Hitting technology could help baseball's struggling lineups
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Tim Anderson wanted to study his swing. After a season hampered by groin and hand injuries, the Chicago White Sox shortstop wanted to build a more fluid approach at the plate.
That work brought him to Driveline Baseball, first at the company's main facility in Washington, and then at its outpost in Arizona.
“They showed me a lot of stuff. Just break it down all the way from ground up," Anderson said. “Really anything that you want to see, they got it."
At places like Driveline and the Baseball Performance Lab in Louisiana, and behind closed doors in unlabeled buildings around the major leagues, the race is on. Some of baseball's brightest minds are working on the gap between the technology available to Anderson and other big league hitters, and the technology behind a pitching renaissance.
Forget about tinkering in the batting cage, looking for a lost swing. Hitters now have high-speed cameras to inform subtle mechanical adjustments. They're using pitching machines that simulate Justin Verlander's curveball or Shohei Ohtani's splitter. Some even predict a future where most of the game's top hitters pick from an array of specialized bats depending on specific matchups or situations — almost like golfers deciding between a pitching wedge and 9-iron.
They need all the help they can get. The major league batting average dropped to .243 last season, its lowest since 1968. The only seasons with lower averages were the record low of .237 in 1968 along with 1967 and the deal-ball era seasons of 1884, 1888 and 1908.
A package of rule changes, including a new limit on infield shifts, could lead to more offense this year, but hitters still have to put the ball in play. There were a record 3,356 pitches of 100 mph of more in 2022, and more than 40,000 strikeouts for the fifth time in the last five full seasons — excluding 2020 — after the sport had never reached that plateau previously.
After years of pitchers using biomechanical analysis to increase velocity and carefully shape their pitches, there are signs that the same or similar technology might hold the key to reversing some of the downward offensive trends in the game.
“There has been, probably, an acceleration in the development of hitting technology and the way organizations and coaches are supporting hitters over the last few years,” said Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations for the Cleveland Guardians.
Asked if there had been any promising developments on that front recently and for examples he was willing to share, Antonetti cracked: “Yes ... and no.”
“That's all you're getting on that one,” a laughing Antonetti said.
One reason behind the early adoption of pitching technology was the quantifiable results. Make the right alteration to a curveball grip, one little tweak to a pitching motion, and the data shows an increase in spin rate or velocity almost immediately.
It's a more tricky, subjective proposition when it comes to hitting.
“It was easier to track the baseball than it was to track the bat,” Chicago Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said. "Now there are more things that can track the bat, and that's allowing us to get more information about hitters.
“But the swing is so much more dynamic and contextual relative to the pitch, because the pitch, you're know you're fully in control of it, whereas the swing, there's just so many different places it has to go.”
One of the tools used for hitting data is the Hawk-Eye camera system — which, among other capabilities, calculates exit velocity and estimates how far a batted ball travels. That system and the resulting data gets a significant upgrade this summer with the addition of five high-frame-rate cameras at the majors’ 30 ballparks and Salt Rivers Fields in Arizona.
The HFR cameras, which were tested by MLB last season, can capture video at 300 frames per second. They are capable of providing a more precise picture when it comes to bat speed and bat path.
“Hawk-Eye's going to be huge, because having in-game data and in-game biomechanics is going to be an absolute game-changer,” said Conner Watson, the lead hitting trainer at Driveline in Arizona.
Watson also is bullish on the prospects for motion capture — a common tool for pitching analysis for years — when it comes to hitting improvements, particularly when it comes to bat path.
“We're able to quantify it now,” he said. "Where is his speed relative to his bat path? Does it get up to speed back here and then lose speed in the contact? Why is he steep? Why is he losing the barrel back? There's just, we can answer it better now.
“There are so many things still left to discover within motion capture ... and I still think we're, I mean we are much closer, but we're still pretty far away from still getting those answers, because you need data, you need big sample sizes.”
Beyond the possibilities with motion capture, Trajekt Sports makes an advanced pitching machine that can replicate aces and their best pitches from around the majors. The technology surrounding bats themselves also has come a long way, too.
Born out of a conversation between Dr. Greg Rose, a co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute, and Kent Matthes, a baseball agent, at a 2019 PGA show in Florida, the Baseball Performance Lab on the Marucci Sports campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has turned the science behind club-fitting for golf into bat-fitting for major leaguers.
Its list of past or present clients includes some of baseball's most dangerous hitters. St. Louis Cardinals sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and San Diego's Matt Carpenter visited on the same day before last season. Several stars last season used bats with hockey-puck shaped knobs that they tried in Baton Rouge.
“We're building bats to combat pitch design,” said Micah Gibbs, the director of player development at the lab. “We're trying to blow up pitch design. We're like ‘OK, you want to build pitches? Perfect. We'll build bats for it.'”
Gibbs said he sees a day coming when it's common practice for players to use multiple variations of bats in a single game. Providing more support for hitters is a bit of a personal quest for the 34-year-old Gibbs, a former third-round pick by the Cubs who played six seasons in the minors.
“I was a switch hitter and I know for a fact that I probably shouldn't have been using the same bat from both sides,” he said. “But I used the same bat from both sides. It doesn't make a ton of sense, and I want every hitter that comes in to be able to go away with that confidence of knowing that when they get in the box, they have the best tool for them.”
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Jay Cohen, The Associated Press