High-Speed Cameras Spread Quickly Around Baseball
For as long as pitchers have tweaked and added pitches, they have understood that figuring out a pitch is a long process of trial and error. Pitchers toy with grips. Then they head to the bullpen for side sessions where they throw pitch after pitch, trying to figure out what makes one pitch behave the way they want while the next pitch has a mind of its own.
Now, a pitcher can step on a mound and throw with a little blue box set up behind him. A couple of seconds later, he can watch what was a mystery explained quickly and clearly with 1,000 frames per second.
Whenever a pitcher first watches a pitch on the super-slow-mo Edgertronic camera, he usually can’t believe what he is seeing. But soon he starts comprehending what actually happens in the split second of time when a pitch leaves his fingers.
Some pitchers immediately discover that their fingers aren’t behaving exactly the way they thought they were, or they learn that a simple tweak may get the pitch to where they want it to be.
“It’s really a Mythbusters. It can really get to a feel (of the pitch off the hand) that actually creates the reality,” said Caleb Cotham, a former big league reliever who is now co-director of player development for the Bledsoe Agency. “Most players, it speaks to them because it really helps tie the feel to the reality.
“At 1,000 frames per second you can see a whole lot. The big benefit was seeing it at release with my fingertips. That’s what really helped me know how to manipulate my slider between more depth or gyroscopic spin. I realized my index finger needed to be the last finger on the ball.”
The big blue Edgertronic camera boxes are popping up more and more around baseball. They are starting to become a key part of offseason pitch development. In the future, they may do much more.
And it all came about because of an engineer who had a simple thought: He could make a better camera.
Mike Matter isn’t a big baseball fan. He wasn’t aiming to kick start the next wave in baseball’s never-ending technological arms race. But he knows a lot about computers, graphic processors and cameras.
Matter is an engineer by trade. It frustrated him that when it came to true high-speed cameras, price tags started around $50,000 and quickly climbed into six figures. As he saw it, he could do better—and cheaper.
“I knew what the prices were on high-speed cameras,” Matter said. “I thought I could probably design a camera at a fraction of that cost. Necessity is the mother of invention. A lot of high-speed cameras were inefficient.”
Matter ended up building a simple box. By itself, that box didn’t do much.
For one thing, it didn’t include a lens—you had to provide your own. It had no battery—you had to plug it into a power source. It had no viewfinder and no LCD screen. To see what the camera was looking at and whether it was in focus (which you do yourself, manually), you had to connect it to a computer with an ethernet cable.
There’s no hand-holding here. It was about as far from an easy-to-use camcorder as a camera could be.
But it could turn a second of time into a minute of video if needed. And it could do so while displaying a sharp and clear image.
“One of the things we focused on was making a minimal viable product,” Matter said.
That nondescript blue box has quickly become one of the most coveted items around baseball.
Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy had been looking for a good high-speed camera for several years, but he couldn’t stomach spending $50,000 to buy one. When he discovered the Edgertronic and its $5,000 price tag, he mentioned it to Indians righthander Trevor Bauer.
Bauer bought one immediately.
A few months later, Bauer’s father, Warren, brought Trevor’s Edgertronic to the Driveline Baseball facility. As he set it up, he warned Boddy that the minute he saw the video, he’d be hooked.
“(Warren) is setting it up. We’re talking flat ground—nothing exciting. And he’s sitting in the corner with his Surface Pro (tablet),” Boddy said. “He told me, ‘Here’s the calibration video.’ I look and a split second later, I bury my head in my hands. I have to figure out how to get (the money) to buy one.”
Boddy actually went out and bought two. And they quickly became a key tool for pitchers looking to develop or tweak a pitch.
“TrackMan (radar) was an awesome tool for seeing something was off (on a pitch),” Cotham said. “But there wasn’t a whole lot of actionable info. Rapsodo (a radar/optical system that describes the characteristics of a pitch) gave me faster feedback. Pairing Rapsodo with the high-speed camera, the feedback loop gets really short.”
The high-speed video goes beyond that. Telling a pitcher what a pitch’s effective spin rate is doesn’t mean nearly as much as letting him see the seams of the ball rotate on video and watching how the ball leaves his hand.
“If I’m Adam Ottavino, I trust the analytics department,” Boddy said, “but (Ottavino) doesn’t know what spin rate feels like. What Adam needs to know is, ‘When I throw it like this, you tell me it’s good, (but) what does it look like coming out of my hand?’ It bridges the gap between the data and feeling.”
So Edgertronic quickly proved their worth in a lab setting. But before long, the simplicity of the box proved it could do much more.
Because it didn’t come with a lens, it handles a wide variety of lenses. It can be used with a tiny lens suited for closeups or massive telephotos that can pull a quality image from hundreds of feet away.
The Astros soon figured out that they could take their Edgertronic out of the lab and to the ballpark. There’s little doubt that when it comes to using the high-speed camera, the Astros are significantly ahead of the field.
It is known publicly that the Astros use their Edgertronic for pitch development and pitch improvement, something that has been done at Driveline Baseball (and by Trevor Bauer) for several years.
Using an Edgertronic camera helped the then-newly acquired Justin Verlander tweak his slider, turning what was already a good pitch into a devastating one, something Tom Verducci noted in his World Series wrapup for Sports Illustrated.
But it’s what else the Astros use their Edgertronic for that interests other teams. And it’s understandable that they want to be secretive about their competitive advantage in a blue box.
As one front office executive for another team put it, any time you saw an Astros’ Edgertronic last year, it was generally covered in tape (to conceal its identity), and whoever was running it was not going to talk about what they were using.
“They told me, ‘We’re live-streaming back to Houston,’” said the executive.
While Edgertronic doesn’t have live-streaming capability, it does have the potential to produce much of what larger, more expensive fixed-radar and optical systems are relied on for now.
Some believe that the Astros have already figured out how to use programming to derive TrackMan-style spin rate and other data from video shot with their Edgertronic cameras. It’s a programming challenge, but there’s no insurmountable obstacle that would keep teams from using an Edgertronic as a portable analytics lab. Super slow-mo cameras could also help teams perform kinetic analysis to see how pitchers’ bodies move while pitching.
The Astros are clearly a step ahead when it comes to figuring out ways to use an Edgertronic, but they are no longer alone in their endeavor.
Last year, the Astros were the only organization using them widely. This year, at least five others have Edgertronic cameras, and they will likely spread throughout baseball over the next couple years.
But while other teams are using them to develop pitchers and hitters, the Astros have made Edgertronic cameras vital parts of their scouting department. Houston got rid of many of its scouts last offseason. In their place, they have an army of video operators who are taking Edgertronic cameras to high school, junior college and college fields around the country.
But the next step for the blue box might bring the cameras full circle. An Edgertronic camera can serve as a sort of spy in the stands, figuring out just why Corey Kluber’s slider is so effective.
And now, armed with that information, pitchers can go back to the lab and try to replicate it, which means using an Edgertronic to tweak how they throw the pitch.
“Kluber’s slider spins a certain way,” Cothan said. “If you can guarantee a pitch can spin a certain way with a certain arm slot . . . I know some of that stuff is tough . . . But it’s a way better baseline to start from than having the stance of ‘he’s just gifted.’ If you throw it similar to him, and you can create some sort of window of the same release—all things equal—it would be a similar pitch. Worst case, it’s a really good slider.”