Automated Practice Machines

Student of the Game

Freshman Angelo LaBruna leads all ACC shortstops with a .988 fielding percentage.

GoDuke The Magazine, April 2011
As an alumnus with a rich background in the professional ranks, Duke baseball coach Sean McNally embraces player development as one of the essential avenues to building a better Blue Devil program. It is an especially significant tenet this year with a roster that includes 15 freshmen, four or five of whom start on a regular basis. McNally and his staff utilize numerous tools to help groom their players’ talents, and two new ones came on board this season — the artificial resurfacing of Jack Coombs Field to create an excellent on-campus training facility, and the addition of a FungoMan, an automated practice machine.

The FungoMan can rifle a slew of realistic ground balls at rapid intervals to players who want extra work on their defense. Infielders in particular make use of the device to practice fielding grounders after team workouts or on their own time — and nobody has used the machine more than freshman shortstop Angelo LaBruna.

With veteran shortstop Jake Lemmerman’s departure to the pros following the 2010 campaign, McNally entered this year with a vacancy in the heart of his infield. He considered moving ACC rookie of the year Marcus Stroman over from second base but thought it best not to increase the strain on Stroman’s arm since he is also a key pitcher for the Blue Devils. LaBruna made it a moot point when he arrived from his native California and earned the position during fall practice. He has started every game this spring and had committed just two errors in the 131 fielding chances that came his way in the first 32 contests.

“Angelo plays with so much joy, so much energy, so much passion, and he works so hard at it,” McNally said. “He pretty quickly established himself as the best defender at that spot and that’s where I start. That’s the beginning of the criteria for a shortstop — you’ve got to have a guy who is reliable and makes the routine plays. He does that, and just continues to get better and better.”

LaBruna’s development into a Division I shortstop has been a lifetime in the making. His father, a former New York Tech player, got him started in the game at an early age and always encouraged his efforts to grow. In fact, their family vacation for several summers consisted of a two-week trip from the West Coast to New England, so LaBruna could hang around the Cape Cop League interacting with and observing some of the nation’s best college players.

“My dad taught me a lot. He’s my hero,” LaBruna said. “Baseball is something that has been inside me since I was a little kid, and when it comes to the instructional side it was all my dad. People used to think he was pushing me to do a lot of stuff, but in fact I was pulling him.”

LaBruna learned some of the finer points of playing shortstop from another of his baseball mentors, Joe DeMarco, who heads up the staff at Elite Baseball, a training academy in southern California. LaBruna worked with DeMarco on weekends during his high school seasons and for weeks on end during the summer to learn everything he could about playing his position.

Another heavy influence on his game is Omar Vizquel, one of the great shortstops in Major League Baseball history. Now one of the oldest players in the majors, Vizquel has appeared in more games at shortstop than any other player ever and has the all-time highest fielding percentage at the position. LaBruna is well aware of the 11 Gold Gloves won by Vizquel and he has studied every available detail of his career.

“I think he’s the best shortstop to ever play and I’ve really learned a lot watching all the little things he does,” said LaBruna, donned in a No. 11 Vizquel jersey for this interview. “I watched him play when I was younger and was just impressed by his actions and the way he plays the game.

“A lot of the Latin shortstops, they play with a lot of style. They really move their feet well, they’re quick and they’ve got strong arms. I think the way they play the middle infield, it’s exciting and fun to watch and I’m amazed by that.”

LaBruna, a 5-foot-10, 160-pounder, has watched hours of video of top pro shortstops to pick up any tips that might help his own game. Last summer he had the Major League Baseball TV package and taped all of the Chicago White Sox games so he could see every play Vizquel made. During the offseason, one of his Duke coaches was able to help him get a DVD of all 235 ground balls that Vizquel fielded last year. LaBruna says he watches it almost every day.

“Sometimes I watch his feet. He’s got great footwork. His feet never stop moving even when he catches the ball and throws the ball. Sometimes I’ll watch the positioning of his hands, how he gets to different balls. You see how he positions himself and sets up when it’s a faster runner or a slower runner. It’s not always the great plays that I look at, because those are plus-plays, but the routine plays. He makes the routine plays routine, which is what you are supposed to do.”

“I love having dialogue with our guys about the game at the highest level,” said McNally, who spent nine years playing in the minor leagues and three as a coach and instructor before taking over the Duke program in 2006.

“With Angelo, he’s watched every clip he can find of every ground ball that Omar Vizquel has taken, and he’s really passionate about it. Those are the guys you want to have, who are really engaged, and I think we’re getting more and more of those guys in our program, which makes it really fun.”

McNally appreciates LaBruna’s insatiable hunger to improve. “He’s up here all the time,” the coach noted from his office in Jack Coombs Field. “With the FungoMan machine, he pulls it out there early, he pulls it out late, and he’s always asking for extra ground balls, extra work. And it’s not only the conventional stuff you would work on — he’ll also work on tag plays, pop flies, all the nuances of the game. I think he just enjoys discovering new things and limitations and things to work on. He just attacks them with a passion.”

LaBruna’s interest in Duke began during his summer vacations to the Cape Cod League. Kelly Nicholson, a family friend and high school coach in Los Angeles, has been the manager for the Orleans Firebirds on the Cape for over a decade and he would let young LaBruna serve as a batboy and work out with his team. In that capacity, LaBruna met two players from Duke — 2009 grads Nate Freiman and Alex Hassan — and came away impressed.

“I got to know a lot of players from a lot of different schools, and the two guys who stood out to me the most were Nate and Alex,” LaBruna explained. “They had so much respect for themselves and for the coaching staffs, and they were team guys and great workers. When it came time for me to start thinking about colleges, my dad asked me about my experiences in the Cape in getting to know different players. I thought I wanted to be at a program where I would be around players like Nate and Alex. That drew me to Duke. I feel like I’m one of those guys.”

McNally heard about LaBruna from Nicholson and his players, but he didn’t really get a chance to see him play until LaBruna attended a camp at Duke during the winter of his senior year in high school.

“It was a little late in the recruiting process, but he came to camp here and I really liked how he caught the ball,” McNally reported. “I didn’t know if we’d have a spot…but I knew if we had an opportunity to get him in our program we needed to, because he could be that glue guy in the middle that really stabilized our defense.”

“Defense is something I know I can bring to the ballpark every day, make every play and help the team that way. It’s something I’ve always focused on,” said LaBruna, who has also contributed offensively with the No. 2 RBI total on the team.

“Not being the most physically gifted guy out there, I know I have to be fundamentally sound to compete on the field. Whether we have a good game or a bad game, I know I have to be out there constantly working so I can stay on top and compete.

“We have a good culture of guys here who work after games. It’s not just me — a lot of our infielders are working. We have a great group of guys who work hard, who care about the game and who really want to win. That desire is going to take us to some good places.”