This story appears in the March 25, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Cold and clear as verity, a new dawn broke over Camelback Ranch, spring home of the Dodgers. So did morning. In one batting cage at the Glendale, Ariz., complex last month—not the cage with ground force measurement plates—rookie outfielder Alex Verdugo, 22, took batting practice while tethered to a laptop computer by two dozen thick white wires sprouting like vines from a harness around his hips and torso. Behind him, also in the cage, two technicians monitored the 3D motion images of Verdugo and his swing.
In the bullpen of a back field, pitching prospects Dustin May, 21, and Tony Gonsolin, 24, threw with a tripod-mounted high-speed camera behind them and a wedge-shaped radar tracking device on the ground in front of them. The Dodgers maintained four such technology-equipped mounds in this bullpen alone, and more at the minor league fields. Behind the mounds stood 13 operators, analysts and coaches. Four analysts held tablets to immediately show pitchers the velocity, vertical break, horizontal break, spin rate, spin axis and path of any pitch—on-the-spot sequencing of a pitch genome.
On each of two diamonds, five devices tracked every pitch of live batting practice: a high-speed camera with an operator behind the pitcher, a tracking device on the ground and video cameras behind the plate and to each side.
Analysts in khakis did not quite equal players in spikes, but the visual was close enough to render the effect unmistakable: A technology boom is changing baseball. Once confined to a handful of teams and analytic boiler rooms, technology has exploded in the past year to become embraced (if not understood) by all 30 teams. Technology is changing how players learn, how coaches coach, how managers manage, how front offices evaluate and how teams compete. Its yield of verity, as Shakespeare’s Malcolm would allow, has become one of the king-becoming graces.
“This generation of players has brought about the biggest, fastest change in baseball that I’ve ever seen,” says Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello, who begins his 29th year in professional baseball. Only two years ago, for instance, the Astros were the only team to extensively use the high-speed camera, a small blue box called an Edgertronic SC1, a $5,000 device originally intended for scientific researchers. Shooting at 1,000 frames per second or more (faster than your usual slow-motion TV replay), it focuses on a tight window in which the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, revealing in stunning clarity how the baseball comes off a pitcher’s fingertips and how it spins. It does for pitches what high-speed cameras did for the wings of a hummingbird: It reveals what previously went unseen by even the keenest of human eyes.
The Astros first considered the camera so proprietary that they would tape over its identifying name, lest they tip off other clubs to their secret sauce. By last year a half dozen teams had began using the devices. This year the cameras were as ubiquitous around camps as bats and balls. Major league teams ordered so many of them that the manufacturer, Sanstreak, posted on its website, “Due to high demand, lead time on all SC1 cameras is 12 weeks. . . . One camera per order, please.”
Likewise, pitch-tracking devices made by Trackman and Rapsodo are suddenly everywhere. The $4,500 Rapsodo is an 111⁄2-pound unit that looks like somebody left a slightly open pizza box 20 feet in front of home plate. It provides instant data on at least 10 different pitch metrics so that a pitcher, as its website touts, can “design your perfect pitch.”
“In my four years here,” says Houston manager AJ Hinch, “I’ve watched tech go from, ‘We’re just going to get video and don’t know what to do with it’ to now being ever present. Justin Verlander is saying, ‘Why isn’t that camera over here?’ He wants every pitch [captured].”
The ability to capture information on every pitch has ignited an explosion of “designer” breaking pitches that has made for the toughest era in history for a hitter to make contact. In the cold truth of its diagnostics, technology is telling pitchers—from a prospect like Gonsolin to a Cy Young Award winner like Verlander—what to throw and what not to throw.
What’s coming is a day when catchers wear a sleeve embedded with a device to measure how his arm and hand moved to receive and frame a pitch; when motion capture devices reveal secrets about the swing to finally allow offense to fight back against the gains technology has made for pitching; and when a batter prepares for an at bat by wearing a virtual reality headset that re-creates the exact likely pitches of the opposing pitcher.
“It’s not quite there,” Cubs president Theo Epstein says of virtual reality as a major league training device, “but in two or three years you might see every team’s hitters training to hit off other team’s pitchers before they go up to hit.”
Says Galen Carr, director of player personnel for the Dodgers, “I’d be surprised if by next season [VR] isn’t fully functional in a handful of clubhouses.”
“Probably sooner than that,” says Jarett Sims, CEO of Monsterful VR, maker of the RibeeVR system, in a phone interview. “If you were in the office with me, you would see me smiling. I’ll leave it at that.”
As evidenced by a typical spring training day, the Dodgers are industry leaders in technology. According to one industry source, they spend about $20 million annually on research and development—hardware, software, salaries. That figure does not include a separate technology incubator business they have operated since 2015. Their Global Sports Venture Studio helps develop emerging technology companies in all sports, not just baseball. When the firm developing the pitch-framing sleeve went belly-up, the Dodgers, one of its investors, bought the company and its technology.
The Cubs, according to another source, are a distant second in technology investments, at about $13 million. The Astros, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees are the other clubs in the top echelon of tech-savvy teams.
Houston has been recognized as such a successful early adopter that clubs playing catch-up—such as the Angels, Orioles and Braves—hired away more than 20 executives, coaches and analysts from the Astros in just the past five months. “The gap has narrowed,” said one source from a large market club, “but we know how to use it. A lot of teams have it but don’t know how to use it, like the Marlins. They just know they have it. They don’t know what that camera does. They’ve captured [the video]. But they haven’t hired the people to interpret it, apply it to the coaches, then apply it to the players.”
Under new GM Mike Elias, who was part of Houston’s brain drain, the Orioles hold “spin axis seminars” for pitchers—something the Astros were doing four years ago. Elias was Houston’s scouting director when, in the 2016 draft, the Astros, with the 17th overall pick, selected Forrest Whitley, a high school pitcher from San Antonio. Whitley happened to pitch a high school playoff game in Round Rock, Texas, home of Houston’s Triple A team. The Astros turned on their ballpark’s pitch-tracking device, Trackman, and learned that Whitley had an abnormally high spin rate on his four-seam fastball, a characteristic of the pitch that makes it harder to hit.
Since he signed, Whitley has thrown virtually every pitch in games, bullpen sessions and sometimes even in flat-ground throwing sessions with the Edgertronic, Trackman or Rapsodo watching. Whitley, 21, is now the best pitching prospect in baseball, as well as the prototype of a generation fully immersed in technology. “I have friends in all these other organizations, and I tell them I do not throw a bullpen without Rapsodo and Edgertronic, and they think that’s the craziest thing in the whole world,” he says. “I’ve grown up in this organization, and that’s all I’ve known. So it’s hard to imagine getting anything done without them.”
Before Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, Hinch was walking with Gene Dias, the Astros’ vice president of media relations, in a narrow hallway beneath Dodger Stadium toward the recently relocated visitors’ clubhouse. As they passed the room that housed the old visitors’ clubhouse, Hinch took a glance past the open door and saw people sitting at desks in front of laptops.
“Gene, is that the media work room?” Hinch asked.
“No. That’s their R&D department.”
“Holy s---! Let’s go back there again.”
They turned around. The manager of the Astros, in full uniform, stepped into the room. He saw the length of it filled with people working at laptops. The capacity stunned even someone from the tech-heavy Astros.
The sign on the door said LOS ANGELES DODGERS in script, and below it in print, BASEBALL OPERATIONS. RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENT. The symbolism of the conversion was hard to miss: Physical space that once had been the inner sanctum of players had been turned over to number crunchers. But the only way for such a large R&D department to succeed, according to Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, is for no metaphorical wall to exist between the two distinctly different groups of people. “It’s in the application,” Friedman says about the key to using technology. “The data itself, the information, is something most every team has now. So it’s about how the various departments are synced up to make it actually be actionable.”
Says Epstein, “Five years ago you had to tiptoe around ballplayers and the eye roll of coaches who thought [tech] was getting in the way. Now there’s a huge appetite, and the players feel like they’re missing out if you’re not providing it for them, and there’s this great symbiotic relationship between the R&D guys and the players and coaches. It’s awesome.”
The younger generation is driving the fast wave of acceptance. Earl Weaver introduced the radar gun to the big leagues in 1972. Tony Gwynn popularized the use of videotape in the ’80s. For years technology traveled a top-down path, with the minors and amateurs copying what worked in the majors. This tech boom has surfaced from the bottom up and the outside in, whether it’s bubbled up from the golf world (swing and ball flight analysis) or private baseball labs such as Driveline in Kent, Wash. (high-speed cameras, wearable devices and motion capture).
The Rise of the Breaking Pitch
PCt. of breaking pitches thrown
Opponent Batting Average
The Cubs’ state-of-the-art spring training complex is a good example of how fast this generation of players has adopted technology. Well, the facility was state of the art when it opened in 2014—it’s already outdated. The video room now is too small. “For the first three or four years very few people went into that video room unless you were a coach,” says Borzello. “Now there’s 20 guys in there. They’re fighting for time on the computer.”
Not only are they more comfortable with technology, young players also learn differently than older players. Studies have shown millennials and those that follow them are more likely to crave visual and auditory cues and require change in delivery formats to maintain interest. They seek cause-and-effect solutions more than the patience and diligence of “nose-to-the-grindstone” practice.
And so baseball teams are hiring more coaches who are younger and often come straight out of college baseball or the private sector, including Rangers assistant hitting coach Callix Crabbe, who was hired out of IMG Academy; Rays “process and analytics coach” Jonathan Erlichman, who was a math major at Princeton who never played beyond T-ball; Phillies minor league hitting coordinator Jason Ochart, who will retain his job as director of hitting at Driveline, and Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson, who was the pitching coach at the University of Arkansas. “He was using high-speed cameras back in 2011 at Dallas Baptist,” Twins executive vice president Derek Falvey says of Johnson. Not only has Johnson brought Edgertronic cameras to the Twins, but he also conducts “visual training” seminars. Before each individually scripted bullpen session a Minnesota pitcher will watch clips of his best examples of the specific pitches he is working on that day.
When Houston posted an opening for a minor league hitting coach job this offseason, the requirements resembled the standards for a Ph.D. application: “analyze hitter performance deficiencies using tools, reports and technology . . . strong computer skills and proficient in Microsoft Office . . . technical degree is a plus . . . SQL and R coding skills is a plus.”
Technology is how players learn. “From their amateur days they demand it,” Epstein says. “They’re also all on social media, so if there’s anything out there on Twitter that looks like it’s helpful and the organization doesn’t provide or understand, it you lose credit with your own players.
“You have to know your stuff backwards and forwards. If you try to b.s. your way through it, you’ll be written off.”
Justin Verlander is 36 and broke into the big leagues in 2005, two years before the iPhone. Yet since he joined Houston in a trade on Aug. 31, 2017, he has become as enraptured with technology as any millennial.
Immediately after the trade, the Astros had Verlander throw with the Edgertronic and Rapsodo, tools he never had with the Tigers. The camera revealed that Verlander was “showing” his slider to hitters too early by having it pop up out of his hand. He changed his hand position to stay behind the ball longer, creating the desired effect of having his slider look like a fastball as it left his hand. The Rapsodo device revealed that the metrics on his two-seam fastball—spin, break and path—were so poor that it recommended that Verlander stop throwing the pitch. Verlander immediately ditched the two-seamer, which is designed to favor movement over pure velocity.
In 48 starts with Houston, including the postseason, Verlander is 27–11 with a 2.41 ERA.
Five months after trading for Verlander, the Astros traded for Gerrit Cole, who had just had the worst of his five seasons with the Pirates (4.26 ERA and the second-most home runs allowed in the National League). As they had done with Charlie Morton, Colin McHugh, Will Harris and Verlander, the Astros used pitch data to identify a better pitcher hidden within Cole. They told him much of the way he was using his pitches was wrong.
For instance, Cole says, “They told me to throw my slider more and my curveball harder, which was the opposite of what I was doing.” The most fundamental change was to transform Cole from a two-seam fastball pitcher who pounded the bottom of the zone to get ground balls into a four-seam fastball monster with swing-and-miss stuff at the top of the zone. The Astros convinced him that the two-seam fastball is an ineffective pitch in today’s game. As hitters have prioritized slugging over batting average, they seek higher launch angles with a more upward swing path to the ball—perfect for elevating low pitches. “I always tried to pound down to create ground balls,” Cole says, “but with the [livelier] balls and the way hitters adjusted their swing path, that two-seam was getting elevated as opposed to getting crushed to the third baseman.”
The Rise of the Slider
Then, the Astros helped Cole remake his four-seamer, the preferred pitch in the age of launch angle. They showed him video of his four-seam fastball spinning at 2,300 rpm—almost 100 rpm faster than the major league average. Cole threw 20 such high-spin fastballs in his first start of 2017. Yet by the end of the year Cole’s four-seamer had dissolved into a below average one, averaging only 2,164 rpm.
Houston knew something was off, because four-seam spin rates generally don’t vary much for established pitchers—it’s almost like a pitching fingerprint. If Cole had the ability to throw 2,300 rpm four-seamers, such pitches should be the norm for him. So the Houston staff, led by pitching coach Brent Strom, taught him how to throw a true four-seamer.
They explained that the hand and wrist should stay fully behind the ball through release to impart true north-side backspin. The faster a four-seamer backspins and stays on a north-south axis, the more it resists gravity, and the more it resists gravity the more “ride” it has through the strike zone. “Ride” means it sinks less than the hitter expects, which leads the hitter to swing under the ball. “The emphasis was on how to throw a true four-seam,” Cole says. “Step one: make it go straight and backspin it. I wanted it to be more true and stay in the lane instead of drifting. I wasn’t really clear on how to throw it before.”
Cole would play catch every day with Verlander. Each had the same goal in throwing the ball back and forth: hit your throwing partner in the right shoulder every time, not allowing the ball to fade or drift.
Houston’s plan worked. Cole’s four-seam fastball in 2018 averaged 2,379 rpm. Batters hit .185 against it, making it the third-toughest four-seamer to hit among all major league starters, behind only Walker Buehler and Chris Sale. He cut his ERA to 2.88 and finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting.
Says the Twins’ Falvey, “Ever since Moneyball, teams have been looking for the next edge. Now we all pretty much have the same evaluation systems. But the holy grail is in development. If you can identify players who are undervalued and can find a place to make them better, that’s the edge.”