by Seth Daniels, Managing Director of North America
Pitchers occupy one of the most high-pressure and physically taxing positions in the sport of baseball. At all levels of the game, great lengths are taken to maintain pitchers’ performance and ensure that they are in top form season after season. But across the professional, college and high school levels, one thing is lacking when it comes to the building, training and preserving elite pitchers – data analysis. Many will say that overuse, lack of conditioning, and improper pitch mechanics are the biggest problem facing pitchers over the course of their careers, and that may be true at some level. But, the real issue is coaches and trainers need more data on how their pitchers are performing over time, and in specific instances.
New data collection and analysis tools allow teams to track every single ball a pitcher throws, measuring velocity, strike zone, curve, rotation, and more. By analyzing this level of data over time, coaches can get a far more accurate read on a player’s ability and performance levels.
Statistics and baseball have always gone hand-in-hand. But, big data in baseball is a relatively new development. Coaches have always been aware that arm strength, stamina, max pitch count, recovery time, and warm up routines vary from pitcher to pitcher. But until recently, observation has been the primary metric for determining player readiness and performance.
Here are several game-changing applications for pitch data collection and analysis:
- Understanding Pitch Mechanics to Improve Performance
For a pitcher working on a breaking ball, factors like grip, release point, and arm angle change slightly from pitch to pitch. These adjustments can often be missed by pure observation and are hard to link to specific results. Collecting pitch data over time will allow coaches and trainers to experience new teaching and training opportunities. By examining and understanding the aggregated data of each pitcher, coaches will be able to take a quantitative approach to performance training with an unprecedented understanding of what the numbers mean and how best to take advantage of them. Coaches that analyze 3D ball flight, velocity, and spin rate and axis based on specific variable adjustments are more likely to be able to provide targeted instruction on areas of improvement.
- Pre-Game and Bullpen Warm Up
Anyone who has pitched or played the game of baseball knows that different players warm up at different rates. One player may take 20 throws to feel ready to enter the game. Another may go through an entire routine with long-toss and band work before feeling warmed up. Rather than relying on feeling, sophisticated data analysis can determine the exact moment when a pitcher is reaching their optimum performance zone. Taking a chance on an athlete who’s not truly ready and risking wear-down of a starter with too long of a warm-up session are avoidable mistakes. In-depth data is the only way for coaches to feel completely confident in pitching changes.
- Rehabilitation for Pitchers
Similar to the concussion protocol now being used by the NFL, NCAA, and high school leagues across the country, pitch data collection can provide a ‘benchmark’ system for injured baseball players returning to action. At the beginning of the year, every pitcher can record a ‘baseline’ performance session. These numbers can act as the benchmark for that player. If an injury occurs, this performance profile can be used to test the players’ abilities as they undergo recovery and provide a more accurate description of where they are in the rehabilitation process. Big data can take the guesswork out of rehab, and can ensure that players are back to 100% before taking the field.
- Arm Care
The same way a players’ baseline numbers can be used to help in rehabilitation circumstances, they can also be used to provide a more accurate read on a pitcher’s arm maintenance and overall health. Throughout the year, teams can continually gather data on their pitchers and be informed instantly if their numbers suddenly decrease. These statistics can allow coaches and trainers to proactively take the necessary steps to prevent arm injuries. Studies show that decreasing speeds and spin rate have a direct correlation to potential elbow injuries in pitchers. As more and more teams incorporate data analysis tools, the sport will be able to identify the most effective practices for preventing arm injuries.
- Throwing / Lifting Program Evaluation
Seeing measureable results and growth is key to player development. Teams have always been able to measure increases in strength and velocity. Those metrics of growth can be achieved with strength training programs and measured by a radar gun. In-depth data measurement can actually provide a “before and after” picture for exercise programs. Coaches and trainers can keep track of historical data to develop personalized player profiles and compare year over year, or from the beginning of a throwing program to the end. This level of measurement can help to identify areas of significant growth – velocity, RPM’s, or vertical and horizontal break – and design throwing and lifting program to efficiently deliver the best results for each player.
Big data is becoming an integral part of this sport. As increasingly sophisticated data tracking and analysis tools become available, coaches will have the ability to monitor players’ abilities and gain targeted insights into key performance indicators. By incorporating big data into decisions like length of rehabilitation, pitching assignments and maximum pitch count, teams will be able to ensure that they have the right players on the field for every circumstance.
Seth Daniels is Managing Director of North America at Rapsodo, a sports technology company that develops affordable data-driven training solutions for athletes. A former All-Conference collegiate pitcher, Daniels has a strong background in the sport of baseball and a passion for athletic technology. He was previously heading operations at Fathom Voice, a software communications company nominated for Emerging Company of the Year in Indianapolis, Indiana.