I grew very fond of baseball at a young age. While actually being a fairly terrible, uncoordinated player, it did not change my interest in following the sport. I attribute four main factors to peaking my interest: baseball cards, the growth of Sports Center, my early use of computers and the internet to look at data, and the New York Yankees. The combination of these things would give me daily use of my brain to think about whether the Yankees would win or lose, where I thought people should be in the lineup, and who I hoped they would sign in the offseason.
Fast forward to my early career where I grew up in the world of sensors. In 2004, when I took my first job in the sensor industry and explained I worked for a sensor company, the question everyone asked was “what is a sensor?” The answer: a sensor is something you’re going to use to get data and turn it into a signal. The common analogy is the nerves in your fingertips. The nerves sense when something is hot, cold, sharp, or rough and send a signal to the brain to either use the data or not. In 2017, sensors are everywhere. In combination with the term “IoT” (Internet of Things), sensors have grown closer to consumers from their aerospace origins. Sensors are smaller, faster, and available in new materials to make measuring data easier.
Baseball’s beauty is in its tradition, uniqueness and extreme difficulty. There are major human elements to the building of rosters, game strategy, and judgement by umpires. Do the flaws of fair play add to its beauty or detract from it? Can sensors increase the level and quality of competition while also making it more fair? While baseball is a non-contact sport, can player safety be improved?
Baseball uses umpires to make judgements in every aspect of the game. Balls and strikes, out or safe, and fair versus foul are the common ways umpires use sight and sound to make judgements throughout the game. The strike zone is possibly the most critical, where each pitch is judged through a mask, behind a catcher with no physical boundary but the plate. Can we change the way we umpire with sensors? A possible method could be the use of vision sensors. With the right calculations and settings, a radar type sensor could measure the strike zone from chest to knees from the left or right side depending on the batter, while accounting for where the pitch breaks. A sensor facing up from the plate could be a second reference for the height of the pitch.
By adding force sensors or piezo film sensors to player gloves and bases with response times less than a millisecond, decisions can be made and wirelessly transmitted when the ball reaches the glove to throw out a runner. The logic would need to be defined in the system, but it would be simple.
The foul pole (fair pole) would also benefit from sensors and the outfield wall could use vibration, force or piezo film sensors to detect the exact spot the ball hits. Similar to tennis, strategically placed cameras can improve the information that umpires use to make judgements. Piezo cables can be buried in the dirt and grass along with an accelerometer in the ball to help map exactly where the baseball lands when it’s shot down the line.
Moneyball, the Billy Beane biography by Michael Lewis, brought insight into the increased usage of data when evaluating players. Additionally, teams can help increase the performance of those same players with more information. Accelerometers in the bat can measure bat speed to sensors worn on each wrist to measure their movement through the swing; additionally, they can be embedded in the baseball to monitor pitch movement and velocity.
Photo optic sensors can be built into the baseball to track the best finger position based on the type of pitch thrown. With player contracts reaching a quarter billion dollars, teams can use sensors to more closely monitor and evaluate players and their performance. By tracking this data and trending it over time, teams can gain an understanding of whether a player has reached their peak performance.
Understanding the competition means going beyond simply looking at wins and losses on turf versus grass and home versus away. How does a pitcher perform while the wind is blowing in or away from his direction? With increase in the shift for certain hitters, can we get more precise on spray chart data on how those hits landed based on what pitch was thrown and the conditions around us?
The length of a baseball game can extend beyond intended. Calling time in the box, booth reviews, and pitcher changes can all contribute to the duration of a game. A time limit can be started when two feet are in the batter’s box and one foot on the pitcher’s rubber with a light indicating to the pitcher and hitter that a pitch can be thrown. With the usage of sensor data to make decisions, booth reviews can be minimized.
Major League Baseball can use more sensors from a marketing perspective. Our society both thrives on data (how many steps did you walk today?) and instant gratification (did you find this on social media?). The two main in-game statistics are home run distance and pitch speed. Can sensors create virtual reality experiences to show a fan exactly what it was like to face the game winning strike out or hit the walk off home run? Can more data get fans involved in making predictions on the success of their team?
With baseball being a “non-contact” sport, safety is sometimes an overlooked aspect of the game. Two areas of concern are the hit by pitch and play at the plate. For players that are hit with the ball, particularly in the head, the signal from a sensor in helmets can help protect them. Understanding the amount of force/impact to the helmet could help to determine the grade of concussions.
In a similar case, catcher’s gear can be outfitted with piezo and force type sensors to understand the impact of the runner barreling over another. While a recent John Hopkins study shows the small percentage of catcher injuries caused by plays at the plate, the integration of sensors in the helmet can help to us understand the amount of force caused by foul balls and bats to the catcher’s or plate umpire’s head.
I have no predictions on what the future holds for sensors in the world of baseball. But I expect that as technologies continue to develop, improve in accuracy, shrink in size, and become more cost effective, that they will find their way into sports like baseball and take us beyond the traditions we know today. Sports such as swimming and tennis have been early adopters of sensors to improve the competition and fairness. Even in the most emotional of competitions, I believe the majority would want the outcome of a sport to be based on fair play, which sensors can help provide. I also believe any investment in sensors to increase safety and health will help fuel a greater understanding of these issues outside of the sport.
Greg Montrose, Digital Marketing Manager, Sensor Solutions