Tech improving Tigers' camp experience

Norris, Zimmermann, Mize among staff using data from advanced cameras, pitch trackers

February 16th, 2019

LAKELAND, Fla. -- came to Spring Training expecting plenty of eyes on him as he made his pitch for a rotation spot. As he threw his bullpen session Saturday morning, most of those eyes were electronic.

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In between Norris and home plate was a Rapsodo machine that measures pitches. Over Norris' shoulder, an Edgertronic high-speed camera measured release point not just with the arm, but down to the fingertips. Overhead was another slow-motion camera that works with the Rapsodo machine.

"It tells you everything," said. "It tells you how the ball's spinning, which axis it's spinning on, the efficiency of it, if you're using all your spin correctly. With the slider and the breaking ball, how much depth does it have as opposed to run."

Norris finished throwing, got his obligatory fist-bump from his catcher, then headed back behind the bullpen mounds. Pitching coach Rick Anderson gave him some information, but so did the Tigers' analytics team, complete with an iPad showing data on the pitches he just threw.

"Spin rate, spin efficiency, obviously the velo and all that," Norris said later. "It's really interesting stuff."

In a nearby batting cage, outfielder was working Friday on his batting stance while standing on a platform that measures pressure on each foot.

"Pressure plates, they call them," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You stand on them and they show pressure plates on your swing, how much weight shift there is and pressure on your toes or pressure on your heels."

The pressure plates, Gardenhire said, showed Reyes that he was landing on his toes as he swung. Immediately, he worked on adjusting his stance.

"That can help if you're putting too much weight on your back side, or when you're coming down too hard on your front foot, or if you're lunging over," said. "The feedback is pretty good on it."

This is the new reality of Spring Training. While coaches still spend hours with players every day, trying for that swing or delivery that feels just right, they now have data to complement it -- or for some players, reinforce it.

It's the new race among clubs, to get not just the best talent, but also the technology to help get the most out of that talent. The Tigers have been working quickly to catch up.

"We're going to get more and more into it," Gardenhire said. "The bosses told me we're putting money in this stuff and we're gonna use it."

That effort began after Al Avila took over as general manager, but it picked up two years ago once the Tigers fully committed to their rebuild -- not just to accumulate prospects, but develop them, too.

The Tigers teamed with the University of Michigan Sport Science Initiative to put top prospects through testing. They invested in new equipment for Minor League affiliates to track player movement and velocity like Statcast™ does in the Major Leagues.

For prospects like Casey Mize, the tech is an extension of what he has been exposed to since college. When Mize talked this week about changing his slider, he cited spin rate and efficiency as primary feedback.

"Honestly, I think it's the most efficient way of pitch design, to develop a pitch," Mize said. "The numbers are right there in front of you. You can see the flight of the ball, the path of the ball, to know how it's playing off your other pitches.

"We have these slow-motion cameras where I can see the last thing that the ball touches in my hand. I can see so much spin. I can see the way the ball kicks out of my hand, the rotation. Spin axis and efficiency is stuff that I've kind of really bought into, because it's just better pitches."

For veteran players like , the useful data is more selective. Like other Tigers pitchers, he was looking at Rapsodo data after a recent bullpen session.

"Just seeing what that thing says about my velo a few [bullpen sessions] back and then see where it's at," Zimmermann said. "Hopefully it's climbing a little bit as spring goes on. That's really the only thing I look at."

The players in between are an interesting barometer. used many of those tools at Driveline Baseball in Seattle, learning from founder Kyle Boddy and Matt Daniels.

"That's what really helped me with my slider," Boyd said. "I always had the coaching cues, but that's the one pitch I couldn't figure out. It got to the point where I bought my own [Rapsodo] this offseason."

Norris and Fulmer are learning as they go along. They'll have more in this camp when the Tigers bring in the Diamond Kinetics PitchTracker, which uses a "Smart Ball" and Bluetooth to track pitch motion. <p.></p.>

"It's really interesting stuff," Norris said. "I don't know that I always want it on my [bullpen sessions]. Especially if I'm not looking for something, I don't want to see numbers and then be alarmed, especially if I'm feeling good. But it's cool stuff."