, and you can’t really hit like that. It makes it ten times harder. Your reaction time, and your discipline is a lot better when you just play the game and don’t have anything else on your mind.”

This is a discipline that’s being preached at the major league level and the kind of thing that contributes to guys like Anthony Rizzo seeing ten pitches in an at bat that ends in a three-run homer like he did on Monday night, and it’s a big reason for why Dexter Fowler has been the leadoff catalyst for the offense for the past two seasons. As an organization, the Cubs are instilling these practices at every level, and it is paying off even for the players much lower in the development path. As for Dewees, he knew he had the ability to best the pitchers he was seeing in May and June, but now that his batting average is trending upward again, he cites simple things like focusing on his breathing before an at bat and relaxing his body for the improvement. He’s also learning to be more selective, a process that admittedly isn’t a quick one, “The hardest part is laying off of bad pitches, recognizing good pitches earlier, getting good swings on the ball, and doing damage.” Dewees has done plenty of damage since the last week of June, and with the work of things as simple as breathing, conditioning, and nutrition along with the mental preparations that come from programs as advanced as NeuroScouting, the Cubs are laying the best possible groundwork for that damage to continue.

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