High-Tech Pitching: Arizona Baseball Players Using Data To Improve Performance
Baseball is much more advanced than it used to be. Nutrition and training regimens are better than they were even a decade ago. There are stats about stats with acronyms no one understands.
But perhaps no other part of the game is scrutinized as closely as pitching.
Back in the 1940s, pitcher Bob Feller, who went on to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, once threw more than 370 innings in a single season. That’s more than 41 complete nine-inning games. It wasn’t uncommon back in the day for a pitcher to throw both games of a doubleheader. Look up a guy named Joe McGinnity. Today, 200 innings is considered an extremely heavy workload, and pitching has become highly specialized.
Far from a big-league mound, 13-year-old Braxton Lyon is standing on an artificial pitcher's mound inside X2 Athletic Performance in a nondescript one-story Scottsdale office park.
Scientists and athletes are using infrared cameras, weighted baseballs, motion-capture technology and other high-tech stuff to gather data that will be used to create training and recovery programs specific to each athlete.
Braxton is a tall, lanky kid with long arms and legs. His ballcap is pulled down tight over his brow. Braxton is in middle school. And loves baseball.
“I want to get better with my pitching,” Braxton said. “I feel like this program and the drills will help me get better with muscle memory.”
There’s a guy named Joe Marsh, part scientist, part athlete, putting little sticky dots all over Braxton’s shirtless body. They look like the earbuds on your headphones, except they’re coated with highly reflective paint. It’s basically the same stuff that road crews put on the stripes in the road so that you can see them at night. There are about a dozen infrared cameras atop tripods set up around the pitching mound pointed at Braxton. They record his every move as he goes through his pitching motion.
“The light will bounce off these markers so we can track body segment and elbow stress, arm speeds, all that kind of stuff,” Marsh said.
All of that information is recorded, measured, and turned into an instant 3-D video of the pitcher's body on a computer. Kyle Boddy started a company called Driveline Baseball to build on the data revolution in baseball.
“It can actually show the pitcher's motion,” Boddy said. “It looks like a video of what’s going on.”
Boddy describes himself as a terrible high school baseball player who studied economics and computer science and combined the best parts of those disciplines to create his company. He’s looking intently at a three-dimensional outline of a pitcher's body moving on a computer screen.
“You can roughly see what’s going on,” Boddy said. "It’s like you're almost looking at a normal camera. But then if you dig deeper, you can actually see how fast the arm is moving, all the various points on the body, it's actually 48 points on the body that are being recorded, 240 times per second. From that, we can recalculate all those angles, those stresses, and it’s a snapshot in time that we can use now for training and that we can evaluate next year and the year after and when this person's in college, we can evaluate how it has changed over time.”
Based on that analysis, Boddy said, scientists in his program can develop a specific throwing plan for each pitcher, but as importantly, a specific recovery plan. Boddy claims to have a 30 percent lower injury rate among college and pro pitchers who use this type of training compared with those who don’t.
"The modern athlete just loves data."
— Kyle Boddy
“The modern athlete just loves data,” Boddy said. “They love games, video games. We get everything we want when we want it. They want to see proof of results. No longer a coach saying, 'This is how it’s done.' They want proof.”
Boddy points to Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer as proof that his program can resurrect a career.
Bauer was struggling in his career before becoming a student of Driveline Baseball and Boddy’s methods. He helped lead the Indians to the 2016 World Series and followed that up with a career year in 2017.
As is the case with any relatively new technology, especially in the sports world, there are always people who believe it works, and those who don't. Eno Sarris, who is the head of analytics for online sports publication called The Athletic.com, is considered the best data nerd around. He's the go-to analytics guy for ESPN, Fox Sports, Major League Baseball and a host of others. He's known as a seam-head in baseball parlance, and he says testing the data that is collected is the only way to actually find out whether something works or not.
“The training itself gives the player lots of data to work with and gives the lab data and that gives them the opportunity to test what they’re doing,” Sarris said. “The training they are doing gives them the chance to test the before and after and get to the question of, 'Is this thing working?' The basis for what Driveline does is working and proven in journals. And it’s the best of the data-driven approach.”