Ahead in the Count
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In the very near future—perhaps as soon as this year or next—Matt Kemp, the prodigious young San Diego Padres center fielder, will match up against legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax when he was in his prime as one of the most dominant left-handers in the 1960s.
No, we’re not talking "Back to the Future" time travel here, so how can a matchup like that be possible? Kemp is 29 years old and developing into a perennial Triple Crown threat. Koufax, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodger, is 78 and won his last National League Cy Young Award nearly 50 years ago.
Technological advances will enable Kemp to step into a batting cage to face the same pitch sequences from Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. The technology allows metrics to be programmed into a pitching machine to replicate the speed, pitch type and plate position of Koufax’s every pitch, including those in the top of the eighth inning when he struck out the heart of the hapless Chicago Cubs’ lineup.1
For Kemp, facing Koufax at the top of his game could become an essential learning experience when he studies and prepares to face today’s top pitchers.
When preparing for San Francisco Giants’ right-hander Tim Lincecum’s nasty 12-to-6 o’clock curveball that drops 8-12 inches in the next Padres-Giants series, Kemp can take batting practice against Koufax’s curveball that was known to drop 12-24 inches near the plate. Before games against the New York Mets, Kemp can become accustomed with Johan Santana’s circle and straight changeups by facing one of Koufax’s most-used pitches. On the rare occasion that Kemp faces the Detroit Tigers, he can learn the minute details of Justin Verlander’s 95-mph four-seam fastball by analyzing Koufax.
The four-seam fastball—with its rising motion and ability to move several times after leaving Koufax’s hand—proved to be his best pitch. By practicing against one of history’s best pitches from one of history’s best pitchers, Kemp can face today’s top hurlers with more confidence and familiarity.
This new development in how baseball players leverage innovation and technology to prepare is just one example of how the U.S. national pastime is continually changing. A heightened focus on performance, training and equipment strongly influences players, coaches and those in the front office making personnel decisions. In addition, the number of metrics infiltrating the game and the specificity of those measurements continue to grow.
A different approach
It’s well known that today’s professional ballplayers follow radically different training plans to prepare for the season than what players from Koufax’s era or earlier did. Off-season training for baseball players has become the norm, and training is now both player and position specific. In contrast, Babe Ruth didn’t pay much attention to off-season preparation (or preparation during the season for that matter), as apparent by his prodigious appetite for food, smoke, drink and women.
From aerobic fitness to weight training to carb loading, most players today willingly put themselves under the microscope whenever possible, always looking for a competitive edge. They’re tested, filmed and digitized to identify specific areas to work on and specific diets to follow. Present-day performance is continuously compared to past performance on the field and during training sessions. The baseball players and the game are changing from what we remember of America’s pastime.
Equipment, too, is always under close review. Consider the baseball bat. From the stadium seats at a baseball game to your seat in front of the TV, when a player stands in the batter’s box, his bat might not look much different from the previous batter’s. Yes, some bats seem to be partially black on certain game days, while others may be painted pink or blue in homage to cancer survivors, for example.
Don’t be fooled. Except for their length, bats do appear almost identical from player to player, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Making bats is a high-tech business, and each player—almost from the time he is playing in a competitive summer league in college or in the minor leagues—has a bat specifically designed and continuously modified to fit his exact specifications.
In 2010, for example, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts used lumber with a −2.0 bat drop (more on bat drops later). Several years earlier, when former Baltimore left fielder and Orioles Hall of Famer B.J. Surhoff entered the batter’s box, he also carried a −2.0 bat. Although both bats were noted with the same description, the two were almost completely different from each other.
In baseball, it’s become all about gathering data, dissecting it, using it to prepare for a certain scenario and making smarter decisions to come out ahead.
Two companies, Sportvision2 and SmartKage,3 recently teamed up to measure player performance during games and during training and practice off the field. Sportvision began by capturing the placement, velocity and type of pitch thrown from the mound during games and contrasting this with where a hitter sees the ball.
The heat map in Figure 1, created with Sportvision data after the 2013 season, shows Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera’s overall batting average with the strike zone superimposed. This clearly shows his hitting ability covers most of the strike zone.
These data are often highlighted during Major League Baseball (MLB) broadcast games and online coverage as a small graphic called "PITCHf/x." After each pitch, the data can be aggregated by pitcher, batter or game situation to create different analyses.
Teams can use this data—gathered during every game—to examine hitter and pitcher accuracy and evaluate matchups. For example, the data can be used to help:
• A pitcher improve his accuracy.
• A catcher call for specific pitches.
• A player look for certain pitches that are easier to hit when facing a particular pitcher.
• An umpire call balls and strikes.
What does Figure 1 ultimately reveal? Maybe it’s best to pitch Cabrera outside.
Sportvision is now capturing and digitizing defensive plays by position players for all games in all stadiums on the field, and creating metrics for defense. This use of in-game data is clear. Teams can use it to prepare for facing other teams—fine-tuning their lineups for the best matchups, examining changes in a player’s performance over the season and placing players in the field to better defend and react to batters’ tendencies to hit the ball to certain areas.
The data capturing doesn’t stop here, however. Teams can now capture much of this data in a training facility during the off-season and at the beginning of each new season for training, rehabilitation and baseline information on player development.
Variants of the same technology and metrics used on the field are now being used by SmartKage (partnering with Sportvision) to capture pitching, offensive and defensive data from players at all levels: at a baseline, at peak performance and even after an injury while in rehabilitation.
SmartKage is a batting-pitching cage that captures players’ performance during baseball-specific drills. The skills are not only limited to pitching, throwing and hitting, but also include drills to gather statistics on such things as arm strength, trajectory, vertical jump, sprinting and accuracy.
Rather than simply using a stopwatch guided by a coach’s or scout’s eye, the statistics are gathered in a structured, deliberate manner: Athletes perform a drill several times on a pressure-sensitive floor in a wired batting cage that allows measurements of variability and accuracy to be captured more precisely. Measurements that are not possible with a stopwatch—such as acceleration and spin rate of a ball—have now become commonplace.
Data from eight athletes were collected by SmartKage/Sportvision at one of their California facilities. The players ranged in age from Little Leaguers (ages 10-14) to high schoolers (ages 15-17) to college athletes (age 20). For each athlete, throwing statistics can be summarized not only by speed, but also by accuracy on four dimensions: acceleration, initial velocity, breaking distance and spin rate.
For throws to home plate, how the ball crosses the plate can be measured with incredible precision. Each metric has 15 repetitions—with the count and time between repetitions also recorded. Data are measured to the thousandths of a second. Table 1 is a summary of some of these measurements by player age.
expected, an analysis of variance with multiple comparisons shows significant differences between age groups (p < 0.001), with all the metrics increasing with age—except for spin rate, which shows no consistent pattern. No significant differences were found within age groups. After a sufficient number of players are tested, benchmarks by age and skill level can be developed to identify individual player strengths and weaknesses for training.
In addition to this information, when used to gather baseline data for potential major and minor league players, comparisons to existing major leaguers could help teams identify the next superstar hitter such as Kemp, or Cy Young winner such as Verlander. With the potential of digitizing past performances, a player with the potential of being the next Koufax might be identified.
The ability to evaluate the relationship between metrics is now possible with this high-precision technology. Figure 2 shows the spin rate of the baseball is not significantly related to the initial velocity or the acceleration with which it is thrown (Pearson correlations = −0.290 and 0.250, respectively). It is also not related to the age of the player (Pearson correlation = 0.111).
Defining an MLB bat
It is not only the metrics by which baseball players are measured that have increased in precision. Their bats have become high-tech tools that are incredibly player specific.
MLB players go through an average of 60 to 70 bats per season, and how they choose and use these tools of the trade is taken very seriously.
A bat, as defined at great length by rule 1.10(a) in the MLB rulebook, is "a smooth, round stick not more than 2.75 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."4 The MLB rule states the bat must be made from a single piece of wood and rules out bamboo and composite bats.
MLB’s specification system is designated as the bat drop: the bat’s weight (in ounces) minus its length (in inches). For example: A 30-ounce, 33-inch long bat has a bat drop of −3 (30-33 = −3). Larger bat drops supposedly help to increase swing speed, while bats with smaller drops create more power for the hitter. There are clear definitions of a legal bat in the MLB, but beyond a few specifications, players have considerable leeway to make modifications.
When the game was new, baseball bats came in all shapes and sizes. Batters made their own and experimented with bats of all types, but they learned quickly bats with rounded barrels seemed to work the best. The Louisville Slugger, probably the most well-known bat in history, came into existence in 1884 when a promising hitter, Pete Browning, became frustrated after breaking his favorite bat at a game in southern Kentucky.
John Hillerich, a woodworker by trade, approached him after the game and offered to make him a new bat. Hillerich’s bat—composed of white ash—helped Browning go 3-for-3 the following day. This marked the founding of the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. and the birth of the so-called Louisville Slugger5 that the majority of Little Leaguers use while growing up. A bat is defined by its barrel size, head-to-knob tapering, grip, type of wood and—for MLB hitters—the grain of the wood.
Barrel size: The barrel is the top part of the bat and provides the best hitting surface (or sweet spot) with the minimum amount of vibration. The barrel is measured by its length and diameter (see Figure 3). The longer the barrel, the larger the sweet spot to hit the ball. While a larger barrel diameter provides the batter with a larger sweet spot, many players still choose to use smaller barrels to lighten the weight at the top of the bat to generate more swing speed.
Taper: The taper of a bat is the diameter of the bat’s handle (see Figure 4). A slightly larger taper increases the bat weight and therefore reduces the sting when a ball is not hit exactly on the sweet spot. On the other hand, a narrower taper reduces the bat weight, allowing a hitter to swing faster.
Knob: The knob is the end of the bat and is typically round, flared out and larger than the taper (see Figure 5). Earlier bats had no knobs. The numbers on the bottom of the knob indicate the length and the model of the bat. Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame outfielder, Hank Aaron, for example, used a 63A bat. His great success at the plate led to the commercial production of the Model 63A Louisville Slugger Hank Aaron signature bat.
Type and grain: Most wooden bats today are made from northern white ash harvested in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The wood is graded for quality—with straight grain being the most important criteria. Bats are also made of other ash, hickory, maple, birch and oak:
• Ash is the most cost-effective wood on the market. Ash bats are softer and lighter than other wood types, but they flex when hitting a ball. They splinter, chafe and dent from repetitive use and are vulnerable to breaking if a player swings at bad pitches.
• Hickory is the hardest wood used for baseball bats, but it’s too heavy to be popular with most players of the modern era.
• Maple is denser and less flexible than hickory or ash, so the ball jumps faster off the bat.
• Birch is more flexible and lighter than maple, but tougher and more resistant to flaking than ash. Because birch is a lighter wood, it allows power hitters to swing big-barrel bats at a lighter weight for a quicker bat speed through the hitting zone. Birch is a good alternative to maple.
• Oak is known for its strength and longevity. Some experts believe an oak bat will allow a batted ball to travel further than maple does, but it’s not yet used much in the major leagues.
Same bat drop, different bat
When New York Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle slugged his 500th home run on May 14, 1967, he likely used a −2 bat. Mantle sometimes reportedly grabbed whatever bat was handy, although his −2 bats are markedly different from the −2 bats used by the Orioles’ Roberts and Surhoff. The bats are each made from different types of wood, have different weights and have entirely different dimensions and lengths.
For Roberts, the designation of the bat as a −2 comes from subtracting its 31-ounce weight from its 33- inch length. His bat is made of a solid piece of maple, has a very narrow taper and is custom made for him by MaxBat in Brooten, MN. Each of Roberts’ bats is made to the same specifications he’s used for the last six years. It took Roberts several years to tinker with and design the best bat.
MaxBat estimates the accuracy of these bats to within one-tenth of an ounce and within 3/1,000 of an inch of his specifications. These specifications are programmed into MaxBat’s $100,000 computer-programmed lathe that can rough out a bat in 90 seconds. These specifications even include and account for the thickness of the lacquer finish of 0.1 millimeter.
In contrast, both Surhoff and Mantle used ash bats—the most popular bats among players until 1997 when maple bats were sanctioned. Surhoff generally played with a bat that was 34 inches long, weighed 32 ounces and was produced by Hillerich & Bradsby. He often moved to a lighter and shorter bat near the end of each season.
Mantle also used a Hillerich & Bradsby bat (a Louisville Slugger) that was usually 35 inches long and 33 ounces. During the course of his career, his bat length varied very little, between 34 and 35 inches, but the bat’s weight changed from 31 to 35 ounces within individual years.
Derek Jeter, the Yankee shortstop who retired after last season, used the same size ash bats throughout his career and very rarely changed their weight during the season or postseason. He used a −2.9 bat, which weighed 31.1 ounces and was 33 inches long.
Considering how much goes into the science of designing a bat, the differences in wood, length and weight are determined by folklore, too. MLB players have an amazing array of theories about the type of bats that work best. Most players want thinner handles and shorter (generally 33 to 34 inches) and lighter (32 to 34 ounces) bats. Players no longer hit with bats as heavy as ones used by Ruth (reportedly up to 47 ounces). The heaviest of Ruth’s bats weighed more than 50% more than the bats used by Roberts and Surhoff, and all of Ruth’s bats were made of hickory.
And then there’s cork. Bats cannot be hollowed or filled with any alien substance—such as cork—to reduce the bat’s weight (see Table 2). Fans hear about how corked bats help players hit harder and swing faster, but the TV show "Mythbusters" busted this claim about corking and showed that it ultimately did none of these things.6
Technology in baseball’s future
Changes to baseball that are not visible to fans will continue to evolve as the ability to measure and benchmark player’s performance, training and equipment become more consistent and precise.
It’s not difficult to imagine that coaches, trainers and scouts will very soon be able to evaluate players and maximize their abilities by choosing the perfect bat and training regimen. Armed with this additional information, salaries now tied to performance also could be tied to a player’s potential performance and development based on benchmarks of similar players measured over time. Consistency of performance also can be evaluated with new technology tools.
The fundamentals of baseball at home plate, on the pitcher’s mound and in the field will look the same from the stands, but from the standpoint of the team—owners, managers, coaches, trainers and players—it’s a whole new ballgame.
References and Notes
1. Sandy Koufax’s perfect game on Sept. 9, 1965 was voted by members of the Society of American Baseball Research (http://sabr.org) in 1995 as the greatest game ever pitched. Visit http://tinyurl.com/sandy-perfect for more details.
2. Sportvision, www.sportvision.com.
3. SmartKage, www.smartsports.com.
4. Major League Baseball, "Official Baseball Rules," 2014 edition, rule 1.10(a), p. 6,http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/downloads/y2014/official_baseball_rules.pdf.
5. For more on how Hillerich & Bradsby Co. uses quality to produce its Louisville Slugger, see March Laree Jacques’s "Big League Quality,"Quality Progress, August 2001.
6. Mythbusters Results, "Episode 83: Baseball Myths," Aug. 8, 2007,http://mythbustersresults.com/episode83.
Akst, Jef, "Personalized Athletics," The Scientist, Aug. 1, 2011,http://tinyurl.com/personal-athlete.
baseball-bats.net, "Baseball Bat History," http://tinyurl.com/baseball-bat-history, May 2010.
Elias, Robert, "You’re Never Too Young to Dream: The Craftsmanship of Baseball Bats," NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2004, pp. 123-129.
Article Reference: Quality Progress