Sunday, August 20, 2023

Advanced Biomechanics, Meet the Mets

The Mets pitching lab is open for business in Port St. Lucie. Now the challenge for the club is to properly implement the expensive gizmos they invested in.

One of my biggest frustrations when the Wilpons owned the Mets was how far the team had fallen behind other, more progressive organizations in taking advantage of analytics and technology. Teams in much smaller markets operating under relatively small budgets were miles ahead of a team playing in the greatest city in the world. It's been reported that the Mets' front office was frequently frustrated by their inability to convince ownership that investing in technology would ultimately make the organization more efficient in developing ballplayers. This reluctance pre-dated the nosedive the club's finance took with the collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. The Wilpons were notoriously unwilling to spend on anything they couldn't understand.

In recent years I have become interested in comprehending why the Mets lagged so far beyond MLB's progressive teams in their efforts to sustain more than the briefest spurts of winning baseball. I started reading whatever I could find on the revolution analytics and cutting-edge technology brought to Major League Baseball. Some of the most interesting work was happening with pitching, where advanced biomechanical analysis was instrumental in developing pitching prospects into major leaguers. The most innovative organizations began building pitching labs utilizing this technology to get a leg up on their competition.

In his newsletter for Post Sports+ this week, Mike Puma reported that the Mets have finally joined these clubs this season:
Open for business since early June, the Mets' 360-degree pitching lab in Port St. Lucie, Fla., is among owner Steve Cohen's latest forays into improving the organizational infrastructure. 
The lab is staffed by pitching development personnel, biomechanics experts and analysts with backgrounds in various disciplines. 
One estimate put the number of teams using such labs around 10, so the Mets are hardly pioneers in this regard. But Cohen’s wealth — he's MLB's richest owner — could give the Mets an advantage in the amount of resources devoted to the lab.
In Puma's piece, he noted that Billy Eppler said that he pitched the idea to Steve Cohen of building the lab. I'm sure he did, but the idea of a Mets pitching lab under Cohen began before Eppler's arrival as GM in November 2021. In March of that year, I wrote about the Mets' plans to build their own lab, linking to an excellent piece by Tim Britton in The Athletic. It took a couple of years to realize that goal, but the pitching lab is open for business. It's ready to help create the next generation of Mets pitchers and aid current Mets pitchers in refining their talents.

Needless to say, you shouldn't expect any instant results from the new lab. There's no magic in the technology, just the ability to better focus on what the ballplayers need to work on and track them over a period of time. This should help with the consistency of coaching these players receive as they move up through the organization.

Wake Forest has one of the most advanced pitching labs in college baseball. The description of their lab on its website provides an excellent brief introduction to what a pitching lab is and what it does:
The Wake Forest Pitching Lab is the biomechanics evaluation destination for pitchers at every level of the game. Our state-of-the-art facility, cutting edge technology and expert staff enable us to perform a comprehensive evaluation and analysis of a pitcher's mechanics and develop customized training programs aimed at reducing the risk of injury and enhancing performance. 

Our vision is to transform the future of baseball by combining baseball, science and medicine to revolutionize the way pitching mechanics are analyzed and taught.
If you have a subscription to The Athletic and wish to better understand how this fancy technology will be utilized by the Mets, there is an excellent piece by Eno Sarris and Alec Lewis from February 2022 titled, "The future — and present — of baseball is in biomechanics." Sarris has always been gifted at explaining technical concepts to folks like myself who don't hold a degree from MIT. As the two authors explain in their piece, technology such as radar guns and pitch-tracking devices measure outputs: what happens once a pitcher has completed his full delivery and released the ball. The latest technological advances are in measuring inputs: the components of a pitcher's delivery that allow him to impart velocity and spin to his pitches.
"The thing that's been coming is the science of, 'How do (the players) do it?'" Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, said a few months ago in a phone conversation.

Fleisig was referencing the search for inputs: What does a player do that leads to the pitch that registers 100 mph?

We are now starting to know. New motion capture technologies are allowing teams to utilize biomechanical analyses for health, velocity and deception purposes.

"Teams have woken up to this," Fleisig said. "The field of baseball has woken up to this. It's the next competitive advantage. That's what's happening."

While some of the earliest technology that Sarris and Lewis wrote about allowed some measurements of inputs in a controlled lab setting, the newest stuff will enable measurements to be taken while the pitchers are throwing actual pitches off of a mound. The obvious advantage in usefulness is apparent. If a pitcher is coached to make a change in his delivery, the results of that change can be immediately tracked.

While all of this practical data is wonderful, it will still depend on having coaches that can translate this information into something the players can easily digest and make use of in improving their game. The use of data has become somewhat controversial among the Mets' faithful this season. Data is neither inherently good nor bad. But it's only helpful when it is transmitted to a player in a manner that helps the player perform better without overwhelming him with data, leading to the dreaded paralysis by analysis.

Ben Brewster, a former minor-leaguer who founded pitching development outfit Tread Athletics, was quoted in the piece by Sarris and Lewis on the challenges for a team like the Mets who now have the technology and must figure out how to best implement it:

What comes next seems straightforward. It's a matter of figuring out how to infuse all the different aspects of running a baseball team with the findings gleaned from limb-tracking technology.

"I think the next frontier in (player development) is not in applying more technology," agreed Brewster. "All of this tech has gotten here really quickly. Everyone has slow-motion videos, Rapsodo, Trackman. A lot of orgs now use biomechanical analysis. The next frontier is learning how to apply it, implement it in the most optimal way."

A bit later, Sarris and Lewis sum up the challenge still ahead for a team looking to utilize technology:
Being able to measure the physical changes in a player before and after drills selected by their coaches is one thing. It's another to then use those measurements to create benchmarks with which to judge the efficacy of the coaches and the organization in developing players. It's a third thing to actually then make organizational changes based on hitting those benchmarks. It's maybe a fourth thing to understand your organizational strengths through this lens and then acquire players who will benefit the most from your ability to help them move better.
By the way, although the biomechanical technology for developing pitching is relatively abundant, Sarris and Lewis also write about how the technology can be utilized for working with young hitters. I'm sure the Mets will be doing that, even if it won't get the notice that the pitching lab attracted.

This has been a dreadful season for the Mets. Investing many millions in older ballplayers has not paid off at all.  The embrace of this technology under Cohen's leadership is promising in that it can ultimately help the club to develop more of its prospects and reduce future dependence on older free agents. How well the Mets can succeed in implementing all of this is something we'll do our best to keep an eye on going forward.

Be well and take care.

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