If you need visual evidence that Major League Baseball operates on a different plane than the NBA and the NFL—where if fans weren't filming anything and everything with their cell phones, the year could be 1960—all you have to do is step inside any spring training facility. Underneath the Arizona and Florida sun, baseball is played like it has been for 100 years. Bench coaches beat grounders toward position players. Pop-ups are swatted high into the air and get lost in the oasis of blue sky before being found again. Fans casually stroll around, and any security that exists doesn't feel needed. It's as if the game hasn't changed at all.
There's a strong correlation between that scene and baseball's slow-as-molasses approach to accepting data and technology into its tightly locked offices. There's a reason why MLB didn't incorporate a replay system until 2008 (and even then it was strictly to rule whether a home run was actually a home run.) And though Billy Beane's "Moneyball" approach was immortalized in a movie with Brad Pitt, in its use of numbers and data to analyze and improve player performance and enhance fan engagement, baseball still pales in comparison to other major sports. The NBA has cameras in every arena tracking everything the players do, so the fans can see it all. The NFL has sensors built into its players' uniforms that track in-game data on things like speed and distance, data that is presented to fans through its broadcasts and on nfl.com. Baseball has a radar gun.
That's why what the company Zepp is doing, in partnership with bat producer Old Hickory, to create the first "Smart Bat" seems huge. The tech instantly analyzes everything about a player's swing, delivering output that feels much bigger than the tiny sensor in the bat itself.
It's why Mike Trout, the young face of the game, has signed on as the bat's poster child. And it's why what Old Hickory exec Travis Copley said during a presentation at the Los Angeles Angels spring training facility in Tempe, Arizona, feels strangely prophetic: "The technology is here, and it's not going anywhere."
The Zepp Smart Bat provides users with five data points—bat speed, time to impact, hand speed, attack angle and bat vertical angle—creating what Trevor Stocking, Zepp's baseball product manager, calls the "blueprint for a perfect swing." A hole in the knob of the bat allows Zepp's sensor to be easily screwed into place, and within one second of a player's swing, the data streams to an app on a smart phone, laptop or tablet.
Trout, a former MVP, says he knows immediately when a swing doesn't feel right. Now he can check what really happened, compare it to the data from more successful swings and make immediate adjustments.
"If you go through a slump, you know if your [attack] angle changed or your bat speed slowed down," Trout said. "Now you can repeat it when you're going good and have a reference to go back to when things are not going good."
According to Stocking, attack angle is one of the most important metrics. It refers to the angle of the bat when it makes contact with the ball. The best players in the league have an attack angle of around 10 degrees, and any number between one and 10 is a good sign for a hitter.
"We've found that the hitters that struggle have a negative attack angle, so the ball goes in to the ground," Stocking said. "[That metric] leads to the biggest adjustments."
Hand speed is another important metric. Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo, who has also jumped onboard with Zepp, has some of the fastest hand speed in the league. It allows him to sit back on slower pitches like the changeup and curveball so he doesn't swing way out in front.
"It's something you just do naturally as a player, and when it's broken down like that, it's cool to see why it's happening and when it's happening," Rizzo said.
Then, of course, there's bat speed, the metric Zepp hopes will do something more than provide hitters with another piece of valuable information.
"Baseball should be fun," Stocking said. "On the amateur side, getting people to have fun and enjoy what they're doing [is important]. Everybody loves bat speed, it's a hero thing."
And that's the biggest payoff of the smart bat: younger players and fan engagement. Amateur players, whether they're pre-high school, in high school or at the college level, can break down their swing in intricate detail, something that's never been available before. They can even compare their swing metrics to those of their favorite pro and try and emulate him.
"When I was younger, I tried to emulate Ken Griffey Jr.'s swing," Rizzo said. "Now I can actually do his [bat] waggle and see where my bat is supposed to be at the same time."
Trout, who also mentions Griffey, along with Derek Jeter, as players whose swings he tried to mimic growing up, said the importance of this data for younger athletes can't be overstated.
"It's giving a chance for younger kids and high school kids to look at their numbers," he said. "As a kid, I didn't have any of this stuff. I never watched video [of my swing] growing up or even in the minors."
During last year's Triple-A Home Run Derby, Zepp's smart bat technology was used to show fans the swing metrics. After every home run, the data was displayed on the scoreboard for everyone to see.
With Trout at the helm, and guys like Rizzo and Miami Marlins phenom Giancarlo Stanton backing him up, Zepp's smart bat appears poised to take off with players, both in the major leagues and at amateur levels. Trout's signature Old Hickory Smart Bat is set to release to the public in June, and the bat has already been approved for in-game use at major amateur tournaments, like Perfect Game USA.
It will be hard for MLB to continue to avoid embracing tech innovations like the Smart Bat, especially when the benefits are so clear and instantaneous. Spring training is a throwback to the yesteryear of a sport that's steeped in tradition, but the data revolution that has already swept the NBA and the NFL will soon be sweeping into what used to be called "America's Pastime." There's no longer a way around it.
"We're always after that extra bit of information that can help up be the best at our game," Copley said. "This is it."
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