Minor League Sports

Analytics take hold in baseball, even at the Midwest League level

A camera belonging to the Kernels records pitches at a Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game with the South Bend Cubs at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The recordings are used by the team to analyze pitches after the game. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A camera belonging to the Kernels records pitches at a Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game with the South Bend Cubs at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The recordings are used by the team to analyze pitches after the game. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — You ask Adam Strang to explain the baseball application he has on his computer screen, and he goes into it with great detail.

Great, sometimes confusing, baffling detail.

“Nine or a negative nine is a borderline call,” he begins, talking about the strike zone. “Ten or negative 10 is off the plate. Anything lower is a strike. Plate height is around 1.8 to 3.6 is a strike. Anything higher or lower is a ball.”

A Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher throws a pitch, the opposing batter hits a flyball to center field, and Strang’s TrackMan application lights up with a bunch of new numbers.

“Spin rate is a good tool to tell what kind of pitch it was,” Strang says. “That was a lower spin rate, so it was probably a changeup.”

He’s not done.

“We tag each pitch here with the Twins, and they’ll (figure out what kind it was later),” Strang said. “For pitch recognition at the University Iowa, we generally use just vertical break and horizontal break. So as a general rule, all fastballs will have positive induced vertical break. Meaning the spin off on the ball is causing the ball not to drop as quickly as it would with just gravity affecting on it.

“Horizontal break is going to be for arm-side fastballs, generally. A little two-seam action. That means for righties, it’s going to be positive. For lefties, it’s going to be negative. Sliders will be the opposite.”

Did you understand all that? Or any of that?

Plain and simple, it’s today’s analytics-driven baseball. Data, data, data of every kind, available even at the low-Class A, Midwest League level.

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You want to know the exact speed of a pitch? TrackMan can tell you, to the hundreth of a mile per hour.

You want to know the spin rate on a curveball? Yup, got it. The more spin, the better, by the way.

How did the baseball come out of the pitcher’s hand? Where was his arm slot at its release? How hard was the ball that batter hit? At what angle did it come off his bat?

TrackMan measures 27 different data points for each play, using a 3D Doppler radar system. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

“It’s a different perspective,” said Strang, an Iowa senior from Cascade, who runs TrackMan for the Kernels and Hawkeyes. “In high school, you don’t talk about this stuff at all. It’s a different game now, I would say.”

Everyone would say.

“It makes it simple,” said Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman. “You take the information they give you, and you decide what is important to use. There is a lot of data out there now, a number for everything. So you’ve got to figure out which numbers are important to you and your players, whether they are pitchers or hitters.”

While Strang is doing his TrackMan thing in the pressbox, Kernels video coordinator Byron Oliver is in a utility room of the Veterans Memorial Stadium clubhouse. Pregame, Oliver sets up small cameras in specific areas to film each game using a specicialized video software system that, like the data from TrackMan, is immediately sent to the parent Minnesota Twins.

Oliver can provide coaches and players specific video that can be used for study or personalized instruction. Or in a case last season, video that Dinkelman used to discover that an opposing pitcher was tipping his pitches.

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“You give them samples of it. Little samples of all the information we have,” said Kernels Manager Toby Gardenhire. “Every level they go up, it builds a little bit more. It’s not like when I was playing. They had a lot of information in the big leagues but not in the minor leagues. So guys would get to the big leagues, and, all of a sudden, all this stuff is being thrown at them. Your head is just going in circles.”

Kernels coaches have information on every opposing player that can be used to formulate pitching and hitting plans and defensive shifts. Oh, defensive shifts.

Everyone employs them. There’s not a Midwest League game anymore where you won’t see teams put three infielders on one side of the diamond, for instance, or place their second baseman into short right field to defend a pull-happy lefty hitter.

“That’s the way the game’s being played now. Absolutely,” Gardenhire said. “They’re using it in the big leagues. If they’re using it in the big leagues, they want the guys to be used to it once the guys get up there. So that’s what we do. Move them all over the place. Use all the numbers as much as we can, without overloading them with information.”

Analytics have brought a new language into the game of baseball. It’s not just batting average, home runs, runs batted in and earned run average anymore.

You need to know terms like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), ISO (Isolated Power) and BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Because the home run is so valued today, the chic new metric is launch angle.

That measures how the ball comes off the bat, essentially describes a player’s swing. The lower the degree, the more likely it’s a groundball. The higher, the more likely it’s a flyball. Around 15-percent launch angle is optimal.

“Yes, we shoot for a certain launch angle number. But it’s just a base point,” Gardenhire said. “To me, it’s hard because you start talking about launch angle, and, all of a sudden, guys want to start lifting balls. The way to hit a ball in the air with a good launch angle is not to swing up. It’s to get a good plane on the ball. The ball goes up off the bat. That’s the issue you have with launch angle.”

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Dinkelman said the most important metric to him is exit velocity. That measures how hard the ball comes off the bat.

Anything over 100 miles per hour is pretty good. The top exit velocity this season in the major leagues was by Carlos Gonzalez, who hit a ball 118.3 MPH.

“How hard are you hitting the baseball? If you’re hitting it hard, you are probably going to find more hits,” Dinkelman said. “If you’re hitting the ball soft, there’s probably more of a chance it’s going to get caught by a defender. I know everyone is talking about launch angle now, but if you’re hitting balls too high in the air, it doesn’t matter how hard you are hitting them. They are still going to be outs.”

Dinkelman and Gardenhire marvel at the way the game has changed in such a short time, including at the minor league level. Baseball is still simple in that you see the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball.

But there’s a lot more to it now.

“This is my fourth year (as a coach),” Dinkelman said. “We had data my first year when I started in 2015, but, even from last year to this year, we’ve got everything now from the hitting side to the pitching side. With extra coaches now, who are mainly focused on getting data, putting together game plans for players. All of that stuff. It’s changing, it’s the way the game is going. You either have to get on board with it, or you might get passed up.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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