Robot Pitchers? Deception Detectors? Envisioning Future Tech In Baseball

Image credit: (Photo by Irfhan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images)

In an attempt to identify some future trends, we asked 20 baseball players, coaches, scouts, trainers and front office officials a simple question: “What is a technology that doesn’t currently exist, but would significantly impact baseball if it could be invented?”

Some of the answers were extremely practical. Some were fanciful. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting answers on where baseball could be headed.

1. Robot Pitchers

Yes, there are three-wheeled pitching machines already that can fire pitches at MLB velocities, and they can also be set to spin breaking balls, although many in baseball note that it’s hard to consistently get the same break from those pitching machines as you do from the ball coming out of an MLB pitcher’s hand.

“If we could have a robot pitching machine, where you can program all kinds of pitching speeds and spins that as closely mimics real pitching as possible,” White Sox hitting coordinator Matt Lisle said. “That’s the invention that will change hitting. So you can program a Trevor Bauer Slider at X speed and X spin and X break.

“With three-wheeled pitching machines, the spin isn’t true. Last year at Mizzouri I took out our three-wheel Machine to the game mound with all the TrackMan numbers of SEC pitchers. I got it as close as I could but because of the way the wheels have to spin the spin rates are too high. And because there is no arm action, timing gets dicey based on the hitters pre-pitch movements (their load, leg kick, etc.).”

A long-time outfielder with some MLB time had a similar idea.

“A pitching machine with horizontal, vertical and 360 degrees of circular adjustments so (you could replicate) exact release points and pitch trajectories,” the outfielder said. “The measurements would be easy to get since all you’d have to do is pull them off of TrackMan. Why is Adam Ottovino so tough to face? Because the only time you see a ball being pitched as his release point is when you’re facing him in the box.”

A true robot pitcher with two arms who throws like a human would allow hitters to practice timing pitches in a way that’s impossible with current pitching machines. It also could have long-term impacts. It’s possible that robot pitchers would allow hitters to play in offseason leagues that would allow them to get hundreds (or thousands) of swings against MLB-caliber pitching that never wears out or reaches a pitch count.

2. The Deception Detector

From the moment a pitch leaves a pitcher’s hand, it’s now tracked. Multiple systems (Rapsodo, YakkerTech, TrackMan and others) can measure a pitch’s velocity, spin rate and movement. High-speed cameras can show exactly how the pitch came off the pitcher’s fingers.

But for now, figuring out how much deception a pitcher generate remains (at least publicly) in the realm of speculation. Some pitchers do an excellent job of hiding the ball in their delivery while others give hitters too long a look at the ball.

“If we could measure elite deception vs. poor deception, I think you would see a new categorization of pitchers,” Charlotte head coach Robert Woodard said. “It’s something I’m sure the hi-speed cameras can move toward.

3. A Ball Cart

Yes, we’ve seen the return of bullpen carts–a golf cart like truck which can bring a pitcher from the bullpen to the mound (although most pitchers would rather walk). But a front office official has thought of a better idea to swipe from golf.

Every night around baseball, pitchers stand in the outfield for 45 minutes or so to shag the balls hit during batting practice. For most pitchers, it’s largely wasted time (or a chance to chat with some teammates). This official’s idea is to outfit a protected cart much like the ones used on golf driving ranges to go around the outfield scooping up those baseballs.

With 140 games at year (at the minor league level), that would give back more than a hundred hours of time that could be used more productively for video work, scouting reports or other training. And it would give hitters a chance to practice their bat control by trying to hit the ball cart.

4. Sign Them Up

Sign stealing is as old as baseball, but nowadays teams have a lot more technology to crack codes than the pair of binoculars that used to have to suffice. The constant attempts by pitchers and catchers to stay one step ahead of the sign-stealers has led to a steady stream of meetings, especially during the playoffs.

Short of a one-time cipher pad (which is not exactly practical for a catcher and pitcher) there are no unbreakable codes. MLB has been working to try to develop secure technology to allow pitchers and catchers to stay on the same page without resorting to a steady stream of meetings to change the signs.

At the college level, some conferences have already experimented with giving catchers headsets to get the pitch calls from the dugout. MLB isn’t looking to go in that direction, but the idea of creating an unhackable and simple way to let catchers call a pitch quickly without risk of having the sign intercepted has plenty of appeal to MLB decision makers.

MLB has tried using smart watches and earpieces as potential solutions, but so far they haven’t found a solution. They keep trying to find something that’s both speedy and practical.

5. Virtual Reality That Works

Virtual reality technology exists now. But multiple coaches, players and front office officials said it’s not fully ready to do what it may be able to do one day.

For now, there are enough issues that a batter trying to hit a VR pitcher doesn’t fully disappear into that virtual world. The video isn’t yet good enough. The sensors and tools don’t react the same as really putting bat on ball.

But there’s a pervasive belief that it will get there one day. And when it does, it may help hitters claw back some of the advantages pitchers have gained from the recent advances in technology. Since hitters have to react to what a pitcher does, giving hitters another piece of technology that helps improve their pitch recognition and timing could one day be a major asset.

6. Custom-Made 3D Printed Baseballs

A scout had an idea for a way to make Coors Field in mid-July play the same as Fenway Park in mid-April.

“Maybe someday there is some way to 3D print baseballs to normalize them,” he said. “You custom make the baseballs to the environmental conditions of that day. So you have a livelier ball in April (when it’s cold) and deader in July (when it’s hot). You print a ball that is really dead in Colorado, and a lively ball in Miami.”

7. Improved trackers

The Motus sleeve has been a revelation for pitchers and pitching coaches. It helps measure how much stress a pitcher is putting on their elbow and can help in measuring workload. Some coaches have been even able to use it to determine that optimal distances at which individual pitchers can long toss.

But pitching coaches are eager for more. As one coach explained, being able to track the movement of a pitching elbow in 3D space (as well as ideally tracking shoulder movement and trunk rotation) would help better understand individual pitchers deliveries and potentially help reduce motions that put unwanted stress on the arm, elbow and shoulder.

This is one case where hitters may be a little ahead of pitchers when it comes to technology. The K-Vest helps track hitters movements. Much of what coaches want could be described as an inobtrusive K-Vest for pitchers.

8. Marker-less Motion Capture

During the offseason, many pitchers (and some hitters) put on stick-on sensors to help tracking software capture their movements. That allows coaches and players to spot issues and use that information to improve deliveries, swings and other movements.

But for many of these trainers and for front offices, easy-to-use and consistent marker-less motion capture would allow them to do much more. Most importantly it would allow teams to track deliveries and swings in-game, providing tools that don’t currently exist.

Once marker-less motion capture is perfected, programming would help teams spot signs of fatigue or injury in a pitcher’s delivery, potentially before the pitcher is even aware of any issue. It could also serve as a significant training device by showing players their movements at their best, allowing them to see where they have managed to accidentally incorporate less-efficient movement patterns into their pitching deliveries, swings or even their running gait.

9. Figuring Out The Brain-To-Body Links

Scouts are asked to project what a player is going to look like years in advance. Scouts try to project how a player’s body is going to mature and try to delve into a player’s mental makeup as well to determine if he’ll be someone who is driven to improve.

But as one long-time coach sees it, so far we’ve been unable to discern one of the biggest indicators of future success–how well does a player’s brain allow them to improve?

“I think the missing link on the evaluation side is the body-brain link,” the coach said. “Does he have a brain to help him (get better)?

“Everyone can see the obvious. The speed, the power. Nobody misses on that. What they miss on is the ability to project the tools into performance. The neuroscience is the area where we need to come closest to that.”

If we can better understand how the brain processes inputs and outputs, it could also help improve coaching by showing which drills work with which players.

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