By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
Technological innovations often have some of the more interesting origin stories. The creative minds behind the technologies can be inspired by anything they come across on a daily basis. The same can be said for the newest tech entering the world of baseball, Kinatrax, born of a conversation between a businessman and an executive from his hometown team.
Michael Eckstein is the President of Kinatrax Inc. The story of what gave him the idea to found the company starts back at a business lunch in 2012 when he got into a conversation with one of the executives from the Philadelphia Phillies. The executive and Eckstein were lamenting the poor start to the year for Phils ace Roy Halladay – who had started 2-4 with an 8.65 ERA.
“Roy didn’t know what was going on, our pitching coach at the time Rich Dubee couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” said Eckstein via phone. “So the guy says to me, wouldn’t it be great if we could see Roy’s mechanics in-game?”
That comment spawned an idea with Eckstein. In 2010, Microsoft released a new technology that paired with the XBOX 360 called Kinect. The technology was basically a motion-capture system that allowed you and your friends to control the video game based on your movements. Eckstein had been in business with Microsoft for years, so he asked some of his colleagues at Microsoft if it would be possible to use a markerless motion-capture technology like the Kinect in an MLB setting.
“They said to me, you know that’s a great idea. The problem is the focal length for the Kinect is only about 8-14 feet,” said Eckstein. “So the problem was how do we increase that focal length out to 300+ feet so it could be used in a ballpark.”
Immediately, Eckstein set to work on finding the right camera tech to be able to accomplish this feat. Confident that he had a product that would interest Major League teams, he travelled to the Winter Meetings that offseason and spoke with representatives from the Grapefruit League, the Cactus League, and MLB teams.
“Every team we spoke to told us: ‘If you guys can do what you say you can do, you’re going to revolutionize everything we understand about pitching,” said Eckstein. “We just needed a team that would be willing to allow us to test our system in their ballpark.”
Enter Adam Fisher, then the Manager of Baseball Operations for the New York Mets. A longtime friend of Eckstein’s, Fisher allowed the Kinatrax team to set up their system in Citi Field on June 25, 2013, while the team was in the midst of an 11-game road trip.
The result? The following video:
Now armed with the proof that his concept worked, Eckstein now just needed a team to put their money where their mouth was and allow the system to be installed permanently in their stadium. That’s where the Tampa Bay Rays come into the equation. Tampa has long been considered by many within the baseball community to be one of the teams on the cutting edge of the analytics and sports science movement.
“Tampa has a reputation of being very progressive,” said Eckstein. “We’ve already got our system set up in Tropicana field and have recorded over 1,000 pitches.”
The question, as always, when a new analytic system begins to enter the mainstream is how can it help our understanding of the game? Eckstein sites 5 different areas within the infrastructure of a baseball team that he believes could all benefit in different ways.
1) Front Office: “The front offices are very interested in knowing and understanding what bio-mechanics look like for a pitchers best practices,” said Eckstein. Think of best practices as a lights out day for a pitcher. Each individual is different in their pitching style and motion, and with this technology front offices would be able to monitor whether that pitcher over time has the same movement, arm slot, etc. Essentially giving them an idea of how consistent the pitcher is.
2) Pitching Coaches: Ask any pitcher in the major leagues and they will tell you they watch film or are shown film of themselves regularly to make sure they’re hitting the same spots. Well, with Kinatrax, since the data is available in real-time on any wireless device, a pitching coach could look over the video with his pitcher in between innings and try to make adjustments.
3) Trainer: “From a trainer’s perspective they can look at this data and see how much stress the pitchers are putting on different areas,” said Eckstein. “If they start to see outliers from this perspective, they can monitor these points.”
4) Players: “The players want access to the information because they want to take responsibility for their own bodies,” said Eckstein. The data gathered from the system will be available to be stored either on a local server or on a secure cloud that the players can access.
5) Scouts: The Major League level is the first step of what Eckstein believes will be a multi-level process. “Scouts we’ve heard from want it at the AAA and AA levels,” said Eckstein. “They want analytics on their best prospects as they progress through their careers.”
This system comes with a whole new set of numbers and data points that analytics people will have to sift through in order to gain an understanding of what is useful and what isn’t. Can it help to determine which pitchers are more prone to injuries and which aren’t? Can it give indicators of a pitcher who may be headed that way?
Dr. Stephen Fealy is the Orthopedic Surgery/Sports Medicine Consultant for the Major League Baseball Player Association in addition to his full-time position as a Sports Medicine Surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He’s on the advisory committee for Pitch Smart; a system recently implemented by USA Baseball that gives guidelines on acceptable pitch counts and exercises aspiring young pitchers in varying age groups should use. He specializes in shoulder, elbow and knee surgery and is part of a committee that is “embarking on a 5-year project to figure out if there are certain pitchers that pre-dispose themselves to injury” by using MRI’s, X-rays, and the study of bio-mechanical information.
“We think bio-mechanics can be a huge part of this and essential to the process of understanding,” said Fealy over the phone. “Also, the less invasive the better. Kinatrax is useful because it can capture all of this bio-mechanical information from afar.”
Fealy is optimistic certainly about Kinatrax’s usefulness, but cautions that this technology will generate a lot of data and our understanding of that data in relation to a pitcher’s overall susceptibility to injury is still in its infancy.
“These computer systems can create thousands upon thousands of data points,” said Fealy. “The problem is we may not yet know what that data actually means.”
What often gets lost in the excitement over our ability to gather more information on these athletes, is whether knowing more will hurt them as much as it helps them. As a consultant for the MLBPA, that’s a line that Dr. Fealy is concerned with.
“One thing we need to make sure of from a player perspective is that they don’t get hurt by the use of this data,” said Fealy. “We need to make sure teams aren’t using this data against them in contract talks.”
There is one thing that Eckstein, Dr. Fealy, and many teams without question agree on: Kinatrax’s technology certainly has a place in America’s past time to help with our understanding of the men taking the mound. “We’ve had conversations with 17 teams about our systems since this Rays deal,” said Eckstein. “There’s certainly going to be some interesting conversations at the Winter Meetings.”
Will Kinatrax prove to be the missing link in our understanding of the art of pitching? Or will it be part of a larger picture of analytics we have come to know and love? There’s only one way to find out.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email him.