Assessing and Training Hitters with New Tech

By Bahram Shirazi (BSEE, MBA, Co-Owner RPP)

As many of you know, we recently made additional investments in our hitting business by adding a Rapsodo camera system and a Diamond Kinetics SwingTracker. The combination of these pieces of equipment will allow us to substantially improve how we evaluate and train our players by:

    • Expanding our upfront hitting assessment and creating a hitting profile for each player
    • Developing a more specific breakdown of a player’s swing
    • Improving our understanding of what is happening at the point of contact that influences each outcome
    • Evaluating batted balls on a continuing basis to provide instant feedback to our players

Here are some examples of the additional pieces of information that we will now have access to in order to help better develop our players.

Rapsodo – Having lived with a Rapsodo camera on the pitching side for the better part of a year, we can tell you we are extremely excited about this new addition.  The data coming out of this device basically covers ball flight and ball behavior after contact, including many relevant pieces of information that will help us understand how each individual ball was hit.  These include:

    • Launch Angle
    • Exit Velocity
    • Distance Travelled
    • Direction of Batted Ball
    • Projected Ball Path
    • Spray Chart
    • Batted Ball Spin Rate
    • Strike Zone Heat Map

The data and visuals provide excellent immediate feedback as they give players real imagery of the actual outcome beyond the cage.  Unfortunately, it will also show that the back of the cage is not what everyone has always thought it to be.  Here is a typical example screenshot of a well hit ball.

Diamond Kinetics – SwingTracker is an analysis and development tool that will give us insight into a player’s natural movements and swing path and overall approach to the ball prior to the point of contact. A player’s swing and related movements are crucial because they don’t change overnight and are an integral part of how a player makes contact with the ball.  They are specific to the individual.  To fully appreciate this, data from SwingTracker would need to be put in context with the broader picture of how a player’s batted ball is behaving after the point of contact.  Although the SwingTracker provides many metrics, we believe the most relevant feature for our purposes is the Approach Angle (Attack Angle).

Every player is different in every respect.  However, the premise from a teaching standpoint in collecting all this data is twofold:

    • First, it will help us better understand each player’s pre-existing natural tendencies.
    • Second, but equally as important, it helps players learn about themselves and who they are as hitters.  After several hundred swings and feedback, they begin to understand many of their strengths and weaknesses in the batter’s box.

Batted Ball Data Analysis – The chart below provides a summary of data from Rapsodo for several swings by one of our players.  This type of information gives you insights into how a player drives the ball.  For example, the athlete below has an Exit Velo approaching 90 mph.  He can obviously hit the ball relatively hard.  Yet his average Launch Angle is sitting in the high single digits.  Working with this player to increase his Launch Angle, even by a few degrees, could have significant implications on this ability to drive the ball deeper, more consistently.

Furthermore, being able to look at a player’s hard-hit balls and their outcome can give us a general idea whether a player is having success with putting the balls in play or not.  Below are two batted balls with the same Exit Velo, yet one travelled 2x the distance and clearly out of the infield (186 ft), while the other was an infield dribbler (84 ft).

The above information tells us that the ball with the higher Launch Angle at 11º was hit farther. This isn’t just because of the higher spin rate (although that plays a role up to a point).  It’s clear that the ball that travelled farther was hit with a slight “offset” (click here for more on this topic) to generate a higher Launch Angle.  It’s relatively easy to deduce this from the higher spin rate.

On the other hand, here is summary data from another player whose Launch Angles are just too high for his current Exit Velo.  These specific swings at an average Launch Angle of 20 degrees simply aren’t hit hard enough at an exit of 77 mph.  This player likely hits many fly balls for outs.  He should either get stronger in the weight room or work on lowering his Launch Angle, or possibly do both.

It’s important to note that every player is different, not only in physicality and development, but also future potential.  So, to some extent, how we evaluate a player’s data output and how we train a player is based on where he might be at any given time from a physical development perspective.  For example, teaching a 5’8”, 165 lbs., 18 year-old with an 80 mph Exit Velo, to put the ball up in the air at 20-degrees may just be the wrong thing to do.  While, a 6’3”, 225 lbs. athlete with an Exit Velo of 95 mph should probably be taught to hit the ball with a higher relative Launch Angle than most.

“As you incorporate data analytics into training players, it’s extremely important to keep in mind that every player is different.”

Strike Zone Management – One of the more interesting sets of data now available to us is a Strike Zone Heatmap that provides us with EV (Exit Velo), LA (Launch Angle) and xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-Base Averages) at different parts of the strike zone.  Imagine That! You might have seen these types of charts on TV for MLB players, but never before for training youth ball players.  This information can be used to either help improve a player’s ability to hit across all parts of the zone or simply teach them to stay away from those parts.

Swing Path Analysis – In our prior article, we reviewed how the Approach Angle can have a significant impact on the outcome.  Attempting to stay on the same plane as the Pitch Descent Path, as long as possible, generally requires an Approach Angle of at least 5-6 degrees for fastballs and even higher for breaking balls.  To put into perspective, an 86-mph fastball (w/ 2000 rpm spin rate) has a Pitch Descent Angle of 6 degrees at home plate (click here for additional info).  One can easily assume it’s even higher for younger players with lower velocities.

Here is a player’s min, max and average Approach Angle based on 10 swings off the tee:

With an average Approach Angle of nearly 2 degrees on these swings, it would be extremely hard to stay on plane with any type of incoming pitch for long, especially breaking balls whose descent could get into double digits.  This type of Approach Angle is likely to result in poor contact, dribblers and grounders.

Closing Comments

Incorporating data into how we train players is a bit of an art. It can be a bit overwhelming at times because equipment companies are simply selling products and they want to throw as many pieces of info your way as possible to justify their product.  The key is to parse through the information and determine which pieces are relevant for each player.

We must be aware of each player’s natural movements, learning style, experience and approach. These aspects are crucial to a hitter’s success and will be even more important as more information is provided to them.  But it’s important to note that the primary goal in hitting is and always will be to hit the ball hard.  All research and work should come first from that core principle.

Instant data feedback brings a level of immediate awareness during training that hasn’t really existed until recently for the younger players. What an athlete tries to do and what he actually does sometimes are two completely different things.  The arrival of new tech and data analytics should begin to bridge that gap.

 

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