Loading...

Follow SportTechie | Sports Technology News on Feedspot

Continue with Google
Continue with Facebook
or

Valid

Last week, the machines came for America’s pastime. During the All-Star Game of the Atlantic League—which is independent of MLB’s minor league system, but now a testbed partner for the big leagues—TrackMan Doppler radar was used to call balls and strikes. The “robot” relayed its decisions via wifi to the human umpire on the field, who heard the call in his headphones and then signaled it to the stadium. Crouching behind the catcher the way he always does, the arbiter of the game was rendered nothing more than a glorified middle manager.

If history tells us anything, the Atlantic League’s experiment is just the beginning. And at first glance there is little reason to argue with this glimpse of the future. Much is at stake in sports. Wins and losses can be career-defining events for athletes, coaches and team executives. And there’s also serious money on the line for sports businesses and bettors. Getting correct calls matters.

THE SCIENCE OF SWAT: Major League Baseball Will Be Decided by Swing States

Go back to June 2, 2010, when Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game taken away by umpire Jim Joyce, who incorrectly called the Indians’ Jason Donald safe on a close play at first. It should have been the final out, but the game went on because replay review wasn’t yet part of the big leagues.

There are plenty of examples of blown calls and the damage that they’ve done: Argentinian Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. NFL referee Phil Luckett calling an overtime coin toss the wrong way during a 1998 Thanksgiving Day game, effectively dooming the Steelers. Colorado’s game-winning fifth down against Missouri in 1990, which saved a season that ultimately saw the Buffaloes win their lone national championship.

You might be upset that I didn’t include the example that jumped to the front of your mind, but that’s the point…

WAY BACK, BACK, BACK: The Unlikely Origin of Baseball’s Launch Angle Revolution

Humans are imperfect. Ask us to officiate a game, and we will make mistakes. Machines are better, their only flaw being that they were built by us. Robot umpires will undeniably make baseball calls more precise, more consistent. But a thought still gives me pause: If we’re taking the human element out of umpiring, what does that mean for the humans who are still playing the games? Will technology turn on them by enforcing the exact letter rather than the spirit of the law?

According to Atlantic League president Rick White, the automated ball-strike system (ABS) is accurate to within an eighth of an inch. In the league’s All-Star Game, there was at least one egregious pitch that was called a strike because the very top of the ball shaved the very bottom of the strike zone. It was an unhittable pitch but a strike nonetheless, the way a pitch in Wiffle ball is ruled a strike if it hits any part of the lawn chair behind the plate—no matter what.

Highlights of Atlantic League's Electronic Strike Zone - YouTube

When you consider that the strike zone is three dimensional, invisible, varies in height with each hitter, and that the ball could be moving upwards of 100 miles per hour, you realize that the task of determining whether a pitch is an eighth of an inch in or out of the zone is all but impossible for humans—umpires and batters alike.

Big leaguers have been calling for an electronic strike zone for a few years now, but they may come to regret it. Hitters and umpires have always had disputes over calls at the edges of the strike zone, but at least they are operating from the same vantage point: a strike was ultimately a hittable pitch as seen by the human eye. In the future, we may find that a machine-precision strike zone turns a traditional “ball four” into the new “strike three.”

Just consider what the Atlantic League is already experiencing with the fanfare of its All-Star Game in the rearview…

Atlantic League's Electronic Zone Calls a Neck-High Strike - YouTube

(Trust me, I understand: human umpires don’t always get decisions right and some are much worse than others—just watch the embedded tweet below. But removing bad umpires from the game, or simply living with bad calls, is completely different than fundamentally changing how games are officiated.)

The worst called strikeouts of the first half #MLB #AllStars #ThursdayThoughts #SignsThatYouLiveInThePast pic.twitter.com/KP62FfGP7b

— Umpire Auditor (@UmpireAuditor) July 11, 2019

Baseball, of course, isn’t the first sport to experiment with using technology to make calls. Tennis players can challenge decisions and call for a review from the Hawk-Eye computer system. After years of resistance, soccer has recently embraced video assistant referees, which we saw in the World Cup. And MLB itself has used replay review for a decade to decide certain types of plays, including boundary calls, missed bases and collisions at home plate. Such use of technology has indeed changed baseball, eliminating the “neighborhood out-calls” on the front end of double plays and turning steals into slow-motion moments that can’t always be seen correctly with the naked eye.

But the strike zone is, well, different. It exists to ensure that a batter has a fair chance of hitting a pitch. Will that still be true with the automated strike zone of the future? Or will we see teams looking to deploy Eephus-pitch specialists who can arc the ball high over home plate and drop it into any sliver of a three-dimensional space that might as well be a backyard lawn chair? (Need a visual? Consider the pitch at the 42-second mark in the video below; that doesn’t seem like a terrible strategy when you consider that even sharp-breaking sliders can cross the front of the plate outside the strike zone but cut over the depth of the plate for a strike.)

MLB Best Eephus Pitches - YouTube

Robot umpires are enforcers. They will make decisions based purely on the hard, cold geometry of the strike zone—all science, no art. True, crowds will never sway them. But in the name of infallible consistency we may lose the basic intent of umpires altogether, which is to promote a sense of fairness and enforce parameters that make sense for the game’s human players. And what could be more unfair than an unhittable strike becoming the rule rather than the exception in baseball? In what will surely be a disorienting brave new world, there will still be calls that we know are wrong, that scream of injustice, that … just … can’t … be … right.

And without human umpires, we’ll only have technology to blame.

Will robot umpires be good or bad for baseball? How would you go about improving the tech? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

This five-part series examines how swing biomechanics and the proliferation of technological tools are helping hitters. Part 1 explored the history of this field and the origin of a few key devices. Part 2 looks at newly emphasized swing traits and how they’re being applied.

* * *

Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger was a minor leaguer riding a spring training bus in 2015 when he overheard a conversation with career-altering ramifications. Then in the Diamondbacks organization, he listened in as big leaguers A.J. Pollock and Nick Ahmed discussed hitting in a way that ran contrary to everything that he’d ever been taught. How do I keep the bat in the hitting zone for longer?

Soon afterward, Haniger downloaded an ebook written by independent hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary, Elite Swing Mechanics. The 120-page written tome and supplementary video tutorial, Haniger says, emphasized “facts and physics” in place of baseball truisms such as “stay inside” the ball and “swing down”—imprecise phrases that can mean different things to different players. (A pitched baseball typically reaches the batter while traveling at a downward angle of 7 to 10 degrees, which ought to dispel any notion of swinging down on the ball.)

Stil, Haniger struggled early in Double A that season and saw his playing time wane. He asked to be demoted and went back to Class A ball, where he “changed everything about my swing.” By August of the following season, Haniger had made his major league debut, going 2-for-4 with a double and a triple against the Mets. Traded to Seattle in the offseason, he joined the Mariners and blossomed into an All-Star who received MVP votes in 2018. Much of his mechanical overhaul was done under the guidance of a consortium of gurus: Craig Wallenbock, Doug Latta, Tim Laker, and Matt Lisle. (Laker is now the Mariners’ hitting coach, and Lisle is the White Sox’ hitting analytics instructor.)

The right-handed slugger now quickly whips the bat barrel into the zone, where it remains on a slight upward plane toward the ball. This grants Haniger more time to react to the pitch and adjust his swing. When he does make contact, this swing path is more likely to send the ball on an airborne trajectory, which can maximize damage. To this day, Haniger uses tools such as the Blast Motion bat sensor to track his swing path and the Rapsodo and HitTrax tracking systems for feedback on both his swing path and batted-ball data.

“Five years ago, the swing was still a secret,” Tewksbary says. “Now, it’s not.”

A growing number of major league hitters have rejuvenated their careers by reinventing their swings. Sluggers such as Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, and Daniel Murphy are among the most high-profile players to have improved their fortunes dramatically—either resuscitating careers going nowhere or adding additional power.

But another thing has also become clear: what separates Double A players and big leaguers has less to do with raw athleticism than it does with the finer points of biomechanical sequencing.

* * *

A former first-team All-Ivy League outfielder at Yale, Dave Fortenbaugh left sports research in 2013 to become an engineering consultant who specializes in injury biomechanics. But he spent the better part of five years working at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama, where he collected data on 43 Double-A players who took batting practice in front of eight 3-D motion capture cameras and on two force plates.

And Fortenbaugh’s 2011 dissertation for the University of Miami, aptly named “The Biomechanics of the Baseball Swing,” remains the authoritative work on the subject. Every few months another email rolls in from a father, a coach, a reporter, or an MLB executive wanting to know more. “No matter how far I keep getting away from it,” Fortenbaugh says with a laugh. “I keep getting found.”

Among the Double-A hitters who swung a bat in his lab, Fortenbaugh found that all but one or two had the physical capacity to hit the ball very hard, on par with big leaguers. But the challenge for all of those Double-A players, Fortenbaugh says, “is consistency”—a high hard-hit rate, or what turned the raw version of Mitch Haniger into the refined version of Mitch Haniger.

PART 1: Way Back, Back, Back—The Unlikely Origin of Baseball’s Launch Angle Revolution

The concepts behind mastering such consistency aren’t entirely new. In his 1968 book, The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams wrote about the need for “a slight upswing” while generating power with the hips. And some early biomechanical swing work was conducted in the early 1990s. But the recent widespread adoption of new tools have democratized the ability to collect meaningful data not just in labs but also in batting cages around the country. “I’m learning that some of the best patterns, some of the most optimal patterns that we’re chasing in 2019, were being done way back with Babe Ruth, [Roberto] Clemente, and guys right when baseball started,” says Reds assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker. Technology, he adds, “helped us clear the fog.”

This advanced understanding of hitting has followed a similar awakening in pitching—and perhaps necessarily so. “When we understood the story of the pitch, we understood the story of the [swing] path,” says Phillies hitting coach John Mallee, who previously held that same job with the Marlins, Astros, and Cubs. “Once we really understood the story of the pitch, we knew how to match the pitch with the path.”

A fastball traveling in excess of 90 mph takes four-tenths of a second to reach the plate—a literal blink of an eye—and the average big-league hitter must decide whether or not to swing at its halfway point. Hitters, says Blast Motion’s director of MLB sales Justin Goltz, have “a lot of style and flair and individual movement patterns. But at least for those last 200 milliseconds, we’re starting to come to some common ground—an understanding of what principles matter—and also measuring those principles so we can do it repeatedly.”

That commonality—the kinematic sequence, or kinetic chain—starts with the ground. Hitters generate force from the bottom up, transferring energy through their legs to the hips, pelvis, trunk, and then arms. Human beings are reciprocal movers, working muscles across our bodies when we do everything from crawling and walking to hitting a baseball. Each part of the chain rotates and then stops to fire the next link.

ROBOT UMPIRES: The Future of Baseball Has Finally Arrived

As an initial part of this sequencing, coaches at all levels tell hitters to open their hips. But data from K-Motion’s six-sensor vest indicates that pro hitters stop their hips after a 70-degree turn, compared to the average amateur who rotates 90 degrees. “In reality, you don’t need to focus on opening them or making them spin, you need to focus on stopping them,” says Eugene Bleecker, the founder of 108 Performance, a player training facility in southern California. “The sooner you decelerate or stop your hips, the faster you accelerate your trunk.”

That same principle applies to the next sequential stage of hitting. The hips stopping triggers the trunk rotation, which then slows as the arms whip the bat over the plate. (This concept is similar to fly fishing: fishermen throw the rod forward, but it’s the rapid stopping of the rod that transfers the energy to the line and throws the fly out over the water.)

“This idea of everything accelerating to contact is completely false,” says Dr. Greg Rose, the co-founder of golf’s Titleist Performance Institute and baseball’s On Base University who calls the kinematic sequence “the closest measurement of athleticism.”

“The best hitters in the world, they transfer energy from their lower body to their trunk to their arms to the back,” he says. “That summation or addition of energy creates the best of the best. There’s this wave of energy that starts from the ground and works its way up through the body, and I tell people, ‘We can measure that wave of energy.’ ”

FUTUROLOGY: You Can’t Argue Balls and Strikes Anymore

In 2015, MLB’s implementation of Statcast introduced and quickly popularized the terms exit velocity and launch angle as more granular assessments of a swing, as opposed to whether contact resulted in a hit or an out. Those measurements, however, focus on the ball and not the batter. But they ignited curiosity and, because of advanced technology, “opened the door for this new interest in the biomechanics of the batter,” says Glenn Fleisig, the research director of ASMI, whose lab has intensified its research of the swing.

One of the biggest advocates of the K-Motion vest is Jason Ochart, the Phillies’ minor league hitting coordinator and director of hitting at the Seattle-area Driveline Baseball training center. K-Motion data has shown new evidence that the final stage of the kinematic sequence—involving the upper extremities—is more critical to the process than previously thought.

“In hitting, we talk about the engine a lot—the pelvis and torso, which clearly are important—but I’m finding that the best hitters in the world are really good at transferring that energy with their arms and wrists,” Ochart says. “They’re really able to accelerate up through the chain.”

But don’t mistake that final touch as prioritizing bat speed. Ben Hansen, the VP of biomechanics and innovation at Motus Global, says his company’s lab near St. Petersburg, Fla., tracked some 3,000 swings taken by professional ballplayers, including Astros All-Star outfielder George Springer (see embedded video), in a controlled environment using optical tracking and sensor-laden hitters and bats. The researchers and coaches have found that hip rotation energy—including both hip rotation velocity and body segment mass—had one of the strongest correlations to bat speed. Later segments in the swing chain aren’t afforded the chance to generate as much force.

“A batter needs to react,” Hansen says. “They stay more compact and they explode in short bursts.”

Bat speed, Bleecker says, is a different metric than time to make contact. And moving the barrel faster usually means a longer time for the hitter to make contact because of the time it takes to generate that speed outside of the kinematic sequence. An ideal time to contact is quick and efficient—about 120 milliseconds, he says.

“Bat speed is not something that anyone should necessarily focus on,” Bleecker says. “If you look at major league players, their in-game average bat speed is around 70 miles per hour. In the training setting, it’s around 75 to 77.”

C.J. Handron, the CEO of the bat sensor company Diamond Kinetics in Pittsburgh, concurs with this idea, saying the difference between a bat speed of 73 mph and 75 mph, for instance, “isn’t going to fundamentally, radically change who that player is.” Faster bat speed inherently comes at a cost of worse control and consistency—that once indefinable quality that turned Haniger into an All-Star.

“For the most part, once you’ve achieved a certain level of bat speed, you’re good,” says Buddy Clark, the co-founder of Diamond Kinetics. “You can then focus on things like being able to time up every pitch or spread the barrel speed over the zone at the angles that get you where you need to be.”

This follows the reasoning of the Reds’ Ecker, who says, “Force production is not as important as force transmission. . . . You can produce a lot of force, but the task is to transmit that into the baseball.”

“What we’re finding,” Ochart says, “is a lot of hitters possess enough bat speed to perform better than they are. They’re simply striking the ball sub-optimally because of their bat path and their attack angle.”

Translation: you don’t have to swing harder to maximize exit velocity, you have to swing efficiently.

“Some guys are trying to be metric heroes,” says Joey Cunha, director of hitting at 108 Performance, “and at the end of the day I want them to be hitters.”

* * *

A fastball traveling in excess of 90 mph takes four-tenths of a second to reach the plate—a literal blink of an eye—and the average big-league hitter must decide whether or not to swing at its halfway point. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Since 2015, Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe has trained each offseason at the baseball facility operated by the Bledsoe Agency in Tennessee. While hitting in the cages, Lowe will often wear a K-Motion vest to assess his mechanics and he’ll also fire up the Rapsodo hitting tracker to check his results. The three months he works out each winter offer a chance to experiment with bigger changes.

“That’s where I dive a little bit deeper because there are no consequences the next day,” says Lowe, the early frontrunner for American League Rookie of the Year.

Growing up, Mariners rookie outfielder Braden Bishop received the advice to smack ground balls and use his speed to get on base, but major league defenses—especially with infield shifts—are too good, so he has changed his approach to hit more line drives. He paired K-Motion and Blast Motion together and realized his rotational acceleration was subpar, averaging only 10 to 12g of force. He ramped up his core training and tweaked his swing to improve that number to 15g.

DOWN THE PIKE: The Top Tech Storylines of the 2019 MLB Season

“It gives me a more clear picture of how to up my numbers mechanically without trying to manipulate the bat to get the number up,” Bishop says.

Hitters have made successful major overhauls without advanced tech, of course. It’s a luxury that wasn’t widely available for Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez when he reinvented himself after the 2013 season. “Mostly video, to change my swing,” Martinez says, declining to divulge any other methods or tools he uses in order to protect his tradecraft. “We didn’t have the sensors and all that when I was making the change.”

Most hitters rely less on the technology during the season because it’s “not all that useful unless you’re trying to make some sort of swing adjustment,” says Twins catcher Jason Castro. Instead, players shift their focus from process to results. Batted-ball trackers become more important to make sure the ball is being struck as well as possible, especially during indoor cage work. HitTrax and Rapsodo track exit velo and launch angle, thus providing more context than just a vague “good job” as the netting swallows the ball.

“Especially in the cage, guys really like to see their batted ball data,” says Phillies assistant hitting coordinator Russ Steinhorn. “Having those technologies gives them the feedback [more than] just the ball hitting the net.”

Those devices can also help players understand their hot zones at the plate. “The reason I use it is mostly just to show them where they hit the ball the hardest, what areas in the zone, and also what launch angle are they practicing,” says Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez.

While some swing metrics still seem a bit too wonky to players—pelvis rotation speed and vertical bat angle, among others—exit velocity and launch angle are more intuitive and commonplace. “You can see instantly, when you talk about the numbers that you’re looking for and relate it to the ball flight, that it kind of sinks in,” the Mariners’ Laker says. “Guys get it.”

Hitting technology is more apt to make a difference in the lower levels of the minors as a player development tool, meaning devices such as Blast Motion are helpful for creating a baseline and periodically checking consistency. But, says Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, “We’re still in the early stages of figuring out what flaws can be corrected and what can’t.”

But that won’t stop player development groups everywhere from deploying bat sensors, wearable tech, ball trackers, and high-speed cameras.

“A lot of people are gaining a lot of value out of being able to evaluate swings,” says Reds star first baseman Joey Votto. “A little less ‘eye test’ and a little more data goes a long way.”

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019A roundup of some of the key sports technology stories you need to know, including SportTechie’s own content and stories from around the web

  • The Big 12 will have its own streaming channel on ESPN+ as part of the expanded media rights deal that the network signed with the conference in April. The channel, Big 12 Now, and will stream one football game per season from the participating schools as well as all men’s basketball games that are not scheduled to appear on ESPN’s television properties. Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State will join the platform this year while Iowa State, TCU, West Virginia, and Texas Tech will join in 2020. Texas and Oklahoma are not part of the partnership due to their existing long-term agreements with other networks.
  • NASCAR is planning to soft-launch its U.S. betting platform in September, according to gambling publisher EGR. The product is being powered by Genius Sports and will allow for wagering on areas such as stage winners, most laps led, lead changes, driver matchups, and group matchups. The full version of NASCAR’s betting product is expected to launch in February 2020, and there are plans to eventually expand the product internationally. “We’re thinking about how this product can turn our fans into evangelists of the betting products so they go out and tell their cousins and friends overseas,” Scott Warfield, managing director of gaming at NASCAR, told EGR.
  • The NBA is exploring launching its own sports betting product, while the NFL looks to integrate augmented reality. Commissioners of both leagues were in attendance at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Idaho this week. “We’re working from a digital standpoint to develop a better app to make those kinds of opportunities available,” said the NBA’s Adam Silver, according to CNBC. The NFL’s Roger Goodell told the network that AR could give fans the chance “to see what it’s like to stand behind Tom Brady as he’s looking downfield, to be able to see what it’s like as a running back runs through the line or defender tries to defend a play.”

HITTING MECHANICS: Major League Baseball Will Be Decided by Swing States

  • The Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA 2K League affiliate Cavs Legion GC have partnered with a cryptocurrency banking platform. UnitedCoin ads will feature on LED signage inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse during Cavs games and other branding opportunities are planned during the upcoming NBA season. UnitedCoin branding will also appear on the Cavs Legion GC’s virtual home court during gameplay in the NBA 2K League and via the team’s social media channels. “As decentralized technology continues to evolve, we know it is important for us to stay ahead of the curve and plan for how it will impact our fan experience and business as we move forward,” said Nic Barlage, Cavaliers president of business operations, in a press release.
  • Sports betting set to launch in the State of New York. Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady, N.Y., will begin accepting sports betting wagers on Tuesday. The casino is 170 miles away from NYC, and is one of four upstate casinos to receive sports betting approval from the State Gaming Commision. Mobile wagering is still not legal in New York. “I’m glad we’re breaking grounds on sports betting, but it would’ve been nice to have the mobile component,” state senator Joe Addabbo told the New York Post. North Carolina is also reportedly close to legalizing in-person sports betting at two casinos. On Monday, Lawmakers passed a bill that adds sports betting to games that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian casinos can offer.
  • Illegal Irish streams of English Premier League soccer games must be blocked by internet services providers this season. Ireland’s Commercial Court ruled on Monday that service providers Eircom/Eir, Sky Ireland, Virgin Media Ireland, and Vodafone Ireland must block unauthorized streams of EPL matches moving forward. The ruling comes shortly after a recent study found that illegal streams of Premier League matches generated $1.3 million in sponsorship value for brands.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Monday, July 15, 2019A roundup of some of the key sports technology stories you need to know, including SportTechie’s own content and stories from around the web

  • Illegal EPL streaming generates $1.3 million per game in sponsorship value for brands, according to a study conducted by sponsorship valuation firm GumGum Sports and anti-piracy company MUSO, in partnership with an unnamed Premier League club. The report considered a sample of eight matches and found each was streamed illegally by an average of 7.1 million fans. “Piracy audiences have too long been disregarded as offering no real value to rights holders and distributors, but the reality is that these huge audiences still see the same shirt sponsors and commercials as people watching the game via a licensed channel,” Andy Chatterley, MUSO co-founder and CEO, said in a press release.
  • The NFL missed the chance to opt-out of its current NFL Sunday Ticket deal with AT&T, according to The Athletic. In 2014, the NFL inked an eight-year, $12 billion deal with DirecTV that contained an option to allow either side to end the agreement a year early. The league was rumored to be interested in expanding its Sunday Ticket offering to include a digital streaming partner. But the NFL missed the deadline to exit the current deal, and now the NFL Sunday Ticket package will remain on DirecTV until the end of the 2020 season.
  • STATS and Perform have finalized their merger to create a new sports data analysis firm, Stats Perform. DAZN Group, which previously owned Perform, will receive a minority stake in the new company. According to Stats Perform, it will provide data to four of the top five most popular global sports broadcasters, seven of the top 10 global tech companies, all of the top 10 sportsbooks, and seven of the top 10 soccer franchises. “The combination of Stats Perform will give us greater ability to extract new insights and context,” says Carl Mergele, CEO of Stats Perform.

NHL’s THEO FLEURY: ‘I’m involved in the biggest epidemic on the planet.’

  • DraftKings has partnered with travel site Hotwire to launch a new fantasy baseball game called the Hotwire Effect Series. The game will highlight the growing reliance of analytics in MLB: users will draft their teams only from stats—player names will be hidden throughout the selection process. Once each game begins, users will have the names of their selected players revealed to them. The Hotwire Effect Series has a $20,000 total prize pool and will offer $5,000 in winnings per weekly contest.
  • The North American League of Legends Championship Series has signed a co-streaming deal with social broadcasting platform Caffeine. Fans will be able to watch and host their own streams of LCS matches every weekend for the remainder of the 2019 Summer Split regular season, playoffs and finals. Fox invested $100 million in Caffeine last summer. The company has also received investment from The Walt Disney Company. “Our platform will deliver these matches with almost no latency, allowing fans to watch as if they were there, while also offering aspiring shoutcasters the ability to live host their own streams of the event and interact with fans in real time,” Caffeine Founder and CEO Ben Keighran said in a press release.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Our Athletes Voice series gives athletes a forum to talk about how technology has impacted their careers and their lives away from the games. This week, former NHL forward Theo Fleury, 51, opens about his addiction and mental health struggles, why he’s advocating for suicide prevention, and his partnership with an app that has the potential to save lives.

* * *

Theo Fleury won a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames and scored 455 goals over 13 NHL seasons. He also won a gold medal with Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout his career, and a suspension for violating the NHL’s substance abuse policy essentially ended his pro career in 2003. Soon afterward, Fleury nearly killed himself.

“At 2 a.m., I reached over, picked up the gun, loaded it, flipped the safety off and put the barrel in my mouth with my finger shaky on the trigger,” Fleury wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire. “I sat there forever, shivering so hard the barrel was bouncing off my teeth. How did it taste? It tasted lonely. Cold, lonely and black.”

The CDC reports that close to 45,000 Americans died by suicide in 2016, and that rates of suicide have risen in almost every state since 1999. More than half of the people who killed themselves had no diagnosed mental health condition (but often there are warning signs).

In his book, Fleury alleged that a youth hockey coach, Graham James, had sexually abused him as a teenager. James had plead guilty to sexual abuse charges filed by two other players in 1997 and later pleaded guilty to charges filed by Fleury and his cousin in 2011.

The experience of opening up about what had happened to him—and the positive feedback he received from other survivors of abuse—prompted Fleury to start advocating for mental health. Fleury recently partnered with iRel8, a mental health support app, to create a forum for him to talk with the platform’s anonymous users.

Sharing His Struggles…

“It wasn’t hard at all [to go public]. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. The one thing that I hadn’t done was get honest and truthful about what happened. And the reaction that I got was people started coming up to me and telling me, ‘Hey, I read your book, and you told my story. Me too.’ That right there was the catalyst for me to say, ‘Hey, this is what I was meant to do. This is the true purpose for my life, to help as many people get to where they need to go.’ ”

Fleury, shown here celebrating his gold medal, says, “We, as athletes, get put on this pedestal where we shouldn’t suffer from any sort of mental health struggles because we have money, we have fame, we have fortune, we have all this stuff. But at the end of the day that means nothing.” (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

“Those of us who suffer mental illness, we’re in the majority, not in the minority. There are more people who experience mental illness than don’t. The message is that we have this one-in-five label out there, but really it’s five-in-five. Everybody, at some point in their life, is going to struggle with some sort of mental struggle where they’re depressed, they’re anxious, or whatever it is. So I feel it’s really important that there are spaces—safe spaces, like iRel8—to allow each individual to talk about what’s going on without judgment, without embarrassment or whatever it is that people feel that’s holding them back from getting well.

“I think if you interviewed anybody, eventually you would get to that place where [they’d say], ‘Yeah, I have struggled with certain things in my life.’ That’s what I’ve really discovered. When you are vulnerable and are willing to talk about your own experience, what happens is that people open up themselves because they’ve never been able to find that safe place to be able to talk about what’s going on.”

The Suicide Paradox…

“Here’s the deal, and this is the million-dollar question that needs to be answered. We have the highest awareness in the history of our planet around mental illness. But, on the other side of the coin, we have the highest suicide rates in the history of our planet. So, why isn’t this awareness being turned into action and getting people well?

“Because nobody is providing solutions other than, ‘Go see a psychiatrist and he’s going to prescribe to you synthetic brain chemistry’ when he actually has not taken a sample or you haven’t been put in an MRI machine, so that they can see actually what is working and what is not working in the brain. They give us this magic pill, and they send you out into the world, basically on a trial-and-error process, which is ridiculous.

“I’ve been down that road, and I’ve been down that route. And I had a gun in my mouth, ready to blow my brains out. It wasn’t until I discovered that there are holistic practices, which can help me live my life one day at a time with joy and happiness and peace and all these amazing things.”

A Social Solution…

“I met iRel8 through a group out of New York called We’re All a Little ‘Crazy,’ which is a global mental health organization. Eric Kussin is the founder of [We’re All a Little ‘Crazy’], and he reached out to me via social media and obviously knew that I was already in this space and had been in this space for a long time. He shared his story with me.

“I really like the holistic approach to mental health as opposed to the Big Pharma approach to mental health. At our one-year anniversary of our group, I met the guys from iRel8 and had an amazing conversation about what they were doing. I love the aspect of group therapy and people sharing their stories with other people—and that it’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s an amazing tool that I hadn’t seen from anybody in the space—I’ve been involved in this for about 10 years now.

“People are looking for solutions to feel better and techniques and all that stuff. It’s very easily shareable in that space. Of all the therapies and remedies out there, probably the most effective type of therapy that I’ve come across is group therapy. The iRel8 platform is a group therapy platform where you can log on anonymously, and there’s no fear of being [outed]. We are just sharing our stories with one another and creating a safe space and a safe environment to heal.

“I’m very grateful and thankful that I’ve run into a lot of like-minded people who are engaged in the solution and not really labels. The more I’m around this, the more I’m finding these amazing people with their own stories of struggle who have overcome [it]. I think essentially that’s what it’s all about.”

Life After Hockey…

“I actually wanted to get as far way from the game as I possibly could because I felt that I could have a bigger impact doing this work than I ever did playing hockey. I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in ‘everything happens for a reason.’ There was a reason why I sat down and wrote the book. And what’s come out of it is I’m involved in the biggest epidemic on the planet. I’ve been able to find a way to manage my own illness and, by doing that, I have on-the-ground experience where I can have a very large impact on the mental wellness scope of how many people struggle with this illness.

“Hockey is something that I used to do. This is more a societal issue than it is an individual sport, so the same stigmas that are attached to sport are the same stigmas that are attached in the general population. Do we have a long ways to go? Yeah, we have a long ways to go. We, as athletes, get put on this pedestal where we shouldn’t suffer from any sort of mental health struggles because we have money, we have fame, we have fortune, we have all this stuff. But at the end of the day that means nothing.”

If you are contemplating suicide or self-harm, please know that you are not alone and there is help. Reach out via the iRel8 platform or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

* * *

New Athletes Voice stories appear earlier in our newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

Read more in our ongoing Athletes Voice series

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Joel Embiid is seven-feet tall, weighs 250 pounds and checks all the boxes for being a prototypical NBA center. Taken with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, he overcame injuries early in his career and blossomed into a perennial All-Star who average 24.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game last season.

But three short years before he signed an NBA contract and received life-changing money, he was a 17-year-old back home in Cameroon who was an aspiring … volleyball player?

True story: In 2011, the year he first picked up a basketball, Embiid received an unexpected invite to an NBA Basketball Without Borders camp hosted by Luc Mbah a Moute, one of a handful of NBA players who hail from Cameroon. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Embiid, who’s been nicknamed The Process, even returned to Africa last summer as an NBA ambassador.

“I feel like we have a lot of talent, undiscovered talent that can have a chance just like I did,” he told reporters in August. “They just need an opportunity.”

JAM SESSION: The NBA Summer League Is a Lob For Creativity and Innovation

At its Summer League in Las Vegas on Thursday, the NBA announced a strategic partnership that may forever alter the scouting landscape. The league now owns an equity stake in HomeCourt, the user-friendly shot-tracking app that will be able to unearth undiscovered talent in far-off markets such as China, India and Africa—or anywhere you might have a ball, hoop and smartphone.

“With HomeCourt, it no longer will be required for scouts to discover kids. Kids will be able to discover themselves,” says Andrew Yaffe, the NBA’s vice president of global strategy and innovation lead. “We’ll be rolling out features that will enable kids to measure their height, their wingspan, their basketball skills. And we’ll be able to evaluate and hopefully find the next generation of global superstars through submissions on this app, which we think is just incredibly exciting.”

The NBA is one of many investors participating in HomeCourt’s $8.5 million Series A funding round. Others include Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment, the parent company of the 76ers and New Jersey Devils; Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Mark Cuban’s Radical Investments, and Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund. A half-dozen current and former professional athletes also participated in the round, including the Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris and eight-time All-Star Steve Nash.

(Photo courtesy of HomeCourt and the NBA)

“It no longer will be required for scouts to discover kids,” Yaffe says. “Kids will be able to discover themselves.”

The NBA has three major goals with its HomeCourt partnership: to increase basketball fandom around the world, get more kids playing ball, and find the best talent in underserved markets. The league already hosts academies and camps globally to develop youth skills and keep tabs on rising stars. And by working closely with HomeCourt—the app that put an 11-year-old girl from Virginia on the Wall Street Journal’s radar for taking 100,000 shots in her driveway—the NBA hopes to vastly expand its ability to scope out talent around the world.

A number of NBA-themed shooting and dribbling challenges that appeared on HomeCourt this week are aimed at friendly competition among casual fans and serious players alike. Users can earn NBA-themed badges and appear on NBA leaderboards. “We’re trying to grow the next generation of fans and we know that kids who play basketball are more likely to become NBA fans,” says Amy Brooks, NBA’s chief innovation officer.

The league’s long-term vision expands far beyond the casual player, however. Ultimately, the NBA wants to build out what it refers to as “elite services” through the app, which would encompass scouting. Brooks said those elite services might lead to the advent of digital combines that uncover talent. Top players discovered through the app could potentially be invited to official NBA camps.

BOSS MOVE: IBM-Powered War Room Helped the Toronto Raptors Reach NBA Finals

“Today we host, in person, elite combines. Now we can do it digitally by testing wingspan, testing vertical leap, quickness and agility,” she said. “Especially for some of our priority markets where we’re trying to grow, we see so much potential because we can’t physically reach those people very easily. This app will allow us to source those players.”

The trend of democratizing discovery process of players has started to sweep across sports. In soccer, for example, a company called Tonsser serves as a LinkedIn-like platform for youth players. The app enables soccer athletes to create digital profiles of their performance on the pitch where they can showcase their skills, connect with their peers, vote and receive votes on their performance from coaches and teammates.

Increasingly, top players on Tonsser are invited to exclusive pro-team trials. Over the past year, Tonsser has been expanding from a simple player network to a scouting ecosystem in which it works directly with pro teams in Europe. The goal has been to connect pro clubs via exclusive trials with top-ranked local talent, unearthed through a proprietary Tonsser ranking system.

INSIDER KNOWLEDGE: NBA’s Atlanta Hawks Partner With Orreco to Test Blood for Training

The NBA is taking a page from the Tonsser playbook but with slight modifications. Unlike European soccer clubs that can recruit talent for feeder academies at young ages, the NBA operates on a draft system. The 76ers, for example, can’t recruit a player directly through HomeCourt as soccer clubs in, say, the Premier League can through Tonsser. Rather, the league plans to use digital combines to highlight talent that might have otherwise been overlooked and recruit them to NBA camps. It can surface, say, the next LeBron James and help guide his development at a young age to put him on track for the draft.

The NBA said it’s taking scouting best practices from European soccer academies, such as FC Barcelona, and keeping an eye on scouting apps such as Tonsser to build a feeder system that best serves its needs. Unlike scouting apps with ranking systems that rely more on crowdsourced opinions from users, HomeCourt is powered exclusively by hard data. Metrics such as shooting consistency and ball handling can be proven on HomeCourt via video and measured by artificial intelligence.

As of Thursday, HomeCourt has collected user data from more than 10,000 cities across 170 countries.

“You can be in Egypt and say you’re taking a thousand shots a day. Now everybody can go in there and see that, see how consistent you are, and watch it too,” Harris says. “If you’re talented, this is a platform that allows you to be seen whereas you might not otherwise have been able to have this sort of access.”

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Friday, July 12, 2019A roundup of some of the key sports technology stories you need to know, including SportTechie’s own content and stories from around the web

  • Social media platform TikTok has formed a content partnership with Wimbledon. TikTok, the most-downloaded app in Apple’s store last year, allows users to create short video content to the background music track of their choosing. To support Wimbledon’s wider marketing campaign, TikTok users have been encouraged to create videos using the hashtag #JoinTheStory. The All England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts the famed Wimbledon championship, established an account on TikTok as part of the partnership.“TikTok provides a brilliant opportunity for sports properties to showcase some of the character, personality, and humour of sport beyond the match action,” said Alexandra Willis, Head of Communications, Content & Digital at the AELTC.
  • Football analytics organization Pro Football Focus has moved its entire infrastructure to Amazon Web Services. As PFF’s cloud and machine learning partner, AWS will develop new metrics that leverage PFF data and bring new insights to telecasts such as NBC’s Sunday Night Football. PFF supplies troves of data to teams in the NFL, the NCAA, and the Canadian Football League. “We have chosen to use AWS’s unmatched breadth of functionality to innovate at scale,” says Cris Collinsworth, the former NFL wide receiver and current NBC commentator who owns PFF. Collinsworth says services such as Amazon SageMaker will “help us build, train, and deploy machine learning models so that we can generate predictions and deliver insights faster to teams and broadcast partners.”
  • New Hampshire governor Chris Sununo is set to sign a bill to allow sports betting in the state, according to the AP. Today’s expected bill will permit mobile gambling and allow for up to 10 retail sports betting locations. New Hampshire’s Lottery Commision will regulate the industry, which is estimated to generate $7.5 million in fiscal year 2021 and $13.5 million two years later. The Granite State will be the 16th state to legalize sports betting, with its first legal wager expected to be placed in early 2020.
  • He went deep … into the numbers. A 26-year old baseball fan from Olive Branch, Ill., leveraged Statcast data to win a $250,000 grand prize in MLB’s 2019 T-Mobile Home Run Derby Bracket Challenge. Hunter Mcharry predicted every Derby matchup correctly and also correctly picked that Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would hit the longest home run, and even how far that home run travel— a projected 488 feet, per Statcast. Mcharry told MLB.com that he checks the Statcast leaderboards on Baseball Savant at least once a day. “I went against my gut instinct; I thought Vlad Jr. was going to win, to be honest,” Mcharry told MLB.com. “But I compared the exit velocities and figured [Pete] Alonso would have a little more to gain from it.”

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Thursday, Jul. 11, 2019A roundup of some of the key sports technology stories you need to know, including SportTechie’s own content and stories from around the web

  • David Beckham has launched his own media company, Studio 99, according to Variety. The soccer star’s new content studio will produce documentaries, branded content, and TV shows covering sports, travel, and fashion. Studio 99 has already formed a partnership with LeBron James’s production firm, Uninterrupted, to co-produce a documentary series that follows Inter Miami CF, the MLS expansion club partially owned by Beckham. Studio 99’s creative agency arm will now manage all content creation for Beckham’s social media accounts, which include 57 million followers on Instagram and 52 million on Facebook.
  • Baseball fans can now participate in one-on-one live video chats with Hall of Famers thanks to a new partnership between software firm VIDSIG and the Baseball Hall of Fame. VIDSIG’s proprietary platform will allow Hall of Famers to host virtual “meet and greets” from the comfort of their homes, or wherever they can access an internet connection. VIDSIG was founded by Jeff Dudum, the godson of former San Francisco Giants first baseman and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. “To see these amazing ballplayers continuing to connect with their fans on our platform and witness the outpouring of emotion that these once-in-a-lifetime interactions create is incredibly humbling,” Dudum said in a press release.

* * *

GOT TWO MINUTES? Have any insights, story ideas or requests? We want to hear from you at talkback@sporttechie.com

* * *

  • Our Joe Lemire was in Pennsylvania for a historic night on Wednesday: the debut of the robot umpire, which called balls and strikes in the independent Atlantic League’ All-Star Game. The program is back by MLB technology and could forever alter the way baseball is played.
  • Liverpool FC has announced a new multi-year partnership with 1XBET, an international online sports betting company. As the official global betting partner of LFC, 1XBET will receive branding opportunities at Liverpool’s stadium and on the team’s digital platforms.The company’s online betting products are available in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but have yet to expand into U.S betting markets. Liverpool FC shares the same ownership group—Fenway Sports Group—as the Boston Red Sox, which signed a sponsorship deal with MGM Resorts International in March to become the first MLB club to partner with a gambling company.
  • Rory Mcllroy’s digital golf membership program, GolfPass, will stream exclusive live coverage of this week’s Scottish Open for subscribers in the U.S. Since Mcllroy and NBC Sports launched GolfPass in February, it has offered exclusive content such as instructional videos and a podcast hosted by Mcllroy. The Scottish Open will mark the first time that GolfPass will offer live, exclusive coverage. Beginning on Thursday, it will stream the entirety of McIIroy’s rounds.
  • Investment app Rally Rd will soon allow users to buy shares of a legendary Honus Wagner baseball card, according to the New York Post. The card was originally printed by the American Tobacco Company, circa 1910, and only 50 or so original cards are estimated to remain in existence. One owner has decided to place his card on the market. Starting in August, Rally Rd. will sell a minority stake in the Wagner card for about $500,000. Rally Rd launched two years ago by selling shares in rare collectible cars, but it’s now expanding into sports memorabilia. Honus Wagner baseball cards have sold for as much as $3.12 million, making it the world’s most valuable baseball card.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

At the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, new technologies are being tested and production teams are reimagining how basketball might be covered next season and in the years to come.

The NBA is working alongside ESPN during the two-week offseason tournament to experiment with new cameras, sensors and second-screen experiences. Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations and technology, says the league has created a “test bed” of innovation with the event and is encouraging creativity and failure.

“We can try things, suffer the chaos of failure,” he says. “Normally with game broadcasts you’re up against the wall. It has to work. It has to get done. You have one game, one shot. Four quarters and you’re out. But here at the Summer League we redefine the way that we work together and how we do things based on the fact that we can fall flat on our faces, pick ourselves up, and try again.”

ALSO ON SPORTTECHIE: The Robot Umpire May Change Baseball Forever

ESPN has a similar view, although it must still weigh its commitment to advertisers and viewers (the network is airing and/or streaming all 83 Summer League games across its suite of properties). Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer for NBA on ESPN, said the tournament has enabled the NBA rights holder to test new cameras and flight patterns, while experimenting with supplemental experiences on the ESPN app. This week, for example, ESPN tested out new aerial shots with Spidercam, a rival to the Skycam used in NBA broadcasts last season. The Spidercam has slightly more mobility and agility in terms of its ability to get closer to the court. Next year, the NBA hopes to expand the use of aerial cameras, according to Hellmuth.

“We’ve really brought that along under ESPN’s direction and it’s going to get even more wide use next year,” Hellmuth says. “The camera is going to fly more over the court during play, be able to come down for the huddles, do walk-ins/walk-offs, and give fans the feeling of being closer to the field of play.”

Get the latest sports tech news in your inbox.

Some experiments, such as those being done with aerial cameras, seem to be a shoo-in for next season. Others, however, might not make it out of the Summer League. One such example is a lap camera, which the league tested during one game by having a cameraman capture footage from a courtside seat. The viewpoint was meant to mimic the way people now capture games on their smartphones, but Hellmuth said it would require the purchase of three premium seats because the fans to the cameraman’s immediate left and right often blocked the shots.

“It’s a shot we’ve seen repeatedly on social media so we wanted to look at it and see what it looked like for us with a broadcast-quality camera,” Hellmuth says. “The answer was that it was OK. It worked for certain shots, only as a replay, and didn’t work as a live camera.”

Meanwhile, ESPN has spent significant effort building out new second-screen experiences. During the July 6 game between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors, ESPN worked a lively group chat among colorful NBA personalities into the broadcast. During the July 7 game between the Chicago Bulls and  Cleveland Cavaliers, it hosted pop-up factoids, statistics and historical references on the screen to enhance the presentation. During the July 8 game between the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets, it positioned cameras ten rows up to use as the primary game cameras to give viewers a courtside experience that was further supplemented by an array of courtside cameras and microphones.

A green light on the courtside table shows a coach’s challenge at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“We’re all here and all the teams are here,” Corrigan says. “You get to test it in a real basketball situation with real basketball players.”

ESPN is also testing a new sponsorship model that would limit the amount of traditional 30-spot commercials. Borrowing from podcast models, it’s experimenting with hosting sponsored content using ESPN talent. During one game, it brought in Daily Wager host Doug Kezirian and Preston Johnson, who lives in Vegas, to chat about sports betting and Sin City. (The Summer League is being sponsored by MGM Resorts, the NBA’s official gaming partner.)

“The teams, the league, everybody is trying to take the flow of the game and tighten it up a little bit,” says Corrigan. “These can be opportunities to experience different types of content and tighten up the game.”

In particular, Hellmuth has his eyes on the Noah Basketball sensors that capture game data from the hoops. The sensors measure the arc of a shot and how far to the left or right a ball is from the center of the basket. Noah is used by several NBA and NCAA teams to train, but with the sensors being used at the Summer League, Hellmuth is imagining how the data might enhance broadcasts.

Noah Basketball- Make More Shots, Win More Games - YouTube

“I’m taking all that data and trying to create an animated shot chart with a 3-D effect,” he says. “The shot chart has been this dull Xs and Os thing forever.”

The Noah sensors might even be able to improve the speed of the game. Hellmuth is looking to see whether they might be able to inform the 24-second clock operator when the ball has touched the rim.

Perhaps, one day, the NBA might even be able to automate that process.

“We always lose a little time there because it takes a human a while to see the ball clear the net and hit stop,” Hellmuth says. “A machine could do it much more accurately, which would be better for the sport.”

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

YORK, Pa. — During the second inning of Wednesday night’s Atlantic League All-Star Game, Joe Van Meter’s two-strike fastball to Joey Terdoslavich sunk low into the catcher’s mitt and was caught just barely above the ground. The pitch looked low not only to the hitter but also to the umpire, who nevertheless signaled strike three—but it wasn’t exactly his call.

Terdoslavich did a double take, glancing back at home-plate umpire Brian deBrauwere with a look of disbelief. deBrauwere, however, merely pointed to the AirPod in his right ear, his way of reminding the batter that the call came from TrackMan, the 3-D Doppler radar hanging from the roof of the ballpark. At that, Terdoslavich returned to the dugout, unable to advance his argument against an inanimate object.

In the official debut of an MLB-sanctioned automated strike zone, controversy was avoided with no egregious errors and few challenged calls.

“I didn’t really hear any complaining from anybody. If that [low strike] was the one blunder—because I know it was low, I just know it was—but if that was the one blunder, was it 99.9% [correct] then?” said Terdoslavich, who played parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Braves from 2013-15, before adding: “It ran better than I thought it would.”

“The future is crazy,” Mazzilli says. “It’s cool to see the direction baseball’s going.”

Afterward, deBrauwere acknowledged that he would have called the pitch a ball, but he understood why the automated ball-strike system, or ABS, called it a strike: because “the top of the ball is shaving the bottom of the zone as it’s moving down.”

“It’s uncharted territory,” deBrauwere added. “I just want these guys to know that that’s what the system called.”

MLB has partnered with the Atlantic League this season to use the independent circuit as a laboratory for new rules and experiments. The idea of technology calling balls and strikes has seemed plausible ever since QuesTec was adopted by MLB as an umpire evaluation tool in 2001.

The TrackMan device attached to the roof of the stadium. (Photo by Joe Lemire)

The TrackMan-powered ABS has been tested intermittently in the Atlantic League—mostly in the background but occasionally turned on for a few innings—with Wednesday night’s All-Star Game serving as its first full-game demonstration. The system will roll out to every venue in the league in the coming weeks.

“Tonight was very encouraging,” said MLB SVP Morgan Sword, who is overseeing the project. “The system has been up the entire game and has worked well from our vantage point. Once it’s operational in all eight ballparks, we’re going to have a lot of data to work with to evaluate its effect on the game. But no red flags tonight.”

ABS registered every pitch, although communication issues meant that deBrauwere did not hear the automated call for three pitches in the second inning and an entire half-inning in the middle of the game. Those issues appear to have been caused by a breakdown either in the dedicated WiFi network transmitting the calls or in the bluetooth connecting the receiver and ear bud. deBrauwere said the challenge in those moments was to mimic the radar’s strike zone rather than his own personal interpretation so that calls were consistent.

Get the latest sports tech news in your inbox.

MLB is using the Atlantic League as a testing ground so that issues can be worked out in a lower-pressure environment. MLB would surely invest in a secure, stable network with built-in redundancies to ensure such communication mishaps wouldn’t happen in a big league game.

Once the system is in good working order, one can imagine the next step being a trial in the affiliated minor leagues, although Sword said there is “no timetable yet. Our task now is to build a system that works, and no decision has been made about what to do with that system once we have it.”

To place the AirPod in one’s own ear is so aesthetically unremarkable and simple—a clear, authoritative voice says either “ball” or “strike”—yet it engenders astonishment.

After exiting the Atlantic League All-Star Game, L.J. Mazzilli and Kirk Nieuwenhuis visited the PeoplesBank Park press box to do a few interviews. Both players have extensive pro ball experience, with Nieuwenhuis logging parts of six seasons in the majors, and Mazzilli reaching as high as Triple A—and wouldn’t seem easily fazed.

BOUND FOR THE BIGS? MLB Players Have Been Calling for Robot Umpires

But the press box visit afforded them a peak behind the curtain. They had the chance to see the laptop running the software converting each x-y-z coordinate derived by the radar into a ball or strike call. Each also popped an Apple AirPod into one ear to hear a few of the automated calls, at which Mazzilli called out to his teammate—“Newy!”—with a can-you-believe-this smile.

“The future is crazy,” Mazzilli then said. “It’s pretty cool just to see the computer’s out and knowing that the TrackMan is tracking everything. It’s cool to see the direction baseball’s going.”

Mazzilli grew up around the game as his father, Lee, was an All-Star player and then later an Orioles manager. He said he expects ABS to be more of an adjustment at the top and bottom of the strike zone, particularly with looping curveballs. Asked if he had discussed the automated zone with his father, Mazzilli replied with a smile, “Everything I just told you came from him, basically.”

Nieuwenhuis said he appreciated how “definitive” the system is. Upon learning that he struck out in the third inning by swinging at a pitch that ABS had registered as a ball, he said, “That one could have gone either way. It’s good to know. Going forward, if they can give us that data, it’s huge. I think that’s the key to it: transparency.”

WAY BACK, BACK, BACK: The Unlikely Origin of Baseball’s Launch Angle Revolution

Atlantic League president Rick White had predicted in advance of the game that fans might grow “bored” of the spectacle. In fact, if they hadn’t read any of the surrounding news coverage, they might have been totally oblivious.

The night was sufficiently historic that one of the game balls will be added to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection in Cooperstown, but the only outward hints of any change were a few higher or lower pitches deemed strikes that are customarily called balls, and a few instances in which the umpire’s signal seemed a beat or two delayed. (There was one other can’t-miss moment before the game: The marketing and communications director of the host York Revolution, Doug Eppler, stood on the dugout in a white-tie, black-tailed tuxedo and jokingly exhorted the crowd to blame TrackMan for calls they disagreed with.)

Catcher James Skelton said that all players’ top priority is having consistency with ABS. He’s known for his ability to receive pitches in a way that makes them appear better to a human umpire than they actually are. This skill, called pitch framing, has been quantified and prioritized by big league teams in recent years but could vanish if the ABS keeps spreading.

Both the players and deBrauwere agreed that the radar called a strike zone that was tighter but taller. The corners of the plate were called with no additional leeway while the MLB rulebook’s high and low boundaries were more pitcher-friendly than what is routinely called. That’s jarring to veteran players such as Mitch Atkins, who has been pitching for 16 professional seasons and has made 10 MLB appearances with the Cubs and Orioles.

“The strike zone that everybody’s known for their whole life is not what the TrackMan calls, so it’s just different visually to see what it’s calling and what it’s not,” he said.

DOWN THE PIKE: The Top Tech Storylines of the 2019 MLB Season

Added Sword, “I think we’ve already seen some players recognize the difference between the rulebook strike zone and the strike zone that’s traditionally called, which we’ll have to work through.”

MLB reports that big league umpires are correct on 97% of ball/strike calls. When umpires are graded, they are afforded a small margin of error around the boundaries of the strike zone. TrackMan is said to be accurate within a half-inch. The Atlantic League players had a lot of questions about whether an umpire could overrule or veto ABS calls he perceived to be clearly wrong, but most wanted an all-or-nothing commitment.

“To me, if you’re going to have TrackMan, it’s got to be every pitch,” Terdoslavich said, speculating that vetoes could turn into a murky quid-pro-quo situation. “That would bring the human element back into the game.”

Question? Comment? Story idea? Let us know at talkback@sporttechie.com

Read for later

Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
close
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.
Start your free month
Free Preview