SmartKage’s headquarters are in a remote office park, 36 miles and a couple dozen cows away from Boston. But in a batting cage inside, Kevin is warmed up and ready to audition before an audience of MLB scouts and college recruiters from across the country.
Kevin, a 14-year-old shortstop (whose name has been changed for this story), and his father are listening to SmartKage chief operating officer Larry Scannell describe the components of the infielder test. Scannell, a former Red Sox farmhand, runs through the sprinting, agility, throwing, and hitting portions of the test.
“It’s analogous to a physical SAT,” Scannell says. “And if you take it multiple times, just like the SAT, we combine your best scores in each area. It’s not about consistency, it’s about capability.
Once the explanation is over, a few taps on a touch screen start the automated measurement process. The system has been designed to be completely automated. Aside from tapping “next” on the touch screen, no human intervention is required, though Scannell adds the occasional explanatory detail or words of encouragement. And as Kevin takes his hacks against the pitching machine, Scannell and director of information technology Dennis Clemens starts talking about the collaboration with FungoMan that was required to making the pitching machine as consistent as possible.
“We changed out the legs and bolted the machine down,” Clemens said. “The side-to-side adjustment was removed, and we had the agitator adjusted so there were fewer jams.”
“And we swap the balls out every 30 days,” Scannell added. “We’re working with Rawlings and talking about the life of a baseball. And as a former facility owner myself, I mean, these are pearls! We would use these for an entire year, you know? Now …”
“Now the dog eats them,” CEO Corrine Vitolo said. “We take the premise of standardization very seriously.”
The fresh baseballs are more than just a way to give Merlin, a German Shepherd mix who was also on hand, new chew toys. Developing and running a standardized test requires SmartKage to constantly calibrate and maintain their equipment. It also means a significant effort to find the right kind of facilities to partner with, and Scannell said he spent five years evaluating prospective partners.
“I vetted these facilities out on location, years in business, member base and foot traffic, and then the size and the appearance,” he said. “But most importantly, are they going to bring in the business and support it?”
To date, SmartKage has reached agreements with 160 facilities across the country. They began their initial rollout earlier this year, and are currently up and running in about 20 facilities. The company owns the equipment and installs it in the facilities, who then advertise the product to their clients. The tests run around $150, and take around 30 minutes. Different tests exist for infielders, outfielders, catchers, and pitchers; the results are available to professional teams and college programs, with especially high marks forwarded directly to teams.
“We’re a filter and a pre-qualifier for teams,” Scannell said. “It’s about maximizing the time and productivity for scouts.”
Vitolo said her company also has more in-depth relationships with a number of MLB teams (though she refused to say which). These teams lease systems to gauge the fitness and health of their own players. Scannell said the teams also buy prepaid “scout cards” that area scouts give to amateur players they’d like more information on, and that professional players already in the organizations use in the offseason to track their workouts.
“And because we weigh them every single time, we’ll know if they come in overweight before they get into spring training,” Scannell said.
The batting cage where the test takes place looks a little unusual. Laser timers are stationed at regular intervals along the length of the cage to track the athlete during speed and agility tests (though these are removed, of course, before hitting begins). The area around home plate is slightly elevated: the platform contains pressure sensors to track things like how a hitter’s weight is distributed during the swing. And hanging from the ceiling are two cameras, evidence of an automated version of Sportvision’s PITCHf/x technology that tracks both incoming pitches and batted balls.
“What we’re doing is we’re bringing these technologies from the major league level, we’re trickling them down through the amateur and collegiate market,” Vitolo said.
Sportvision, of course, should be familiar to tech-savvy baseball fans; their PITCHf/x pitch tracking data have been publicly available since the system was first installed in 2007. And their HITf/x and FIELDf/x technologies have also been available to teams for several years. Soon after their founding, Vitolo said SmartKage began their partnership with Sportvision, ensuring that the same data sources front offices were using to evaluate their professional pitchers and hitters would also be available to judge prospective draftees.
“So when they’re making comparative analysis between players, it’s exact, it’s apples to apples,” Vitolo said. “[Sportvision is] the de facto standard in baseball, and we worked with them on adding metrics to their existing system.”
Even after only a few months, SmartKage is already finding interesting trends in their data. Scannell described how players, after years of counterclockwise baserunning, become almost universally faster going to their right than going to their left. And he also talked about how the technology helped find an injury from a pro pitcher’s plyometric pushup data.
“There was an abnormal kind of regression in one of the pitching shoulders,” Scannell said. “And it turned out that there was a slight tear, and it was enough to red flag an MRI.”
The team is busy completing its first 40 installations, and making plans to roll out to the other facilities they have agreements with. But look in the right places and you’ll see hints — like a Harvard football helmet perched on a filing cabinet — that the company is starting to expand their offerings.
“A lot of the facilities that Larry’s got under contract are multi-sport facilities,” Vitolo said. “So you’ll have a SmartKage baseball, and then you’ll have a SmartSports football.”
Just like the SmartKage, SmartSports Football will offer an automated evaluation tool — a “physical SAT” — to a sport known for its pre-draft scouting combine. But Scannell says the company will offer far more than the handful of metrics traditionally covered.
“We measure five times the amount of metrics as the NFL combine,” Scannell said. “We can do everything the NFL does plus another five times those metrics in addition.”
As more and more of the cages start to appear across the country, the technology that underpins them will improve. SmartKage already has plans to add even more data sources, from pressure sensors in the pitching mound to markerless biometrics to wearable sensor-based technologies. To an outside perspective, digging into a specific aspect of a player’s game from the all the information SmartKage makes available may seem like trying to drink from a fire hose. But Vitolo says her company is ready to adapt to any improvements in technology — and still meet teams’ growing demand for performance and biometric data.
“Leap and the net appears,” Vitolo said. “You have the technology, you’ve got the capacity, and all of a sudden the applications present themselves.”