Cubs Insider’s Q&A with Rachel Folden, Cubs’ Lead Hitting Lab Tech and Minor League Hitting Coach
With no baseball being played these days, all we can really do is talk about it. And after a link in one of our Rundown pieces prompted a text from a friend of mine, I made it a point to talk baseball with Rachel Folden. One of only a handful of women coaching for an MLB organization, or just men’s professional sports in general, Folden was named the Cubs’ lead hitting lab tech and hitting coach for Rookie League Mesa back in November.
Part of the revamped developmental infrastructure instituted by Justin Stone, the new director of hitting, Folden will be responsible for interpreting and leveraging all the data collected in the Cubs’ hitting labs. That’s not the kind of thing a big-market team would entrust to just anyone.
“She’s going to be a star,” Stone told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com. “She’s the first person I brought in for an interview. Even when I was interviewing with different teams, I brought this up in my own interview process, that this was important to me, because I knew wherever I was going to go, I was going to have to build a staff.”
A 2008 graduate of Marshall University, Folden was a four-time All-American and a 2019 inductee into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. She went on to play five seasons (2008-12) of National Pro Fastpitch, racking up 41 home runs, 122 RBI, 101 walks, and 28 doubles. She was named Rookie of the Year in 2008, was a four-time All-NPF Catcher, and earned 2011 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
That resume establishes serious credibility out of the gate, but the stats you put up as a player don’t make you a coveted coach. To that end, Folden has impressed a lot of very influential people in the game over the last few years and I wanted to get an idea for how she’s been able to do it. The ability to customize swings to individual athletes through the use of technology absolutely fascinates me, and has been ever since our talks with Mike Bryant (here and here), so that was really at the heart of this conversation.
What follows is a bit on the long side, so just be prepared for that heading in. There’s a ton of really good stuff in here, though, so I think you’ll find plenty to keep you engaged.
CI: What is your coaching and hitting philosophy and how did you arrive at it?
RF: Well, I guess those are two different questions. Coaching philosophy, it’s about the players. I think the tool that every good coach has is the ability to communicate with their players and they care about their players. And how I approach coaching is that it’s not about me, it’s about the players Whatever I can do to help them get to where they want to go that’s my job and that is my goal.
And I think a lot of coaches, myself included when I was a young coach, we want to credit. We want to help the players, but then we want the credit and we really make it about us. Something I’ve learned over the course the last few years. My career is over — I had a good one, I was a good player — and now it’s about helping them get to the pinnacle of whatever their career is, whether that’s an All-Star or whether that’s just making their high school team. Maybe that’s as good as it gets for them, but just helping them realize their potential is my job as a coach.
And as far as the hitting philosophy, I don’t really have one school that I subscribe to. I mean, obviously I want players to hit the ball as hard as they can and I guess you could put me in the anti-groundball revolution for sure. But I think from a coaching standpoint and how I approach coaching hitters, it’s really just let’s start from what they do well and work backward from there as opposed to jumping in guns blazing trying to fix everything.
Players have things that they are naturally going to be good at just because they have national patterns of movement and, without taking those away, how can we accentuate what they do well and then also try to minimize their weaknesses at the same time. That’s been an evolution for me because I think you know our natural inclination as coaches is we want to coach, right, we want to immediately jump in and say, “This is what you doing wrong, this what you’re doing wrong.”
But we don’t really ever approach things and say, “Hey, here’s what you do really well. And as my coaching career has evolved, I think it’s a lot more beneficial to stick with what they’re doing well and then try to make them do that more often. And that’s how I like to approach things and I’ve seen a huge jump in players’ performance.
CI: Are there differences in a softball swing and a baseball swing, either due to the mechanics of the swings themselves or the physics and angles involved in the balls or pitches?
RF: I would say it’s no different than coaching Joe Baseball Hitter No. 1 and Joe Baseball Hitter No. 2. Swings are swings. I read a really good tweet this morning from Jacob Cruz, I believe he’s with the Brewers organization now, and he said that a hitter’s swing is like a fingerprint. It’s individual to them and so we shouldn’t try to put them in boxes, and I think that is applicable to the question. Just because they’re a baseball player or a softball player, we still have to find a swing that works for them.
A hitters swing is as unique to them as their fingerprint. Stop trying to box them in. #hittingtwitterwar
— Jacob Cruz (@JacobCruz09) March 27, 2020
There really isn’t a whole lot different in the physics of the ball, either. I mean, obviously a softball comes in with a little bit more inertia because it’s bigger, there is more surface area. But as far as the angles and the speed and the reaction time, there’s just really not a whole lot different.
And there’s Rapsodo data to support that, but I just treat each hitter as an individual as opposed to, “Oh, this is a girl swinging a softball bat and this is a boy swinging a baseball bat.” Every swing is unique to them and it makes no difference what sport they’re playing.
CI: With all the technology and information that’s available now, especially at the professional level, how do you go about deciphering that data and then digesting it ahead of time to help pass to a hitter in a way they can understand it?
RF: Well, what you just said is exactly what it is. It’s our job to dissect the information and then digest it in a way that a player can understand. So for some players, you have to trick them into doing what you know that they need to be doing without telling them, because you don’t want to give them too much to think about.
Some players, you just need them to stay outside of their head as much as possible, or as non-cerebral as possible. And then there are some hitters that really want to dive into the information and they want to know why. I think about myself as a player, I wanted to know everything. Give me all the information possible because I want to be I wanted to be in control of my own career. So I think you’re going to find two types of players: You’re going to find the players that want to know everything and then the players that don’t want to know everything.
And our job as coaches is to be able to communicate with both types of players. I think where a lot of pushback on the technology front comes from is people always fear what they don’t understand. And so a lot of people don’t want to take the time to understand it. But also, it’s like they think it’s going to replace the coach. It will never replace the coach because someone has to be there to interpret that information and relate it to a player. All it does is help us do our job better as long as we take the time to understand it.
If I don’t understand a piece of technology, I’m not coaching that to my players. Because if I don’t understand it, all I’m going to do is confuse them because I don’t really understand it. Now, If I’ve taken the time to get to know it and to understand it, yeah, I think it’s a useful tool to learn how to communicate with players.
Let’s say I’m looking at batted-ball data from a Rapsodo and I can see that they’re producing too much sidespin on the ball when they hit it, which is an indicator of a path issue. I’m not going to sit there and say, “Hey I need your RPMs to come from 3300 down to 2300.” I’m not communicating with the player effectively. But if I say, “Hey, listen, you see how the spin is coming off the ball and it’s creating that slice? Here’s why.”
And now I have data just to support that to fix some sort of mechanical flaw. So really all it does is just help support the coaches and that’s how I approach it. How can this help me and how can it help me communicate to the players. That’s the goal of the coaches. Coaches are just great communicators, that’s all we are. Teachers are the same way, we’re just great communicators.
CI: What do you see as the next evolution of technology in the sport, maybe something that isn’t even available to an organization like the Cubs?
RF: There’s a lot of studies and a lot of work that’s being put on how we track balls with our eyes. I know that Driveline’s done some things, I know Rachel Balkovec (a hitting coach in the Yankees organization) has helped with that with some gaze-tracking things. I don’t understand that, I don’t have any experience in that area, but that’s a very interesting concept that obviously is extremely relevant to hitting. How you see is directly related to how well you hit.
The one thing that we can’t measure yet, and I’m sure at some point we will, is how quickly your brain is making decisions. That goes along with where we’re looking, what we’re looking at when we’re hitting, but I think from the decision to swing would be a very valuable thing to measure that we haven’t measured yet.
I’m sure someone will figure it out someday and I’m sure I’ll be first in line to try to figure it out. What we’re all trying to do is maximize efficiency, which from a body standpoint I think we’re getting to a very good place. I think we’re on the right track, but as far as learning how to make decisions as efficiently as possible, I think that’s a very interesting and super loaded topic that someone with a lot more brain power than me is going to figure out.
And when they do I would love to know that information.
CI: Well, that takes me right to the video that I was just watching of you about how intent needs to determine the strike zone. You need to go into it thinking, “I’m going to have to swing at the next pitch,” because if you wait until the ball is on you, it’s too late.
RF: Yeah, it’s either too late or you’re now you’re forced to make two decisions instead of one right Like if If I have to decide first that I’m going to swing and then second that I’m going to stop, your brain has to make two decisions quicker than a blink of an eye. And if I have already taken the decision-making process out of it — I’m swinging at this pitch, I’m ready to go, and your brain only has to tell you to stop — that’s only one decision.
So to me, that’s efficient. That makes what you have to do up there more efficient. I’m sure there’s some fancypants terminology for that, but in my brain, one is less than two. And if I have a limited amount of time, I want less to do.
CI: So what are the steps that go into developing a good hitter and helping them reach that level of efficiency, or is it different for everyone?
RF: It all starts with an assessment. We kind of work backward in baseball, from output to input, so we know what hits are good and what hits are not good. Obviously, you score more runs when you hit a home run than you do when you had a single, more runs per hit. That’s what started the Moneyball revolution.
As we started looking at statistics, we were like, “Okay, this is what a good hitter actually is.” Someone who we once thought was a good hitter might not actually be a good hitter, and then it was, “Okay, how does the ball behave in order to produce these hits that are desirable? What’s the bat doing to produce these ball outcomes and good statistics?”
That’s all output, but now what’s the human doing? And so now we started to incorporate movement assessments, whether you’re assessing functional movement or strength, all kinds of things. And now we can start with an objective assessment first, but we have enough data now where we know what’s good and we know what’s not good. We know what types of movements are absolutely necessary to produce the output that we want to see to build a good baseball player.
And so now we start with that assessment and we can kind of like bucket things. I do this personally, I bucket things into three categories. When I see a swing flaw, is it mechanical — like is it just something that they were taught wrong or they just thought was what they were supposed to be doing? Is it strength related, is that player actually strong enough to execute the movement that I need him to execute?
Or is it mobility-based, meaning does this person have just horrible mobility or do they have horrible flexibility that’s hindering them from producing this movement? Or are they hyper-mobile on the other end of the spectrum? Are they way too loose of a mover to produce this movement safely? So we start there and once we get a baseline assessment then we can sit there and say, “Okay, here’s the things you do well, here’s the things you don’t do well, here’s how we’re going to attack these things.
Then we’re going to build the baseball player from there, and so that’s where it becomes this very holistic thing. You’re seeing a lot of this from modern hitting coaches now, and a coach has to have at least a general understanding of the human body. I mean, I have a degree in history. I don’t have an anatomy and physiology major or exercise science, I got none of that. But you have to understand a little bit about how the human body works because that is ultimately what’s producing the swing mechanics that you want to see.
CI: You’re one of just a few female coaches in professional sports, let alone baseball. When Justin Stone, the Cubs’ director of hitting was putting together his new coaching infrastructure, he said you were one of the first people he thought of.
He said you were the “perfect person to cross this barrier,” and that you’d probably just get in the cage and outswing anyone who gave you crap. Has it come to that point or have you encountered any resistance when it comes to coaching men at the professional level?
RF: As far as any blowback, I have had zero issues from male players ever. I think from a player’s perspective, especially if you’re seeking me out for hitting lessons or your mom or dad are actively seeking me out for hitting lessons, you’ve already determined that I’m someone at least worth seeing once. So that’s that makes it a little bit easier.
But being here as part of the organization, the players really don’t seem to care all that much. They just want to get better. It’s like, “Hey, I want to get to the major leagues, I want to help the Cubs win the World Series. And everyone tells me that this girl could help me get there.
You know, I think I’ve faced more of an obstacle from the language barrier than I have from the gender barrier, if I’m being honest. I’m doing my best to learn Spanish and I do okay, I can get by. But I’ve seen that get in the way of my ability to coach players as opposed to the gender issue, without a doubt.
CI: That has to be a real challenge either way, since some of these young players are coming over as teenagers and are adjusting to an entirely new culture. I would imagine it’s a very different situation from giving private lessons and dealing with folks who have the means to afford that, versus a group of players who come from a completely different background.
RF: Oh, you’re right, and it’s been such a cool experience to get to know the Latin players that have a whole new culture and you’re trying to kind of understand their culture and they just love baseball so much. It’s a really interesting perspective because I think people anticipated me getting a lot of grief for being a female coaching baseball and that’s small on the scale of what some of these players have to deal with when they do come over here for the first time and it really just puts everything in perspective.
I was actually scheduled to go to the DR at the end of April to the Dominican Academy because I was gonna rove as the lab tech. I was helping out with testing players running the labs out there. I was so excited to go simply for that aspect of it, because I feel like I would have come back with such a greater understanding of just what these players are dealing with.
CI: You talked about the change in your own coaching philosophy and it seems as though all the different tech and the schools of thought are a little more open and accessible than they used to be. Like it’s not as territorial and people are willing to share their knowledge pretty freely. Do you find that to be true?
RF: Coaches are starting to put their egos away and learn from other coaches in a way that we were never able to do before. And I think the Internet has a lot to do with that, but so many coaches are willing to share their information. You asked earlier about it. If you don’t have access to all this stuff, you just pick up the phone and ask.
Someone called me and said, “Hey, have you used a Blast motion sensor before?” I’m like, “Yeah, I have a lot of of familiarity with Blast.” “Okay, well what do you know? Do you use this? Do you not use this? What does this metric mean?” And you know what, I talked to him about it and it’s the same thing with me.
There’s so much of a willingness to share information because it’s not proprietary anymore, we all have it. Everybody’s got a Blast sensor, everybody’s got a radar gun. We have all the info, we have all the tools now, so we can all just kind of share information from each other and I think that’s what’s super powerful now. There’s this little community that we can all belong too and everybody’s willing to share their information.
That’s how I learn 99% of the stuff. The other 1% was probably just trial and error, but 99% of what I tech and how to implement it and how to coach players is literally from picking up the phone or meeting in person with other coaches who have more experience in the area.
There’s just so much good stuff in here, but I think what was most illuminating to me was the idea of swings being so personal for each hitter. As easy as that is to see from a distance with professionals who’ve honed their craft over decades, it’s not so simple when you’re working with a youth player and trying to show them the “right” way to do things.
For more resources, including access to a full library of drills, you can enroll at Folden Fastpitch Online for $80 annually. There’s also a $40/month remote training plan that includes a video review with voice-over comments. I want to make it very clear here that Rachel did not promote her site or any membership information during our conversation, and Cubs Insider is not affiliated with Folden Fastpitch in any way.
But hey, since we’re on the topic of memberships and training aids, I should point out that you can subscribe to Stone’s Elite Baseball program. There are two membership levels, the higher of which offers a great deal of customized workout plans and drills. There are also lots of free videos available through either site. Just from personal experience, these training aids are really valuable whether you’re a coach or just an involved parent.
Of course, the most important thing is to let kids be kids and have fun while getting players of all ages to the point where they can essentially coach themselves. The best way to do that is to remain coachable in your own right, understanding that you don’t have all the answers. Nor do you have to, since there are plenty of other people out there willing to help you out.