In an effort to leverage every possible advantage when it comes to developing their young players, the Cubs have been making technology once proprietary to the major league club available to their minor-league affiliates. Cubs insider’s Evan Altman described how the Cubs were using technology to monitor Jose Albertos and Jared Wyllys once detailed for BP Wrigleyville how then-Cubs prospect Donnie Dewees was using neuroscience to increase his bat-to-ball skills.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve talked to several Cubs pitching prospects about the methods they use to improve their performance. Garrett Kelly, Brendan King, and Jake Steffens all swear by Trackman, a technology available in all minor league ballparks. The Cubs also have their own system that monitors all bullpen and side session activities.
I was fortunate enough to talk with South Bend’s video coordinator, Ben Sampson, about what those programs do, how they work, and how the players use them. Sampson was at Vanderbilt finishing his degree prior to joining the Cubs affiliate and he was familiar with how the technology worked from his college days.
Even so, he had to spend all of spring training learning how to make sense of the data and video. Now he’s helping future Cubs to interpret it as they seek to make their way to Chicago.
CI: In speaking with a few pitching prospect this week, they mentioned some technology they use to help them. Can you talk about a couple programs that you are using?
BS: We have a lot, especially that focus on pitchers, that pick up numbers, the ball out the hand. Every stadium we play in has a Trackman system. We get all that game data, so that’ll pick up speed, spin rate, release point, and vertical and horizontal movement of the pitch. There’s a lot that players can use. It’s used a lot by the front office, too. It’s always good to see players taking an interest in it, too, and looking at how their different pitches are working from outing to outing.
CI: Are there other programs that you can talk about?
BS: We use another anonymous program of our own at all of our affiliates and we use it during all of our bullpens, for the most part. It gives a lot of similar data to Trackman. You can look at the ball almost out of the hand and the movement and compare it to other pitchers and a ball that is thrown without spin. So you can see how the spin on your ball creates movement.
CI: So your job is to compile all that data. What does it look like when the player sees it? Is video or three dimensional?
BS: Both. We do video of everything. We have seven camera angles during the game and a video of all of [our pitchers’] bullpens. They can match up real time video with the data and can see, for example, “What did this pitch do? Did it feel good? This one didn’t feel good. What’s the difference? Does feeling good or not feeling good have a correlation to with how the ball actually moves?” It’s that kind of sense of Was that a good pitch versus Did it actually look good in the video and in the data.
Trackman spits out a CSV file. It looks like a whole of numbers and we pair that up with the video for the games so that it gives practical numbers that you want to see like speed or spin rate, stuff like that.
CI: How have the players bought into it? Some more than others?
BS: Right now, we do more for pitchers than for hitters. Pretty much everybody looks at their video after they throw, whether that is starters or relievers. They’ll come ask me for it and some know how to find it on their own at this point. There are some guys that will look at our database and go a little deeper and go pitch-by-pitch.
There are a lot of guys that take that extra time between outings to get into it, dig a little bit, And they can look at other guys too in our organization, including the big league level. They can look at the numbers and see how they match up.
The Cubs are not alone in their use of technology, of course. Almost every organization has their own video and virtual reality programs aimed at aiding development. Several use Zepp Analytics — which we heard about in our exclusive interview with Mike Bryant last year — or other similar programs that use sensors on bats to measure swing plane, velocity, etc.
There’s also the Motus sensor used with Albertos and other players to measure rotational force and workload over time. In addition to helping players to understand how their performance can improve (think scouting reports, pitching tendencies, etc), this tech allows teams to set baselines for their young players that can aid in injury prevention.
As teams continue looking for any edge they can find, the technology they use will grow more specific and advanced. And that should, in turn, lead to players who are more prepared to make the move to the next level. That could be huge for an organization still seeking a consistent pipeline of pitchers.