Category Archives: Baseball

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Villanova, MLB Team Eye Virtual Reality Training for Batters and Catchers

Imagine you’re at home plate, your bat lifted behind your shoulder. You eye the pitcher as he sets up, carefully paying attention to not just the sights that play into the timing of your swing, but the sounds, too.
Researchers at Villanova believe those audiovisual cues will set apart the next generation of players. And this spring, the Villanova Wildcat baseball team will begin using a new virtual reality training system designed by Dr. Mark Jupina, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. The VR system matches batters and catchers against some of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, but it’s intended use stretches far beyond just a virtual batting machine.
The system, dubbed PITCHvr, can pull in data from the MLB pitch database. (Its name was inspired by the PITCHf/x system that was used through 2016, and has since been replaced by TrackMan.) Jupina has used this data to recreate the motions of a pitched ball, such as its path, velocity, orientation, and spin. From this perspective, PITCHvr is not unlike other VR pitching platforms that have come in the past, such as Diamond FX, a virtual reality player performance and scouting tool that uses recreated pitches and sports vision to give baseball players extra reps.
What sets PITCHvr apart, however, is the addition of audio tags that help to not only train eyes but also ears as batters, catchers, and umpires prepare for pitches in the real world. Jupina’s algorithm generates a unique audio signature for each virtual pitch. When this audio is played alongside the pitch, the sound can assist users’ eyes in tracking the motion of the baseball.

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As the Wildcats are preparing to use this system during their upcoming season, MLB teams are also becoming interested in the technology. At least one team so far has expressed a desire to use it for 2019 spring training, although Villanova declined to provide the name of the team since negotiations are ongoing.
Jupina, who played baseball through high school and coached for 11 years, leaned heavily for PITCHvr’s development on Wildcats head baseball coach Kevin Mulvey, a former standout pitcher for Villanova who reached the major leagues with the New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, and Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Jupina had the science and engineering background to build the complex algorithms that power PITCHvr, Mulvey offered the real-world experience of professional baseball and insight into how the system would best benefit his players.
To date the system has been primarily tested in Villanova’s room-sized virtual reality CAVE space, an 18-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep, and 7.5-foot high enclosure that provides immersive 3D experiences. But the system has also been adapted for the HTC Vive headset (the same headset that launched DiamondFX), which is the version that’ll be used in-season by the Wildcats and possibly by professional teams.
Whether stepping into the CAVE or donning a Vive headset, users are met with some of MLB’s top pitchers, including the Astros’ Justin Verlander, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber. Jupina even recreated Astros’ Lance McCullers’s nasty knuckle-curveball, which helped to deliver Houston an American League championship and World Series win in 2017.
(Courtesy of Villanova)
“I recreated the same exact pitch in this virtual enforcement and they matched up well,” said Jupina. “That gave me the confidence that this looked accurate and realistic and began working with [Villanova head coach] Kevin to verify things.”
With the infrastructure now in place, Jupina is eyeing a range of other use cases for his system. In the future, pitches generated by PITCHvr could be made even faster and nastier than pitches thrown to date, which would help to further hone users’ audio and visual tracking instincts and possibly translate to more hits from the plate.
Jupina also is planning PITCHvr adaptations for specific positions, such as for catchers, umpires, and batters. He projects these updates will be ready for use over the next half-year. From there, the school could be able to explore potential licensing opportunities as well.
“I can see applications of a catcher or an umpire and have talked to the MLB office in charge of umpire development,” he said. “We could come up with an app where a person would try to catch the ball and the system would detect when their hands closed on the ball.”
The next step (and something Villanova researchers and students are already working on) is to use additional sensors and imaging technology to provide analytics on the bat’s motion and swing, enabling players to obtain metrics such as launch angle, velocity of the batted ball and distance traveled.
“Current trackers aren’t really sufficient … you need to use other types of sensors,” said Jupina.
Future iterations of the technology might integrate neurofeedback to read a users’ focus and stress levels. Jupina has held discussions with Narbis, a company that uses EEG sensors to measure brain waves, and has worked with the Villanova psychology department to use measurements of muscle tension to get an idea of someone’s focus or concentration level.
A tightened jaw or wrinkled forehead might indicate a batter on edge, for example. Perhaps one day, that feedback might pause the system, forcing users to relax before continuing, and conditioning them over time to step up to the plate with a clearer, more-focused mind. A similar neurotechnology has been used by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
According to Jupina, one MLB team has expressed interest in using that part of the technology along with inputted crowd noise and eye-tracking technology in its scouting process. While most professional-grade players might perform well at the plate or in batting cages during practice, their abilities might change when they’re in a high-pressure gameday situation.
“You throw them some practice pitching they’re going to crush that ball, so they’d rather see how they handle actual pitches and how well they’re tracking that ball with their eyes and what their state of mind is,” he said.
Further into the future, Jupina believes the technology could also be adapted into other sports that have fast-moving objects that have to be caught or hit, including tennis, hockey, and lacrosse.


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Hookit Will Help Cleveland Indians Track Sponsorship Value

Sponsorship valuation company Hookit has agreed to a multi-year partnership with the Cleveland Indians. Hookit is the leading platform for quantifying sponsorship value earned across all forms of social and digital media for brands across the sports industry.
Using the Hookit Valuation Model, the Indians will track and measure social media engagement on accounts related to the team, players, media, and fans. The sourced data will be leveraged by the Indians for future negotiations with potential sponsors.

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“Cleveland fans have proven to be among the best in the country, which will certainly shine through as we help the Indians prove the value they are creating for their sponsor brands,” said Kimberly Cook, Hookit’s Chief Revenue Officer, in a press release.
As part of the deal, the Indians will also receive access to Hookit’s competitive analysis tool, which compares the Indians digital and social media sponsorship ROI against the other 29 MLB teams. Hookit has already worked with brands and rights holders across sports, including the Oakland Raiders, Indycar, and the Washington Wizards.
“With Hookit, we are excited to complement our on-field success with optimized content and more value for our team sponsors,” said Ted Baugh, Senior Director of Corporate Partnership for the Indians, according to the press release.
SportTechie Takeaway
Major League Baseball is becoming increasingly dependent on data analytics, from the way teams are constructed on the field to how team’s evaluate sponsorships off the field. This year’s World Series champion Boston Red Sox were applauded by SABR president Vince Gennaro for the club’s effective use of performance data. While Hookit is used mainly by traditional sports teams and organizations to measure digital media sponsorship valuation, a new Nielsen-backed data firm recently emerged to measure similar sponsorship ROI for brands within esports.


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World Series a Celebration of Ballpark Architect Janet Marie Smith’s Work

Janet Marie Smith was standing on the concourse of Fenway Park prior to World Series Game 2 when a friend approached. After a minute of conversation, the man asked Smith where to find the elevator, only to realize the mundanity of his question when posed to an architect lauded as having changed the trajectory of baseball.
“It’s like asking Picasso where he painted,” he said with a laugh.
“Go right up there and take a left,” Smith pointed and said with a soft Southern lilt, deflecting a compliment so many others have heaped upon her.
Smith has worked on projects as a vice president of planning and development for four clubs: the Orioles, the Braves, and both World Series participants this year, the Red Sox and Dodgers. She worked in Baltimore on precedent-setting Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which has reinvented the way clubs and cities think of ballparks. She led the project to convert Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Stadium into the Braves’ former home, Turner Field.
The Boston Globe has described her as “the architect credited with saving Fenway Park.” And now she is working in Los Angeles to modernize Dodger Stadium. The two stadiums are two of baseball’s three oldest ballparks and two of its most prized venues, a physical connection to the past unmatched in most other sports.
“The writers in Boston have, for 10 years, been touting her for the Hall of Fame, and I would second that,” said Dodgers president Stan Kasten, “for the fact that she’s been involved in such great projects in so many different cities and is still called out on every project to give an opinion.”
During a guided tour of Fenway Park earlier this week, Smith demurred when asked by SportTechie about her career legacy but reflected on the work she’s done and continues to do.
Janet Marie Smith at Dodger Stadium (Courtesy of LA Dodgers)

Seats in Fenway used to sit empty as the first pitch approached. The road along the first-base line—then known as Yawkey Way and since renamed Jersey Street—would fill with fans “waiting until the last minute to enter because it was so congested inside,” Smith said. Only when the national anthem began would people push through the gates.
Smith’s first initiative was to petition the city of Boston to convert the street into part of the venue on game day. Yawkey Way was already closing to cars because of the mass of people nearby, but now turnstiles were set up with only ticketed fans allowed to enter, easing the crunch of the crowd. This mimicked what was done in Baltimore with Eutaw Street beyond the park’s right-field line becoming a pedestrian mall with concessions, merchandise, and activities.
Jersey Street (formerly Yawkey Way) prior to a game in 2017 (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
“Eutaw Street was like art imitating life,” Smith said, “and the idea of putting turnstiles on Yawkey Way was like life imitating art.”
Fenway Park opened on April 20, 1912—the same week the Titanic sunk. For years, prior Red Sox ownership had wanted to build a replacement, but the project never gained traction. When the new owners, led by John Henry and Tom Werner, purchased the franchise in 2002, they installed Larry Lucchino as president, who hired Smith. Only after several piecemeal improvements did the ownership affirm plans to keep Fenway in 2005.
I hadn’t aimed to work in baseball. I was aiming to change a city.Janet Marie Smith
“Larry’s advocacy for them was that we would do things that he called low-hanging fruit. The thesis was, even if we wanted a new ballpark, it’s going to take five years-plus. So why don’t we go ahead and spend the money to do these things—it’s not huge dollars—and we’d reap the benefit in that time period and, if it works, you’re part of a puzzle piece, and if it doesn’t, we still have the benefit of them.
“The commitment to saving Fenway was really triggered by having done enough of those projects that there was confidence we knew we had the city’s support.”
Turning the road into a de facto concourse was the first “litmus test,” Smith said, in seeing how fans and the city would react.
“Larry often said, ‘The Rule of Two-Thirds: Dream anything you want to dream, propose anything you want to propose, study anything you want to study, then do two-thirds of it.’” Smith said.

On the night the Red Sox opened the Big Concourse, an expanded right field entertainment area, for the first time in August 2003, Smith stationed herself among the entering throngs. She hoped to watch reactions and listen for fan feedback on what she called her “favorite idea” of the renovations.
This had been a $6 million investment adding 25,000 more square feet, doubling the width of the concourse from 30 feet to 60, and tripling the usable space between Gates B and C. The project involved repurposing an adjacent building being used for parking and converting its interior into a commissary, tearing out old restrooms and relocating them with upgrades, connecting what had been the isolated bleachers section, asking Boston to decommission an alley, and installing a new array of concessions and activities.
Smith distinctly remembered one gentleman, who turned to his friend and said, “They painted this whole thing since I was last here.” Of all the changes, the man noticed only the paint.
“Great,” she recalled of her reaction. “We wanted it to look like it had always been.”
Big Concourse at Fenway (Joe Lemire)

A young woman working as a Fenway tour guide told Smith this week that, when her family had left-field grandstand season tickets as a child, her father refused to buy her anything to drink. The issue? There were no women’s restrooms on that side of the park, nor any easy means of egress. A bathroom trip required fighting dense crowds halfway around the ballpark.
We wanted it to look like it had always been.Janet Marie Smith
Smith set to work tearing out walls, expanding concourses, improving ADA accessibility, and revamping the periphery of the ballpark while keeping its core intact. She gives credit to the architectural team at DAIQ and the structural engineering firm, McNamara Salvia. These enhanced, free-flowing passageways and gathering areas outside the stands themselves proved prophetic, helping historic Fenway seem current.
“This wasn’t a major strategy because we’re not that smart, but if you look at baseball, the trend in baseball is moving away from everybody in a fixed seat, No. 2 pencil, keeping score to much more milling around rooms, social areas,” Smith said. “While that was not our motive, the end result is we have that.
“Without meaning to suggest that we were somehow ahead of the curve or had a crystal ball of how fans are going to use this space, we had ourselves set up so that worked for us.”

As Smith took one seemingly innocuous step on the concourse, she narrated what was really happening. “And now we’re back in Fenway,” she said.
Fenway’s Green Monster seats in 2013 (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
What’s not obvious to fans is that Fenway Park is actually three buildings. Walls have been knocked down and the structures seamlessly integrated, but the old laundry building down the right field corner has the commissary and concessions. The Jeano Building (formerly the John B. Smith Building) along the left field line has been attached—the upper levels to widen the concourse and the lower level to install a batting cage for the visiting team. The Jeano Building used to be an automobile showroom; where the car elevator once was is now a fan stairwell and a means of walking to the Green Monster Seats. “We made a conscious decision not to make it look new and fresh,” she said.
“She is so open to ideas,” said David Ashton, whose eponymous design firm has worked with Smith for decades. “That’s, I think, one of her greatest strengths. She doesn’t just out of hand say no.”
The most visible and most famous addition to Fenway were the seats atop the 37-foot left field wall. Much of this new construction hangs over the Landsdowne Street sidewalk, meaning the Red Sox had to buy the air rights from the city. The signage is cantilevered forward so that it remains on team property.
“The fans obviously reacted well to it,” Smith said, “and made us feel like the idea of preserving Fenway wasn’t like preservation as in an object under glass and how do we keep the way it was, but how do we change it, how do we modify it, how do we make it work for today’s environment while still keeping its charm and its memories intact.”

A contractor putting up I-beams during the Fenway renovations diverted from his task. Rather than bolting them together as was done in the original construction, in this one (undisclosed) section, he began welding the beams together. Smith saw this happen and took action.
“Just, go ahead and weld the bolts where they ought to be,” she said. “Don’t tell me and don’t tell anybody else. We just wanted it to look like the original Fenway down to the details.”
As it is, Fenway has several forms: the original 1912 construction, a major 1934 enhancement, and the 10-year renovation plan that began in 2002. The ballpark cost $650,000 to build in 1912 dollars, close to $17 million in today’s money. The renovations bill for a decade of work until 2012 reached $285 million. In all, the Red Sox added some 3,000 seats to their capacity, in chunks of a few hundred here and a few hundred there.
Fenway Park is now listed as a national landmark, and a report by the Boston Preservation Alliance said of Smith, “Architect, planner, public relations expert, her overall accomplishment was really translating everyone’s needs into a cohesive reality.”

As Orioles president, Lucchino used to fine employees $5 for uttering the word “stadium.” He didn’t want some grand, impersonal structure, but a true home—a ballpark. Maryland’s governor in the 1980s, William Donald Schaefer, had been Baltimore’s mayor. He remained committed to revitalizing downtown and was insistent the Orioles build their new home near the city’s Inner Harbor.
“Each had a vision, and they were perfect together,” Smith said. “On their own, either one of them would have failed. Larry’s dream built out in the suburbs of Columbia would have been Disneyland, and Governor Schaefer’s dream without the architectural support that he got from Larry would have maybe been Kansas City on the outskirts of Baltimore. I still don’t think the world appreciates what an important collision of ideas that was.”
Smith led the Orioles’ efforts in collaborating with global architectural firm HOK Sport (now known as Populous) and Joe Spear, the founder and principal overseeing the design. Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 and altered the sport forever. No longer did clubs build generic concrete slabs housing a diamond. Instead, they emphasized cozy, retro, downtown ballparks that celebrated the local team and city. That, she said, is her proudest accomplishment, not any individual feature of the park.
“The real answer is that it started this movement into sports in general—but baseball in particular—of moving into inner-cities and trying to be a part of the urban community,” Smith said.
Eutaw Street at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Smith grew up a Braves fan in Mississippi, studied architecture at Mississippi State, and landed a job coordinating the development of Battery Park City, a primarily residential community in lower Manhattan built in the 1980s.
“I hadn’t aimed to work in baseball,” she said. “I was aiming to change a city.”
After attending an Orioles game at the old Memorial Stadium, Smith applied for the job. She had most recently been working on Pershing Square in Los Angeles but saw an opportunity.
“I can’t say honestly that it was ever even a dream until the minute it hit me the idea that the Orioles were going into downtown Baltimore and looking to do this old-fashioned, urban park,” Smith said. “Underscore ‘urban’ for me because I really had always admired the way Baltimore had changed itself from an industrial city into more of an entertainment center by adding the aquarium, the science center, put in the convention center downtown. All those things were so new for American cities, particularly those in the Northeast who had lost their industry.”
Her submission had initially been placed in the rejection pile, but Lucchino reviewed it anyway and liked her outsider view—that she hadn’t worked in sports was, to him, a plus.
“My work on Battery Park City very much influenced my thoughts about Camden Yards,” Smith said, “because it was one of the first big projects in America to shun the planning of the ‘60s and ‘70s of a tower and the park and these sort of ‘object’ buildings as opposed to something that was more contextual and integrated with the city.”

Dodger Stadium is best known for its “iconic tableau of the bleachers, the palm trees, the San Gabriel mountains,” Kasten said, adding: “We will never touch that.”
Smith’s work in Los Angeles follows a similar vein as at Fenway, albeit with unique challenges. Fenway is a century-old park jammed into the confines of city blocks; Dodger Stadium is carved into a mountain.
General view of Dodger Stadium (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
“So all of our expansion there has been to build these plazas out that are on the same level as the concourse, but it’s not a true concourse because every entrance is at grade,” Smith said.
Kasten first hired Smith in Atlanta to work on Turner Field (and also Phillips Arena), meaning Smith has worked for four clubs but two team presidents, Kasten and Lucchino, twice each.
The Dodgers have upgraded team clubhouses, expanded restrooms, improved WiFi, and other amenities to make game day more of a 21st century experience, Kasten said, adding that more work is slated for completion prior to the 2020 All-Star Game.
“It’s all about preserving a team’s history, being fan-friendly, and providing new technology and new offerings in a setting that is respectful of history,” he added. “That’s really important to her.”


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Ryan Howard Hopes to Help Athletes Play Bigger Roles in Venture Capital

SportTechie’s new series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. As part of this series, SportTechie chatted with 2008 World Series champion and 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard at the Ascent Conference in New York City on Oct. 4, and again later on the phone. Howard retired from playing in September and is now a partner at SeventySix Capital and chairman of the VC firm’s Athlete Venture Group.
To be the first to hear each athlete’s insights, subscribe to the Athletes Voice newsletter. And visit the Athletes Voice page to read the whole series.
MLB all-star Ryan Howard played first base for the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 seasons, before signing short minor league contracts with the Braves and Rockies. In 2008, he helped bring the Phillies their first World Series title in 28 years, and just the second in franchise history. That championship was also the first for Philadelphia sports since the 76ers won the NBA Finals in 1983.
In September, Howard announced his retirement with a moving tribute to his fans titled “Thank you, Philly” on The Players’ Tribune. He covered everything from his first at-bat and his first home run to that World Series win and the birth of his son, Darian. (Howard postponed one of our calls so he could be present for one of his son’s games.) “My career, man, it had some interesting bookends. But in between? During the heart of it all? I’ll tell you what—it was a dream come true,” he wrote.
Long before his retirement, Howard was building a post-baseball career for himself. He had told his agent about his ambitions in business, and was connected to long-time venture capitalist Wayne Kimmel and investor Jon Powell. The three eventually joined forces in the venture capital firm SeventySix Capital. Now Howard serves as a partner in the Philly based VC. He’s the chairman of SeventySix Capital’s new Athlete Venture Group, connecting entrepreneurial athletes with emerging startups.
Planning for Life After Baseball
“I was always very forward thinking and that came from my parents. I knew that one day my career was going to be done. A lot of athletes at that time would wait until they got to that point of where they were finished and then try to figure it out. So I was always very proactive in that sense. I had the conversation with my agent at the time, saying ‘Hey, this is what I’m interested in and trying to do post-career.’ Looking to have that seamless transition so that when I’m done I already know the direction I want to go.”
“It’s hard to find good, genuine people to work with. That’s what I was looking for and that’s what I found with the guys at SeventySix.”
Adversity in Sports and Business
“Coming from the athletic world, there’s a lot of parallels to the business world. My personal story starts back when I was a sophomore in high school. Believe it or not, I was on the varsity team, then got cut and sent down to the sophomore team. My sophomore coach came up to me and he said ‘Look, I know it sucks, I know you’re disappointed, but you can do one of two things. You can either sit there and cry about it, saying your shoulda-woulda-couldas, or focus all your energy on doing what you need to do at this level to get back to the varsity level. So I put all my energy into doing what I needed to do on that level so that when I got called up to the varsity level, my first game on varsity I went four-for-four with two home runs and seven RBIs and we still lost eight to seven.”
“For me, it was being faced with that little bit of adversity, and that’s for any company or entrepreneur that’s out there: you’re going to be faced with adversity. All people see is the end product of the major leagues. What people don’t see is the work that goes into it, the behind-the-scenes. What people don’t see is the jungle right in front of you because all you see is the mountaintops that are the major leagues. What people don’t understand is the jungle is what you have to go through to get to the mountaintop. The similarities in the business world mirror each other.”

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The Keys to Success
“To win, you have to have a good team. You have to have people that are aligned with the thoughts that you want to have, that are going to push you, that are going to make you better, that are going to make your business better and make everybody around you better. That’s how you win championships and that’s how you have a successful business.”
“It’s doing the stuff behind the scenes, it’s making the sacrifices and trying to completely better your business. You don’t want to have any assholes on your team. That’s point blank No. 1: No assholes on your team. You’ve got to have people that are wanting to sacrifice, wanting to work, wanting to build this company or build this enterprise up to where it is a championship [contender].”  
“The mindset for me, honestly, is cut and dry. I’m not going to let anybody dictate what my worth is, point blank. You’re going to run into people that say no, you’re going to have doors shut in your face. The first thing is you have to believe in your product, you have to believe in what you’re putting out there. And if someone else doesn’t believe it? Oh well. There’s somebody out there that does and you continue to work until you find that person that does and can help you. In the meantime, it’s continuing to put in, and put in, and put in all the work that you need to give. It’s not being deterred by any means.”
The Part Athletes Can Play
“It dates back to the older days of marketing where they would hand you a product. ‘Here it is! Smile, cheese, and say Hey, buy this product.’ A lot of that has changed. Before, the athlete would get their paychecks, their endorsement check and whatnot, but you didn’t really know what your value was. Now, because of all the social media platforms, you know what your value is. Now you have the Lebrons and the KD, where they can physically see what their value is that they can bring to a company to help grow that company with their multi-millions of followers on different social platforms.”
“The goal of what we’re doing with the Athlete Venture Group is basically take the athlete and help them help businesses. Having a guy like a Ralph Sampson, or having a guy like DeMarco Murray, being able to utilize their social capital, or my social capital, is something that can be very beneficial to all of these different businesses and startups.”
(Photo credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Entrepreneur Role Models 
“I’d have to look at Jay-Z. Ten, 15 years ago Jay-Z was just a rapper, now Jay-Z’s one of the biggest moguls in the world. You have to look at Lebron, you have to look at Steph, you have to look at KD and Andre Iguodala. You have to look at what those guys are doing.”
“And before those guys, you’re looking at the Michael Jordans of the world, the Magic Johnsons of the world. And it’s understanding, again, that everybody has those trials and tribulations. Even Michael Jordan, the great Michael Jordan, got cut his sophomore year from his basketball team, but was still able to take that, grow from it, use it, and he is where he is today.”
The Potential of Wearable Devices
“I would have loved to have wearables. As an athlete, you want to be able to to be as efficient with your time as you possibly can. Even if you’re willing to put in the work, you want to work as efficiently as possible. Wearables tell you ‘this is how much you’re doing, you’re putting out more than you need to put out because this chain of muscles isn’t firing so you’re overworking which is thus going to lead to fatigue which is thus going to lead to a potential injury.’ When you have a device that helps you understand your body and where you’re trying to go, you minimize your risk of injury which is going to keep you on the field.”
“When wearables were first coming in, there was this fear about potentially using that data against you in contract negotiations and whatnot. But if you understand that the organization is a business, and thus is looking at potentially investing in you, so they need to know what they’re going to get into, which will help them protect their investment, which will help us all win championships. Thus you have success and they have success … it’s a win-win situation. You’re in this informational age and you’re able to use that data to try to make your team more efficient.”


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How Analytics Is Shaping the 2018 World Series and Baseball’s Future

Ahead of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, SportTechie spoke to Vince Gennaro to get insight into this year’s Fall Classic matchup and the future of analytics in baseball. Gennaro is the president of the Society of American Baseball Research and associate dean and clinical associate professor of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.
The Impact of Analytics on the 2018 World Series
“Both teams are very prepared in that both teams have studied the information available to them. What I do think though is that the Red Sox were constructed in a way that is really completely in step with today’s game. I think the Red Sox have done a terrific job—as have the Dodgers.”
“The teams that are most likely to reach the World Series, or certainly the ones that make the postseason, are the teams that are in the top third of the league in analytics, and then also are particularly good at blending that with the scouting side of the sport. The blending is an important aspect. Analytics will not give them all the answers, but it will be a great component of the decision process along with top scouting insights from expert individuals who have years and years of experience.”
Baseball’s Analytics Era
“There’s so much that can be unlocked in the experience of insights of the people who have been around the game for years who are observing specific attributes that we’re not measuring today. I don’t know that that will ever change, but it’s also because we’re really in the early stages of analytics. It’s taken a real leap forward in the last three or four years in the Statcast era, but that’s only the beginning of the explosion of Big Data. From 2005 to 2015, that 10 year window, we increased the volume of data of what goes on during a baseball game by 1.3 million times.”
“We’re on the cusp now of integrating beyond what goes on on the field of play. We’re now talking about integrating neuroscience information. We’re talking about integrating biometrics about health and wellness.”
Engaging Fans With Data
“Numbers—data, statistics—are deeply ingrained in the culture of baseball. While in another sport that might seem like almost intrusive on enjoying the sport, it is actually one of the ways that people have learned and enjoy the game of baseball. Either by looking at the back of the baseball card when they were a kid growing up or going to a ballgame with their mom or dad and scoring it on a scoresheet. Those parts are very culturally ingrained.”
“Now when you take it to the next level of getting into things like exit velocity and launch angle, that’s an acquired taste. That’s going to be something that some fans drive on and seek out, and other fans would perhaps consider that would interfere with the romance of the sport.”
Baseball and Sports Betting
“Baseball is ripe to see betting expand and part of it is that there are so many ways to analyze the game. And one of the reasons there’s so many ways to analyze it is the key component of the game is this discrete matchup, the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter. A lot of other sports are more continuous—flow sports—and they’re harder to assign value. They’re harder to isolate and measure.”
“This is the stuff that teams do all the time: They assess how their hitters respond to certain pitchers. Not by looking at the fact that they got six hits in 15 at bats, because that’s not significant enough, but rather how do they react to the pitcher that releases the ball from a certain point. How do they react to pitches that have downward movement. How do they react to a pitcher who pitches more to the inside part of the plate, to one who throws a changeup. All these different attributes of pitchers are meaningful in terms of how a hitter is expected to perform.”
“When you start clustering pitchers by similarity and seeing how hitters hit against those, you can start to make some real inferences. And when you rack all that up, when you look at a team’s roster and you say ‘Well you know what? This is not a great pitcher that they’re going to face, but they’re at a real disadvantage today because none of their hitters perform particularly well against this type of pitcher.’ That’s where the bettors will be attracted to inefficiencies like that in the market that may or may not be reflected in the odds.”

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The Value of Data for Players
“J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox has really optimized his talent with the use of analytics. He has crafted his swing, his swing mechanics, so that he gets maximum impact for the talent that he has. He becomes in many ways a model for other hitters … Here’s a guy who understands the dimensions of the ballpark. One of the wonderful great things about baseball is that the ballpark dimensions vary so much. He understands the dimensions of the ballpark that he plays in—Fenway Park in Boston—and has tailored his swing for that ballpark. I think he is a really textbook example of a player who has remade his career using information to his advantage.”
Talent Versus Intelligence
“It used to be talent trumped everything. But today because of the volume of information that exists, and how much we know about a player, how much a pitcher knows about a hitter, how much a hitter knows about a pitcher before they even face them, it’s the ability to continue along that chess match.”
“We know what the holes in this guy’s swing are, we’re going to exploit them. That used to take months or years to figure out with a certain hitter. Now you will know that probably before they take their first major league at bat.”
“I do think that if we could find a way, a good way to assess an athlete’s learning agility, his ability to incorporate new information into his game, then that will be another variable that will help select really great talent.”
“Just because someone performs well at the mid-level in the minors, it doesn’t mean he’s the best candidate for promotion to the next level of the minors, or that he projects necessarily to success at the major league level. It depends on what his skills are, and it also depends on obviously the quality of competition he’s facing. But it finally also depends on whether he’s adaptable enough, once people respond to him, to be able to make that next chess move.”
Home-Field Advantage in Los Angeles
“I would expect the Dodgers to put up a more formidable showing back in LA. That 40-degree difference of temperature is not a trivial thing. The Dodgers are not accustomed to playing in the weather that we saw in Boston, and the Red Sox are a little more accustomed to that, so I think that we’ll see a more even series.”
“Like most American League teams, the Red Sox are supremely built for the designated hitter. They will lose that when they go to the three games in LA now—Games 3, 4, and 5—and I think the pendulum will swing back to LA having an upper hand. Not just because you’re playing at home, but because they’re not as designed to employ the DH the way the Red Sox are, and the Red Sox are not designed to take one bat out of the lineup and have the pitcher hit. That they both hone their games appropriately to the leagues they play in will make the home-field advantage a pretty pronounced thing.”


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Why the Oakland A’s Are Bullpenning a Wild Card Game

Major League Baseball has witnessed an unprecedented parade of relievers jogging in from the bullpen to the mound this season. The basic lexicon of the sport has changed, too. No longer are pitchers simply starters or relievers, but relievers who now start are called “openers.”
This new reality will be manifest in the Bronx on Wednesday night as the Oakland A’s will use reliever Liam Hendriks as an opener in their American League wild card game against the New York Yankees, the first such deployment of this new usage in a postseason game. Even the Yankees, who are starting ace Luis Severino, are expected to trot out a series of relievers beginning in the early innings.
“We’ve grown accustomed to it,” said A’s first baseman Matt Olson. “You’re just not going to get multiple at bats off a guy. You’ve got to do extra video work and prepare for each guy.”
Most of that scouting work is done in advance, but sometimes players like Olson return to the clubhouse video room between innings or review clips of the new pitcher they are about to face on the iPad Pros that MLB first permitted in the dugout in 2016. Other players, such as A’s All-Star infielder Jed Lowrie, have said they’ll consult the advanced data from Statcast mid-game. 
The access to technology in-game is one theory that might explain why hitters now have a historic advantage when facing a starting pitcher multiple times. Just as “opener” has entered baseball’s lexicon, so too has the concept of the “third time through,” referring to a batter’s improved success rate when seeing a starting pitcher the third time through the lineup. “Bullpenning” is the term coined for the practice of aggressive use of relievers.
A’s hitters Matt Olson and Khris Davis. (Photo by Jordan Murph / ESPN Images)
That discrepancy in outcome between a hitter’s first at bat and third at bat was at an all-time high in 2018. A good shorthand for overall offensive performance is OPS, a sum of a player’s on-base and slugging percentages. Baseball-Reference also computes OPS+, which adjusts the stat based on the differing ballparks and league-average scoring for that year. OPS+ is scaled so that 100 is the average, and each integer difference represents a one-percent change.
This season, hitters facing a starting pitcher for the first time had an OPS+ of 93, but that figure jumped to 115 in the third plate appearance. That 22-percent difference is the greatest discrepancy in baseball history. (The raw OPS change of .084 from a .700 in the first plate appearance through to .784 in the third is second-largest, just behind the .085 from 2001.) The OPS+ upticks the third time through the order for the 2016 and 2017 seasons are also in the top-10 all-time. Olson had a .637 OPS against starters in his first plate appearance this season (a 63 OPS+) but a .933 OPS (135 OPS+) his third time up against the same pitcher.
As teams have become more data savvy, pitchers have been switched out more often than ever before. For most of baseball history, the starting pitcher has averaged six or seven innings, but the league hasn’t averaged a full six innings from a starter since 2011. The consequence of that is fewer batters get to see a starting pitcher three times. Based on the average number of baserunners, a lineup usually rotates so that the best hitters in a lineup are batting for the third time in the sixth inning.
In comparing the 2011 and 2018 seasons, starting pitchers worked 3,232 1/3 fewer innings. The number of total plate appearances in which a hitter faced a starter for the third time decreased by 8,436, or about 25 percent. The decline in 2018 was nearly 10 percent compared to 2017. Relievers made 682 more appearances in 2018 than 2017 and threw 952 2/3 more innings.

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In a one-game-take-all wild card scenario, managers are even less apt to let a pitcher work out of trouble before going to the bullpen.
“That’s the way wild card games go most times,” said Yankees outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who played in three wild card games with the Pirates. “A couple guys get on base in the first inning, and they’ve got guys double-barrel in the bullpen ready to go.”
Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner said he relies on a combination of statistical scouting data and video to prepare for opposing pitchers but highlighted the aid of video.
“For me, I just like to see the way a guy’s ball is moving,” Gardner said. “Just because you throw a two-seamer and somebody else throws a two-seamer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s moving the same way, you know?”
Not all adjustments require technology, of course. A’s centerfielder Mark Canha said observing how the opposing catcher is calling pitches is just as important as knowing how a pitch moves. He tries to track tendencies of when the catcher calls for off-speed pitches, where in the strike zone he sets up, and so on.
The Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton celebrates a homer with pitcher Luis Severino. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Reliever decisions are increasingly data-driven. As first reported by The Athletic, the Yankees have built a projection system that models expected performance by opposing hitters against particular pitches. That includes analyzing how successful certain batters are against reliever Zach Britton’s sinking fastball.
“There’s not only past performance and stuff like that, but they’re able to somehow get all that data and predict a good situation or how successful you could be based on your stuff, which is an interesting dynamic,” Britton said.
Oakland’s Hendriks opened eight games in the regular season and only once pitched more than one inning. The Tampa Bay Rays pioneered the use of the opener and relied on the strategy for 78 games, winning 44 of them.
“It’s a game of adjustments, and that’s how it seems, whether it’s adjusting to team lineups or just how their starters and relievers match up with teams,” said Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. “In a case like Tampa, they didn’t have enough starters, so that’s kind of what started them to do that with the relievers, and then it was successful, so a couple other teams started picking it up. You don’t know where it’s going to go from here, but that’s kind of the new age we’re in right now.”


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How to Stream and Watch the 2018 MLB Postseason

Baseball fans can catch exclusive pregame shows on Twitter before the start of five MLB postseason games this October. The preview shows will air two hours before the scheduled start of the five games, and will feature playoff highlights, matchup breakdowns, and analysis.
Playoff pregame shows can be watched via MLB’s Twitter account (@MLB) or Twitter’s livestream URL. Coverage begins Friday, Oct. 5 with a preview show of National League Division Series Game 2 (COL/CHC vs. MIL) at 2:15 p.m. ET. A preview show for Game 3 of the NLDS airs Sunday, Oct. 7 at 2:37 p.m. ET. The remaining preview shows will stream before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series (Oct. 17), Game 2 of the World Series (Oct. 24), and Game 4 of the World Series (Oct. 27).
Select postseason games can be live-streamed via MLB.TV, starting with Wednesday’s AL Wild Card matchup between the Athletics and Yankees at 8:00 p.m. ET (also available on TBS). Tuesday night’s NL Wild Card game between the Rockies and Cubs is not available with an MLB.TV subscription but can seen on ESPN with the first pitch scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET.
The NLDS will broadcast on Fox Sports 1, with the first six games also airing on MLB Network. The NLCS will air on both FOX and FS1. The ALDS and ALCS will broadcast exclusively on TBS, while the World Series will air on FOX.
There are a number of streaming providers available that give fans MLB postseason access without a cable subscription. For $40 per month, YouTube TV streams TBS, FS1, FOX, and dozens of other channels. Sling TV also offers a variety of streaming packages starting at $25 per month.


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