Assistant Pitching Coach Bill Hezel Brings High-Tech Background To Angels’ Staff


OAKLAND — A case can be made that the best addition to the Angels pitching staff over the winter was a guy who spent four years pitching at small colleges before beginning a career wearing a suit and selling retirement plans.

Bill Hezel did not follow the typical path to a major league coaching job, but those who work with him are ecstatic that the Angels hired him away from Driveline to be their assistant pitching coach.

“He is awesome,” left-hander Patrick Sandoval said. “Probably one of the best free agents that we got. He’s going to help us out a lot.”

Left-hander Reid Detmers, who boarded a plane to meet with Hezel at Driveline the day the 2022 season ended, agreed with Sandoval.

“He’s awesome,” Detmers said.

Hezel’s No. 1 pupil — perhaps the reason he’s now wearing an Angels uniform — is Shohei Ohtani. Much of the 2020-21 offseason, when Ohtani went from disappointment to worldwide sensation, was spent working with Hezel.

“The last two years the numbers are pretty good on the pitching side,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “He helped me out.”

Hezel (pronounced HEE-zul) is the latest coach to be snapped up by a big league team after working at Driveline, the high-tech baseball training center that’s well-known for helping pitchers at all levels raise their games.

Hezel spent the 2-1/2 years as the director of pitching at Driveline. Detmers talked to him after 2022, which just happened to be a few weeks before the Angels hired him in November to replace bullpen coach Dom Chiti.

While bullpen coaches as recently as the 1990s may have simply been tasked with answering the phone and reminding relievers which hitters were due, the past couple decades have seen the role change. Now, a bullpen coach is exactly what Hezel’s elevated title suggests: an assistant pitching coach.

Hezel, 36, said the opportunity with the Angels scratched his itch to return to coaching after the time he’d spent at Driveline.

Hezel said as Driveline grew, “my responsibilities got pushed further and further on the business side of things.” Also, for as much as he enjoyed the freedom to push the envelope technologically, the trade-off was there was never the pressure of wins and losses.

“I’m a competitive person,” Hezel said. “I missed being on the field. I missed winning mattering a lot.”

Hezel was on the field as a pitcher at Lehigh University and East Stroudsberg University, both in Pennsylvania. He wasn’t good enough to play beyond that, so he started selling retirement plans to small businesses. A couple years into doing that, Hezel wanted to get back involved with baseball. His father was a longtime high school baseball coach, so Hezel started helping him. That evolved into assisting with Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.

“I did what I think everybody does when they first start coaching, which is just do all the same things that their coaches did with them,” Hezel said.

Hezel said he was disappointed after the first year because he didn’t believe the pitchers got any better under his watch. At a two-year college, the job is helping the players improve enough to get drafted or to get a spot at a four-year school.

“That’s when I just decided I’m going to blow up everything I thought about pitching and try to learn as much as possible,” Hezel said.

One day Hezel was researching something completely different online when he stumbled into an article written by Driveline founder Kyle Boddy. Hezel was intrigued by the way Boddy looked at pitching, so he read more, and he began corresponding with Boddy. Hezel began using some of Boddy’s technique’s — specifically weighted ball training — with his players at Northampton.

Hezel then moved on to DeSales University, a Division III school in Pennsylvania, and he continued implementing what he’d read from Driveline.

All along, though, he was still working in financial services.

“I used all my vacation time, all my sick time,” Hezel said. “I was playing hooky all the time. My wife and I didn’t go on a honeymoon. Vacation would be spring break (baseball) trips. I would be ducking out of work all the time. During work, I’d be watching games of opponents and scouting other teams. Making recruiting calls. How I made it work was pretty insane. It was a sales job and they don’t care as long as you make sales.”

Hezel was also posting on social media about what he was doing, which was his way of attracting recruits and finding opportunities for his current pitchers to advance.

As it turned out, he was also marketing himself. The social media posts piqued the interest of coaches at Driveline, who offered him a job. Hezel convinced his wife to pack up their life and move from Pennsylvania to Seattle to begin a full-time career in baseball.

“I just thought this was the best way to fast-track and close the knowledge gap,” Hezel said. “At a DIII or a small college, you just don’t have the budget to buy a Trackman or a Rapsodo or any of these things. … You can read as many FanGraphs articles as you want, learn as much as you want, but if you never get the opportunity to apply any of these things, it’s really, really difficult.”

Hezel spent 4-1/2 years at Driveline. When Sam Briend was hired away from Driveline to become the New York Yankees’ director of pitching, Hezel was promoted to head Driveline’s pitching department.

Ohtani, Sandoval, Detmers and Tucker Davidson are among the Angels’ pitchers who worked with Hezel at Driveline before the Angels hired him.

Sandoval said Hezel was the key to improving his slider in 2022. When his vaunted changeup wasn’t working for stretches of the season, Sandoval leaned on his newly improved slider to remain consistently effective.

“He knows his stuff,” Sandoval said. “He knows how to translate it, which I think is the biggest quality to have, being able to translate the data to the players. He sort of dumbs it down for us, because there’s a lot of numbers that go into it. He knows how to filter it in and out and give it to us the way we need to get it.”

Pitching coach Matt Wise said that Hezel is particularly good at designing the weighted ball workout routines for each pitcher. During spring training, just about every pitcher would begin his day on the field by chucking weighted balls at a wall. Hezel said the balls are simply tools that help pitchers build up arm strength in a safer way than throwing baseballs.

“Heavier balls are somewhat less stressful because you’re not going to throw the ball as hard,” Hezel said.

That can help pitchers gain velocity on all their pitches, not just the fastball.

Beyond increasing velocity, the pitch science popularized by Driveline includes using high-speed Rapsodo cameras and Trackman devices to help pitchers learn how to manipulate the action of the baseball. In spring training the Angels bullpen often looked like a Best Buy clearance sale, with electronic equipment and wires running everywhere. Pitchers and their coaches crowded around screens reading data after each pitch.

It’s natural to suspect that it could be all too much for some pitchers. Detmers said that he “doesn’t like to overthink stuff,” but he said Hezel has the ability to give each pitcher exactly what he needs, and no more.

Hezel said that’s simply a matter of communication.

“If you don’t have a good relationship with the player or understand how they want information delivered, understand how they learn, then it’s going to be extremely difficult,” Hezel said. “The most important thing is that you build a relationship with the player, develop some trust. It just makes how you communicate stuff much easier.

“If the player believes that you are invested in their success as much as they are, then they’re going to listen.”

UP NEXT Angels (LHP Patrick Sandoval, 6-9, 2.91 ERA in 2022) at A’s (RHP Shintaro Fujinami, major league debut), Saturday, 1:07 p.m., RingCentral Coliseum, Bally Sports West, 830 AM.

Vittorio Rienzo

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