FORT MYERS, Fla. — Usually, the early days of spring prior to the start of games are rich in speculation and possibility — the idea that Eduardo Rodriguez may have developed a true slider that could elevate him into a different pitching echelon, or that Jackie Bradley Jr. has remade his swing to be more consistently on-plane to permit him to drive the ball, or that Christian Vazquez worked during the offseason to control the leg kick that made it difficult for him to lock in his timing at the plate for much of last year.
Yet while those subtle transformations can now be tested in the laboratory of games, perhaps the most interesting aspect of life on the backfields of Fenway South was the change to the laboratory setup of practice. Most notably, bullpen sessions involving Red Sox pitchers took on a wildly different look this year than had been the case in previous ones.
On the mounds between Fields 5 and 6 at Fenway South, the familiar sight of pitchers throwing to catchers prompted some raised eyebrows. While those throwing sessions featured the typical phalanx of coaches and front-office members standing behind the pitchers, for the first time in Red Sox camp, human eyes were accompanied by electronic ones.
Behind three plates, the Red Sox had set up Rapsodo Pitching Monitors — a product that offers instant information on pitch velocity, release point, spin data, and movement. An Edgertronic camera took slow-motion video of pitchers during their deliveries. Behind the mounds, three iPads mounted on stands captured the Rapsodo data. Brian Bannister, VP of pitching development and big league assistant pitching coach, and Dave Bush, minor league pitching coordinator of performance, monitored the iPads while Bannister also checked a laptop gathering the Edgertronic data.
All told, this brave new pitching world features as much as $25,000 worth of equipment plus enough screens to look like a vintage NASA control room. In one sense, all of the technology came off as foreign in a baseball setting, with tons of data-capturing technology now surrounding the most traditional element of the game — a pitcher throwing to a catcher.
On the other hand, the information is valuable enough that, years ago, the Sox had contemplated even more extreme ways of capturing it.
“Three or four years ago, we were talking about putting up a 100-foot pole out behind the bullpen areas and mounting a stadium TrackMan on a big pole out by the alligators so I could get pitch data,” Bannister said.
Rapsodo’s devices — now typically priced between $4,000 and $5,000 — made that awkward eye-in-the-sky unnecessary.
Through this stage of the spring, in which building arm strength and ramping up for the physical demands of the season is paramount, the team is less interested in the elements of designing and shaping pitches than it is in tracking health markers. So, all parties are less interested in, say, identifying the spin axis or spin rate of a pitch than they are in making sure that a pitcher’s release point is consistent, and doesn’t hint at fatigue that could lead to more serious injury — always an enormous concern for teams, but particularly for one that is coming off the physical demands of a full seven-month championship season.
“This, as everybody knows, is one of the highest-risk time periods of the year for pitcher injuries,” said Bannister, a nod to frequent elbow injuries in spring, including, in recent years, those to Red Sox pitchers David Price, Brandon Workman, Carson Smith, and Drew Pomeranz. “You see the Giants win a World Series every other year. There’s the notable hangover effect fatigue-wise for some teams. We’re just keeping an eye on it, trying to protect them and be smart about their workloads. It’s less player development, pitch design, and getting into the nuances of what they’re doing as it is, hey, let’s give you a checkup and see where you’re at, checking arm slot, checking release point, but letting them do their thing.”
The notion of “letting them do their thing” raises the question of whether the Red Sox pitchers do indeed feel at ease around the array of equipment or whether they feel that it’s intrusive —. But at this point, with years of familiarity with Bannister and years of exposure to some of the technologies now in place in the spring training bullpen (the Sox use Rapsodo devices during bullpen sessions at Fenway and employ an Edgertronic camera to capture video of pitchers on the mound at Fenway), the presence of cameras this spring hasn’t set off any alarm bells.
“I don’t notice it,” said David Price. “I think you notice it more when you’re watching other guys throw bullpens. But while you’re out there, I don’t see the cameras, they stay halfway to the mound, or whatever it is. I’m not looking at the screen. I’m trying to throw pitches.”
The goal of the equipment and the data, after all, is to help the Sox staff be at its best when doing just that. If, for instance, the team identifies some biomechanical information — a lower arm slot or release point, perhaps — then the coaches can work with the team’s sport science and training staffs to coordinate modifications to the pitcher’s workload that will diminish the risk of pitchers throwing in a fatigued state. The goal is to be somewhat less reliant on self-reporting and to have more objective information to assist the team in striking the right balance between building pitchers up for the start of the regular season and not pushing them to the point where they might be lost for a chunk of it.
As arm strength is built, then the same tools can be used for pitch design — to get a more precise read on whether a pitch is doing what a pitcher wants it to do, and why it is or is not. Whereas such devices might have been subject to considerable suspicion in the recent past, they’re increasingly so integrated into what pitchers do that the use of technologies during the sessions now seems like an evolution in a revolution that is already well underway.
“We’re not trying to capture anything and hide it from them or use it purely for office purposes,” said Bannister. “I’m trying to be as open and transparent as possible and provide all of this as a resource to the players.”