We are starting to see the first wave of these devices hitting the mainstream, with fitness trackers, smart watches, and smart home thermostats gaining popularity. In the next few years, the Internet of Things will affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from medical care, to shopping, to entertainment, and definitely to sports.
Major League Baseball has a reputation for being resistant to change, but that is only particularly true on the field. (It was the last major sport to adopt replay, for example.) Off the field, baseball as a sport has been on the forefront of innovation. Analytics, fantasy sports, farm systems and players unions are just a few of the trends that started in baseball before bleeding into other sports. The Internet of Things will make its way onto major league fields in time, but the trend will begin with front offices, amateur ranks and hobbyists.
If these devices can offer a competitive advantage — and there is little doubt they can — then all it will take is the spark of a few innovative teams that have success to light a wildfire that will spread to the rest of the league the same way sabermetrics did in the last decade. The Internet of Things is on the cusp of joining baseball off the field and, in time, on it.
This is the first in a two-part series looking at how technology will change baseball over the next decade. Part one will focus on devices that are the most baseball-specific and ready for practical use. Part two will look further down the road to technologies still in development and/or not yet used in a baseball context.
There already are three companies with swing trackers in the market: Blast Motion, Diamond Kinetics and Zepp. A swing tracker is a small sensor, about the size of a stack of nickels, that attaches to the knob of a baseball bat and can measure the position and movement of the bat. It sends those data to an accompanying app on a smart phone or tablet, and the player can see a new stream of data about his or her swing, for example: hand speed, barrel speed, time to impact and bat angle. Depending on the device, the apps also includes functionalities such as 3D renderings and slow-motion video of the swing. The goal is to help the player make adjustments to his or her swing and ultimately become a better hitter. It is the perfect example of the type of device that could not have existed a few years ago but will become ubiquitous as the technology gets smaller and cheaper.
“What we think is really exciting about this space is we have the ability now to bring some powerful information down to every age and skill level of the game,” said C.J. Handron, co-founder and CEO of Diamond Kinetics. “You have the ability to take some of the subjectiveness out of the process. You can’t replace it entirely, but you can bring some more objective information in. We are still very early in this process, but when you compare it against some of the other data available, it’s pretty compelling.”
The most direct comparison for how bat trackers will be used is how radar guns are used with respect to pitchers today. It puts a number on a previously subjective evaluation. Whereas radar guns have become an essential tool to evaluating pitchers at all levels, there has not been an equivalent device for hitters. Bat trackers could be that device and more. The ability to measure every aspect of a swing means more data as opposed to the single miles per hour number of a radar gun.
“A radar gun is a good analogy,” Handron said. “It’s putting a number around something you are watching. Pitching velocity is an outcome of a series of motions. Ball exit velocity (off a bat) is also an outcome of a series of motions, too. What’s interesting about this type of technology is it’s bringing information to the motion that is creating the outcome. That’s why this is the next step in information and usefulness. It’s about what’s making that outcome happen, not just being able to track the outcome.”
The depth of data coming from a swing tracker is preferable to the single radar gun number, but it also means added complexity. This could hinder adoption, at least initially.
“Sure, we all know what 96 miles per hour means for a pitcher,” said Jason Fass, CEO of Zepp Labs. “We understand miles per hour – my car drives in miles per hour. Scouts may not understand ‘vertical angle at impact’ right now, but I am confident they will. The more we hear it, the more we will understand the vernacular. We’re used to scouts all having their radar guns out with their clipboard. Well, soon they will just have swing data emailed to them at the end of the game in a spreadsheet or XML.”
The evaluation of a swing can be complex. There are different kinds of hitters, meaning a coach cannot use just one or two statistics coming from the bat tracker for each of his players.
“You have to look at the whole book, you can’t just look at one page in the book,” said Michael Bentley, the founder of Blast Motion. “Each athlete creates his own signature. You’ll see it right away, a guy who has a very steep velocity curve, that’s a guy who can create some power. Then you have the guys whose are not as sharp, but they are quick.”
Using swing tracking data, Bentley said, a coaching staff can better identify the hitters who are injury risks and those who would benefit the most from strength training.
“The guys who are inefficient are the ones creating injuries,” Bentley said. “You can see in their careers, injuries in their shoulders, elbows and wrists. A very efficient hitter, who hasn’t learned how to use the kinetic chain – the power from the ground to the bat – that’s a guy who you want to get with the trainers. You can get the guy stronger in the gym, then you’ve got a more powerful hitter.”
Each of the companies interviewed for this story made it clear its devices are not perfect substitutes for a scout. Like a radar gun, it is a new tool that can help a scout make a more accurate report.“There is no scenario where this is going to replace a scout,” Handron said. “This does not replace the experience a scout can have. What it can do is put another tool in the toolbox. A swing takes two tenths of a second, and there is a lot happening there. Determining if someone has quick hands, or someone’s power, you can use a tool like this to validate some of those things. It can accelerate that process a little bit.”
Measuring bat speed, angle, and acceleration is possible without a bat tracker. There are batting cages across the country where coaches can use video to capture these data. The real breakthrough with bat trackers is the democratization of those data.
“We wanted to create a device that made that kind of information easier to access,” said Fass. “A scout or a team’s trainer can sit there with an iPad at any back field or batting cage, and all he has to do is tell the app which player is swinging the bat.”
These devices allow for easier, cheaper access to swing data. This means more hitters who will have the data, and bigger databases with more swings and longer histories per player.
“One session gives us certain information,” said Dr. William W. Clark, founder of Diamond Kinetics. “But once we go beyond that and start to look at information over the course of time and different ball locations, then more information can be gathered.”A popular trend among young players today is to make highlight videos for YouTube. That is a fun way to show off a few good swings and try to generate buzz for scouts, but imagine the impact of a young player sending a coach a spreadsheet with years of swing data, with categories for pitch type and location. Conversely, maybe scouts of the future will look at data before seeing the player then use the trip to verify his conclusions.
Sports technology company Motus Global has created a sleeve for pitchers to wear while pitching called the mThrow. This device contains a small sensor embedded in the sleeve that can measure the pitcher’s motion in a similar way to how a swing tracker measures bat movement. The mThrow can provide data which can be used to help improve the pitcher’s delivery, measure fatigue, prevent injuries, and rehab after injuries.
Injury prevention in particular is a hot topic right now, given the number of Tommy John surgeries in the major leagues over the past few years.
“People are really tuned in right now,” said Joe Nolan, CEO and founder of Motus Global. “We are all just trying to understand why these injuries are occurring. It may not be, ‘We need to change this guy’s mechanics.’ It could be as simple as, ‘He needs to throw more or throw less.’”
Nolan said the mThrow is not a magic bullet to end pitching injuries. It is simply a data source that may contribute to the understanding of the problem. Practicing with the device will provide some data, but ultimately, pitchers wearing the sleeve in games will need to be approved in order to see the full benefit.
“We think pitchers should be wearing this full time – long toss, in-game, everything,” Nolan said. “That’s the only way to get the cumulative workload number. Hopefully this is a device that gets approved to be worn in-game. Right now we are in discussions. Having real-time data could potentially prevent a lot of injuries. We all have the same goal, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get approval for wear in-game. We need to get these devices on players now so that we can begin to have some historical data.”
Once approved for in-game, major league use, the mThrow or a similar device could help quantify the pitcher’s fatigue level. Nolan said in the in-game testing his company has done, it found a noticeable difference in elbow height as the game progressed.
“The app can be used to monitor changes in a pitcher’s arm slot,” Nolan said. “In testing, we’ve seen that a pitcher’s elbow height tends to lower by a few percentage points every inning. Maybe a coach could see this, but having these tools on the bench, being able to quantify that, maybe the coach can start getting someone up in the pen earlier.”
(Editor’s Note: TechGraphs’ Bryan Cole has been demoing a Motus sleeve and should have an article on it in the near future at TechGraphs.)
The Next Generation
Having demoed the swing trackers, I can attest that they hardly change the feel of a bat at all. Given, I am not a professional athlete. Considering players have been known to recognize the difference between two baseballs, I do not doubt they would notice a swing tracker. Motus’ sleeve, although an elegant design, is clearly noticeable to the wearer. Will the physical devices be what holds them back from adoption by players? Unlikely. Considering several players today wear magnetic necklaces and bracelets that do nothing, I doubt most players will have an issue wearing a piece of technology if they know it can help their game and prevent injuries.
Further, the current form factors of these types of devices will continue to evolve and shrink. We likely will look back at this generation of swing trackers the same way we look at the first generations of mobile phones. Before long, a swing tracker will be no bigger than a bat knob sticker or embedded in the bat itself. In a few years, pitching sensors could be a sticker instead of a sleeve.
“One of the problems preventing wearables from going mainstream is that most people don’t want to wear them,” said Dustin Freckleton, co-founder and president of BSX Athletics, a wearable device company (that will be featured in part two). “So the goal of every wearable technology is to make the user forget they are wearing it. The best way to do that is to embed the technology into a garment that they are already used to putting on. Without a doubt, that’s where the industry is going.”
In-game use is another hurdle wearable devices will have to overcome. Today, in-game use of electronic devices is not allowed in the majors and most competitive leagues. As stated earlier, baseball typically is slow to change anything on the field of play, so there will need to be significant pressure from players and fans before we see any of these devices used during a major league game.
“Soon, fans will be urging baseball to allow these devices in games,” Fass said. “They will be saying, ‘Why can’t I see Big Papi’s swing speed on that last swing? I want that.’”
Handron also said he believes fan experience will lead baseball into allowing more technology during games.
“Baseball has gotten a lot better at adopting technology in the past five or six years than it has in the past,” Handron said. “I do think that using trackers during the game is not that far away. There is an element of fan experience in all of this. Being able to see what your favorite big leaguer’s swing data is would be interesting. I think people are going to want that, once they find out the information that is available to them through the technology.”
The first generation of wearable devices is in market today, and sports teams around the world are already putting these devices to work. The Golden State Warriors are using clothes with embedded sensors to measure workouts. The German national soccer team used wearable devices to optimize practice workloads prior to the 2014 World Cup, which they won.
The Internet of Things is a tidal wave that is starting to hit shore. Looking further down the road at the technology that will affect baseball five or 10 years from now, things really begin to resemble science fiction. We will take a stroll down that road in part two.