Business

‘Smart’ batting cage provides better measure of players’ abilities

Dennis Clemens demonstrated SmartKage features at SmartSports headquarters in Tyngsborough.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Dennis Clemens demonstrated SmartKage features at SmartSports headquarters in Tyngsborough.

As a hitting instructor, Larry Scannell has seen almost every imaginable strategy for getting a baseball scout’s attention. He recalls one teenage prospect and his father filming batting practice on a Little League diamond and posting bogus distance measurements on the outfield walls to make the small field appear full-size.

“It looked like he was hitting moon shots,” said Scannell, who played three seasons of minor league baseball in the Red Sox system between 1987 and 1989. “Even on video you can’t always trust what you see.”

Scannell’s Tyngsborough startup, SmartSports, aims to remove some of the subjectivity — and even the deception — that makes scouting for talent such a challenge. He and cofounder Corrine Vitolo are rolling out the company’s debut product this winter, a “smart” batting cage, dubbed SmartKage, that tracks scores of data points as players practice hitting, throwing, and fielding a baseball.

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Vitolo said SmartSports has orders for 160 units already — mostly from large baseball academies — and that six Major League Baseball clubs used prototypes to help evaluate prospects. She said agreements with the teams prevent her from identifying them publicly, but each baseball division has a team with a SmartKage system.

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The SmartKage looks much like any other indoor batting cage, with a batter’s box and a pitching machine surrounded by protective netting, but it comes outfitted with high-speed cameras and laser sensors that can quantify performance in ways that are difficult to measure with conventional tools.

A prerecorded voice directs players through a one-hour standardized test — what Vitolo calls a physical SAT — that can’t be fudged with camera tricks.

While a prospect’s home run total is partly a function of the competition level he faces, the speed of the ball off his bat speed, easily gauged in the SmartKage, can offer a true view of his power.

And though any scout with a radar gun can clock a pitcher’s velocity, the SmartKage can reveal how much movement he gets on his pitches. Plenty of strong-armed young athletes can throw 90 miles per hour, but the one whose fastball breaks down and away by 6 inches at the last second is the better prospect.

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The SmartKage launch comes at a time when player evaluation techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated, especially in baseball. Many in the sport now rely more on advanced statistics, known as sabermetrics, than on traditional numbers like batting average and runs batted in.

How valuable is a player to his team? Forget counting errors or steals and check out his WAR. That’s wins above replacement, a complex calculation of the victories his individual efforts supposedly add to his team’s total over the course of a season, relative to an average player at the same position.

Even as scouting departments are inundated by data, there’s a need for more, Vitolo said.

“There are plenty of stats, but they’re all about how players do in games,” she said. “There’s a black hole when it comes to objective performance metrics.”

SmartSports is not the only company working to fill that hole. Its top competitor is Westborough-based InMotion, which last year introduced the HitTrax cage, which collects similar hitting and pitching data and can simulate the flight of a ball in major league stadiums on a video screen. HitTrax users can play full games or hold home run derby contests on the video simulator, testing their ability to clear the Green Monster at Fenway Park, for instance.

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SmartKage is a more straightforward instrument. Beyond compiling a series of hitting, pitching and fielding metrics, it also records performance on a battery of basic athletic maneuvers, such as a 10-yard sprint and vertical jump.

SmartSports’ business model is to install SmartKage systems for free in baseball academies then share revenue with them. A one-hour evaluation costs $150, making it a less expensive way to impress scouts than traveling to elite baseball camps, Scannell noted. Every player’s results are automatically entered in a database that is accessible to college coaches.

“It makes my job more precise and gives me a realistic view of a player’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Mike Murphy, whose baseball academy in Concord, Calif., is among the first to be outfitted with a SmartKage. “You get players who are 10 years old with parents already thinking about college scholarships, and this machine shows how they actually stack up.”

Scannell and Vitolo said SmartKage works for softball players, too, and they are working on similar systems for other sports. They said the early feedback from scouts and coaches is that all these new metrics are useful, but talent evaluators wish the lasers and cameras could provide insight into a player’s mental makeup, too.

“There are still some things we can’t measure,” Vitolo said.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe .com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.