Amateur baseball and the showcase circuit might never be the same.
Technological advances have already changed the way players are evaluated at the professional level, as systems like Pitch F/X and TrackMan provide in-depth quantitative data about the flight of baseballs out of pitchers' hands and off the bats of hitters.
Now TrackMan is bringing its innovative technology to the amateur ranks, and the implications for the future of player evaluation are significant.
The largest showcase company, Perfect Game, and TrackMan have announced a strategic partnership that will bring TrackMan's cutting-edge technology to Perfect Game's showcase events, which more than 40,000 different amateur players have attended this year alone. In time, as more stakeholders become familiar with TrackMan's technological capabilities, it could dramatically alter the way evaluators cover premium showcase events.
"We know how many resources are allocated to statistical analysis and data collection to the performance of players," said Steve Griffin, founder and partner of G5 Capital, who is a board member and recent investor of Perfect Game. "Imagine having access to that data for amateur players before drafting them. Imagine having that data historically to be able to compare that player at 17 years old with a major league all-star. What did Mike Trout look like when he was 17? What was his average launch angle and exit velocity off the bat? What was Jon Lester's spin rate and angle of his curveball when he was 16 or 17, and where was he releasing the ball? Those are measures that may not necessarily be forecast or predictors of future success, but at a minimum they are ways to further classify players and evaluate their existing talent and provide tools to enhance their performance and develop them over time."
TrackMan is a military grade 3D Doppler radar system that uses a sample rate of 20,000 measurements per second to precisely quantify 27 different measurables on the baseball field, including pitch velocity, pitch spin rate and exit velocity of batted balls, among others. The categories TrackMan measures are listed at the bottom.
TrackMan, founded in Denmark in 2003 to focus on golf swing paths, began exploring baseball in 2008. The baseball division followed the template golf established: begin by quantifying and understanding the sport's elite. The firm gained its first major league baseball client in 2008 and its client base has grown every year.
"Immediately we saw meaningful data," a front office executive from an early-adopter team said. "We were seeing descriptive data as soon as the device was turned on – spin rates, release points, movement directions, etc."
TrackMan technology has been used to gain a competitive advantage by some of the most forward-thinking, analytical teams in the game, and its results are validated by the fact that 17 major league teams now have TrackMan systems.
"In golf, we started at the top and worked our way down," TrackMan general manager John Olshan said. "You have to understand the numbers and the way to understand those is starting at the most elite level and then you bring that down. In baseball it was the same thing. The standards were incredibly high for the very smart guys in front offices that were vetting our data and they pushed us. Now we are exploring the amateur market and there is real opportunity here."
TrackMan made its official amateur debut in September at the PG/EvoShield National Championship in Goodyear, Ariz. It was deployed on a larger scale in October at the premier tournament of the year, the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
"This year was all about operations," Olshan said. "How do you set up a radar on a field two hours before a game and have it work for five days while being able to take it down to move it somewhere else and be able to get the data that is the same quality with same measure of accuracy that you have at a major league stadium? That is the vision: that the data is accurate and consistent across all levels where the game is played. So there was a lot of work just figuring out how to mount the thing. But we have gotten through those operational phases."
With 85 teams competing at Jupiter, TrackMan, set up on five fields, gathered data on 426 pitchers and 769 hitters.
"What you saw in Jupiter is sampling of what is going to come," Griffin said. "We wanted to expose players, coaches, parents, college coaches and scouts to the technology and the ease of getting velocities and spin rates. The plan was to make an introduction in a fundamental way so that users of the content can begin to understand it, embrace it and recognize that it is an easy technology to adopt and understand."
At a batting cage next to the main quad of fields, Louisville Slugger hosted the Prime 9 Hit Challenge using the Trackman system. Players hit against a pitching machine and received their exit velocity and launch angle off the bat within seconds.
Although this trove of new information may seem daunting to some at first glance, TrackMan quantifies what people have tried to measure qualitatively for decades.
"At first it can seem kind of scary because it is a missile tracking system," Olshan said. "The constant question was why do we need a missile tracking system on my field? What is that going to show me that I can't see with my eyes? And the answer is that it shouldn't show you something that you can see with your eyes, it should confirm what you see with your eyes. And your eyes can't be everywhere at the same time. Our vision is to take our numbers and, we don't add anything new to the game, simply measure what has been a part of it for 100 years. We quantify it. We are figuring out that a sneaky fastball is extension and we can measure that. When is an 88 mph fastball faster than a 90 mph fastball? When the pitcher gets more extension because it takes less time to get to the plate. If a curveball has great bite, well that is spin and we measure that. If a player has a lot of pop, that is exit speed and we measure that. Turning those into everyday parts of the game and making sure that it's not just for the elite players."
People within baseball can sometimes be labeled as resistant to change (just like people in other industries) but scouts began to understand TrackMan's benefits at the Area Code Games from 2010-2012.
"At the Area Code Games, we sat with the scouts and they were kind of making fun of the system because it was new," Olshan said. "But afterward one of them came up to us said that even if it makes him a sliver better he wins. That was the validation that individually they know that if it can help them, they win."
The early feedback from scouts at Jupiter was positive.
"What we were told is that this is fantastic and they asked how do I get my hands on this data?" Olshan said.
TrackMan, which is used heavily by minor league coaches and instructors, has tremendous coaching benefits, in addition to its obvious scouting advantages.
"There are so many different ways to teach and we don't show how to teach but we show what the result is," Olshan said. "So it lets the coaches and athletes use the real-time feedback."
"I have seen used it as a teaching tool to give feedback on the release, extension – even stuff," the front office executive said.
Given the synergistic nature of the partnership, it has short-term scalability and will likely expand quickly.
"The next phase will be to have the technology at as many, if not all PG events as possible," Griffin said. "We want it to be as commonplace at our events as anything else that players have become accustomed to with PG. They will have the qualitative scouting they are used to, packaged with the validating technology."
"Ideally we could be in a place next year at a tournament like this (Jupiter) we could have a radar at every field, so you have the entire data set from the event and you are able to move them around at showcases," Olshan said.
Given that amateur baseball is not constrained to a smaller, fixed number of players like professional baseball, building a large enough sample size to perform meta-analysis of the data is a function of how quickly the technology can be deployed.
"It is a matter of how many radars we can get out there and how much data you can get," Olshan said. "Before you can make any real statements from the data you have to be able to say there is statistical meaning to this. It's all about sample size. You are not going to hear us make proclamations about what level 16-18 year olds need to be at."
The application of this valuable data could have a powerful long-term impact.
"The more data the better and there is no shortage of unexplained variability associated with the amateur draft," the executive said. "If Trackman and Perfect Game can provide data that can lessen that variability, we are all for it."
"In this day and age with sabermetrics and advanced technology, partnering with TrackMan brings PG's event to a whole new level," Griffin said. "We are very excited to work John Olshan and the Trackman team."
|Pitch Release||Pitch Movement||Plate Location||Batted Ball|
|Extension||Spin Rate||Time Of Flight||Exit Speed|
|Release Slot||Breaks||Location||Launch Angles|
|Angles||Spin Axis/Tilt||Approach Angles||Trajectory|
|Velocity||Position at 110 feet|
*There are fewer than 27 categories listed in the table above. The final number of 27 is computed because a few of the categories above, like trajectory, have both a vertical and horizontal component.