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Baseball’s latest innovation came about thanks to golf. Turkish engineer Batuhan Okur developed the SkyTrak Golf Launch Monitor that launched in 2014 using an optical monitor to take multiple exposures of a golf ball. It wasn’t long before baseball players and coaches who dabbled in golf saw the possibilities of adapting it to their industry and needs, compelling Okur to brand optical tracking technology for baseball as Rapsodo.
You might’ve seen glimpses of the tech over the past couple of months, maybe even stretching back to last year.
Actual slow mo video of curveball spin in the bullpen today. In black and white for effect. pic.twitter.com/RPFvIVh7q4— Trevor “IamTrevorMay” May (@IamTrevorMay) February 16, 2019
You know it’s a ubiquitous technology when even the Giants use it. And that’s the thing — Rapsodo is industry standard now. Every team uses their pitching monitors and uses them in concert with in-house developments to devise their pitching programs.
So, how did a golf monitor company bring players, coaches, and every major league team in line with the SABR revolution that had already laid bare a lot of the old ways? I interviewed Rapsodo’s North American general manager, Art Chou, for some answers.
While Rapsodo doesn’t claim to have led the charge, its emergent tech came about at just the right time. “The big revolution in baseball was the birth of Statcast,” he says.
That granular physics data was foisted on the public through the national broadcasts and quickly gained acceptance. It was an innovation that inspired players and coaches to simply become more open-minded.
Chou succinctly distills Rapsodo’s success thanks to Statcast’s entry into the public consciousness: “It’s giving you hard data for something that was previously anecdotal.”
That struck me as a key line. More and more, analytics have been describing or disputing conventional wisdom and certain assumptions. Now visual tech was catching up to regression analysis to provide more data, and more data that players and coaches could digest and communicate quickly.
“It depends on the player and the coach, but once you embrace the validity of the data, the response we see most of the time is, ‘Yeah, I thought so.’ It gives them the path for correction. It gives them the very simple cause and effect loop. We’ve seen pitchers in five, six, seven pitches increase their break by five, six, seven inches,” Chou says.
That almost seems like a miracle, but if you think about it for even a moment, it makes total sense. It’s like taking a selfie and figuring out through trial and error your best lighting and angle, only there’s much less of that because the software can cut down the number of trials to reach the success point.
This process figures to become even more efficient with Rapsodo’s Pitching 2.0 release this spring.
Chou proclaims, “We’ll be introducing a scoring system this spring that basically boils down all the details – velocity, accuracy, tunneling, and we’re going to score each of those based on those playing level, and then we’ll give you a total score for your session. We’ll be able to say, ‘Here’s your score on the velo, here’s your score on the arsenal, here’s where you’re trending.’ Almost like a FitBit approach.”
When you consider everything a professional athlete has to consider when preparing for performance, the teams and coaches that can cut down on the noise have the best chance of getting through to their players. The “FitBit approach” really takes out the guesswork, and as Chou says, players just want a simple system: “give me a red or green”.
The new pitching guide will look something like this:
Here’s a less visually interesting but nonetheless compelling look at their data guide:
Teams already use Rapsodo to establish baselines for their players to have a touchstone for when a player is recovering from injury or in the midst of a slump. Data could presage injury or indicate that more injured list time is required.
Chou adds, “They want to keep a baseline of their pitchers so when they’re injured and are trying to decide when to bring them back, they’ll use their Rapsodo to make sure their body’s healthy and they’re producing the right amount of spin – it’s not just velo.”
That got me wondering if there were any misconceptions by the public about spin rate — is it really true that spin rate is the most important quality of any given pitch?
“The only thing that’s true is that higher velocity is always better,” Chou says.
Spin rate, while important, still requires two other positive conditions to make high spin valuable. Rapsodo tracks Spin Efficiency, as not all ball movement helps the ball move towards the plate — “you want a lot of backspin up in the zone”. The other is angle. Chou relates it to a Howitzer firing. 2,600 revolutions per minute on a tilted axis is better than 2,800 rpm sort of down the middle.
With all these minor revelations found within the data, does Rapsodo think it has a chance to make any pitcher an All-Star?
Chou sounded realistic: “I would say the increased analytics are really helping pitchers determine what their good pitchers are, what their bad pitches are, and what they should be throwing. [...] It’s a constant tinkering and improvement. Being able to show the [pitch] release data was a big part of our 2.0.”
Craig Breslow was Rapsodo’s first Major League client and his interest in the tech led to him helping them refine the platform as it helped him extend his career. That seems like a very democratic process and data only has a bias when human begin to interpret, so it seems like Rapsodo tech would be an easy way for teams to gain a competitive advantage in their battle against labor — either in arbitration or free agency.
It sounded like Chou had been getting this question recently, because he was prepared with a really sharp response:
We had some players asking, ‘Hey, I’d like to get my own. The team has one and the team owns that data. I want my own data that I can trust, or that if I switch teams, then I know I have it.’
A few different agents reached out for the players. That started towards the end of last year. We probably have about 100 players that have bought individually their own system. We didn’t really predict that.
Drew Pomeranz is one of Rapsodo’s marquee names and Pro Staffers — like Craig Breslow and Adam Ottavino before him, an early individual adopter of the tech who’s used it to work on his arsenal. He’ll make his regular season debut for the Giants tonight against the Dodgers. Rapsodo doesn’t proclaim to be an All-Star maker, but Farhan Zaidi and the Giants are certainly hoping it’ll help him reclaim his All-Star form.
Special thanks to Art Chou and Brittney Zoet of Rapsodo for granting and arranging this interview.