While my past 15 seasons in professional baseball were all spent in scouting, one of my favorite times each season was after the draft when I could go visit our minor league affiliates (or visit our instructional league teams in the fall) where I could feel a part of the player development group for a short while. I loved reconnecting with coaches that I’d only get to see a few times a year, and it was enjoyable to check in in-person on how the players we drafted were performing- sure, I’d follow their stats and video highlights from afar nightly, but it’s always different seeing players in person.
What grew more fun each year was seeing how our organization continued to implement and use new technology to improve player development. I’m not that old, but even when I played, the only luxury we had with technology was having our at-bats filmed. But, even that was only at our home games (and they even tended to alternate with right-handed hitters one night followed by left-handed hitters the next).
Quickly, though, I started to see how much technology was enhancing the feedback process for modern minor league players, which allowed them to know where exactly their skills might be deficient and how they might go about improving. While wise, experienced coaches had spotted these same deficiencies for years, adding a second “voice” from technology only reinforced the message while also offering specifics in making a needed change. For instance, a pitching coach might tell a pitcher that he’s lowering his arm slot on his changeup (compared to his fastball arm slot), but seeing it on video often helped crystalize in the pitcher’s mind the change he needed to make. Likewise, a hitting coach might tell a hitter his swing is getting longer in the hot August sun, but having the data from a bat sensor to show how their “time to contact” score had slowed down since the start of the season made a coach’s feedback all the more real.
Each season I came to visit, there was a new piece of technology implemented. There were high-speed cameras, now from a variety of angles for pitchers and hitters. Every ballpark was equipped with technology to track every pitch and every batted ball (in the form of Rapsodo before the game and TrackMan during the game). Every hitter used a bat sensor on the knob of the bat to track bat speed and swing efficiency. And video of that night’s pitchers and hitters became available on every player’s iPad for them to watch before the game. It was so encouraging to see new tools embraced by players, and coaches- already full of knowledge- further utilizing new resources to communicate and improve the players under their tutelage.
Fast forward until today and we have an entire generation of pitchers developing otherworldly repertoires with the aid of feedback from Rapsodo (about spin rates, spin axis, spin efficiencies, etc) coupled with cameras capturing pitcher’s release points at thousands of frames per second. Further, this has allowed coaches to stay engaged and give feedback to players even when they aren’t in the same setting. Add in the specific training players are now doing year-round, it’s no wonder pitchers are throwing the ball harder than they ever have. Watching what pitchers can do with a ball now certainly makes me glad I’m no longer in the batter’s box!
And while hitters don’t have a feedback machine that’s as robust as Rapsodo, there have been major advances in virtual reality that will soon allow players track the very sort of pitches they’ll face from the starting pitcher that night (repetitions that can’t be replicated in a batting practice setting) and get visual/cognitive repetitions in the off-season.
So technology has certainly improved individual player performance by making assessments tangible and being clear on how to improve them, and we should only expect it to grow as a resource for players at all levels. Learning to apply sources of technology (such as Vizual Edge) and apply them to each player’s development allows each player to maximize their physical tools in rapidly changing game like ours, where small, marginal improvements often make the difference between winning and losing minor leaguer or major leaguer, and even the difference between getting drafted or being a good college player.