NEWS

How Louisiana Tech is utilizing technology to help win baseball games

Jan 14, 2022 | Education, Research

Story by Ruston Daily Leader Editor Brian Trahan

“You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

In the fictitious world of the 1988 blockbuster movie, “Bull Durham,” baseball is that simple.

In 2022, there’s a little more to baseball than meets the eye.

You throw the ball, after you measure arm angle internal and external rotation and spin rate. You catch the ball after maximizing your jumping ability and lowering your body fat while maintaining your body water levels. You hit the ball after analyzing your swing with 3-D Motion Capture technology to gain full exit velocity and launch angle.

You still win some and lose some.

And it still rains.

Three years ago Mike Silva was an assistant head coach under Louisiana Tech head baseball coach Lane Burroughs. Silva was the pitching coach and was referred by a mutual acquaintance at the University of Miami.

At the same time, there was a graduate student at Tech, Alexa Garcia, who arrived on campus from Florida Atlantic University. She came to Tech to study sport performance under Dr. David Szymanski, which is one of the university’s Master’s concentrations.

Garica wanted to focus on baseball, not only with the team, but with research. Szymanski had been doing baseball performance research for a number of years, previously under former head coach Wade Simoneaux. Under Greg Goff, technology wasn’t utilized as much, but Silva approached Burroughs about talking to Szymanski.

Thus emerged the perfect combination of science and baseball for an emerging college baseball program.

Garcia also mentioned to the baseball staff that they needed to visit Scotty Robertson Memorial Gym and look at the labs because there’s cutting edge equipment in the labs that can be utilized for baseball.

“Our initial meeting we talked about three hours,” Szymanski said about his discussion with Silva. “All the things he was interested in doing was the things I told him we could do.”

Szymanski gave Silva a tour of the labs — Applied Physiology Lab and Sport and Movement Science Lab, all part of the Tech Kinesiology Department.

There are many reasons for the success that Burroughs has reached with Tech during his six seasons at the helm of the program. During the first five seasons, Tech has won 162 games and lost 90 for a winning percentage of .643. Five straight winning seasons, including a national breakout season in 2021 in which Tech not only won the Conference USA West Division, but also gained an NCAA berth and hosted an NCAA Regional at J.C. Love Field for the first time in school history.

Burroughs recognized early on that technology could play a role in helping the Bulldogs achieve success on the field. Szymanski became Tech’s Director of Baseball Performance in addition to his duties with the university away from the baseball team.

Introducing technology to baseball

In the Applied Physiology Lab, there is a treadmill that can be utilized for a VO2 Max Test. This allows the department to test an athlete’s cardiovascular fitness level. There is also access to a Biodex machine, which allows Szymanski to have “a pitcher, for example, do their internal and external rotation at 90 degrees to test how strong, or how weak, they are for that movement,” he said. He elaborated that the test is done at three different speeds — slow, moderate and fast. The slow speed tests strength while the fast speed tests the peak power generated in a pitcher’s motion.

The InBody 770 device measures body composition. It can collect data on body weight, lean muscle mass, body fat and body water to test if an athlete is dehydrated or not.

Silva reacted with excitement on his tour of the lab and asked if these tests could be done with Tech’s pitching staff. Szymanski subsequently took Silva downstairs to the Sport and Movement Science Lab, or what would be considered a biomechanics lab.

“This is where we can do the motion capture of a human being,” Szymanski explained. “In this case we could have a pitcher on a mound, put reflective markers on their joint segments and with these high-speed cameras we can measure what their body does as they go through the pitching motion.”

There are four major time points in extracting this information: peak knee height, foot plant as their front stride foot hits the ground, maximum external rotation of the shoulder (layback) and then ball release. The information can then be compared to the Major League Baseball average to show Tech pitchers where they measure.

Delving into the data

The lab also has a custom-made simulated pitcher’s mound that has force plates embedded. “The force plates allow us to see peak ground reaction forces or peak power that someone can produce from their back foot, which is their drive leg, and their front foot, which is their stride leg,” he continued.

Part of the pitcher’s mound testing process also includes measuring an athlete’s vertical jump with two feet or one foot to compare the jumping ability to the power they produce when they pitch off the mound. “What we have found is that the baseball pitchers who anecdotally thought they would jump higher off of their drive leg, or back leg, wasn’t the case,” Szymanski said. “They actually jumped higher off of their stride leg, or their front foot.”

Scientific explanation: pitchers have to overcome linear acceleration, the momentum going toward home plate, slow down their body mass against gravity and then extend their lead leg and rotate their hips and torso to produce torque to throw a ball as fast as they can. “It’s really fantastic information,” Szymanski said.

Grab your glove, smartphone and tablet

The sport performance team has also worked with an app called Pitch AI, developed by a company called ProPlayAI, Inc. that is available to download for most smartphones. “This is artificial intelligence that produces biomechanics with a cell phone,” Szymanski said. “You don’t need $80,000 of motion capture equipment. You can use a cell phone at a 90-degree angle to the pitching rubber and you can receive the same metrics as highly-expensive equipment. A pitcher on his cell phone, iPad or computer can see his numbers immediately. The pitching coach can see it, the researcher can see it, the graduate student can see it — everyone has access and can utilize it in practice.

“Hey here is what you did on the previous pitch. Maybe let’s try a little bit greater stride length, for example, to see if it gives you more velocity,” he continued, while also pointing out that any high school coach or parent can access the same data.

Rapsodo is a camera device that is placed 15.5 feet in front of home plate and records the pitch coming toward the catcher. This gives pitch velocity or other metrics such as spin rate on a breaking pitch, along with vertical break and horizontal break. It also supplies a release point.

Szymanski said this information can be immediately accessed on an iPad in the dugout during intrasquad games in live action. It can’t be used during regular season games, however. In conjunction with Rapsodo, the lab can utilize cameras called Insight, furnished by a company in Washington called Driveline.

As a third-party service, Driveline can become rather expensive to provide data from the Insight cameras to anyone who hires the company.

A college program like Tech can provide access to the Insight camera information at no cost to the athlete. Current pitching coach Cooper Fouts is utilizing all of this information for his pitching staff. The result is helping the Bulldogs make adjustments to enhance spin rate on a particular pitch.

It could be as technical as putting more pressure on a finger or turning a wrist a quarter of a turn more to obtain a more effective spin rate.

“Instead of the pitching coach asking the pitcher, ‘Hey, can you feel the difference?’ now the technology allows you to ask, ‘Can you see the difference?’” Szymanski said.

With the Rapsodo, you can also aim the camera toward a hitter and obtain similar swing metrics — such as launch angle and exit velocity.

ArmCare.com enters the picture

Another company Tech has been working with is ArmCare, which has its own website ArmCare.com. The Biodex equipment in the Human Performance Lab measures internal and external rotation.

It’s also state of the art equipment available to Tech’s athletes that is not cost-effective for the average high school or little league baseball player.

Biodex is used to measure isotonic strength, or the loading and unloading phase of a pitcher’s motion. The ArmCare unit — which attaches simply to an athlete’s wrist — measures the pressure that you push into a wall while laying on your back, Szymanski explained.

The performance lab compared the data they obtained with the ArmCare equipment to that gathered through the Biodex equipment. Myles Fish, who is now working as the Assistant Minor League Athletic Trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers organization, utilized all of this date for the Tech pitching staff and presented this for a Directed Research Project while a graduate student at Tech.

Similarly, graduate student Pablo Ortiz, who works with the lab and with the pitching staff with Fouts and Tech Assistant Pitching Coach Matt Miller, is looking at biomechanics data — how are these joint segments related to the Pitch AI.

“What we want to know … is the Pitch AI from the cell phone valid and reliable compared to the gold standard 3-D Motion Capture?” Szymanki presented as a question. “If it is, then we’re going to say to coaches, parents, baseball enthusiasts, ‘Hey, buy the app, because it’s really reliable,’” he continued.

At this point an athlete won’t have to visit a lab to obtain all these metrics. They will have access through a smartphone and be able to dissect the video at home.

Applying science to the game of baseball

Crunching the data that Tech has gathered under Burroughs and Szymanski makes sense for a mid-major program on the rise. They get high tech results and data but through a cost-effective process that makes it easier to digest information that can enhance performance between the white lines.

When Tech started this process three years ago, it helped Szymanski determine if Bulldog pitchers were strong or weak with their arms as far as motion is concerned. To apply the data, Szymanski — who is also the strength coach — is able to assign exercises to certain athletes that will enhance their performance.

“I can lead a horse to water but I can’t make him drink,” he said. “I’m going to ask you to do these exercises when you’re with me, but I may ask them to do this on their own,” he said.

Burroughs echoed that sentiment. “Technology plays a big role. Our coaches do a great job with it. Our players do a phenomenal job with it,” Burroughs said. “And really, it’s to each his own. We don’t push it on anybody, but it’s there for you. You have to adjust with the times. Our pitchers have access to all that technology at Memorial (Gym) with Dr. Szymanski. Technology is huge in today’s game, no question.”

Tech’s veteran pitching staff has been able to work with the performance technology and get better.

For example, senior right hander Ryan Jennings had Tommy John surgery on his elbow three years ago. The COVID-19 season of 2020 set them back as far as metrics are concerned, but during the 2021 breakout NCAA season, Szymanski’s team was able to utilize the data to enhance performance. It allowed Jennings to pinpoint where he needed to work specifically in his return to the field.

Dr. Mike Sonne who works with the Toronto Blue Jays collects all of the data from people who buy the ProPlayAI equipment.

Louisiana Tech has also worked with the company to expand their database for college pitchers, who in general are going to record different metrics than professionals.

“College pitchers are going to be different than high school pitchers,” Szymanski said. “The best high school pitchers become college pitchers. The best college pitchers become drafted players. And then the best of the best become Major League Baseball pitchers.”

If you want to become more like a major league player, then those metrics can be given out.

How is that applied to Tech’s pitching staff?

Veteran pitcher Jonathan Fincher has been in the program and has logged many important innings at J.C. Love Field. There are times when Fincher will throw his four-seam fastball 92-93 mph. There are also other times when he throws the four seam 86-87 mph.

“Before we used this technology, we didn’t have an idea as to why there was inconsistency,” Szymanski said. “When you want someone to be a highly-draftable player you want them to be more consistent with their mechanics so that they’re consistent with their velocity.”

What Szymanski’s team noticed through the Pitch AI, when Fincher was throwing 92 mph, he had greater arm speed than when he was throwing at a lower velocity. Pitch AI showed Fincher, Fouts and the staff how he could maximize his velocity on a regular basis through tweaking his mechanics as it pertains to stride length, uncoiling and external rotation. The app provides pitchers immediate feedback.

In addition to his maturation as a pitcher physically, the performance lab has helped Jennings reach peak performance during his return from injury. Szymanski said that Jennings is routinely throwing 92-95 mph.

Going back to his data, he is the most powerful player on the team in regard to his ability to create power jumping — similar to how NFL players are measured with vertical jump at the NFL Combine. The team measures from the force plates built into the simulated mound in the lab. That allows them to measure peak power in force used to generate jumping ability.

At 187 pounds, Jennings is able to generate the most power on the team. That translates to how much power he’s able to create pushing off the mound while pitching to generate a 95 mph fastball.

The performance data has allowed the program to correlate that players who are generally able to jump the highest, also generate the highest velocity on their fastballs.

Again, this data can be utilized by teams that don’t have access to the equipment and labs. If you don’t have access, you can still use the data obtained from vertical jump to estimate the power generated by a pitcher. Szymanski explained that it makes sense on a biomechanics level. Those who are jumping the highest have fast-twitch muscle fiber and are typically athletes who also possess coordination, timing and good mechanics. “If they have all of this working for them, they have the ability to throw harder,” he said.

Maintaining peak performance during the season

How does all of this scientific data translate to Louisiana Tech being able to beat teams like LSU on the field twice this season? The data gathered through all of these mechanisms on a weekly basis allows Szymanski and his team determine if Tech’s players are performing to their greatest ability consistently. It’s something the team can control.

As a grinding season wears on, from the cold nights in February to the hot and steamy weekends in May, players can get the most out of their performance. As Szymanski said, the metric of body water becomes more important at this time when the weather heats up so that Tech players avoid dehydration while competing for a conference title, an NCAA berth and as they did in 2021, receive the NCAA regional at the Love Shack.

For example, players are monitored during competition so that they remain hydrated during a game and then the team has recovery protocols in place post-game that allows starting pitchers like Fincher, Cade Gibson, Jennings and Jarret Whorff the ability to recover fully to get ready to pitch the following weekend.

Incidentally, Szymanski explained that hydration doesn’t only pertain to water intake. For instance, too much water will cause an athlete to lose sodium levels. Keeping sodium in the body allows an athlete to retain his or her water volume. This is where sports drinks enter the picture. Consuming sports drinks in between innings will give athletes sugar for energy, maintain blood glucose levels and maintain sodium to keep water in the body.

“Now, they are fueled properly so they can continue pitching,” Szymanski said. “As long as they have good command of their fastball or breaking pitches they can continue performing at a high level.

“To me, that is a controllable factor,” he continued. “If we don’t control it, then maybe that’s why someone isn’t pitching well. I don’t want that to be the case. We want to monitor them.”

Utilizing technology year-round

What happens after the season is over? All of the data collected from the beginning of workouts until the end of the season also allows the staff to determine if a player worked the hardest he could to reach optimum performance.

It can determine how much a player can advance from season to season such as increased muscle mass and less body fat or just the opposite.

When the players return in the fall the staff can now assess where they are compared to the previous season and make adjustments.

“I tell our players that they are a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. You are a multi-million dollar piece of machinery like a high-performance vehicle,” Szymanski said. “I want you to put in 91 octane (healthy food) and not 87 — which may be a McDonald’s hamburger, fries and a shake which may taste good but may not be the best food to fuel your body to be the best baseball player, in our case, the best pitcher.”

The analogy to a high-performance car is appropriate in this case. If the muscles are good, your heart is good your body fat is appropriate, your lean body mass is good and water levels are good, you should be able to perform consistently well.

Making a mark in the baseball world

Students who have come through Szymanski’s lab at Tech are also taking the knowledge gained locally to establish their own careers. Garcia used her own research into how pitchers grip a baseball and that effect on spin rate to further her career. She spent time with the Baltimore Orioles organization before moving on to work with Barry University in Miami.

Jeff Albert is now the Major League Hitting Coach with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He went through Tech’s graduate program during Simoneaux’s coaching stint with the Bulldogs.

Other MLB organizations are also paying attention to what Tech is doing with sport performance. Chicago Cubs Assistant General Manager Ehsan Bokhari was in town in January after he noticed the information Szymanski was posting regarding the Tech performance lab.

Szymanski was in touch with the Cubs and visited his hometown of Chicago over the Christmas holidays in December 2021 to tour the Cubs’ facilities. Subsequently, Bokhari flew to Ruston in January from Arizona to spend the day with Szymanski to tour the Tech facilities.

This interaction with MLB teams has given validation of sorts to what Tech has built in its performance lab.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Other MLB organizations have reached out to Szymanski and mentioned that the Cubs now have one of the best performance labs based on what they learned from Tech and applied to the development of their own performance lab.

“It’s pretty cool that major league teams are reaching out to us to ask us about what we’re doing at Tech,” Szymanski said. “It also shows the coaches and players that we’re doing innovative things to help.”

Burroughs is a believer. “These days we don’t really exchange scouting reports anymore like the old days,” he said. “When a guy is struggling you can call him in, for instance, call up Cole McConnell’s doubles, or Cole McConnell’s strikeouts and do a side-by-side look at what you’re doing when you’re going good and maybe find something when you’re not doing so well.”

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose

Ultimately, the players still have to pitch. They still have to catch the baseball. They still have to hit. What Tech is doing behind the scenes technology-wise is making a difference in what fans are seeing at J.C. Love Field.

Tech keeps building its baseball program under Burroughs. Recruiting classes are getting better. The roster is performing at a high level and once again the team is competing for a conference title and eyeing an NCAA bid. What happens across the railroad track at Memorial Gym during the offseason if definitely helping what happens on the field in the spring.

In Tech’s case, how the team manipulates the 108 stitches during 9 innings of a baseball game, may have been derived from spending 108 hours in the sports performance lab.

Burroughs calls it synergy — the best of science and athletics coming together.

Come NCAA Tournament time, it’s called success.