With the current state of baseball and the world – and just because we just think it’s a neat idea – we are doing a series on “the glue guys” of the baseball world, people who aren’t players or a part of teams but who are important connectors and folks who amplify the joy of baseball for others.
First up, the Pitching Ninja (AKA, Decatur, Georgia’s own Rob Friedman):
Rob Friedman is better known by his online moniker ‘Pitching Ninja’ (@PichingNinja). The name was sort of stolen from his son, Jack, who is 1/4 Japanese and is currently a pitcher at Georgia Tech. Someone once called Jack ‘Ninja,’ but the nickname didn’t stick and was therefore fully available in the public domain to be pilfered by Dad.
For baseball fans, especially fans of pitching, @PitchingNinja is a must-follow account. The equivalent of “Must See TV” on Twitter.
At @PitchingNinja, Rob breaks down video of MLB and College pitchers and shares it out to his over 205,000 followers on Twitter. He posts GIFs and videos, sometimes annotated or overlaid, that highlight some of the nastiest pitches from the best arms in the game. It has become a badge of honor – even among Cy Young award winners and staff aces – to be featured on @PitchingNinja. One ESPN article even referred to certain pitchers as ‘PitchingNinja Bait” meaning “A pitcher whose pitches are so unrepentantly sexy they are likely to be turned into GIFs by invaluable Twitterer, @pitchingninja.”
In addition to a legion of fans on Twitter and Instagram, among the list of @PitchingNinja fans and active followers are Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell of the Tampa Rays, outspoken Twitter personality in his own right Trevor Bauer of the Cincinatti, Lance McCullers of the Houston Astros, and Marcus Stroman of the Mets, as well as retired former MLB pitchers turned MLB commentators like Al Leiter and David Cone.
As Rob has explained, the name of the game is sharing the good stuff, whether it’s giving fans an inside look at grips or mechanics, showing a MLB pitcher’s particularly nasty pitch sequences and stuff, or highlighting a relative unknown pitcher so he can get noticed. According to Rob, he sources his material by either following real-time play by play of his favorite pitchers, as well as from recommendations from his network.
Max Scherzer, 90mph Slider and 84mph Changeup, Overlay.
There are real live human beings who have to hit this stuff. 😂 pic.twitter.com/JGwGy8noM5
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 7, 2019
When asked to name filthiest of the filthy stuff-wise, @PitchingNinja tapped Max Scherzer’s slider and “anything that Jordan Hicks throws.”
2019 PitchingNinja Award for Most Unfair AB. 🏆
Jordan Hicks, 102mph Inside Two Seamer & 2 103mph Inside Two Seamers. 😱☠️
The fine line between death & going down looking.
[2nd year in a row Hicks wins this Award] pic.twitter.com/qGougYuQMX
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 20, 2019
Rob was kind enough to sit down and answer some of our questions about his love of the game, what he does @PitchingNinja and FlatGround, why he does it, why it is so popular with fans and ballplayers, and how baseball can adapt and connect with its fan-base going forward:
Good Men Project Sports:
When did you start doing what it is you do (i.e., @PitchingNinja and more recently @FlatGroundApp) and why?
“I started @PitchingNinja in 2014 and the two FlatGround accounts (@flatgroundapp and @flatgroundbats) in early 2019.
I originally started PitchingNinja because I had been coaching high school baseball as a volunteer coach, coaching travel baseball and coaching my own kid since 2006.
During that time, I really focused on the mechanics of pitching, because as a coach, I never wanted to teach kids the “wrong thing” and just teach what I was taught growing up. I wanted to learn the ins and outs of every detail about pitching, so I didn’t mess up a generation of young pitchers. I broke down every piece of video I could find, bought and worked with every gadget there was, and talked to pretty much every top pitching coach to pick their brains.
After years of doing this, I figured I didn’t want all this information to die with me if I ever stopped coaching, so I decided to start putting out what I learned on Twitter to help more people.
After a little while, I had a ton of coaches and MLB pitchers following me and asking me questions to learn stuff. Then I also realized that fans loved highlights and learning about pitches….and so did the MLB pitchers themselves! So in addition to teaching the game, I started putting out highlights of filthy pitches, sick Ks, etc. to give pitchers their due!
Randy Johnson, Hall of Fame Sword. ⚔️😂
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 21, 2020
Once I had a ton of MLB pitchers and scouts, and college pitchers and coaches following me, I realized there’s a lot more I could do for the game. I had tweeted out two pitchers who were playing in Independent baseball (throwing over 100+mph) and they ended up getting picked up by minor league/affiliated teams due to the attention they got from those tweets. I realized that if guys throwing absolute smoke were being overlooked, there were a ton of other players who were being overlooked as well.
Masahiro Tanaka, 92mph Fastball and 88mph Splitter, Overlay/Slow. pic.twitter.com/uOXTLKYuI9
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 7, 2018
I also realized from watching my own kid’s development, playing on expensive travel teams, buying $400 bats and $400 gloves, travel, showcases, etc. that baseball was leaving out a lot of players who couldn’t afford all that. I was well-off, but there were many families who had to take weeks off of work, paying money they didn’t have, skipping vacations, all to get their kid a look so he could have an opportunity to play at the next level. I don’t think it’s in the best long term interest of baseball to make the game a “rich kid’s sport” in the US (it isn’t anywhere else) and have parents feel like they have to buy their kids’ opportunities. Not to mention the geographic barriers for finding kids (either out of country or in lower populated towns in the US) and the limits of college recruiting budgets.
Additionally, since many of my followers at PitchingNinja are baseball coaches and MLB Pitchers, I thought they could give helpful advice for free. I wanted to help do my part to fix what I saw as a broken system.”
— Jamie Bodaly (@jamesbod) March 23, 2020
“I started FlatGround to use my followers to help high school pitchers, college pitchers and overlooked Independent League Pitchers and Free Agents find college teams or affiliated org positions—basically to let them take advantage of my virtual baseball rolodex. And also to help educate young pitchers and parents with free coaching.”
In so doing, what Rob is seeing is a sort of ‘Moneyball’-type inefficiency with identifying “diamond in the rough” pitching talent: “People are figuring out that you can use coaching experience seeing pitchers and metrics to identify pitchers who you might be able to develop – add some velo here or fix something mechanically there – who can be successful. Being able to do this well is really important for teams.”
“I’m really just trying to break down barriers and grow the game. I do all of this or free, since I never ever want to make a dime off a kid or family. It’s just not what I do—or ever would do.”
What do you think @PitchingNinja brings to the baseball fan-base – why has it been so successful?
“I’m pretty confident that it’s my charming personality and hilariously wicked comments. (Just kidding.)
I think the pitching community was getting overlooked in highlights. On ESPN, all you’d see was pitchers giving up dingers or great plays by fielders. Pitchers were being left out. So, my account became the place where pitchers got the attention they deserved. I’ve heard stories of MLB pitchers sitting together and watching the filthy highlights on my account, so they love it.
2019 PitchingNinja Sword of the Year (Fastball). 🏆⚔️
Walker Buehler. “Mama, just killed a man…” ⚰️🎼 pic.twitter.com/npZjPDbqPi
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 20, 2019
Additionally, I do a little coaching & teaching on PitchingNinja and help the next generation learn the game. I also maintain a large free dropbox of mechanics, pitch grips and mental game quotes, linked to my account to help coaches, moms and dads, and kids learn from the best.
It’s really a one stop shop for all things pitching!
I also try to point out small details that fans may have missed during the game.
And, since my account is followed by a ton of MLB pitchers, it gives fans the ability to interact with their favorite players.
The work I’ve been doing got noticed by ESPN, and then they hired me to be a part time pitching consultant/analyst, to help illustrate the ins and outs of the nastiest pitches for their MLB and college broadcasts, which brought even more attention. It’s fun!”
How do you do it? How much time do you put into @PitchingNinja, in terms of finding, editing, curating and posting clips?
“I think I have a bit of A.D.D. (smiling)
I just make it a point to make time every morning when I wake up or every evening after work,to watch & go through games. I view it as part hobby and part mission—I want to give back to the game and help as many people as I can.
It’s definitely more than a 40 hour a week “job” but it’s a lot of fun for me.
Of course, now that you point that out, I think it’s a little bit crazy.”
What is your “real” job and how long have you been involved in the game of baseball?
“My real job… I was a technology/corporate attorney for several years (I still practice law a little) and also help run an Internet software company.
I’ve been involved in the game since I was little, maybe 3 years old, when I wanted to be a major league baseball player.
I played growing up, wasn’t great or anything—but I loved the game. I’ve coached travel ball teams and HS baseball teams for the past 10+ years.
Now I get to help kids try to reach their dreams of being a major league baseball or college baseball player…or at least be the best player they can be.”
Why baseball for you? What is it about the game of baseball that you love? What makes it bigger than ‘just a game’ for you?
“I love the fact that a dad or mom and a kid can just talk, while having a catch. I think it can bring families together. I love watching the best in the world compete.
I love being out on a field and helping players. I love smell of the field when it’s just been cut.
I love the sense of pride a kid gets from making a great play or striking someone out.
I think the game is a great teacher of life lessons about failing and picking yourself back up. I think it also teaches how to win and lose as a team, creating a bunch of brothers, who would do anything for each other. It also teaches how to deal with personalities you may not like or unfair calls that go against you. It basically prepares you for life. It’s an easy way to teach lessons, without being overly preachy about them. No one likes to be lectured to—and the game helps you learn about yourself and others through self-exploration.”
One thing about baseball that you would change and one thing that you would never change?
“I’d get rid of the dropped 3rd strike rule. It’s stupid. You throw a wicked pitch, so nasty the catcher can’t catch it, the hitter does a terrible job and swings at it, and somehow the hitter gets to run to first base? Screw that!
Also, ticket prices to make the game more affordable!!
I’d never change the overall pace of the game.
Baseball is what it is. It doesn’t need gimmicks.”
Any ideas for what types of things baseball can do to better connect to its fans? (You seem to have struck on one such thing by capitalizing on social media using Twitter and finding, curating, and presenting awesome content)
“Keep it exciting and fresh. Don’t just throw highlights out there, think about what you’re doing and make it stick. Have a purpose. Use them to help teach the game so you have a more educated fan base.
Use technology to bring out small aspects of the game that fans may overlook.
Do highlights in short bursts. Be witty & funny. Be current.
Don’t be overly preachy and talk about “back in my day”… Literally no one wants to hear that. Broadcasters should stop talking about all that’s wrong in the game and take the time to learn why it’s done differently today.
We have very very smart people in baseball, and there are reasons the game has evolved. For example, scouts try to find pitchers who throw hard, because it works (statistically). That doesn’t mean that you can’t find an outlier, soft-tossing pitcher, who is awesome. It means on average the harder throwing pitchers get more outs. Take the time to understand the reasons behind the game’s evolution instead of complaining. No one likes to listen to a whiner, especially not one who is getting paid a lot of money to whine.”
For this Series, we are focusing on people like yourself who aren’t players or a part of teams but who are important connectors, people who amplify the joy of baseball for others.
If I asked you to name one or two of those people, who would you name and why?
“Alan Jaeger. I think he has done a lot for the mental game (highly overlooked) and saving pitchers arms through teaching about long toss and his Jaeger band arm care. He’s worked with guys like Clayton Kershaw, Barry Zito, and Trevor Bauer. A great baseball dude.”
Photo Credit: @PitchingNinja/Twitter