By Joshua Iversen
Rob Friedman, better known as @PitchingNinja on Twitter, has been using social media to draw attention to some of the best and nastiest pitchers on the planet since the account’s creation in December of 2014. The account has since accumulated more than 105,000 followers, and recently Friedman realized he could combine that audience with his own knowledge and connections to make a difference in the baseball community.
And thus, FlatGround was born.
FlatGround was officially launched on January 2nd, 2019, and since, the Twitter account (@FlatgroundApp) has reached nearly 19,000 followers. In its bio, the account describes itself as, “Harnessing the power of social media to break down barriers & prevent pitchers from falling thru the cracks. Improve skills & showcase talent.”
While Twitter bios are limited to 160 characters, Friedman’s goals go far beyond the account’s short description.
“My goal is to help provide free coaching advice and exposure to players so they don’t fall through the cracks,” Friedman said in an email interview. “I want to level the playing field and eliminate financial and geographic barriers to the recruiting and scouting process, while also putting pitchers more in control of their destiny – not relying on being stumbled upon and ‘found,’ but instead pushing their own content out there. At least now, with FlatGround, it will let pitchers know they gave it their best shot to be seen so they don’t have regrets.”
FlatGround is a resource for pitchers of all ages. Parents can submit videos of their Little Leaguers for coaching advice from followers, while high school and college pitchers can use the platform to showcase their talents in the hopes of finding a new school or team.
The baseball community as a whole has rallied around FlatGround. Friedman has worked with companies such as Jaeger Sports and RPP Performance to hold giveaways on the account. These contests give young players a chance to win free gear and services to help continue to improve their craft, and more are on the way.
“There are some big partnerships on the horizon to further break down barriers, soon to be announced,” he said. “I want to use the power of the community to bring down prices of equipment and training gear for players – giving players and schools big discounts…and sometimes getting free stuff from giveaways.”
Additionally, Friedman created the FlatGround Facility Network in search of facilities willing to help young players create recruiting videos to submit to FlatGround. The Network now includes more than 80 facilities volunteering their space, and sometimes services like radar guns, Rapsodo, and even coaching, for little to no cost, including four facilities in Canada and one in Australia.
The early success has caught even Friedman off guard.
“We are much further along than I would have imagined, and still haven’t scratched the surface of what we have planned,” he said. “The whole thing has just been nuts. I’ve gotten so many positive comments from players, coaches, agents, and scouts. It’s very exciting – and I think we have an opportunity to change the landscape of baseball to a large extent.”
FlatGround has had plenty of early success stories. Young pitchers have been shocked to see their self-submitted videos reach thousands of views. Some have even received advice from college coaches, or even current and former Major League pitchers like C.J. Wilson, Lance McCullers, Jr. and Collin McHugh.
“We’ve had a 20-year-old pitcher who never pitched in college, commit to a school after being seen on FlatGround within a couple of days,” Friedman said. “He never would have signed anywhere if he hadn’t been noticed, since no one recruits 20-year-olds who haven’t played JuCo or anything (in fact, I am still amazed that happened).”
The success doesn’t end there. Many pitchers have received offers from schools across the nation as a result of their videos. But the platform has also proved fruitful for hopeful professionals.
“We’ve had pitchers who pitch internationally get offered pro contracts in the US,” Friedman said. “I’ve had major scouting agencies find D3 pitchers who great arms but were buried at schools that no one scouts – so now they are on MLB draft radars. So the exposure pitchers have gotten is off the charts. And, as the audience grows it’ll be even better.”
In many ways, FlatGround is a return to Friedman’s roots. Friedman has been a self-taught coach of both youth and high school baseball for more than 12 years, including coaching his own son since he was only six. Parents became impressed with his coaching and how well he worked with the players.
Friedman realized that if he was going to be coaching kids, he wanted to make sure he was doing it the right way. Rather than risk giving them the wrong information and advice, he took it upon himself to learn correct pitching mechanics. This led to the birth of the original PitchingNinja account.
“I learned a ton on the way, met great folks and wanted to share what I learned with others,” he said. “I didn’t want my knowledge to ‘die’ when my son graduated (my son is now a freshman pitcher at Georgia Tech) or when I stopped coaching. So, I started posting on Twitter to share what I learned with as many people as I could.”
From there, the account took off. Friedman continued to post videos and GIFs of some of the most impressive pitchers at all levels, including Major Leaguers, Minor Leaguers, Independent Leaguers, college players, high schoolers, and international players.
However, the account became the subject of controversy early in the 2018 season. On April 16th, the PitchingNinja account was abruptly shut down by Twitter due to violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act filed by Major League Baseball. The baseball world rallied behind Friedman, demanding that the Pitching Ninja be freed. And only three days later, Friedman returned, a new agreement with MLB in hand.
“It was cool when there was an uproar among MLB pitchers and front office guys when I was suspended,” Friedman said. It was a bit surreal that so many people cared about my stupid little Twitter account. It also made me even more motivated when I came back…with a vengeance…and MLB’s backing!”
While the account’s suspension certainly caused its fair share of drama at the time, the silver lining is now clear to Friedman.
“It actually made it a lot more fun and feed me up to do cooler stuff, since it was all blessed by MLB,” he said. “MLB was really cool about it – they loved my stuff too. It was all a matter of each party making sure they protected their intellectual property, and as an attorney, I totally get it. They knew I wasn’t trying to do anything bad with my gifs or hurt the game, but instead was educating people…they just wanted it all to be ‘above board.’ I knew I wasn’t doing anything bad either – but instead was teaching and promoting the game. So, in the end, it worked out as well as I could have hoped and neither MLB nor Twitter were at fault – they just did what they were supposed to do.”
Later in 2018, Friedman came across right-handed pitcher Taylor Grover. Grover had been released by the Arizona Diamondbacks at the end of Spring Training and found himself pitching in independent ball. Friedman found video of Grover throwing triple digits and posted a clip on November 23rd. Later that day, Grover was signed to a minor league deal by the Cincinnati Reds.
“I remember we played Sioux City at home. It is like a bitter-sweet story. I walked the bases loaded and then struck out the side. The last guy I struck out it was 100-100-102,” Grover told J.J. Cooper of Baseball America. “I remember the whole stadium just erupted. It was a pretty amazing moment. After that I kept hitting 100-101 regularly.”
Grover was selected by the Baltimore Orioles with the first pick in the minor league portion of last month’s Rule 5 Draft. His story, along with that of Chris Dula, a similar flamethrower noticed by Friedman and subsequently signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, would serve as part of Friedman’s inspiration for FlatGround.
“The adage ‘if you’re good, you’ll be discovered’ is garbage, even with social media today,” he said. “It really hit home when two guys throwing 102 mph (Dula and Grover) were basically ignored by organizations. I tweeted them both out, and all of a sudden there was a feeding frenzy. So I thought, if guys throwing 102 mph fall through the cracks, what about guys throwing 88 mph with upside?”
The most recent example is the story of Chris Nunn. The 28-year-old lefty, without a team, was featured on FlatGround hitting 99 MPH in a bullpen session. He was scooped up almost immediately after the tweet went viral, signing a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers.
Friedman has big plans for FlatGround going forward. In the near future, he will be rolling out the FlatGround website and app, in order to help make submitted videos more organized and searchable.
Friedman also plans to use the platform to improve college scouting, using volunteer interns across the globe to scout players at games and showcases. The advantage will be two-fold: players will receive attention that they otherwise might not have, and aspiring scouts will have the opportunity to get real experience.
The program is in its opening stages, but FlatGround has already accumulated 250 volunteer scouts across the country. These scouts are required to have a radar gun and use it in their videos. The hope is to one day develop the program into an app where pitchers could notify FlatGround scouts in their area to come and report on them during a bullpen session, game or showcase.
Friedman has even (somewhat begrudgingly) expanded FlatGround to include hitters on a new account, @FlatgroundBats. In a little over a week the account has reached more than 5,000 followers. It’s goal mirrors that of the original FlatGround: to give position players a platform for exposure.
For Friedman, it has always been about helping the game and its young talent grow. He has advice for young players hoping for a future in the sport.
“Generally, the harder you throw the more you will get noticed,” he said. “But if you don’t throw that hard, then accentuate the things that set you apart (your height, grades, stats, work ethic, growth as a player, etc.) Put yourself in the mind of someone who is looking to recruit you. What do they want to see? How can you set yourself apart as someone who will help their program?
“Get a radar gun in your videos. Don’t do slow-mo unless you want mechanics advice. Learn from what other pitchers who have had success being seen on FlatGround are doing with their videos. Go through the videos posted on FlatGround and take note of what you like and what you would want to see if you were a recruiter or scout. All of those videos are public on Twitter. Use them. The answers are all there, if you take the time to explore and learn. Don’t be lazy and do things haphazardly. Put your best foot forward.”