Pitch by pitch this fall, Jonathan Hughes fired his four-seam fastball in the Georgia Tech bullpen. With each toss, a readout of the Georgia Tech senior’s spin efficiency popped up on an iPad.
Along with terms like launch angle and exit velocity, spin efficiency is a new-fangled addition to baseball argot. They are camera- and radar-tracked measurements of how a baseball travels when thrown or struck. Spin efficiency measures the spin rate of a pitched ball – generally, the faster the spin, the better – against the axis along which the ball is spinning. The higher the efficiency, the greater the movement.
From the time Hughes started fall practice to the end – Tech finishes Saturday with a home exhibition against Samford – his efficiency has gone from low to mid 80 percent to around 93 to 95 percent, he said.
“That’s a lot of improvement in a short amount of time,” said Hughes, a fifth-year senior.
Hughes’ gains follow along with those made by others on the Yellow Jackets pitching staff in velocity, spin rate and other measurables this fall, numbers that figure to translate to more outs and fewer runs in the spring. The transformation has been propelled by coach Danny Hall’s new pitching coach, Danny Borrell, who came to Tech with a résumé and credentials that few in college baseball can match.
A two-way star at Wake Forest who went on to pitch in the New York Yankees’ minor-league chain, Borrell was hired by Hall in August after instructing 11 years in the Yankees farm system, including the past five as its pitching coordinator.
“He is like the master craftsman because he had been exposed to everything in the Yankees organization,” Hall said.
Hall said that Borrell’s embrace of technology and analytics were a significant aspect of his appeal to replace Jason Howell, Tech’s pitching coach of the past seven years who left the team at the end of the 2019 season by mutual decision. But it wasn’t only Borrell’s grasp of it, but also his ability at using those tools to develop his pitchers. Among his pupils with the Yankees – All-Stars Dellin Betances and Luis Severino.
“Because I think kids today, they get exposed to it at a young age,” Hall said. “They probably don’t understand what it all means, so that’s where he comes in to be able to analyze the data, then be able to communicate that and teach it. ‘OK, here’s what it’s saying. Now here’s how we’re going to make it work for you.’”
Hughes backed up Hall. Beyond recognizing the need to improve the spin efficiency on his four-seam fastball, Borrell gave Hughes a seemingly simple manner for doing so – to throw it the way he would his two-seam fastball. Borrell’s effectiveness energized the staff this fall.
“That’s just something that I think motivates the pitchers, is seeing the instant feedback and seeing the success,” Hughes said. “That drives them even more, so people are working harder.”
Borrell’s hire could be a momentous hire for Hall, whose pitching shortcomings have been a factor in the Jackets’ dearth of recent postseason success. After a crushing home loss to Auburn in the NCAA regional round in June, the Jackets’ string of seasons without a super-regional appearance extended to 13. With Tech winning 40 games this past season for the first time since 2011, Borrell’s expertise and the obvious lure in recruiting figures to significantly raise Tech’s standing in the ACC.
Hall gave credit to athletic director Todd Stansbury and chief financial officer Marvin Lewis for increasing the salary pool (assistant coach James Ramsey received a raise, also) to fit Borrell, particularly at a time when the athletic department budget is tight. Contract details were not available, but Hall said that a report that Borrell received a five-year deal worth about $1.5 million was not accurate.
“Todd Stansbury wants us to have a good baseball program, and he’s going to do anything in his power, within the restraints of Georgia Tech, to try to help us be good,” Hall said. “It’s great to be the baseball coach when you have an AD that’s that passionate about us being good.”
Borrell’s hire required touches of serendipity and timing. This summer, as Hall was conducting his search, he made a background check on a candidate whom he was about to interview in Tampa, Fla. Soon after the call ended, the source texted Hall back.
“And he’s like, you need to hire Danny Borrell,” Hall said. “So I’m like, you got his telephone number?”
When Hall reached out to him, Borrell was intrigued, he said. The interest wasn’t necessarily a given. It’s common for minor-league pitching coordinators to move up to serve as major-league pitching coaches. But Borrell was open to taking a turn in his career path.
In his role with the Yankees, Borrell was on the road about 150 nights a year, working a job that easily ran 16 hours a day. He was responsible for tracking the organization’s roughly 180 pitchers across its nine affiliates, a role that for him meant phone calls, logging daily updates for every outing of every pitcher, catching bullpen sessions and evaluating prospects in person.
“It was a 24/7 job for five years, and I loved every minute of it,” Borrell said.
But Borrell, married with a 13-year-old son, was open to something new, preferably a job that would permit him more time with his family. Fortune blessed Hall again. Not only was Borrell interested, but both were flying to Tampa – Hall for his interview, Borrell to return home.
They met at the Tampa airport and, within an hour, Hall said, he knew he wanted to hire Borrell.
His credentials spoke for themselves, and they were a personality fit. Borrell and his wife, Martha, got their confirmation when they met with Hall and assistant coach James Ramsey and their wives (Kara and Grace, respectively).
“Would being a pitching coach in the major leagues be great?” Borrell asked. “Yes, but being at Georgia Tech’s great, too. Just like I said before, my résumé’s at the point now where it’s not about titles. It’s not about anything. I’ve done that now. It’s just about having fun and being around my family and being around these kids here.”
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