Best Types of Tech Baseball Players Use

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2015

Best Types of Tech Baseball Players Use

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    Baseball players are actually using technology to improve their game, not just their social media presence.
    Baseball players are actually using technology to improve their game, not just their social media presence.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    For a sport that presses traditionalism tightly to its bosom like a cap during "The Star-Spangled Banner," baseball has increasingly embraced technology in recent years—a surprising move from a league that saw the Chicago Cubs wait until 1988 for their first night game.

    The small kerfuffle created by 61-year-old Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost over his Apple Watch typified this technological paradox. MLB gifted Yost the timepiece for managing the American League at the All-Star Game, but he can't wear the high-tech watch during games because he could hypothetically gain an unfair advantage by using its "smart" capabilities. For his part, Yost claim he uses the watch conventionally (to tell time), and the watch needs the phone to have the smart functions. But for now, would-be cheaters must stick to the old-fashioned methods of gaming the system, like relaying signs using semaphore.

    Aside from watch phones and phone watches, there are other types of tech that baseball players and coaches employ to improve on-field results. And no, this isn't about titanium necklaces or the St. Louis Cardinals hacking the Houston Astros' scouting info. It's also not about Eric Byrnes' robot Pitchf/x strike zone or Oculus Rift umpires. We examined the forefront of sports innovation, which includes The Matrix-style three-dimensional tracking of every play and even a training device that looks suspiciously like a sports bra.

Swing Mapping

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Swinging a baseball bat uncoils a tremendous amount of energy directed by a split-second reaction to a fast-moving target that can barely be seen by the naked eye. With thousands of swings taken per player per season, and countless more during practice, it's difficult to track and compare all of them with any consistency, even with reams of video replays linked to pitch location and result. 

    Where there's a will, there's a way, and the innovation of swing mapping addresses this issue. Instead of a batter who swings and misses having been "tied up" or "out in front," swing mapping captures reams of data from the batter's reaction to each pitch.

    In 2013, Mashable looked at the work of University of Michigan professor of mechanical engineering Noel Perkins, who developed the concept after struggling to learn fly fishing because of his initial difficulty with casting the rod. Perkins partnered with Pittsburgh firm Diamond Kinetics, a company co-founded by another professor who innovated from a similar frustration.

    University of Pittsburgh mechanical engineering professor William Clark was irked by the experience his son and daughter had while learning to play baseball and softball all the way to the Division I level. As different coaches and evaluators imparted different advice about swing style, he discovered a lack of objectivity in evaluating progress. Clark partnered with C.J. Handron, now the CEO of Diamond Kinetics, and eventually SwingTracker was born.

    As noted by the Tribune-Review's Travis Sawchik, the device is placed on the knob of the bat to capture and transmit data in "13 metrics, falling under four swing categories: power, quickness, control and speed." Handron says a "host" of MLB hitters use the product, and he has spoken to the Pittsburgh Pirates about it as well.

    Other companies such as Blast Motion have entered the fray, and Zepp has landed major endorsers including Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and David Ortiz.

Concussion-Prevention Cap

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    Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

    The debate over how to protect athletes from concussions presents a complicated problem for football and hockey players due to the violent and chaotic nature of those sports. One specific solution in baseball seems more straightforward: a larger cap with more protection for the pitcher, who lands within 60 feet of home plate and a potential line drive back up the middle. 

    The cautionary tales provide a convincing argument in favor of increased protection for pitchers: Brandon McCarthy was unable to avoid a line drive late in the 2012 season and required emergency surgery to alleviate bleeding in his brain.

    J.A. Happ was stretchered off the field in May 2013 after absorbing a line drive to the head, and just weeks after that, McCarthy suffered a seizure related to his previous incident. Star reliever Aroldis Chapman couldn't avoid a liner at his face (which a protective cap's longer bill might have stopped) during the spring of 2014, and Dan Jennings' own scare followed later that season.

    Yet, only one MLB pitcher currently wears the special protective hat designed for pitchers: New York Mets reliever Alex Torres. He began wearing the padded isoBLOX cap in 2014 as a member of the San Diego Padres, even though he got jeered by fans and called "Super Mario" in the clubhouse because of the resemblance, as head athletic trainer Todd Hutcheson told ESPN.com's William Weinbaum.

    The technology still needs tweaks and improvements, but it's far better than the thin layer of material afforded by standard caps. As Torres told Weinbaum about the 2015 version of the cap: "It felt OK, felt a little weird the first time using that kind of model. I don't think about that, I just go to the mound to make that out we needed to win the game."

    Torres needs no convincing to choose the uncomfortable and unfashionable new headgear. He decided to wear such a cap after watching Tampa Bay Rays teammate Alex Cobb take a line drive off the side of his head in 2013 (which still affected Cobb more than a year later), and that's all the motivation Torres needs.

Training Harness

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman tore his ACL in March during a routine fielding drill. Typically, that would spell the end of a pitcher's season, but he has put together a speedy rehab that has observers around the league taking notice.

    Five months after tearing knee ligaments, Stroman was throwing off a mound, and a few weeks later, he joined the Lansing Lugnuts for a strong rehab start, putting him in line to rejoin a Blue Jays club that is fighting for the AL East crown.

    Grantland's Ben Lindbergh delved into the science of Stroman's rapid return. One overriding factor lies with Stroman's focus and determination. The pitcher returned to college at Duke to take more classes toward his degree while also starting two-a-day workouts in May as two different physical therapists monitored him, one assigned specifically to focus on the repaired ACL. 

    Stroman's Duke connection helped the Jays oversee their pitcher's recovery using a unique piece of technology that basically looks like a sports bra:

    Fruition. #HDMH pic.twitter.com/209VIiRJ9c

    — Marcus Stroman (@MStrooo6) August 27, 2015

    Dr. Robert J. Butler is the interim director of Duke’s Human Performance Laboratory, and his team used a performance harness from a company named Catapult to help track Stroman's exertion during rehab. As Butler told Lindbergh: "Because we used the data, we could train him 11 times a week in a progressive manner and really continue to make gains."

    The Blue Jays had used the same system during spring training, which provided a baseline measurement to compare with Stroman's rehab progress. With results like this, the "sports bra" look could catch on around the league.

Ergonomic Bat Handles

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Baseball players have few options when it comes to choosing a bat. MLB regulations require that a bat be made of solid wood. Only a select few types of wood are permitted, and there are other rigorous specifications about length and diameter.

    But one area has received some sensible innovations of late: the handle. Two different types of solutions have been put forward, and while neither has attained wide acceptance, both have gained MLB proponents.

    One idea comes from designer Grady Phelan, who created the ProXR bat with a tilted knob. The ergonomic design aims to prevent fractures of the hamate bone in the wrist and reduce pressure on the ulnar nerve during swings. Instead of the knob of the bat being even all the way around, the ProXR knob is tilted at 23 degrees to match the wrist's range of motion. Pros such as Prince Fielder and Mike Hessman have used the ProXR bat.

    The other redesign for the bat handle seems more straightforward—the type of hybrid idea that makes people wonder, "why didn't I think of that?" Bruce Leinert, a woodworker from New York, approached Baden Sports with an observation and concept: It's more comfortable to swing an ax than a baseball bat, so why not make a baseball bat with an ax handle? And thus, the Axe Bat was born, a product that has been used by Jimmy Rollins and Homer Bailey.

    While these products have gained some traction with pros, the bigger progress has been made with amateur players in college summer leagues. As Phelan told Fast Company's Mark Wilson about the struggle to gain more devotees among MLB players: "Very few guys will change their bat brand. … At camp, it became apparent to me that these guys like my tech, but they love their brand of bat."

Food Science

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    While technological innovation and massive data analysis fit the familiar technological upswing, some players are returning to nature to get their edge, but they still need research and scientific know-how to distinguish between a bitter, useless shrubbery and a crucial restorative compound.

    In a sport that demands split-second reaction times to small, rapidly moving objects, good vision is a requirement for baseball success. That's why players such as Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker turn to zeaxanthin, a derivative of delicious paprika, to supplement their standard ocular workouts. Walker had struggled with dry eyes and squinting before finding a solution in zeaxanthin.

    As Walker said via SI.com's Jamie Lisanti: "I felt like my contrast was better and I wasn’t squinting as much. It was somewhat like internal sunglasses to a degree, especially during day games.” 

    As noted by Lisanti, University of Georgia researchers published a study in 2014 that "found evidence linking visual processing speed and reaction time and a daily intake of zeaxanthin. … Today, all 30 MLB teams have started experimenting with the nutrient." Far from a spurious trend in supplements, this one appears rooted in science and offers the general virtue of keeping your eyes healthy.

    If you simply want to help keep your maculae in tip-top shape, you don't have to eat spoonfuls of paprika, because the nutrient is also found in "dark leafy greens like kale and dandelion greens, red bell and chili peppers, goji berries and egg yolks."

MLBAM and Statcast

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    You might have noticed when watching national broadcasts of MLB games on Fox and elsewhere that the announcers keep mentioning stuff like the "exit velocity" of a home run. They're not just providing that detail to make you feel like a confused kid in physics class once again; it's part of the new avalanche of statistical data being recorded by Major League Baseball Advanced Media using "Statcast" in every ballpark during every game.

    The term "tape-measure home run" originated because some poor schlub had to take a tape measure out to where the ball landed and figure out how far that was from home plate. (Note: It was quite far.) Now MLB has all that information mapped and triangulated, as with virtually everything else that happens in the game. 

    For the Win's Ted Berg writes:

    The radar and cameras don’t just measure the speed of pitches and batted balls, but their spin rates and launch angles. Run through software in the production truck and in MLB Advanced Medias offices in lower Manhattan, they track defensive players’ reaction times, the efficiency of their routes to balls, and the strength of their arms. And they know runners’ top speeds on the basepaths, the size of their leads and the quickness of their first steps.

    Now teams can precisely chart how efficiently Curtis Granderson pursued a fly ball over his head or how impossible it is to catch Billy Hamilton stealing. In fact, MLB Advanced Media has partnered with other sports associations including the NHL and PGA, and it has become such a powerhouse that it recently announced a spinoff called BAM Tech, a media company to handle the non-baseball operations.