North Side start-up takes swing at mapping hitters
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is among those concerned by declining offense in the game. Run scoring has decreased in eight consecutive seasons with teams scoring 4.07 runs per game in 2014, the fewest since 1981.
A number of factors are in play: Pitchers are throwing with greater velocity, the strike zone has expanded and defensive shifts have proliferated. But what if there was a tool that could help hitters fight back?
A North Side start-up has developed a product that could help the next generation of hitters build better swings. The tool also might help major league teams evaluate prospects, particularly unknowns like Jung Ho Kang. The technology faces hurdles, but its promise is to remove mystery from the swing's motion.
The big break came in December 2013 when Diamond Kinetics was one of nine tech start-ups selected to present at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference before representatives from major league teams and industry leaders. The problem? Diamond Kinetics brass had three months to create a working product for the March conference. What they had was a prototype and a vision.
“I was like, ‘This is awesome, but I'm not sure I'm going to have anything that works,' ” Diamond Kinetics CEO C.J. Handron said. “We buried our heads in it.”
Handron had been director of PantherlabWorks at Pitt, which connects entrepreneurs with university resources to bring new technology to the market. It was there, in 2012, when Pitt mechanical engineering professor William Clark walked into Handron's office.
Clark was a frustrated father as his son and daughter, who went on to play Division I baseball and softball, heard conflicting messages from evaluators about their swings.
“His kids went through the scouting and recruiting process. One of the challenges of that is the subjective nature,” Handron said. “There's really not a way to objectively evaluate (the swing). It's just watching and saying, ‘He has quick hands.' But do they really have quick hands?”
Clark's complaint led him to a potential solution: a baseball bat attached with a sensor he claimed could measure the speed, power and path of a swing. The idea was based upon technology that mapped fly-fishing casts. Handron, a former amateur baseball player, was fascinated. After convincing his wife this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, after seeing Pittsburgh's thriving ecosystem of tech start-ups, he left PantherlabWorks to cofound Diamond Kinetics with Clark in 2012. By December 2013, there was a race to design hardware and software for a product they dubbed SwingTracker.
In a conference room of their North Side office is an archeology of their business. There rests a ziplock, gallon-sized plastic bag with contents appearing something like bulky smoke detectors, early models of the sensors. Today, the latest sensor resembles a plastic, gray thimble with a lime-green base. It contains a three-axis accelerometer — used to measure force and map 3-D motion — and a three-axis gyroscope, which allows the device to orient itself in space. The device weighs a half-ounce and collects 9,600 data points per swing.
There also were software issues. For instance, software engineer Mike Ressler noted they had to write code to differentiate between a bat waggle and the actual start of a swing.
The early testing occurred in their office, where a Wiffleball remains tethered to a tee in a conference room, and private instructional facilities. They kept troubleshooting and innovating as the clock ticked.
Prospects fail for different reasons. Pitchers often are injured. Hitters' swings are difficult to evaluate.
“It's easier to evaluate a pitcher,” said Baseball America's Ben Badler, who covers international scouting. “You can evaluate the fastball and the quality of the breaking stuff, the command and delivery, almost regardless of the hitter he is facing. It makes it easier to evaluate (Masahiro) Tanaka or (Hyun-Jin) Ryu vs. a Cuban hitter … or Kang.”
The Pirates attempted to translate Kang's Korea Baseball Organization stats into major league production. They pored over video. But unlike evaluating a pitcher, there is no radar gun, no PITCHf/x equivalent to measure swings' speeds and paths.
“If you're evaluating bat speed, especially for an international player,” Badler said, “you're mostly going to be relying on your eyes.”
Badler said most scouts he has spoken with doubt Kang can be an above-average regular. But Fangraphs.com analyst Dan Farnsworth sees in Kang's swing “impeccable timing,” an ideal bat path and plus bat speed. Wrote Farnsworth: “I could easily see him hitting .280 with 25 home runs.”
Evaluating swings remains largely subjective, and one American League scout says efforts like that of SwingTracker fall short in a key area: context of competition.
“You can have the perfect swing,” the scout said, “but they're not going to put it on a tee for you.”
Thirty-six hours before Handron departed for Boston in March, there was a problem: SwingTracker was capturing swing data inconsistently.
“I probably took 500 swings in my office in the two days leading up to the conference,” Handron said of testing the software, “and I had the blister to show for it.”
There was a collective cheer weeks earlier after the first swing data was sent wirelessly and displayed in the app in real time. There was more relief when Handron arrived in Boston and the bug had been fixed as he took the stage at Sloan.
He made a pitch similar to the one he makes today: “(A swing) happens in two-tenths of a second, and there's so much that happens inside that. What do people really know inside that two-tenths of a second? Those things can now be informed.”
SwingTracker has 13 metrics, falling under four swing categories: power, quickness, control and speed. Hand speed is measure in miles per hour, power in watts, and swing path data is a visualization appearing something like a comet's tail. Swings are recorded in a database. Users can study and compare their swing metrics to any hitter in the database. Handron said a “host” of professional hitters are using the product. He has spoken to major league clubs, including the Pirates.
SwingTracker started shipping in December for $150. Its portability allows the device to be placed on the knob of any bat anywhere.
The next generation
Sensor technology has made its way to the majors.
Some pitchers have undergone biomechanical testing, which uses sensors to map throwing motion. Last season, select Pirates wore sensors to track heart rate. SwingTracker is part of the wearable technology wave. The problem is the device is not allowed to be used in live competition because of its attachment to the bat. No one has figured out a way to map a swing without such markers, Handron said. It is not yet the perfect evaluation tool.
Still, Handron seems most excited about its potential as a teaching tool. He sees it helping thousands of amateur hitters.
“We are not saying ... we'll tell you what the perfect swing is,” Handron said. “The beauty of baseball is there is not a perfect swing. We are just trying to develop a tool to understand the swing better.”
Chris Bardakos, an instructor at Core Athletics in West Deer, said SwingTracker's potential is “quite unlimited” and that he would be “surprised if most training facilities don't integrate it.”
Handron closes his presentation with a prediction about technology in sports.
“It's not going to stop at the pro level,” he said. “It's going to proliferate down into youth sports, in how we teach, how we evaluate, how we improve.”