MLB Teams Demo New Tech During Fall Instructs

After quietly toiling away all summer, they travel to the complexes in Arizona and Florida just after the minor league seasons end. Now is the time to impress the higher-ups that will decide their future with the organization.

It seems the startups traveling to the Arizona Fall League and fall instructional leagues have more in common with the prospects they work with after all.

MLB teams use the fall instructional leagues (“instructs”) to try out new technologies they are considering purchasing. Organizations get to use their minor league talent as guinea pigs, rather than their stars. And tech companies get more access to players than they would during spring training or the regular season, when their schedules are much more regimented.

The result is a who’s who of baseball-related companies making their way to the Arizona and Florida. Over the past year, deCervo, Motus Global, SmartKage, and Zepp all reported spending time at fall instructs, and that’s just the companies I’ve personally written about. Motus brought their pitching sleeve — later officially christened the mThrow — to last year’s fall instructs, where they reported metrics such as arm slot, arm speed, and elbow torque to coaches during game action.

“Fall instructs serves as a great platform for Motus to work with our existing lab partners on new developments while we transition our biomechanics lab experience to the field,” chief technology officer Ben Hansen said.

Teams are always looking for new products to test out. Suggestions for new devices can come from anywhere: training staffs reading about a new technology, or front office members suggesting products they or their colleagues have used before. But there’s a significant effort needed to try new devices, so organizations have to narrow their choices down to the most promising options.

“In almost all cases, the decision to evaluate technology involves more than one department buying in,” said Rangers’ director of baseball information services Todd Slavinsky.

Once a decision to work with a particular technology is made, the technology is evaluated on a number of fronts. Slavinsky said the Rangers pay special attention to making sure the device is unobtrusive for the players who use it and produces clear, actionable information for coaches and trainers.

“Ease of use is key,” he said. “And the ability to import results into our internal systems is important.”

Part of the evaluation process is determining how, if a device is designed for in-game use, data collected outside of a game environment relates to data collected during competition. And this is where fall instructs provide a unique opportunity for organizations: In contrast to the regular season, there are relatively few barriers to in-game use during instructs. MLB currently prohibits the on-field use of technologies like bat sensors during games (though a new policy is in the works for next season). But unlike spring training or even the Arizona Fall League, fall instructs are not sanctioned by Major or Minor League Baseball. And since these games are more of a very organized scrimmage than their officially sanctioned counterparts, rules about things like on-field technology are made by the participating clubs without the involvement of MLB.

Startups are understandably excited to get an invite to fall instructs. Jason Sherwin, founder and CEO of deCervo, worked with four teams this fall: two teams with whom he had an existing relationship, and two new organizations. A veteran of spring training, Sherwin said the less stringent schedules of fall instructs makes life easier for people like him, who need to grab players between games and workouts and batting practices.

“During the season, the schedule’s more set … and the priority is on the players being ready for the game,” Sherwin said. “So there’s a lot less room for us to fit in there.”

But in the spare moments at instructs, Sherwin and his colleagues had a chance to test the minor leaguers available to them using their full EEG system. Naturally, most of the players had never heard of deCervo’s brain training techniques. But Sherwin said he was encouraged by the feedback his group collected from the users.

“It was a very positive response from the players,” he said. “They’d like to use it on their phone, they thought it was cool, that sort of thing.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for deCervo. Sherwin said his group witnessed “sparring” within organizations between those who were excited about the technology, and those who hadn’t heard of it and were more skeptical.

“Because what we’re doing is such a different approach to hitting, the process is more by exposure,” Sherwin said. “So there is a little bit of a hump to get over in terms of willingness to change or work it into the already busy schedule.”

Now that the instructs season is over, the technology companies are back in the lab, analyzing the data they collected from the pros to see how they can improve their products. And front offices are gathering too, poring over their new data sources and trying to determine if they are worth a longer look.

“In the end the decision to move from evaluation to adoption would be based on positive feedback … along with strong buy-in from multiple departments that the results will yield a real competitive advantage,” Slavinsky said.

Bryan Cole is a contributor to TechGraphs and a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.

Comments are closed.