Bethesda, MD — Sitting quaintly on the dark green roof of the George Solomon Press Box at Shirley Povich Field is a small black rectangle with the word “TrackMan” written across it in white font.
To the untrained eye, this small box, which is about the same size as a laptop, looks like a wi-fi router, but in reality, it is a machine that uses Doppler radar technology to track pitches and batted balls and has revolutionized baseball with the amount of data it can collect.
Starting this year, Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League teams are using TrackMan technology which illuminates metrics that are instrumental in evaluating player performance.
Before this season, the Big Train had almost no experience using TrackMan technology. Last year, Bethesda attempted to use the TrackMan device that Georgetown University had installed for their home games at Shirley Povich Field, but the device was obsolete.
However, one of the Big Train's DiMisa High School Leadership Fellows who was interested in data reached out to TrackMan and that started a conversation that led to TrackMan approaching the Ripken League as a whole to install the technology at all the league's fields. Due to the league's high caliber of players, Major League Baseball advised TrackMan to pursue a partnership with the DMV area league, as MLB clubs are willing to pay money to access the data to analyze potential draft prospects
“Our decisions on who to work with is all based on the players in the league and if MLB teams are interested in it,” TrackMan representative Morty Bouchard said. “There was a lot of commotion with the Ripken League as it is year after year. A lot of great players go there.”
After TrackMan approached the league, the teams quickly agreed to incorporate the technology into their stadiums. In addition to being able to see metrics on player performance, teams can sell player data to MLB teams, giving the Ripken League teams added revenue.
Moreover, now that Povich has TrackMan technology, Big Train provides its players with the same levels of data collection their colleges and universities offer.
“But there's a lot of history with the players because they've been using [TrackMan] for three to four years,” said Big Train manager Sal Colangelo. “I mean, they're used to it at their colleges; their universities use it. So there's more history there.”
Players’ coaches at their respective schools are also beneficiaries of the league’s TrackMan use in the sense that Ripken League coaches like Colangelo can share the data with them and those coaches can, as a result, monitor their players' data development over the course of the summer.
For example, over a weekend earlier this season, Jimmy Jackson, the new pitching coach at the University of Maryland, watched the Big Train play, and he made sure to discuss TrackMan data files for his players with Big Train officials before he left. Overall, college coaches highly value the data TrackMan provides.
College coaches will insist on seeing a player’s TrackMan data, whether that player is in the transfer portal and the coach is trying to recruit the player or that player is already on their team and the coach is monitoring the player’s development, Colangelo said.
Importantly, TrackMan must approve college coach access to TrackMan data in order to follow the company’s data exclusivity rules with NCAA and MLB.
To operate this advanced technology during games, the Big Train have primarily relied on one man: Harry Kaplan, the team's Director of Analytics.
Kaplan has his own baseball career to focus on. He is an infielder for the Oberlin College baseball team, and despite the fact he is playing on his own summer league team, Kaplan devotes a significant amount of his time to supporting the Big Train and operating the team’s TrackMan device.
“I've always wanted to, you know, work in baseball, whether it's analytics, scouting, you know, coaching my kid at some point in my life,” Kaplan said. “I thought this was a great opportunity to build some more experience for my resume and, you know, do something that I've never really done before.”
During each game, Kaplan will sit at his laptop in the far right corner of the George Solomon Press Box and intensely monitor the game. Kaplan records each pitch and takes note of any significant metrics. Kaplan also has the responsibility of communicating this data with Big Train coaches, college coaches and Big Train players.
“Providing [data] to [players] is really special because I feel like I'm helping them out a lot,” Kaplan said.
On the hitting side, Kaplan can use the TrackMan to measure metrics such as a ball’s launch angle, exit velocity and distance traveled. Per Kaplan, Jeffery Heard (Sacramento State) has stood out in the metrics. Conventional baseball statistics agree as Heard leads the Ripken League in home runs with four and RBIs with 27.
For pitching, the TrackMan device can measure data that the human eye can not perceive. The technology can measure pitch velocity more accurately than traditional radar guns, and it can measure a pitch’s spin rate, horizontal break and vertical break. All of these measurements help explain why a pitcher is effective.
Patrick Galle (Ole Miss) and Ryan Ertlschweiger (James Madison) are two pitchers who have notable TrackMan statistics. Galle is one of the hardest throwers on the team, having a fastball that TrackMan records at 96-97 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Ertlschweiger has one of the highest average spin rates on the team, helping him generate swings and misses.
The figures TrackMan provides are notable and help explain trends in baseball, but Big Train coaches do not worship them. Colangelo acknowledges that the information has both limitations and values.
“[The data] doesn't tell me whether a guy can pitch or not. That doesn't tell me what the guy has in his heart and what he's thinking between the ears,” Colangelo said. “But it's a good starting point. It does give you good things.”
Editor's Note: This story has been edited from its original version.
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