Players and coaches are using VR-enhanced pitching practice, energy-boosting cleats and smart bats to bring the sport of baseball into the Digital Age.
Often considered a game of inches, experts say baseball players today gain an advantage when they make it a game of millimeters. That’s where new smart baseball technology is helping give athletes an edge.
Data tracking and analytics depicted in the movie Moneyball are already pervasive as coaches and players hunt for training techniques to enhance gameplay performance. Teams like the Houston Astros are measuring the spin of the ball to fine tune the perfect knuckleball.
The embrace of new technology indicates this could be the year that a favorite pastime takes a big leap into digital future.
A FitBit for the Bat
Wearable fitness trackers that athletes often wear are moving from their wrists to the equipment itself. The SparTag from Cambridge Consultants is essentially a Fit Bit for a player’s bat. It attaches to the knob at the end, below a batter’s hands.
The small device includes an accelerometer that measures speed on three axes simultaneously. It also has a magnetometer and gyroscope to capture as many aspects of the bat’s journey through space as possible. Using data accumulated from these sensors, the device produces information about the player’s swing power, angle and follow through motion.
Capturing the data, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. SparTag also provides tools to make sense of it all.
“Creating the hardware has become the easy bit,” said Ruth Thomson, head of consumer development for Cambridge Consultants. “The interesting bit is the mathematics.”
Just like the wearable trackers that allow users to compare their step totals to those of friends and colleagues, as well as to an ideal level of daily activity, the SparTag compares the power, follow through and attack angle of a batter’s swing to the ideal ranges in each category. It also shows a three-dimensional map of the swing.
Best of all, the data collection doesn’t require expensive technology, according to Matthew Hill, project leader at SparTag. He said the product uses low-cost sensors like those found in mobile phones. Similar versions of the device can give athletes feedback on their golf swing, tennis stroke and lacrosse shot.
A Smarter Bat
Zepp Technology, which has previously produced 3D swing analysis tools for batters, developed a Smart Bat, too. This custom-made model has a cavity in the knob that allows the tracking device to fit inside.
Perfect Game USA and Ripken Baseball, two of the top amateur baseball organizations in the country, approved the bat for game use. This means hitters can get feedback from their actual swings in a game, making adjustments from at bat to at bat.
Four-time All Star and 2014 American League MVP Mike Trout has used Zepp’s analysis tools for two years. He is introducing a signature model Smart Bat that will be available to the public in June.
Better Hitting through Smart Phones
Fourteen years before Mike Trout won the MVP award, Jason Giambi took home the honor. Giambi played for the Oakland A’s at the time, the team made famous in the book and movie “Moneyball.”
He was one of the most successful practitioners of the Moneyball analysts’ focus on strike-zone management. Giambi led the league in OPS, a statistic that measures power and the ability to reach base.
Now retired, Giambi is involved in Project OPS, which helps to train players to manage the strike zone as well as he did. Project OPS is the creation of EON Sports and is a Virtual Reality Simulator that combines animation and live-action video that allows batters to practice against computer-generated versions of real-life pitchers they may face in a game.
The VR headset uses a user’s cell phone to produce the graphics; an app for iPhone and Android produces the on-screen images while the goggles include a spot to plug in the phone.
“You connect the phone into the goggles and next thing you know, you’re looking out there and facing live pitching and he’s throwing you live pitches — fastball, curveball, slider, changeup,” Giambi told Tech Times.
He compares the device, which costs less than $200, to $70,000 movie projector and screen systems that accomplish the same thing.
At a recent demo, Giambi had All Star Troy Tulowitzki, a former teammate, try the system. Tulowitzki was impressed.
“Before it lands right there,” he said, pointing to the graphic on the screen, “my brain tells me the ball is going to be right there. It’s pretty real.”
It’s All in the Legs
While fans think of sluggers or flame-throwing pitchers as having strong arms, players know that the true key to power is below the belt. A player needs a strong base and generates power through the legs and hips.
To help with that, Athalonz developed the G-Force cleat, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign at the end of 2015. Athalonz refers to the shoes as “athletic positioning technology”— they put the wearer in a position to generate maximum energy transfer through the legs, something the company says current baseball cleats can’t do.
Athalonz has worked with a team of researchers and tested prototypes on more than two dozen MLB players and coaches to come up with a shoe that increases the power an athlete can generate, simply by making a few small adjustments to the positioning of the feet.
“The optimal athletic position would be to have the heel raised slightly and the weight on the inside of the leg,” said Dr. Preston Wolin, an orthopedic surgeon who consulted with the company. “This drives the toes into the ground so that the energy transfer at the chain begins immediately.”
Next-Level Tracking Systems
The MLB continues to experiment with tracking systems that could make the game more engaging for fans, according to Craig Friedman, vice president of the Performance Innovation Team at EXOS, a company that focuses on proactive health and performance for elite athletes, the military and businesses.
“The data can show the distance they’re covering and how efficient their route is to make a play,” he said.
“It can show how players are seeing the ball come off the bat and how quickly they’re making those decisions for each play.”
While the latest baseball tech isn’t always visible to the fans watching from the ballpark or home, it’s playing a bigger role than ever in enhancing how players train and perform. Smarter equipment, more mathematics and data tracking are combing to change baseball from a game of inches into a game of millimeters.