The Future of Baseball Technology, Part One: The Internet of Things

Swing tracking devices like Zepp's are small sensors that attach to the knob of a bat and send data to a nearby device via bluetooth. (pic courtesy of Zepp Baseball)

Swing tracking devices like Zepp’s are small sensors that attach to the knob of a bat and send data to a nearby device via bluetooth. (pic courtesy of Zepp Baseball)

It is easy to underestimate how much technology has changed daily life. Since the invention of the computer, it has shrunk from a huge device that took up a room, to a desktop tower, to portable laptops, to in-your-pocket smartphones in only a few decades. Computing power is increasing constantly while the cost and size are decreasing. Those trends are converging into an explosion of tiny, connected, task-oriented devices that has been dubbed, “The Internet of Things.”

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.

Swing Trackers

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.”

This is a screen shot of the Blast Motion baseball app. The Blast Motion device allows users to take video of their swing, then automatically edits the video for quick reference and analysis.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This is a screen shot of the Blast Motion baseball app. The Blast Motion device allows users to take video of their swing, then automatically edits the video for quick reference and analysis.

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.

This is a screen shot of the Diamond Kinetics app, showing a 3D rendering of a swing. The user is able to view the swing from multiple angles and play back the bat location at any point during the swing.

This is a screen shot of the Diamond Kinetics app, showing a 3D rendering of a swing. The user is able to view the swing from multiple angles and play back the bat location at any point during the swing.

“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.”

This is a screen shot of the Diamond Kinetics app, showing some of the statistics available to the user after a session.

This is a screen shot of the Diamond Kinetics app, showing some of the statistics available to the user after a session.

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.

Pitching Technology

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.

Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.
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8 years ago

A very informative article about technology I never knew existed. Both pieces of technology could instantly help the batter and the pitcher, which I support. A question I would pose is at what point does technology become overbearing in baseball in which there could be too much data to help individual performance and mess with the baseball players mental game in trying to make adjustments?

Yehoshua Friedman
8 years ago

It would be wonderful if baseball could get the best information about what goes into the skills of playing the game. I saw a video of international soccer player Ronaldo being analyzed in a sports lab, and it was a wonder to behold. Baseball doesn’t do that stuff yet, and it certainly should. It would also help to broaden the mindset of baseball managers, coaches, scouts, executives and writers toward getting the best use out of players. All kinds of assumptions should be checked with hard data. Is it really so impossible to have a lefthanded catcher, for example? Does there have to be the degree of specialization the we have today with the pitcher who either never bats or has a steadily decreasing ability at the plate? Time to get cracking.

Eric the Clown
8 years ago

I never thought that it was impossible to have a left-handed catcher, just that if you have a lefty that can throw that hard, he would be a pitcher.

Bryan Cole
8 years ago

Baseball absolutely does that stuff, Yehoshua, it’s just all (or almost all) out of the public eye. Before Motus made the mThrow, their bread and butter was biomechanics through motion capture. They worked with a number of pro teams and players. Glenn Fleisig’s lab (ASMI) also does a lot of very similar stuff, an example of which can be seen in the back of this year’s BP Annual.

Jesse: I also was curious about the form factor element (I’m thinking of Ted Williams complaining about his bat picking up extra moisture from being on the ground). But Zepp and DK both told me they hadn’t heard any such complaints from the pro players that have used their devices. At the pro level, I still think the future is markerless motion capture than more sensors; as camera and image processing software continues to improve, a sort of “Statcast for biomechanics” (like the BIOf/x thing Sportvision talked about last year) will become a lot more reliable.

Jesse Wolfersberger
8 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Cole

When I tested the swing trackers, I couldn’t tell the difference at all, but I have no doubts that a major-leaguer could. In terms of form factor, you can’t beat video technology. The true innovation in swing trackers is having video-like functionality in any back field, batting cage, or high school field.

Bryan Cole
8 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Cole

That’s assuming, of course, that the swing trackers have video-like accuracy, which hasn’t been verified.

And even then, you lose a lot of useful information about the “kinetic chain” (especially in the lower body) during the swing by just focusing on the bat path. Don’t get me wrong, I’m way into these things, but they’re no silver bullet.

Paul Swydanmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Cole

Yeah, I know Matt Holliday – when he was in Colorado – would send bats back just after touching them because he said he knew if they were light or heavy in certain spots. Ted Williams supposedly did that too.

Joe Camp
8 years ago

I wonder if the characteristics produced by the bat tracker of speed and potentially angle could be characterized for each player, allowing a player to be recognized according to the data. I guess an easier solution is just to have bats dedicated to each player.

Bryan Cole
8 years ago
Reply to  Joe Camp

And a cheaper solution would be to have one bat and have a coach assign each swing to a player.

For MLB players, I bet the swings are distinct enough to where you could build a pretty reliable classifier, but especially at the youth level (which is their target market) there’s probably so much variation from one swing to the next that you’d end up with huge amounts of overlap.

8 years ago

This is not what the “Internet of Things” is about whatsoever, beyond awful attempts at marketing, because none of the functionality of these things depend on network connectivity beyond temporary storage or possible integration into an app. This is more an example of ubiquitous computing or miniaturized sensor systems.

8 years ago
Reply to  dj_mosfett

I should mention that this is not merely nitpicking, or a distinction without a difference. The entire article’s structure is predicated on the “possibility” of the IoT framework when it has nothing to do with the IoT framework in the first place. Will all of these devices interact with each other? Probably not, because these companies are assuredly not interested in a unified communication and data exchange method.

“The real breakthrough with bat trackers is the democratization of those data,” says the author. Isn’t this the case with every single app-connected sensor gadget these days? It’s not exclusive to bat trackers. And I have a real problem with calling that “democratization”; it makes the data more accessible to the immediate user, but it doesn’t make it accessible to anyone else (not that the data should necessarily be released to anyone else). The fan element that Handron talks about isn’t enabled by their device, after all. That’s up to the player or the team or the league. The aforementioned unified communication method? That’s more democratization of data than anything discussed here.

TL;DR: I appreciate the amount of work that went into this, and it’s nifty to see the advances in player-accessible tech, but this article reads like a press release.

8 years ago
Reply to  dj_mosfett

I agree. It is a misuse of IoT by these companies trying to catch a marketing wave. What we read has nothing to do with IoT.

But the article is informative nonetheless. A very interesting read.

8 years ago

Very much agree with he post that this is not IoT. This is more along the lines of “Big Data Baseball”. In fact, there is a new book out called exactly that. Interesting stuff, and was a instrumental in turning the Pirates around after 20 losing seasons.

I really enjoyed the article.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

Let me posit a hypothetical that this technology develops to a point that players can hone their skills to a degree unheard of in previous eras. The result is that a player in the 22nd century sets the career home run record with 1000. Would this record be any different than the PED era? In other words, people complained that Bonds, McGuire, et. al. “cheated” in setting their records by using PEDs. But, putting aside the health risks involved with PEDs, what is the difference between that and using some very advanced technology like that discussed in the article? This is not something that Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, or, to make it more contemporary, Albert Pujols had available. If you are going to say that Bonds’ record is tainted by steroids, wouldn’t you also say that records created using this new technology would also be tainted? I realize this is not the subject of the article but, to me, it raises an interesting point. (And, to be clear, I am not one that wants to invalidate records set in the PED era.) But if you can use technology to provide information that enables you to perfect your swing in a way not possible before, how does this affect our view of the records?