Not just for the pros: Arizona high schools, colleges turning to baseball analytics, technology

Not just for the pros: Arizona high schools, colleges turning to baseball analytics, technology

Grand Canyon University uses a system called Synergy to track in-game numbers and compile pitching and hitting reports for upcoming opponents. Baseball analytics isn’t just for the pros as colleges and high schools are also going that route. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

Grand Canyon University uses a system called Synergy to track in-game numbers and compile pitching and hitting reports for upcoming opponents. Baseball analytics isn’t just for the pros as colleges and high schools are also going that route. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

PHOENIX – GateWay Community College coach Rob Shabansky admits he wasn’t a huge fan of technology and analytics in baseball.

He didn’t understand its true purpose, or the information it produced. He couldn’t grasp how this data could help improve the performance of his players on the diamond.

Shabansky, like many others in the baseball industry, was skeptical of this numbers-based approach.

“A lot of that information was, to a certain degree, recoded for people who really knew it,” Shabansky said. “But if you didn’t know it, you didn’t get much from it.”

Then Shabansky started talking to coaches he trusted in the collegiate and professional ranks who were familiar with the data, like Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown and Arizona pitching coach Nate Yeskie. The more he learned from their experiences and about the data itself, the more he wanted to learn about how he could use it, too.

Shabansky’s views began to change and he isn’t alone in embracing a new approach. Across all levels of baseball in Arizona, coaches and players are following the lead of Major League Baseball innovators and turning their attention toward analytics-based development.

(Video by Joshua Iversen/Cronkite News)

Even some high schools have gone that route although it is still more exception than rule. Cronkite News surveyed various Arizona high school baseball coaches and asked them to rank their use of analytics compared to their competitors on a scale of one to 10. The average score among 30 respondents was 4.6.

For Shabansky, “I think when it really clicked with me was two summers ago and I was spending some time with USA Baseball. (Brown) was there helping us and kind of breaking the data down and how they use it and really just helping me look at it a little bit differently.

“I was really trying to learn it and understand it.”

He began to see how analytical tools, like Rapsodo and TrackMan, could help the development of his players.

And now GateWay’s baseball program has its own Rapsodo technology.

Rapsodo is a popular system of high-speed cameras connected to a dashboard application, and is often used to analyze pitching metrics such as spin rate, axis and efficiency, horizontal and vertical movement and release point. (Photo courtesy of Rapodo)

Rapsodo is a system of high-speed cameras connected to a dashboard application, which can be viewed on desktop, tablet or mobile devices. Its use has become more common in recent years, especially for pitching, as it can track metrics such as spin rate, axis and efficiency, horizontal and vertical movement and release point.

“We can make adjustments and we’re getting instant feedback,” Shabansky said. “(These tools) help us quicken up the process of trying to help someone overcome something, or help develop something.”

‘A friend of the program’

One program following this model is Canyon View High School in Waddell., which uses the analytical tool Rapsodo to help further develop its pitchers and share “hard data” on its players.

“I’m on board with anything that’s going to help move our players in the right direction,” said Canyon View coach Nick Swanson.

Canyon View acquired a Rapsodo system only a couple of months ago, borrowing the technology from “a friend of the program” in Major League Baseball: Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Brad Boxberger.

Boxberger, besides lending his $5,000-plus pitch-tracking machine, has shared pitching advice and trained with Canyon View’s team over the offseason, setting an example for the Jaguars players in the process.

“His thoughts on how he works through his own mechanical deficiencies kind of helps our players with, ‘Well, if he’s a major leaguer trying to figure stuff out and coming out not throwing the ball as hard as (he) can every single day, maybe I kind of need to get on that track, too,’” said Randy Wilson, Canyon View’s pitching coach.

Swanson is open to the benefits of Rapsodo but is not the primary collector and distributor of the data. That job belongs to Wilson, who is also the team’s data analyst.

Having studied kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, Wilson became interested in the analytical side of the game through his curiosity in biomechanics.

He remembers his initial exposure to this kind of technology during a visit he made to UCLA’s pitching center, which is within the school’s biomechanics department. Wilson saw how the center’s technology could track stress points on a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder, which he explained, are dependent on the player’s arm angle.

“It was way over my head,” Wilson said. “They had technology that I had never seen (before).”

But now, Wilson has a much better understanding of advanced baseball technology and is using his knowledge to help his pitchers at Canyon View demonstrate their potential value to recruiters.

“You can use the new Driveline metrics or the Rapsodo metrics and you can say, ‘Well, his spin rate was x, his velocity was x, his horizontal and vertical movement were x; therefore, yes, he might have given up a couple of runs. But if you look at the metrics, that’s going to transition into what you want at the collegiate level,’” Wilson said.

The information Rapsodo provides has helped Wilson refine his understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his pitchers.

For example, Rapsodo’s ability to track spin rate – the rate of rotation of the ball when a pitcher releases it – has allowed Wilson to understand the type of movement and break his pitchers can expect from their breaking balls in a quantifiable way.

Bauer units, which is a pitch’s spin rate divided by its velocity and horizontal break – the difference between the horizontal location of a pitch that was thrown with no spin to a pitch that was actually thrown– are among the variety of metrics that Rapsodo captures and Wilson uses to determine which pitches to call during a game and which locations in the strike zone work best for each pitcher.

Wilson, who has been a pitching coach for 12 years, believes the extra information has only made him better at his job.

“I can use the data that I’m seeing from my pitchers and kind of determine who I can and can’t call pitches up in the zone with,” Wilson said. “Using the horizontal break, I can determine what locations I call with a two-seam (fastball) or sinker ball type of guy to determine if it’s going to flatten out to an outside pitch, or whether (he) can maintain that horizontal break.”

Swanson said that the more information Wilson has, the better the outcome.

“You add this tool to his repertoire and to our players, and it just gives us more ways to attack hitters,” Swanson said.

The Jaguars are rare among high school teams in using such advanced technology. Those surveyed by Cronkite News said they began using technology within the last few years. Many use simple video analysis or statistical breakdowns through aggregators like Hudl or GameChanger. Five coaches said they use Blast Motion sensors, which can be fitted to the knob of a bat to measure swing metrics, while only two said they use any form of Rapsodo.

(Data visualization by Lexi Ruiz/Cronkite News)

‘The limit of your potential’

At the Division I collegiate level, having access to Rapsodo devices and similar technology is common. Arizona State is among the programs that have fully embraced the analytical movement in baseball.

Led by Caleb Longley, the director of hitting development and analytics, and Dylan Olsonawski, a graduate manager and the head of pitching development and analytics, ASU uses a variety of technologies to develop players and improve performance.

Longly and Olsonawski had notable playing careers, Olsonawski as a pitcher for Concordia College and Longley as a first baseman and outfielder at East Tennessee State. After college, Longley even spent a season with the independent league Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers.

However, neither had the raw talent to make it as a pro, which prompted them to turn to data and coaching.

“I was always a guy that probably wasn’t blessed with the best tools,” Longley said. “I always wanted to be the best I could be. And sometimes when you reach the limit of your potential, you start looking for other things, you know?”

ASU is the latest stop in Longley’s career in player development. He owned and founded a baseball training center in Nashville, Tennessee, called High Intent Training, and is the creator and CEO of MARV training, a flexible-band program used for hitting prep and arm care.

Meanwhile, Olsonawski is a graduate student at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law studying sports law and business.

Along with ground-unit Rapsodo cameras installed around their home field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the Sun Devils have multiple high-speed Yakkertech cameras, which measure metrics such as pitch movement and exit velocity during games.

And the team has programs such as Synergy Sports technology and PITCHf/x that track specific play-by-play data, which produces detailed reports for ASU’s players and coaches.

Longley and Olsonawski’s jobs are to then translate the high-level data programs to ASU’s players and coaching staff in a way that can be easily understood. Both have credited their past playing experience as helpful in attempting to explain their data-driven coaching and analysis to the Sun Devils players and coaching staff.

“There are some teams that have guys with just straight-up economics degrees that come in, you know, they know how to run regression tests,” Olsonawski said. “They know how to do stuff like that. They’re good at coding. And it’s like, ‘OK, but like … what’s your knowledge on the game?’”

Both are relatively new additions to ASU coach Tracy Smith’s staff. Longley joined in early 2020 followed by Olsonawski in October of the same year. But the rest of the coaches accepted them immediately, eager to implement some of their ideas to help ASU improve.

The Arizona State baseball coaching staff often shows younger players video of former standout Spencer Torkelson, comparing his swing from his freshman season to his junior year as an example of how he improved during his time with the Sun Devils. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Smith has been especially receptive. Longley recalls a recent conversation with ASU’s skipper about lineup construction, and the recent trend of batting a team’s best hitter second in the order. Smith jumped in to say that he was one of the first college coaches to do so, batting Nationals slugger Kyle Schwarber second during their time together at Indiana University.

“You talk about a guy (in Smith) that’s been around the game forever, but continues to adapt, and wants to learn more,” Longley said. “He’s not satisfied with the same strategy he had back in ‘95. He wants to be a better coach. And that’s why he continues to have success and gets players in here and gets players that move on to the next level.”

Since the advent of the MLB amateur draft in 1965, Arizona State has produced 450 selections and 111 major league players, second only to only Miami-Dade College and the University of Southern California, respectively, among all colleges and universities.

ASU will likely add at least two more players to their list soon. Outfielder Hunter Bishop was selected 10th overall by the San Francisco Giants in 2019, and corner infielder Spencer Torkelson was picked first overall by the Detroit Tigers one year later.

Longley said that his staff shows ASU’s younger players video of Torkelson and Bishop, along with recent MLB draft selections Gage Workman and Trevor Hauver, comparing their swings from their freshman season to their junior year as an example of how they all improved during their time with the Sun Devils.

As an overall teaching tool, both Longley and Olsonawski believe in the importance of video as an easily understood medium to help communicate high-level concepts to players.

“I can understand this stuff. I can tell them this stuff. (But) I don’t know if they comprehend it,” Olsonawski said. “So at this point, what we can do is we take stuff they can visually see … it’s a lot easier to just be able to show them.”

One video teaching tool Olsonawski uses for his players is pitch overlays. Popularized by Rob Friedman, known as “Pitching Ninja” on Twitter, a pitch overlay places video of one pitch type directly over video of another. Playing both pitches at once allows for a clear visualization of similarities and differences between the two pitches, such as movement, location and release point.

Olsonawski will also show players video of current MLB pitchers who have similar physical builds, pitching motions and pitch repertoires as their own.

“To be able to say, like, (redshirt junior Justin) Fall, he’s looking like a James Paxton comp (comparison),” Olsonawski said. “I can say, ‘Hey, go home, we’re going to watch video on this guy. That’s essentially the same mechanically, you know, same mechanics as what you have.’ ”

Fall began the season as a potential closer, but injuries forced him back to the rotation. There, he’s been effective as the 6-foot-6 left-hander throws his fastball in the mid-90s from an extreme downward plane because of his height.

On the other end of the physical spectrum is redshirt sophomore Tyler Thornton, one of ASU’s analytical darlings. The right-handed pitcher, who transferred from Saint Mary’s before the 2020 season, doesn’t throw particularly hard. His fastball usually averages in the high 80s or low 90s.

But Thornton produces an extremely high spin rate, putting him at about 27 or 28 Bauer units. This makes Thornton difficult to hit when combined with a relatively high vertical approach angle, especially when he locates fastballs high in the strike zone.

“He will probably pitch in the big leagues because it is such an extreme,” Longley said of Thornton’s approach angle. “(His) velocity isn’t in the top of our team, but he’s going to get guys out because he is different. He’s a top-of-the-pyramid type guy when it comes to that.”

ASU also has four undergraduate assistants who help run some of the technology during games. Juniors Ben Castiglia and Joey Rusnack and sophomores Jake Sher and Cameron Deck are in the press box for every home game managing Synergy, Yakkertech and PITCHf/x.

Longley and Olsonawski then aggregate the data the four collect, compiling relevant information into reports through a program called Baseball Cloud. The two create data dashboards that can be easily understood by players and other coaches, who also have access to Baseball Cloud.

The recent hires of Longley and Olsonawski show a new emphasis on analytics-based development for ASU, and it isn’t stopping there.

The school built the Malone Hitting Complex in 2019, part of $4.8 million in renovations to Phoenix Muni. Now, construction is underway on a state-of-the-art pitching lab attached to the right field bullpen. The lab will house, among other player development tools, high-speed Rapsodo cameras.

Just ‘play the game’

The Sun Devils aren’t alone in their focus on data. While not yet as extensive, ASU’s in-state rivals, Grand Canyon University and the University of Arizona, also have their own growing baseball analytics teams.

GCU’s numbers department is led by Rock Hudgens, who manages the Lopes’ analytics staff, otherwise known as the “A-team.” They use Synergy to track in-game numbers and compile pitching and hitting reports for upcoming opponents. Like ASU, they use Yakkertech and Baseball Cloud.

The Lopes do not solely rely on the numbers when analyzing their players, Hudgens said. But he adds that the data has helped in certain instances.

“One of our harder throwing guys was not doing so well in the fall. And we were kind of wondering why because he was the hardest thrower,” Hudgens said. “We kind of sat down and saw some of the numbers and saw that his horizontal break was almost zero … and so for that example, this is a great tool because we’re not necessarily getting so involved in the numbers that it’s taking away from other stuff.”

But as the director of analytics and operations with the Lopes, Hudgens “wears a lot of hats” on the team, and not just within the analytics department. He also organizes GCU’s team budgeting, scheduling and “day-to-day operations stuff.”

Cameron LeBlanc, like Hudgens, holds a “jack-of-all-trades” position at Arizona. One of his primary responsibilities is heading up the Wildcats’ video and analytics department.

LeBlanc is in his second year in the role, in which he manages a team of “managers” who help collect Trackman data, which uses radar to measure on-field movements. They also shoot video.

UA and GCU have found success on the field this season, despite their less analytically driven approaches than ASU’s. And Grand Canyon is even winning games that the underlying numbers suggest they shouldn’t win.

“Absolutely numbers help, but it’s not everything, that’s for sure,” Hudgens said.

Hudgens has had more than his fair share of debates with his father about the usefulness of analytics and technology in baseball. Now the bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, Dave Hudgens hasn’t been a fan of the data-driven direction the game has taken.

But Rock agrees with his father that, given how difficult of a sport baseball is, keeping the game as simple as possible is the best way for players to learn and develop. He isn’t married to the data, despite being GCU’s analytics guru.

“I really don’t think, as a player, you should be thinking about that kind of stuff – especially when you’re actually in a game,” Rock said. “I think you should just clear your head, clear your mind and just frickin’ play the game.

“But off the field, I think you want to be a student of the game.”

Longley argues that technology and data-driven analysis in baseball have raised the level of play from a pitching perspective, but perhaps at the detriment of hitting development.

“Guys are throwing harder than ever. Guys are developing pitches that are more effective than ever,” said Longley said, who believes that hitting will “go back to being a bit more old-school,” with greater focus on pitch-by-pitch adjustments and improved motor skills at the plate.

“Now, technology-wise, we’ve caught up with pitching, right?” Longley said. “But until we’re able to make that adjustment and then take it to the field, raise OPS and lower strikeout numbers, improve efficiency – that’s the disconnect. I think that’s where the game needs to see improvement.”

Longley said that disconnect explains a recent trend. Teams are shying away from the traditional stats-only types of employees who have dominated front offices in the 21st century. Instead, teams are hiring former players with similar skills in the hopes that they can translate the numbers.

The Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies hired former players Chris Young and Sam Fuld, respectively, as general managers during the 2020-21 offseason.

“I think we’re seeing a little bit of a turn, especially at the professional level of newer-school guys who are being let go by teams,” Longley said. “And we’re kind of going back to – not necessarily old-school – but guys who are more inclined to preach for success in the game, and not necessarily so much on the computer reading.”

What’s next in baseball technology? LeBlanc points to Hawk-Eye, an advanced video tracking system originally popularized in tennis. MLB implemented Hawk-Eye in 2020 to replace Trackman and the newer technology is able to measure much more specific movements than Trackman, including biomechanics of the players.

While more universally accepted now than ever before, the debate over analytics rages on at all levels of the game.

Some coaches are intrigued, but wonder how a school with limited resources, especially at the high school level, can use data to make a difference. Traditionalists reject it in favor of keeping baseball the way it has always been.

But to Shabansky, the recent data convert, the solution is simple: blend the old with the new.

“For the guys who are skeptical about it, I try to tell them that it’s a blend of old-school stuff and things that you use to help guys get over issues or fix a problem or develop a pitch,” Shabansky said. “Ultimately, it’s just going to give you real-time data to figure out, ‘is it actually working?’”

Many of these “new-school” ideas have existed for decades, even if they weren’t spotted by a computer program. Opposing defenses often shifted on Red Sox legend Ted Williams during his heyday. Coaches have always taken notice when a pitcher’s fastball has “rise” or a batter hits a ball particularly hard.

The difference is, there are now ways to measure those observations. And to Shabansky, that means there’s no excuse for ignoring data.

“Honestly, for the skeptics out there, it’s not changing old-school ways or changing how to help people,” Shabansky said. “It’s just helping you determine the ways a lot faster.”

Joshua Iversen

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Iversen expects to graduate in May 2021 with degrees in sports journalism and business data analytics. Iversen, who has been a sports reporting intern at The Arizona Republic, is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.

Koki Riley

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Koki Riley expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Riley, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and Cape Cod Baseball League, is working for Cronkite News this spring.

Lexi Ruiz

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Lexi Ruiz expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor of arts degree in sports journalism. She is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.