MLB Pitchers Have a New Ace Up Their Sleeves: Radar Pitch Tracking
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because technology is helping baseball pitchers fight back against a gluttony of home runs.
A pitching coach sets up a small black box on a tripod, six feet behind the catcher in the bullpen. The box contains a high-speed camera and radar. An iPad behind the mound tag-teams with the black box, recording pitch data: spin rate of the ball, spin rate efficiency, pitch type, location, ball path, total spin, true spin and velocity. Pitchers step off the mound, look at the data and tweak their method in real time. The coach is in charge, but the pitchers have a new ally: the black box called Rapsodo.
With Major League Baseball hitters slugging more home runs than ever before, pitchers are trying to bounce back with pitch tracking that offers real-time technology to help keep their historic advantage over hitters — as the best hitters still make outs seven out of 10 times.
In 2017, runs per game, per team (4.65) in the league stood at a 10-year high, while the composite batting average in the big leagues was .255, up from .251 in 2014, even though pitchers struck out more hitters than ever. Hitters are using video and data analytics to study their game and are turning to geometry with tutorials on “launch angles” and “swing path” with high-speed cameras.
It’s feedback right away.
Blair Lakso, pitcher, Minnesota Twins
Now, pitchers have a surfeit of options at hand to fight back. There’s FlightScope, a device that uses multifrequency 3D radar technology to track pitches and that 12 Major League teams were using in 2017, according to Fangraphs, a baseball website. PitchGrader uses a Doppler radar to gather pitch data. RevFire, which, like Rapsodo, launched a portable system that records data after every pitch, is coming up with an upgraded avatar. And Rapsodo — which first started with a golf launch monitor in 2010 — rolled out its pitching tool to MLB teams in 2017 and had 17 of the 30 big league organizations signed up on Opening Day this year. Three other MLB organizations are in negotiations.
While high-tech methods still earn a skeptical eye from some in the game who preach feel over numbers, many pitchers say pitch tracking gives them a chance to keep their competitive advantage. It allows them to change their grip, or change the pressure they put on the seams of the baseball, with instant analysis in a manner never seen in the sport before. “It’s feedback right away,” says Blair Lakso, 23, a minor league pitcher with the Minnesota Twins, speaking of Rapsodo. “You translate it right to the playing of the game. It’s absolutely awesome.”
For sure, tech in baseball isn’t new. Stadiums across the country offer fans ball velocities on giant screens during games. In 2006, Sportvision devised PITCHf/x to measure spin — this technology too is now available at most MLB stadiums. Two years later, Trackman, another firm, launched technology that uses a military-grade Doppler radar — placed behind home plate — to measure the location, spin, break, velocity and trajectory of pitches.
But the introduction of pitch-tracking technology in baseball is no longer incremental. There’s a bouquet of options that has landed at the doorstep of teams, tailored not for fans but for training. “These are powerful tools that are giving meaningful data to the teams and players,” says Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute and a consultant to Major League Baseball. “It gives teams another tool for instruction and scouting, and that is all good for baseball.”
At spring training this year, Rapsodo appeared the technology pitchers and coaches were most excited about. The data it churns out is not a labyrinth of numbers. The screen is straightforward and the data manageable. Many teams have added player-development personnel who specialize in performance science, which helps with the machine learning.
“It can show what works and doesn’t work, as long as you know what the numbers mean,” says Adam McCreery, a minor league pitcher with the Atlanta Braves. “You may think, ‘Hey, my stuff is really good’, but the machine might say, ‘No, it’s not as good as you think.’”
The technology isn’t a replacement for coaches — players still need the reassurance that comes from a gentle hand on the shoulder during a slump. In fact, it helps coaches refine their plans as much as it aids players.
“We have been relying on the eyeball test,” says Ivan Arteaga, a minor league pitching coach with the Twins. “This is a good pitch, this is not a good pitch. Sometimes we rely on the hitters and how they swing at a pitch to tell us about a pitch.” Rapsodo, he says, helps understand, with “a sense of exactitude, good pitches.”
And for clubs, the technology makes sense financially too. The Rapsodo costs about $3,000, fits inside a bag and can go on the road with a pitcher in between starts, or can be set up quickly in the bullpen. With multiple teams turning to the same technology, the advantage comes in who uses it efficiently and gets the most out of it. Those strategies remain secrets — the Tampa Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates had no comment when asked about their Rapsodos and plans.
Not all pitchers who have made their way into the big leagues are convinced about the emphasis on numbers like spin rates. “Deception is better than spin rate,” says Kevin Siegrist, who was pitching for the Pirates in spring training. “If the pitch is easy to pick up, what does it matter what the spin rate is? I have always had a below average spin rate on my fastball, but a lot of guys don’t take good swings off my fastball.”
For the companies, it’s pure business. Rapsodo is not taking sides on the diamond. It has also introduced a tool to help hitters, though its hitting monitor, nicknamed “The Tank,” has yet to gain the traction within the MLB that the pitching tool has.
But for pitchers, the new technology could prove transformative. It can help coaches guide players to improve their skills and deliver on their promise, suggests Arteaga. “Maybe this is going to change somebody’s career and make them a big leaguer,” he says. “What we are trying to do is ensure that this guy gets every possible chance to be who he can be.”