“Performance Science is really about ‘how do we take this data revolution, and all these tools, and tie them together for better outcomes?'”Cory Kennedy
A special thanks to Cory Kennedy, Chicago Cubs Minor League Head of Strength and Conditioning and Performance Science for joining
Sizable philosophical changes have taken root in the player development infrastructure within the Chicago Cubs. This can be seen in successes with biodynamic and biomechanical changes in the “pitch lab” and with the hitting development team under Justin Stone. These changes can also be heard in press conferences and media appearances by Cubs officials who tout the “high performance” and “performance science” infrastructure throughout the organization. In the front office shakeup following the 2019, Adam Beard, PhD, accepted the newly created position of Director of High Performance for the organization. This role as Director of High Performance would oversee the nutrition, training, strength and conditioning, sport science, and mental skills departments across both the major league and minor league affiliates. A role with such immense responsibilities requires teamwork with individuals you can trust to carry out the vision. Dr. Beard turned to a colleague within the field who he had been in contact with for years, one with an extensive background helping athletes from many sports reach the pinnacles of their careers. In February 2020, Cory Kennedy joined the Chicago Cubs organization as the Head of Minor League Strength and Conditioning and Performance Science.
To clear up a few misconceptions, though “high performance” and “performance science” sound similar, they are related, but separate fields. According to Cory Kennedy, “When we say ‘high performance’, and you hear somebody like [Cubs VP of Player Development] Matt Dorey, or [VP of Pitching and Assistant General Manager] Craig Breslow, or anyone refer to ‘high performance’ in interviews. Usually, it’s the entire department that’s overseen by Adam Beard. And that includes sport nutrition, mental skills, the athletic training, and medical side, and strength and conditioning.” Kennedy went on further to provide a definition for performance science, “Performance science is really about ‘how do we take this data revolution, and all these tools, and tie them together for better outcomes?’ “
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Kennedy’s nearly six years of performance science and strength and conditioning working with Olympic athletes adds a unique dynamic when he trains players in the Cubs organization. Cory spoke about incorporating new ideas he brings from successful experiences guiding athletes in other sports. “I really loved the idea of sharing ideas across sports.” Kennedy said, “You test these sports that have for all time (or for a long time), being really skilled at developing maybe one part of athleticism, or measuring a certain skill, or having these baselines that that they go with. And then another sport who does it entirely different. Being able to lean one into another to say, ‘Hey, we should think about utilizing these strategies, because they’ve been able to do this over and over and over again, with this sport’.”
In Cory’s position as Head of Strength and Conditioning and Performance Science for the Chicago Cubs minor leaguers, development of players becomes critical. Kennedy describes the challenge and skill needed to isolate specific performance traits of players and projecting how those traits will transfer at the next level. Cory provided a scenario, “How do you get a 19 year old prospect who looks like this [at present]? How do you build one of these qualities to make it look like the guys who succeeded to major league level? Because while we watch the 2020 Cubs, and you take your 26 man roster, you see it, you can see so many individuals. [When] you’re watching a game, Jason Heyward doesn’t look the same as Ian Happ, who doesn’t look the same as Kyle Schwarber, who doesn’t look the same as Anthony Rizzo, and so on, and so on.” Kennedy said, “But underneath the hood, there are a lot of clues that they might share. And that might leave traces around how to hit a ball further, or how to get from first to second faster or cover more ground in the outfield.”
“How do you map out what it takes to go from a prospect to a major league player?”Cory Kennedy
When posed a question about if the strengthening of the performance science and high performance domains within the organization allowed the Cubs to take more gambles on athletic talents in the 2020 draft class, Kennedy provided some context. “[This recent draft], the athletic and physical performance side is now catching up. And whether that was on purpose or not, you’d have to ask [VP of Scouting] Dan Kantrovitz exactly, but we got a lot of players who, on the physical side, are maturing, and highly developed in that it sometimes makes our job simpler.” Kennedy says, “It’s easier to teach a great athlete, a new trick, than, a poor athlete, all sorts of new tricks. So that’s part of it. But you know, at the same time, like you said, with a guy like Burl [Carraway, 2nd round draft pick in 2020], he’s highly athletic. But he also can pitch the hell out of baseball already. So some of these guys are also just well packaged prospects.”
Fans of the Cubs minor leagues have been starved for information on the development of prospects during the shutdown and Cory was gracious enough to pass along snippets of strength and conditioning progress about a few players. Kennedy was empathic in noting that, as a department, they were very happy with the progress of a large number of players during the shutdown. “I don’t want to make make it seem like I’ve mentioned names and that I’ve left other guys out on purpose. But I’ll just say, as a staff, we’ve been really, really grateful for [the players’] buy-in and their effort.” Kennedy said. He confirmed that DJ Herz was challenged to get bigger and stronger and he “did just that”, while also mentioning Tyler Schlaffer (Cubs 9th round pick in 2019) had similar success. Miguel Amaya has clearly made improvements to his physique, which has not gone unnoticed from the Cubs brass. “Sometimes the closer you get to the big leagues, the more the motivation really bubbles up because now you can see it. He’s been training really hard this offseason, including while he’s down playing winter ball. [Miguel Amaya has started] to see that the trade off between getting better physical and stronger and what it takes to to succeed to major league level.”
The Cubs have built a department that adds diversity of perspectives and a willingness to embrace challenges. For an organization that consistently prided itself on identifying the next “market inefficiency”, it’s clear the Cubs organization believes strongly that both performance science and high performance will be critical to build the next great Chicago Cubs team.