How Rob Friedman Became the Pitching Ninja

DECATUR, Ga. — It is sometimes difficult to tell where Rob Friedman’s professional work ends and his hobby begins. On a visit to his home outside Atlanta, Friedman occasionally will stop midsentence, glance at his phone, and then take off sprinting in the direction of his home office.

“Oh, there we go,” he said, running away. “He just struck out the side.”

Who? It didn’t matter.

It was a Saturday, before the pandemic, which was already growing serious enough to threaten the 2020 season. But as long as there was baseball on somewhere — any baseball — Friedman’s responsibility wouldn’t change. He scrolled frantically through his MLB.tv subscription for the inning in question, added a pink tail effect to each frame tracking the motion of a slider, and tweeted the video to his 250,000 followers.

Over the course of the afternoon, this happened several more times. Friedman, alone in his house wearing a red hoodie and joggers, treated each strikeout as if he was cheering firefighters putting out flames. It was the second week of spring training.

For the past six years, Friedman has averaged nearly 30 tweets a day as the Pitching Ninja, an account that has roughly as many followers as the one run by Mookie Betts, the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2021, to be “Ninja’d,” or tweeted about by Friedman, is a badge of honor, even among big-league pitchers. When Yu Darvish was asked how he learned to throw his curveball, Darvish, a starter for the San Diego Padres, responded, “I contacted Pitching Ninja.”

Friedman has occasionally fielded messages from pitchers during games in which they are participating. “Amir Garrett was tweeting at me last year,” Friedman said, referring to the Cincinnati Reds reliever. “I’m like, dude, it’s the seventh inning.”

“I’m a pitching whisperer,” Friedman said, before a smile parted his bushy black beard. It sounded silly even to him. He’s actually a 54-year-old lawyer who manages the division of an internet software firm he co-founded in 1999. He has never coached outside the youth level, and he played tennis in high school.

But in his walkout basement, with its double-height ceilings, there was a pitcher’s mound and netting, a can of Firm Grip, and a Rapsodo — a machine that can measure the spin rate and axis of any pitch.

“I did always want to be a pitcher,” Friedman said. The real athlete in the family is his son, Jack, a sophomore pitcher at Georgia Tech. Friedman used to volunteer as a coach for Jack’s youth teams. He noticed a lot of coaches dispensed one-size-fits-all advice, probably because the method worked for them. But Friedman knew that good pitchers could come in a variety of forms. It became a mission, he said, to learn everything he could about how pitching was being taught, and who seemed to have the right answers.

Friedman found a kinship within a small circle of baseball wonks on forums buried in esoteric corners of the internet. Surrounded by coaches and trainers, he was the goofy and inquisitive sports dad, posting under the username mcloven on LetsTalkPitching.com. He discovered a network of skeptics and deep thinkers, like Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline, and Paul Nyman, regarded by some as the godfather of modern pitching mechanics.

“We were just sharing information,” said Lantz Wheeler, another coach and trainer who got to know Friedman through the forum. “Unlike Twitter, we weren’t trying to reach the masses. It was just the sharing of knowledge about pitching.”

Friedman then began tweeting videos he found on YouTube or made through a screengrab tool downloaded off the internet. He adopted the handle, @PitchingNinja, as a nod to his wife, who is half Japanese.

“I just started sharing stuff that I learned, and people started saying, ‘Wow, that’s interesting stuff,’” Friedman said. “They’d wonder how people threw different pitches, so I started tweeting that. Then the entertainment part — people said: ‘Hey, there’s this kid who threw a wicked slider, can you get that?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll get that, too.’”

The growth of Friedman’s feed says something about the rare conduciveness of pitching to videos and social media. It wasn’t exactly intentional, but Friedman figured out that an action event that lasts only four-tenths of a second can be quite catchy on a scroll. He popularized something called a pitch overlay, in which a sequence is condensed to make multiple pitches appear to explode out of the hand at once, vividly illustrating the wicked movement generated by today’s best arms.

The rough, unvarnished cuts of his videos seemed to enhance the guerrilla nature of his not-so-insider account. He added emphatic nicknames (“Airbender”) or slogans, like “swords,” whenever a hitter looked foolish trying to slap at a pitch (the reference is from the movie, “The Benchwarmers,” Friedman said.)

“It’s so simple,” said Jessica Mendoza, a baseball analyst for ESPN. “But to be able to show the things that are dirty, that are nasty, in such a creative way and have them be in these short digestible little GIFs, I followed him early on.”

Mendoza said his GIFs and overlays helped complex pitching concepts jump out. Rather than explaining how “depth” or “tilt” made certain pitches more effective, Friedman could show it. She convinced her producers to enlist Friedman to contribute videos to ESPN’s baseball telecasts.

Friedman has had a somewhat rockier relationship with Major League Baseball. In April 2018, he was awakened in the middle of the night by messages telling him his Twitter account had been suspended after league officials complained that his screen-captured videos were violating copyright protections. The overnight ban seemed to elevate him to folk hero status among his panicked supporters, especially those who felt baseball had overstepped.

“I was just thinking, ‘OK,’” Friedman said. “I have free time.”

After about a week, the league relaxed its stance and gave Friedman’s account its blessing as a paid contributor. He recently signed a deal to produce long-form content for the media company founded by the pitcher Trevor Bauer.

“He’s one of the more formidable accounts in the baseball world,” Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman said.

Stroman has been corresponding with Friedman for years, and he is not shy about crediting Friedman for help along the way.

“As pitchers, we miss a lot of that, we’re watching our own games,” Stroman said.

“I’ll ask him, ‘Hey, send me Scherzer’s changeup,’ or how Kershaw holds his curveball,” Stroman said, referencing the All-Stars Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. “He’s able to zoom in and find me a YouTube video.”

The diligence and omnipresence of his pitching-centric account can sometimes fool people into thinking there is more than one Ninja working behind the scenes. But no. It’s not that Friedman is against hiring the extra help. It’s just that doing so might suggest this is no longer a hobby.

“You know how you go down rabbit holes? That’s what I do every day,” he said. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘I wonder if Pedro’s changeup was anything like Luis Castillo’s?’ Then I’ll go downstairs and try to compare them.”

Much of what’s left of Friedman’s attention span is directed toward videos of amateur pitchers being sent to a second account, Flatground, that he created two years ago. The feed is a conveyor belt of grainy, wobbly, home-shot videos of young players showcasing their mechanics and heaters. Friedman, who inspects every submission, even has rules for tweeting, which include pitchers’ highlighting their grade point average as well as their earned run average.

It has already produced some astounding success stories. In August 2019, video of a 23-year-old software salesman throwing 96 miles per hour inside a concourse booth at Coors Field during a Colorado Rockies game went viral after it was sent to Friedman and he retweeted it. The salesman, Nathan Patterson, signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics a few weeks later.

Friedman said Patterson’s story was not as much a Cinderella tale as initial reports suggested (he was being watched by scouts well before the Coors video). But D.J. Snelten, a left-handed journeyman who had spent some time with the San Francisco Giants and the Baltimore Orioles, said he was contemplating quitting the game before his trainer reached out to Friedman with videos of Snelten’s improved mechanics.

After Friedman shared a video of Snelten throwing 97 m.p.h., a scout from the Chicago White Sox reached out within the hour, Snelten said.

“My agent called me asking what on earth I did because his phone was blowing up,” said Snelten, who ultimately signed with the Rays. “If Rob had never pressed the retweet button, who knows what could have happened? It went from no phone calls to three to four a day for about two weeks there.”

Flatground, Friedman said, was conceived after seeing some of his son’s teammates struggle to travel to showcases, widely considered the best — and sometimes the only — places where prospects can perform in front of scouts. It bothered him immensely that the sport seemed to be walling off talented players from getting a look. “Baseball shouldn’t be a rich kid’s sport,” he said. “For the game to grow, it needs more access.”

With the size of his following, Friedman has begun feeling something somewhat new: pressure. “It’s amazing that 10 people want to hear what I have to say,” he said. “Now, if I make a mistake, it’s going to come back to haunt me. The second I mess up everybody will say, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’”

It hasn’t happened yet.

“People have come up to me to get my autograph,” Friedman said. “I’m like, what the hell is that? I’m a freaking lawyer!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *