PORT CHARLOTTE – In wanting to convince Austin Meadows of the benefits of running as hard and as fast chasing balls in the outfield as he did rounding the bases, the Rays figured it was best to show him.
So for several weeks of exhibition games Meadows has willingly worn a vest under his jersey that contains a GPS device which tracks his every movement, including his top running speed and how quickly he accelerates, providing clear evidence of the contrast.
“They were basically saying we want those to match up, and that was kind of the main thing,’’ Meadows said. “I understood it. I was on board with it. They’re trying to make me better and I’m trying to get myself better.’’
And, aside from the slight inconvenience of wearing the tight-fitting Catapult vest, which resembles a black sports bra, Meadows literally saw the benefit.
“Seeing the data is good,’’ he said. “Especially, I feel like, when someone is telling you anything, being able to see that for yourself, that helps you understand a little bit more of what you need to work on.’’
The Rays are doing a lot of showing and telling these days.
They are among other advanced teams deeply immersed in the science of their sport. That includes using assorted high-tech devices and products to provide diagnostic and supplemental data in search of any advantage they can discover, whether to help their players on the field or keep them out of the trainers’ room.
“With all these various technologies, I kind of see them as two things,’’ said Joe Myers, the Rays director of baseball performance science. “One being anything we can do to improve player health, to find ways to improve and track it. And two, helping support the coaching staff, trying to provide another set of eyes, or cameras or these other technologies, to be able to measure what the player’s doing and provide another tool for the staff.’’
The Rays are clearly committed. Myers was hired in January 2016 to launch the program and has since seen his staff, which also handles nutrition, grow to five, including the hiring of biomechanist Mike McNally, plus additional help from the team’s research and development analysts and interns.
They have plenty of gadgets to employ, some which are based on technology used for ballistic missile tracking, others adapted from use in golf and soccer (including the co-owned Rowdies).
And often kept out of public (and reporters’) sight, in the fenced-off area at the spring complex called The Lab and during early afternoon work at the Trop, or in the off-limits batting cages.
The Rays have an increasingly — though not unanimously — receptive group of players, some of whom use the same or even more advanced equipment during off-season training in private facilities, and grant the necessary permission for the wearable devices. And support from ownership to make the necessary investments, including in experimenting, since not everything they try works.
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“The technology is very impressive and it’s all stuff that can help guys as long as they’re open and willing to use it,’’ said reliever Emilio Pagan, among the more tech-savvy players.
“It’s definitely going to stick around, and I hope guys are understanding that it’s just there to help. I can see why people would be a little hesitant with it because, 'There’s a lot of information out there already, why would I need to get more?’ But at the same time, if this makes you a better pitcher, who cares what the information is showing — as long as you’re putting up better numbers, that’s all that matters.’’
Among, but not all, the devices being used by the Rays in some form:
* Rapsodo and portable Trackman systems which measure in various specific ways what happens to a ball after it is thrown or hit, well beyond how far and how fast, but with detailed data such as spin rate, direction and efficiency, plus vertical and horizontal break.
* Edgertronic high-speed, super slow motion video cameras that provide remarkable detail shooting at up to 25,000 frames per second, such as the precise positioning of a pitcher’s fingers on the ball and how it comes out of the hand, which helps in learning a new pitch or improving/correcting an old one. “It allows us to really get in there and see things that are happening at a very fast motion,’’ Myers said.
* K-Vests that are worn by hitters to provide biomechanical analysis of their swing, specifically how efficiently their legs, hips, elbows and hands synch up. “There is no one way to do it,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re just looking for that specific person to be as connected as well as possible.’’
* A bat-fitting system developed with the Great Lakes company and headed up by baseball research and development assistant Cole Figueroa. It analyzes a player using a bat with an adjustable metal ring calculates a matrix of the most appropriate size and weight distribution based on his unique swing, similar to what is used for golf clubs. Brandon Lowe is among those who tried it, and went up a half inch and an ounce, to a 34-32 bat.
* The Catapult GPS vests, which, used extensively in soccer, not only track running speed, but all kind of movements in all direction. Catcher Mac James was wired up one day to see is he was appreciably quicker blocking balls going right or left.
There are also extensive vision testing and eye drills, heart monitors and more things they don’t talk as openly about.
“Everything we’re using is just to provide more information, sometimes in real time, to the coaches,’’ Myers said.
Starter Tyler Glasnow worked extensively with the Rapsodo equipment, which can only be used in practice settings because it sits behind the plate, to understand that he maximized his spin efficiency when he had a more consistent path toward home plate with his hips and arm. Trackman equipment, which is installed at the Trop (the black box on the wall above and behind home plate) and other stadiums, collects similar information using military-grade Doppler radar and, coupled with high-def cameras, provides the Statcast data that has proliferated onto broadcasts and written reports.
Glasnow said he welcomes the information, in training on a pitch-by-pitch basis and during the season in a post-game compilation. “Most pitchers, after they do something in a game, they don’t know what it was or why they got hit around,’’ he said. “You can spend days sitting around pondering and have no idea. This gives you some immediate feedback — it shows your hips are a little different, your stride was longer, your spin rate was less, your efficiency was less. It’s like an easier, process of elimination rather than just guessing, and it happens a lot faster. I like it.’’
Pagan, similarly, said he uses the data to explore why a pitch did or didn’t work, and would think hitters see it similarly on a swing.
“It’s there if something does look out whack, where you might feel fine but aren’t getting the down movement on your cutter or breaking ball, or your fastball is not carrying as much,’’ he said. “That info can back it up, and show that you might need to look at something.’’
Not every player buys in. Outfielder Tommy Pham, who studies sabermetrics and explores all avenues for an advantage, said he didn’t find the hitting data in previous trials to be accurate. “That kind of made me go two steps backwards,’’ he said, and now sticks to a tee and resistance bands.
The Rays are good with that, too, Myers saying the whole focus of his department is to provide data and let the coaches and players apply what they want. There is plenty to be had.
“This is the future of baseball,’’ Glasnow said, “so I think the sooner you get on board the better off you’ll be.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.