Next time you head out to the ballpark and bust out the binoculars to get a better view of the ballplayers, you’ll be seeing more than intricate pine tar art, packs of sunflower seeds, and cans of Skoal affixed to players’ bats and bodies.
Major League Baseball approved two wearable technology devices prior to the start of the season that can be used during games—the Motus Baseball Sleeve, which measures stress on elbows, and the Zephyr Bioharness, which monitors heart and breathing rates.
And there could be more tech coming off the bench in the form of a smart bat in the near future.
Zepp Labs, a sports tech company reinventing the way athletes and coaches capture and analyze performance data to measure and track different facets of their swings, has introduced a smart bat that examines impact speed, angle, swing duration, and more. It’s a big win for sports science in search of providing a blueprint for a successful swing.
Commissioner Rob Manfred previously told [a]listdaily that adopting technology is paramount to growing the game. MLB and Apple also partnered to provide every team with iPad Pros this season. Using available data in a proliferated sabermetrics world is a natural extension.
The global market for wearable fitness technology is estimated to reach $12 billion by 2022. In a market dominated by Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Apple Watch, the likes of Under Armour and Gatorade are using the trending connected fitness platform to target athletes.
Zepp has zeroed in on the best player in the game in Mike Trout, a lifetime .303 hitter who’s still trying to fine-tune his swing to further torment pitchers. The Angels superstar embraced the next generation of sporting equipment during spring training when he used a smart bat to track consistency and perfect his MVP form.
“Introducing a smart bat is a big moment for the game … I’m always looking to improve my swing and have consistency throughout the season,” said Trout, a four-time All Star centerfielder. “When I was growing up I tried to develop my hitting style watching video of Derek Jeter. But I was just swinging. I didn’t know if I was doing something right or wrong. But now, using Zepp, young players are going to be able to accelerate their learning so much faster.”
By viewing, comparing and analyzing swings, Zepp’s hardware, software, and cloud-based data platform has the makings of being a slump-busting antidote. The San Francisco-based startup is currently working with the Angels, Padres, Diamondbacks and Rays. Their players and coaches use the removable sensor device during batting practice and in the cage. A smartphone app retrieves the data and allows them to decipher the proprietary data.
Jason Fass, chairman of the board at Zepp Labs, and formerly the company’s CEO, told [a]listdaily that a lot of the ballplayers they work with—Giancarlo Stanton, David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson, Jose Altuve and Hunter Pence are among them—use Zepp as a “check-in.”
“Maybe they’re in a slump, or not playing as consistently as they want to and not hitting the ball as cleanly as they want,” said Fass. “When they put the sensor on, they get a better understanding of what’s different. That’s huge for them. What they love most is how easy it is to use and retrieve the data.”
Fass said that although baseball (and youth athletes) are a big chunk of their business, they also use the technology to track swings for golf, tennis, croquet and badminton. “It’s all about data, and people getting better,” he said. “Rather than just throw a bunch of data at you, it’s actionable. You know what to do with it. We tell you how to use it, and we give you the content and the tools. … Because we’ve done so well, equipment makers are now looking to Zepp to put this sensor technology in their equipment.”
This spring, Zepp partnered with Old Hickory, Trout’s preferred bat since high school and now his bat maker, to install the chip on his MT27 model. The metric-measuring device has a 3D Swing Analyzer inside the bat to capture the data Trout needs in order to gain a competitive edge on gameday. It will be commercially available this summer.
Pat Nicholson, vice president of marketing for Zepp, said there are more announcements with original equipment manufacturers to be made. He believes smart bats are the future, and next big thing in baseball. But when will it actually be used in a game?
“We were the first company in this space, and have been pushing for it a long time. We developed a product that works at the highest level of the game. We have been working with MLB for the last two years, and we’re the only company in this category to have an exclusive with the MLBPA,” Nicholson said. “They’ve approved swing analyzers for batting practice, so we think this is a huge step forward for the league. We can’t predict the future, or control the timeline, but we envision an inevitable future of swing metrics being woven into broadcasts. That’s the path we’re on.”
Nicholson noted that you can begin to see the pieces falling into place as they continue to drive the category forward, as evidenced with their partnership with Perfect Game, a worldwide amateur baseball scouting service. He said implementing Zepp into events like the Home Run Derby are great entry points before they experience a breakthrough and become a part of the fabric of the game and fan experience.
Wearables potentially offer new ways to change the way players train. How teams use the information, and assure privacy, remains to be seen. In the Moneyball age of analytics, it seems like only a matter of time before the game-use approval comes out of the woodwork.
For a sport washing its hands of the steroid era, it should be a much welcomed and embraced innovation.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan.