For coaches, managers and front-office personnel, data represents answers to questions, a means to make important decisions and assess performance. For Kyle Zimmer, data represents a path to fulfilling his dream of pitching in the majors.
Zimmer has spoken candidly about how that dream has been tested and even faded at times amid numerous injuries throughout his professional career. The Royals took him off the roster last year following his body’s most recent breakdown.
He spent six months working with the staff at Driveline Baseball trying to calibrate his body again, and cameras, motion-capture equipment and a small triangular contraption called the Rapsodo were his guides.
“Usually, different guys have different tendencies, so you try to sort of narrow down one or two things to look at because you know if you’re doing those things right then everything is on time and sequenced up,” Zimmer said. “If they’re off, then you’ve got to evaluate sort of what you’re doing. It’s just a great other avenue that we have with all the tech that’s getting introduced to the game to be able to analyze at a more scientific level than the eye test.”
This spring, the Royals have implemented the Rapsodo pitch-tracking system throughout camp. That small portable triangular device — 7.1 inches tall, 15.1 inches long and 7.9 inches wide and priced between $4,000 and $4,500 each — includes a camera and sits on the ground between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. It’s present just about every time a pitcher throws off a mound.
The Rapsodo uses a camera and radar system to measure things like velocity, spin rate and pitch break. It can also produce three-dimensional trajectory imaging and be used to analyze things like the spin axis of a pitch and release points.
Yes. This is baseball in 2019, a mix of athletics and aerodynamics.
If Zimmer wants to look at his spin rate or spin efficiency on his fastball, study where he’s consistently releasing the ball or find out exactly what happens when he throws a cut fastball as opposed to a two-seamer or four-seamer, that information is available.
“It’s interesting to me that you heard about Boston’s success with Brian Bannister as their kind of analytical guy that is the go-between the analytics and the pitching coaches,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Then Dave Bush, who pitched for me in Milwaukee, is under Bannie and he’s doing the same thing in the minor leagues.”
For an old-school manager like Yost, the data-driven analysis certainly isn’t his focus, but the Rapsodo is ever-present and the information it gathers will quickly become a part of the daily conversation for members of his coaching staff.
“They understand all that crap,” Yost said. “I just make sure that they understand it. If they understand it and I need to understand it, they can explain it to me so at least we’re not missing the information. (Bullpen coach Vance Wilson) can tell you, he likes that stuff. (Quality control/catching coach) Pedro (Grifol), they love that stuff. Me, I’m just like can you get somebody out. “
Wilson and pitching coach Cal Eldred have been charged with making use of the data. Wilson said so far they’ve simply been collecting data to provide a starting point for each pitcher.
“Then I think where we’ll use it the most is who is having issues,” Wilson said. “So it’s almost like we use it like a triage. For example, hypothetically, if they’re not swinging at Brad Keller’s slider and by the eye test they should be, let’s look at the numbers in Rapsodo.”
Wilson, a former major-league catcher, is in his first spring training working full time with the Rapsodo. He spent part of the offseason learning the equipment and familiarizing himself with the data.
Rapsodo focuses on movement and how the air influences movement, Wilson explained. Measurements, such as spin efficiency, convey how the ball is getting its movement from the air.
“Our analytics department does a really good job of explaining it,” Wilson said. “It’s actually kind of a hard concept to grasp at first. “They’ll tell you that sliders actually don’t move. In my mind I’m like I’ve swung at a lot of sliders that move — I can promise you that — and missed them. I think it has more to do with the fact that it doesn’t use the air to move. So it really takes a while to grasp what it is, what they’re telling you.”
The Royals hired former minor-league pitcher Malcom Culver, who Wilson managed at Class A and Class AA, as an assistant to player development. Culver will serve as the go-between for the Royals similarly to Bannister’s position with the Red Sox.
Eldred views the information collected by Rapsodo as another statistic to be used in the evaluation and coaching process, just like walks or strikeouts.
“You say you’re getting underneath your slider,” Eldred said. “I can see that with my naked eye, and a lot of times the video or the Rapsodo information will help you say okay, yeah this is what I’m seeing. This is numbers that prove that, plus a slower video that will show you exactly what a player is doing. Some players respond to that, some players don’t. Being in education, you realize people learn a lot of different ways.”
Despite all the information pitchers like Zimmer love to devour, it’s not a replacement for traditional methods.
Wilson will tell you the information about pitches mimics the types of observations you get from good old-school scouts. Eldred considers it just another tool at the disposal of coaches and players.
Even Zimmer admits in the early stages of his rehab with Driveline, the staff were the ones closely monitoring the data. His job was simply to focus on making pitches.
“I still don’t try to lose myself in any of that stuff too much,” Zimmer said. “The hitter is the ultimate decider of how you’re doing. If they’re not making firm contact consistently, then you’re doing something right. If they’re squaring you up, you probably need to evaluate something.”
Six more signed
The Royals announced Friday that they’ve agreed to terms with six pre-arbitration eligible players. The group includes pitcher Ben Lively, catcher Cam Gallagher, infielder Kelvin Gutierrez and outfielders Jorge Bonifacio, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips. The only three players who are not signed for the 2019 season are pitchers Conner Greene and Jorge López, and infielder Adalberto Mondesi.