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Winter meetings tech expo provides glimpse into Orioles' data-driven future

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Just beside the sprawling media work room where hundreds of writers tapped out the day's news at this past week's baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas, baseball executives across a makeshift hallway had an eye on writing the game's future.

Because of the collection of data and the fast pace of technological advances, front-office executives requested Major League Baseball gather as many companies as they could in the fields of motion-capture technology, data management, wearable health tracking and even virtual reality, to — in a sense — meet them where they are.

The event's purpose was twofold for the Orioles. They've made clear that the first step is building an analytics infrastructure that mirrors what worked for executive vice president Mike Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal with the Houston Astros, and many of the vendors at Monday's event knew the Astros well.

But it's also about replicating the Astros’ reputation for innovation in technology and practices, for integrating new equipment and data collection into the daily practices across the organization, and for trailblazing in engineering player success on the field while hundreds of analysts are searching for a similar path forward.

"Are we behind right now in the analytics arms race? Yes," Elias said. "We're going to get up to speed as quickly as possible, and really, the challenge for us and the onus on us as baseball executives is to figure out ways to get a little bit ahead. … I'm confident that once we get our infrastructure built out, we will become a team that other clubs are looking to learn from."

Said Mejdal: "Redoing what you did is a thousand times easier. You're able to avoid the false alarms, bypass the hurdles. There's lessons learned in everything you do, so we're going to be able to get those back up to speed quickly, and then when we're searching on the bleeding edge of the next innovation or the next useful technologies, that's a different world. And that is not easy. But it's often where the advantages lay."

The Orioles' organizational structure previously meant their main involvement in baseball's technological revolution was participating in the TrackMan radar program, and even that data was mostly used in player acquisition. Nothing else was funded, nor would there have been a way to get it to the field level if there was. The technologies on display Monday showed what's out there and — if the Astros' past is any indication — what's in store for the Orioles this year.

"The arms race of getting the data and making sense of the data — if you go back 10 years, 12 years, there would be very few persons wandering through that room," Mejdal said. "But with perhaps 300 analysts in baseball, there's such a search, such a demand for the next thing that can give them the advantage, no matter how small it is. Many of those companies are going to be the ones that provide it."

In the swing of things

So many of the technologies the Astros have become renowned for — from high-speed digital cameras they installed at all their minor league ballparks at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to wearable swing-tracking technology — were accounted for at the expo Monday.

K-Motion's K-Vest product features military-grade inertial sensors that allow them to chart data points and track different types of motion during a player's swing in real time. And the Astros were one of the first teams to employ it purely for research, said Kyle Crawford, K-Motion’s baseball success specialist.

In tracking the location of the pelvis, torso, upper arm and hands through a swing, the technology gives teams a way to quantify what might create swing problems, what might make a successful swing and how to bridge the gap between the two.

"One of the best quotes we heard from another organization was that if video is an X-ray, K-Vest is an MRI," Crawford said. "It helps you find the inefficiencies to target the appropriate training."

The benefit for an organization to use the technology — and Crawford said half of the 30 teams use K-Motion’s technology since the company entered the baseball world a year and a half ago — is that teams "use it as a tool to bridge the gap between all of the different departments within the organization."

In analyzing one player's swing, he said for example, a hitting coach can note a player's torso angle at the time of contact needs improvement. A medical staffer can point out there's a physical limitation preventing that improvement, and a strength coach can try to set up a program to bridge that.

"That's the most valuable thing about K-Vest is it gives a common language for everybody to speak," Crawford said.

Similarly, 4D Motion was touting its wearable, motion-gathering technology for team officials. Its founder, Sang Kim, was showing interested analysts and sports scientists a set of small sensors that can be affixed to an athlete to provide a more robust view of his swing — with 8,000 possible data points gathered from a single swing.

"Now, over time, you can imagine across a number of players at various levels, capturing all the data, then all of the MLB teams have lots of data scientists and quantitative analysts — you can start to see some patterns and you can leverage that information to your advantage," Kim said. "Whereas, you can imagine if you have thousands of video, you really can't apply data analysis with it. With 3D, we're converting analog to digital. You get data."

Of all the frontiers the Astros thrived in, Elias said hitting was an area that was hard to quantify or create best practices for. He called it "a really complex endeavor" involving everything from approach, body type, swing path and vision.

But what data does from outfits like these and Blast Motion — whose sensors can affix to any bat in any situation and according to their website were used throughout the Astros organization — is to provide information to help compare what works with what doesn't.

"I think in most sports, they focus on capturing results," Kim said. "How's a player doing? Or what's the exit velocity or launch angle of a ball, which obviously are really important.

"But the next phase is, what's causing those results? How is the body moving? There's only so much you can capture on video, and when you use 3D and motion capture like ours, you can start to employ some of the biomechanic science and research on what creates velocity in the bat, or the angle of the bat. There's a lot of kinematic sequence that's really important. So, the ability to apply that science and then secondly, capture data."

Preventative measures

After these swing-specific technologies got their start in golf before coming to baseball, the data tracking they provide to clubs is only one element of sports science that Elias and Mejdal want the Orioles to play a leading role in employing.

Just as many companies were offering solutions that could get teams ahead in predictive health and fitness tracking — from wearable solutions, such as Whoop, which also analyze the data to software platforms such as Zone7, Fusion Sport and Kinduct, which filter through data points and try to pinpoint injury risks in real time.

"You look around the room and see all of these different wearable devices, and that explosion around data being generated is really becoming an issue as far as they're all so siloed," said Callum Mayer, solutions engineer for Kinduct. "We were breaking down that wall and creating integrations where they're coming directly over the cloud into our platform."

Mayer said Kinduct currently works with about a dozen MLB teams; others such as Fusion Sport and Zone7 are doing trying to bring what's become a burgeoning aspect of world sports, from Olympic-level athletes to European soccer, into baseball.

"I'd certainly say that the focus really in baseball has been, to date, more on the game statistics, performance statistic side of it: the 'Moneyball' culture, the buying and trading of players rather than necessarily too much emphasis on actually prolonging the careers and value of those players," said Markus Deutsch, CEO of Fusion Sport. "Now, it's balancing back out."

In this field, it's not as if there will be a way to tell which pitch might end up blowing out a pitcher’s arm, or whether a hitter might be a few swings away from an oblique injury. But these companies tout the ability to find the data points that are most predictive of possible injury thresholds, where a day on the bench might prevent a month or two on the disabled list.

Part is the analysis itself, and part is the presentation of it in telling teams and organizations just where every player is physically. It's also an area where ideas can bleed into baseball from other industries. Zone7's founders began doing big data analysis for the Israel Defense Forces.

"A team will have performance products, and health-related products, medical records and maybe a dozen ways of quantifying different aspects of the athlete's health and performance," Zone7 CEO Tal Brown said. "We're the ones who help create meaning out of the entire package, answering questions like, 'Who's about to be injured? Who's days away from injury, and why, and what can we do about it?' "

A crowded field

All these nascent technologies mean the driving force of baseball's data revolution — information — isn't soon going to dry up. Many of the company representatives relayed that teams don't view their products as a luxury now but as a necessity. However, employing the right in-house analysts and contracting with the right providers could be the difference between a team collecting data for data's sake, and one who did what the Astros did in making it useful.

That's what made the cross-section of companies at Monday's expo unique. There's a fascination around the game with trying to collect as much information as possible, and rightfully so. The wearable technology will quantify much of what people in the game have reckoned with for generations.

But the team that pulls ahead is going to be the one that figures out what to do with it all — how to fix the most swings, how to get the most games out of your talent, how to inform the players on the field. The Orioles' new brass might have jumped the line with Houston, but they'll be running in traffic to get to the front of the pack on the next big thing.

"When you see the amount of analysts, of sports science people from all sorts of teams, it's clear there's tremendous amounts of energy exploring any way of getting better," Mejdal said. "With the Orioles, we're going to reproduce as quickly as we can the processes that we had in Houston, then we're not going to stand still. From there, we'll be joining the others in this arms race looking at what the next innovation is. But it's really first things first. We have a lot of processes and methods that have given us success, and we need to bring them and incorporate them into the Orioles' processes."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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