SBJ/March 13-19, 2017/Technology

Wearable tech wins over MLB

Four analytics firms will have systems collecting player data

Major League Baseball has established a framework that could unlock a deep trove of player performance data, as it has approved four analytics companies to provide on-field wearable technology this season.

The move marks another major step forward as the league and the players association begin to capture valuable metrics, and expands upon a key priority of injury prevention.

While the NFL, NBA and NHL have also moved ahead with data capturing, concerns over player privacy have restricted the adoption of wearables, particularly surrounding the sharing of data generated during games. And while MLB has created a more liberal policy compared to other leagues for the in-game collection of biometric data such as heart rates, there is still limited distribution of what is captured.



This season, Motus Global, which produces a compression sleeve with a sensor, and Zephyr Technology, which makes a wearable bioharness, are back for a second season of approved MLB on-field use. But Catapult, which has used its wearable technology in basketball and football and is in the midst of a large U.S. expansion, is now moving into baseball, as is Whoop, whose analytics system is based on an armband that generates more than 150 megabytes of physiological data per day.

Several other analytics companies, including Blast Motion, Zepp Labs and Diamond Kinetics, which make a variety of bat sensors and swing trackers, have received approval for MLB players to use their products this season during practice and workouts, but only the four others have been approved for in-game use.

While the devices vary, the core goal of baseball wearables is the same: to measure and collect a range of biometric, swing and throwing data, identify trends that can improve player performance, and highlight potential injury risks before games are missed.

Whoop’s system pulls data from armbands.
How this information could be used by teams, broadcasters and digital partners remains in limbo, however.

“We’re looking to measure the level of exertion and intensity that is expended on a pitch or a swing,” said Brian Kopp, president of Catapult North America. “For a pitcher, for example, it’s not just a pitch count or pitch speed. Is the rotation of his arm and hips speeding up or slowing down? What were the impacts and strain of that pitch on his body? We’re still just at the beginning, but this opens up a new era of learning.”

In particular, many executives around baseball harbor hope that the new sensors will help provide answers to reverse a marked increase in Tommy John surgeries among pitchers over the past decade.

Baseball’s in-game use of wearable technology arrives as MLB and the union have agreed on a basic set of rules around use of the biometric data. Player participation is fully voluntary, and access to the data is the same for both the individual player and their respective team. Teams do not receive information on players not on their own club. Access to the data is only allowed before and after games, and not during. The analytics companies do not hold any rights to the data. And any commercial use of the data, such as during a game broadcast or as part of a marketing campaign, must require approval from each involved party.

There have been some steps in this latter direction, notably by Zepp Labs, whose bat sensors and analytics system allow users to compare their own swings to those of major league stars and endorsers such as Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Such commercial applications have been rare to date, though, and it is easy with detailed data such as this to veer beyond anything that would be broadly accessible to a general fan base.

Physiological data from wearables also represents a more sensitive area, and though not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does veer closer to federal rules that prevent patients’ medical information from being shared without their consent. In the NBA, concerns among players having their own biometric information being used against them helped lead to a specific ban on wearable data being used in contract negotiations.

Because of those concerns, many of the participating analytics companies have taken steps to create data safeguards and options for players and teams to customize the types of information generated and shared.

“We actually have 27 layers of privacy settings between sharing everything and sharing nothing,” said Will Ahmed, founder and chief executive of Boston-based Whoop. “It can’t just be a binary thing, because privacy isn’t binary. But ultimately, what we’re looking to do is help athletes have longer, healthier and more productive careers.”

At baseball’s winter meetings last December, Whoop released the findings of a study involving 230 minor league players, touted as one of the largest studies of its type ever in the sport. The company found direct correlations between diminished recovery periods and player injuries, and that it typically took two days after travel for players to recover to normal, pre-travel body standards. Increased recovery times also corresponded directly to higher fastball velocities for pitchers, and higher exit velocities for hitters.

The findings were generally consistent with an increased focus around the sports industry on the importance of rest for high-level athletes.

Beyond player concerns over the use and security of biometric data, there is also some skepticism around the sport that the various sensor designs are still too bulky, heavy or obtrusive to produce meaningful data. And industry sources said the in-game participation among MLB players last year with the Motus or Zephyr devices was minimal, perhaps amounting to no more than a few dozen players.

And much like many other analytics systems, much more data and time are needed for wearable technologies in baseball to build up truly meaningful context. Similarly, MLB Advanced Media this season is expanding its radar and optical tracking-based Statcast system with the introduction of hit and catch probabilities on batted balls. But those new offerings required three years of development work, and the tracking and analysis of more than 328,000 balls in play over the last two seasons.

“You need to have a baseline in place to be able to know if you’re deviating off of that, so that’s the first step we’re looking to establish,” Kopp said.

Approval of the four analytics companies for in-game use, though overseen by the league and union to check for issues such as player safety, is driven initially by individual teams and their desire to use the various products. The companies involved typically receive hardware and software fees for the devices and analytics, with Whoop for example charging $1,200 per player, per year.

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