MLB Hosts First Baseball Operations Technology Expo at Winter Meetings

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The future of baseball training was on display this week in a sterile subdivision of the Mandalay Bay’s South Pacific Ballroom. As nearly every decision maker across the sport gathered in Las Vegas for the annual winter meetings, club executives took breaks from discussing trades and free agents to visit the first MLB-organized Baseball Operations Tech Expo.

SportTechie was offered an exclusive tour inside the otherwise closed exhibition. The league office acted as a clearinghouse and hand-picked 23 sports technology companies to demonstrate their wares for the 30 MLB organizations. The devices and platforms covered a breadth of developmental needs such as on-field performance, fitness training, athlete management, and general wellness. Wearables, virtual reality, high-frame rate cameras, and software platforms were among the represented categories.

“We feel it’s our duty to give [tech companies] equal access to all 30—big market, small market, etc.,” said MLB EVP of strategy, technology, and innovation Chris Marinak. “This is really a vehicle for us to make sure we’re providing a service-oriented philosophy of giving clubs access to what we’re seeing.”

Marinak hatched the idea for the expo with support from Mike Shapiro, the league’s recently hired director of innovation and venture investments. The introduction of new technology into the sport has been very piecemeal. Some clubs, particularly from smaller markets, hadn’t been introduced to all of the devices on the market. Many of these companies don’t have the travel budget to visit all 30 clubs on site. And while tech demonstrations do happen at the broader baseball trade show that takes place at the winter meetings, those affairs are more public, and more difficult for team executives (especially those of a higher profile) to walk through unencumbered.

“It was great to see MLB enable the clubs to be exposed to such cutting edge technology companies,” said an American League assistant general manager. “It not only speaks to the interest clubs have in this, but also the awareness that MLB has on the importance of this tech and the data from that.”

MLB has certainly embraced technology and innovation, implementing tech at the league level with Statcast and allowing a few wearable companies onto the field. Currently, four sensor devices are permitted in big league games: Whoop and Catapult biometric wearables, the Motus workload-tracking elbow sleeve, and Zephyr heart rate monitors. In the minors, on-knob bat sensors (from companies such as Blast Motion and Diamond Kinetics) are allowed. Embedded bat sensors can be used only at the rookie ball level.

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Blast Motion’s Mike Woods and Kyle Attl (Photo by Joe Lemire)

Most of those companies were on hand in Las Vegas as well as some other increasingly standard baseball technologies: Edgertronic, which makes high-speed cameras often used in pitch design; K-Motion, whose sensor-laden vest tracks core movement, especially for hitters; and Rapsodo, a producer of pitching and hitting monitors. There were three virtual reality training companies present—STRIVR, TrinityVR, and WIN Reality (formerly EON Sports)—each with a different approach to training exercises and pitch recognition drills.

A company like Blast Motion, which makes MLB’s official bat sensor technology, is no stranger to the major league clubs. But the expo served as “a great opportunity for us to showcase our latest product updates,” said Mike Woods, Blast’s VP of business development and strategic partnerships. Woods added the event was “very efficient” in facilitating introductions. Most of the tech vendors also rented hotel suites during the winter meetings for longer demonstrations.

“Across the league organizations have adopted an evidence based decision making process,” WIN Reality CEO Chris O’Dowd wrote in an email after the event. “As a result it is natural for teams to gravitate towards technologies as a means to quantify new categories of performance and predictive performance modeling. The tech expo accentuates the direction the game is going. There is a resounding belief that the next era in baseball will be marked by impact that derives from novel technologies.”

Some of the other companies in attendance were less baseball endemic. Zone7, for instance, uses artificial intelligence to analyze training data to predict injuries. The company got its start in soccer, but its system can be applied to other sports. Similarly, SyncThink first garnered attention for its ability to detect neural impairments that can be indicative of a concussion, but the VR headset can also be used to gauge fatigue. And that’s a more pressing issue in baseball.

“That’s why we focused early stage—they’re pliable, you can push them in certain directions,” Marinak said of the invited startups. “I think a lot of these companies are trying to figure out where they want to go as a company.”

WinR’s VR training setup (Photo by Joe Lemire)

The line of demarcation for league involvement roughly falls along the distinction of performance review versus player training. Statcast, which combines ball tracking with TrackMan radars and player tracking with ChyronHego optical TRACAB system, is about as far as the Commissioner’s Office wants to go with rolling out its own new technology for now. (That said, Marinak noted that there is room for growth with Statcast, particularly in how refined and accurate the system gets. In the future, he predicted, tracking systems may be able to locate not just the player but his arm, hand, or glove—a specificity with great implications for performance assessments.)

“Nobody plays for us,” Marinak said. “We take that dynamic seriously. Particularly in a sport like ours where it’s revenue sharing- [and] luxury tax-oriented as opposed to salary cap, we have to create avenues for clubs to compete. When we start to get into player performance, we feel very strongly that that’s not an area where we want to be innovating. We want to be allowing the clubs to innovate. It’s about facilitating equal opportunity for innovation.”

Read more: sporttechie.com