Batter Up

by Paul Fraumeni

Jaime Vieira was there, live on my computer screen. It was mid-March. She was in an office at the Toronto Blue Jays’ training complex in Dunedin, Florida. I was in my house in cold, snowy Toronto. My job was to interview her about her new role as a minor league hitting coach with the Jays (and the team’s first-ever female coach) and how she brings the biomechanics science she learned through an MSc at York University to her work in helping young players become better hitters.

But as a lifelong baseball disciple, I couldn’t resist asking her to clear up something that had been bugging me for 50 years. I mean, how often does a frustrated ball player get to ask a big-time coach for advice?

Backstory: when I played organized ball from ages 10 to 15, a couple of coaches insisted I stand at the plate with my right elbow (I bat right-handed) tilted sharply up. I disagreed, contending that I would lose speed when it came time to swing the bat – that I would have to bring that upturned elbow down 90 degrees and then enter into the swing, preventing me from being able to catch up to a fastball.

I stopped playing eventually, but I have remained a serious fan. And I’ve always wondered about that elbow thing.

So I stood in front of the screen and showed Coach Vieira the elbow-up stance and my preferred elbow-down stance and asked for her take.

“I agree with you,” she said. “It’s not the best way to set yourself up for success. Some players do want that extra little bit of whip that will come from bringing that elbow down into the swing. And some people swing very early, so they need to slow themselves down. So that elbow-up might work. However….” She paused before going in for the kill: “Typically, your traps [the trapezius muscle in your neck, shoulders and back] will fatigue toward the end of the game. This is a challenging position to hold for a long time. So I would like the hands further down, and not a lot of back tip, either. But if somebody is early, every single time, I might slow them down by having their hands down a little further.”

That is typical of the kind of advice Vieira offers; whether it’s for a 64-year-old like me or a 15-year-old who may well have the skill to be the next Vladimir Guerrero, she treats each player as an individual.

I came into it thinking, “I’m going to have to prove myself and show them the value”

“There’s no one recipe for success in hitting,” she explains. “I look at a few different things that I focus my eyes on first when I look at a hitter. There’s no saying ‘This is the correct way to do it.’ It’s going be different for the next person, the next person and the next person. My job is solving a puzzle every time someone comes in the cage.”

The Jays hired Vieira, 27, in January 2022 to work with players as they begin the difficult process of becoming a professional. Think of Jays’ superstar hitters Guerrero and Bo Bichette. As young players, they showed enough talent to get the Jays interested, but they needed fine-tuning. That’s where Vieira comes in – to take their talent to a higher level.

Baseball is so familiar to us that the sight of a batter hitting a ball safely looks easy as we laze in front of the TV at home or watch from the stands. But it is not.

Consider what Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in the game, told the New York Times in 1982: “I’ve always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports…a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside-down and a ball coming in at 90 miles an hour, it’s a pretty lethal thing.”

For a long time, batting coaches were often former players who had a talent for studying the art of hitting and could impart their experience to players. But baseball – and all other sports – have increasingly been combining that wisdom with the science that people like Vieira bring to the game.

My experience with my kinesiology and biomechanics background is valuable in knowing that every athlete has a different strength

Vieira’s specialty is biomechanics – a sophisticated discipline of health science that studies how the human body moves. She became interested in the field when she needed to have spinal surgery to correct scoliosis at age 16.

Growing up in Georgetown, Ont., Vieira enjoyed playing softball, but her real passion was coaching. Still, she wasn’t sure that coaching could be a career.

As she recovered from the surgery, she had a revelation. “I knew how badly I wanted to be on the field. So I said to myself, ‘I want a career where I can help athletes get on the field and overcome their injury or disability. So I leaned toward kinesiology from that experience, and thought if I could work with athletes who aren’t being forced to show up at practice and will do anything to get back on the field, that’s a population I’d like to work with.”

She completed her master’s under the supervision of Professor Janessa Drake of York’s School of Kinesiology and Health, then began PhD work. But a position came up with the Jays Care Foundation and, that passion for coaching still with her, Vieira applied for and got the job. She hoped it might help her move closer to her coaching dream.

Now that she’s inside, she is applying her powerful combination of baseball and science smarts.

“I’ve coached since I was 16 years old, and it’s been at an elite level. And I have that analytical health science background. So I’m able to blend those two worlds to have what I hope is a happy medium. A lot of teams are looking more toward sports science because they want the inside edge. And my experience with my kinesiology and biomechanics background is valuable in knowing that every athlete has a different strength and mobility profile. Understanding their body, how they move and how they can get the most from their body is why I’m here.”

And the players in Florida have been receptive to her science-rooted coaching.

“I came into it thinking, ‘I’m going to have to prove myself and show them the value.’ But a lot of the players who I’ve been working with are younger players. They have grown up with this tech era. They actually appreciate the science. They ask me really smart questions.”

Vieira will remain in Florida full-time, working with the players as they compete against other teams in the Florida Complex League and during winter at the training facility.

“Because the focus is on development, we devote a lot of time to starting at the basics and getting a good foundation so that when they move up higher, they have that solid base the Blue Jays expect their athletes to have.”

Over the past few years, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been increasingly bringing women into roles that were previously the exclusive domain of men. In 2020, Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins made history when she was appointed MLB’s first female general manager. Other women breaking the barrier include Rachel Balkovec, who became the first full-time female MLB affiliate manager in January, when she got that job with the Tampa Tarpons (in the New York Yankees’ system). Vieira is proud to have joined this wave, but also thinks more practically.

“I’m super proud that I can be a woman on the field, to be an example for girls growing up, and for women who want to come into the game. But at the same time, I’m excited to just do my job and not have being a woman be an issue. And I hope that, in a few years’ time, there are so many women in the game and on the field that it’s just not a conversation anymore.”  

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