I’ve always been a sucker for gadgets and cool tech, so it’s been great as a baseball fan and blog proprietor to see all the advancements in the game over the last few years. Most of that information lies beyond the velvet rope most of us will never have opened before us, but what if there was a way to bribe the bouncer or get on the guestlist?
No, the Cubs aren’t going to start offering guided tours of their pitch labs and teams aren’t going to start renting out their motion-capture gear to allow parents to gather advanced biomechanical data on their kids. So not only is the technology inaccessible, it can’t replicate live game action because it’s limited to facilities.
That’s changing rapidly, though, just like devices like Blast Motion allow parents and coaches to track several swing metrics in real-time whether in the cage or on the field. Given my general fascination with these topics, you can imagine how my ears perked up when I saw this tweet from Will Carroll, the Injury Expert.
Super excited to join the team at @proplayai. A whole motion capture lab, in your phone. You'll see me highlighting the tech here and in a lot of upcoming content. We're going to make biomechanics available to everyone. pic.twitter.com/3CBPdqfoHS
— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) June 7, 2021
I’ve known Carroll for several years and had previously picked his brain about the motusBASEBALL sensor worn by Cubs pitching prospect Jose Albertos in 2017, so I reached out immediately after watching this video. In addition to setting off my gadget radar, the idea of having personal access to mo-cap biomechanical data appealed to me as a parent and coach.
“This is a biomechanics lab in a box,” Carroll told CI. “If you want the absolute gold standard, you’ve got to go to a fixed location and you’ve got to put on the markers on. And if you want almost as good, there’s some markerless mo-caps out there that are great. They do great work and they’re probably 95, 96, 97 percent accurate. But I can’t put those on the field.
“So, our solution is pretty darn good. I don’t want to put a number on it, but you can do it in a bullpen, you can do it in game. I was just at a major league game sitting in the stands, pretty good seats but not great seats. And with my phone, I was able to take video of Garrett Crochet and get really accurate numbers on him. And just the idea that we can do that is crazy.
“It’s exciting for us to take a technology that was very, very limited and that not many people have access to and put it in your phone.”
That’s all well and good, and I certainly understand the value of reducing or removing barriers to entry, but information is worthless — even dangerous — without proper context. Millions of people still believe batting average is the best measure of offensive success or that pitcher wins are important. Likewise, charlatans who preach launch angle as a goal are ruining scores of youth hitters.
So as I started to think more about PitchAI beyond just the shiny-object stage, I wondered whether making this information readily available was a good thing all the way around. Carroll clarified that they’re primarily targeting coaches and facilities, those that have a higher baseline knowledge and can better digest and translate the numbers.
As with anything, however, the only way to truly understand the information and how it should be applied is to keep increasing the sample size.
“The more data we get the better, the data is going to be but I think it’s going to end up a situation, “Carroll said. “Like if I had come to you five years ago and said, you know, your picture of there is someone with a 2,900 spin rate and if we could just get him up at 3,000, he’d be good. Would that mean anything to you?
“If I mentioned exit velocity to Andre Dawson in the 80s, he would have stared at me. Today, every batter knows their exit velocity and their launch angle and their swing speed and all those things because we measured them, we’ve learned what they are.”
There’s also the matter of discerning exactly which measurements are most important to performance and how we can best improve or maintain those particular aspects of pitching mechanics. That makes it easier to determine whether or not certain drills are actually beneficial or whether new and different exercises might be more helpful when it comes to improving the measurements that are most indicative of better performance.
“Our system takes 55 data points and can give you everything from arm speed to arm path,” Carrol explained. “As you saw on the video, we can visually track the way the arm moves. We can track stride length, which we know is important. We track hip-shoulder separation, which is something every coach in the world talks about.
“Now we can actually measure whether or not these drills actually do what you say. We may think a certain drill really is great and then we learn, oops, it’s not.”
As much as this is about performance, there may also be a measure of injury prevention involved as well. Carroll admitted that there’s really no way to predict injury with a great degree of certainty, but Pitch AI could help to establish baselines and provide data to support some of what the eye test tells us. More specifically, we might be able to learn exactly when and how a pitcher is beginning to show fatigue.
There’s a common misconception that throwing harder late in a game means a pitcher isn’t tired. The reality in many cases is that he’s “reaching back” and recruiting muscles that otherwise might not be used as much in the delivery and is therefore engaging in worse, or simply different, mechanics. So Pitch AI can be beneficial in terms of establishing baselines that can inform coaches, athletes, and parents of what a player looks like when he’s at full strength and when he’s fatigued.
The best way to improve performance is to measure it, but you’ve also got to be able to provide context and digest all the information. And just like a contractor is going to have different tools from your average homeowner, PitchAI isn’t the only option out there when it comes to helping pitchers track their mechanics.
One such tool is Mustard, which was developed with world-renowned throwing guru Tom House. These aren’t necessarily competing products, as they don’t do all the same things in the same manner.
“You mentioned that you use Mustard and Tom House and his team have done a great job by focusing on simplifying things and definitely coaching up the dad and kids,” Carroll said. “It’s a great product that if someone isn’t taking lessons and wants to get a little bit better and have access to somebody like Tom, I would point them that way.
“We’re more of a measurement and a tool. We’re not going to tell you how to build the house, we’re going to give you the architecture that allows you to see how to build it. This is more for the coaches or the team facilities. Instead of going to a lab and having to wear a silly suit and put balls all over you as markers, now you can do it in the bullpen now you can make those videos yourself.”
As to how quickly this kind of technology can be adopted on a broad scale by your average rec-ball parent, well, that’s another story. PitchAI is being widely adopted, though, and we’re going to see it on the big stage as ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel uses it to analyze pitchers being selected in the MLB Draft.
— ProPlayAI (@proplayai) July 9, 2021
While no technology can ever fully replace the personal interaction of scouting, PitchAI and other similar tools can give talent evaluators greater insight into what they’re seeing on the field. For instance, not all fastballs are created equal, even if they’re the same velocity
“Let’s say I’ve got somebody who’s throwing 90 miles an hour at 75% efficiency,” Carroll posited. “And I’ve got somebody who’s 100% efficiency averaging 90 miles an hour. Well, the kid who is more efficient has got to get stronger, he’s gotta grow, he’s got to do something else.
“The other kid, while he’s less efficient, there’s actually some potential there. So from a scouting perspective, I’m actually more excited about the kid who’s ‘worse.'”
If you’re interested in learning more about ProPlayAI and PitchAI, you can check out the website or download the app and start downloading video. You can record your favorite players during an MLB game, provided you’re on the open side of the delivery and not terribly far away, or you can record your kids and players on your team. Then you put it in the system and get the results.
Even if you’re just messing around for your own entertainment, all that additional data builds the sample size and makes the information that much more accurate and valuable. You can also check out Carroll on Twitter (@InjuryExpert) or subscribe to his Under the Knife newsletter, where he breaks down all the injuries across the sports world.
If you are a parent or coach, or just a fan who geeks out over tech gadgets, I’d encourage you to poke around with PitchAI and whatever else is out there. The cool factor alone is enough to make it worthwhile, but it’s even better when you consider these tools can help young players to develop and maybe even avoid injury. And if you’re already using these or other apps, I’d love for you to drop me a line in the comments to offer some thoughts.