You can tell Dillon Lawson is a bright guy. Within the first few sentences of a recent conversation with a reporter, he used the word "exponentially."
It’s not a word most baseball guys have in their repertoire. It’s probably not a word Lawson uses much when tutoring members of the Quad-Cities River Bandits.
By his own admission, the Bandits’ new hitting coach said he’s constantly trying to simplify things while teaching players the best way to do something that isn’t simple at all.
It’s often been said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in all of sports. You’re taking a round bat and a round ball and trying to hit it square. It becomes exponentially more difficult when the ball is moving 90-plus miles per hour.
But Lawson has had considerable success at getting players to do that in previous jobs, largely by teaching them to recognize what pitch is coming almost instantly as it exits the pitcher’s hand.
This is something that Southern Illinois University professor Dr. Peter Fadde estimates a batter must do within about 200 milliseconds. That equates to a faster-than-normal blink of the eye.
"It’s very difficult," Lawson admitted. "We tried to make the idea of how to do it very simple because it is so challenging."
This isn’t something Lawson necessarily could do during his own playing days. He had a modest career as a first baseman and catcher at Transylvania University, a smallish NCAA Division III school in Lexington, Kentucky.
One of the best things that happened to him there — although it didn’t seem great at the time — was that he was exposed to three coaches in four years and heard all sorts of conflicting theories and philosophies.
When he got into coaching at Lindenwood University and Morehead State University, he was able to intermingle all those varied ideas into his own approach.
One idea he embraced was looking for the ball in a certain location or as he describes it, "using the count to manipulate the strike zone into smaller hitting zones."
The concept of pitch recognition was something he picked up after landing a job as an assistant coach at Southeast Missouri State in 2012.
"We had inherited a team that was just OK," Lawson said. "We had spent all of our scholarships on pitching, and I was getting the same lineup back and I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t watch all those uncompetitive outs all over again. So I went to Google and typed in ‘pitch recognition training’ and I kept coming across the same guy’s name."
It was Dr. Fadde, who has devoted his life to the study of pitch recognition.
Lawson, who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a masters in education, contacted Fadde. The two men developed a relationship and devised a training program that was instituted at SEMO in about two weeks. He wasn’t entirely certain if it would work.
Over the course of a few years, with basically the same group of players, the team’s offensive statistics skyrocketed. Batting average, slugging percentage, walks, runs scored … everything went up. A team that hit 24 home runs in 2013 clubbed 66 in 2015.
That success prompted the Houston Astros to hire Lawson in 2016 to serve as the hitting coach for the Tri-City ValleyCats, their short season Class A team. He left to go work at the University of Missouri for a year but is back with the Astros now.
"I was really surprised the first time I was with the Astros two years ago at how excited they were to be coached," Lawson said of players in the low minors.
He said in college baseball, the emphasis is on recruiting and finding ways to win today’s game rather than working on developing players for the long haul. That’s what he likes about his current situation: It’s all about player development.
"These guys are all super receptive, but that’s the Astro way," he said. "You have to be open to learning and progressing and getting better because you see the big league team and you see what Carlos Correa said … that when you get a team all pushing together to get better, it’s a scary thing. So if those guys are doing it up there and we’re here, we better have the same mindset."
He said he has seen several hitters make huge strides already this spring just by being able to identify whether it’s a fastball roaring straight down the middle or a curve that’s going to drift off the outside corner.
Kids who began playing baseball with a grip-it-and-rip-it mentality are gobbling up the science he is feeding them.
"Everyone’s got different things they need to work on," Lawson said. "Some guys already are getting a good pitch to hit, and some guys really need to work on that. Some guys really hit the ball hard, and some guys don’t so they need work on that …
"We just try to keep it simple for them."