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Players gain edge with high-tech tools
Matt Diaz woke up early Monday morning and was studying by 8 a.m. He had baseball’s version of a homework assignment.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were beginning a series against the defending champion San Francisco Giants, and Diaz had a sense for what his duties might entail. The veteran outfielder tends to play against left-handed starters, and he guessed (correctly) that he would be on the bench Monday against righty Ryan Vogelsong.
So, when Diaz logged into the Bloomberg Sports Pitch Review tool on his iPad, he focused more on Madison Bumgarner, the Tuesday night starter. Diaz scrutinized his history against Bumgarner – including a base hit in last year’s National League playoffs – and concluded that the San Francisco lefty was going to pitch him inside.
Well, it didn’t quite play out that way.
Diaz wasn’t in the starting lineup, but he did face Bumgarner as a pinch hitter in the late innings. Rather than come inside with one of his crossfire fastballs, Bumgarner fed Diaz two breaking pitches over the plate. Diaz fouled off the first and grounded out on the second. As is often the case in a league where the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time, Diaz had to admit that even his painstaking preparation didn’t do much good.
“Maybe,” Diaz said later, “I should have checked what he did against right-handed pinch hitters in the seventh inning.”
The good news: There’s an app for that.
Actually, the Bloomberg product is more than an app. It’s one of the many ways that the iPad is changing how major-league games are won.
The Pitch Review tool is popular among players across the major leagues. When Diaz logs in, he’s greeted by a personalized home screen that displays clickable photographs of each pitcher on the opposing team for a given series; they are portals to archived video of every pitch Diaz had seen from the group since 2009. (See the image at the top of this page for an example, provided by Bloomberg, from Travis Snider’s account during a series against the Indians.)
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During a period when offense has declined in baseball, perhaps the Bloomberg tool can help the hitters regain some of the advantage they’ve lost. After all, unlike the starting pitchers they face, everyday players must prepare mentally to compete five times in every five-day span. In the Steroid Era, many sluggers took performance-enhancing substances now banned by baseball. Now, maybe hitters need to become more studious if they wish to succeed.
Technology can help hitters work smarter. Now, they’re able to scrutinize video of themselves – and similar hitters – against a given pitcher whenever it’s convenient for them. While many players use their teams’ video equipment on a daily basis, the ballpark is no longer the only place where they can work. They can study on their own time – at the hotel, while they’re relaxing at home, or by utilizing Wi-Fi connections on the team charter. For the service, major leaguers pay a fee that varies depending on the player and amount of service needed for the team.
“The beauty of the iPad is that I was able to do my film study in the morning, so I wasn’t rushed when I got to the field,” Diaz said Monday. “I’ve always said film study helps hitters more. It’s such a confidence thing, going into the box. If you have an idea of what they might throw, and they throw it, you have a much better chance of hitting it.
“For me, film study makes baseball a lot more fun. There’s another level of intellect involved. That’s one of the beautiful things about this sport. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest athlete to succeed at it. I’ve been doing film study since eighth grade, when my mom would film my swing from the bleachers so I could watch it.”
And yet …
“If they make their pitch, even if I’m sitting on it, I’m probably not going to hit it well,” Diaz said. “All the film study does is give you a better shot to take advantage of their mistakes.”
Bloomberg's iPad tool give players custom information.
There’s also a psychological element to what Diaz chooses to watch – and when.
“When you’re down in the dumps about an 0-for-3, you don’t watch that game,” he said. “You watch the 3-for-4. You trick yourself. When you’re in a skid, like I am now, you convince yourself, ‘I’m due.’
“The last thing I want to see is Albert Pujols getting carved up by someone I’m about to face. … That’s just depressing. … If he’s having a hard time, I don’t want to see it. It’s such a confidence game.”
And not just for the hitters.
Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan made the All-Star team this year. He has an ERA near 1.00. But even he checks the Pitch Review tool on his iPad about once each week.
Hanrahan likes to evaluate how successful his pitches were against specific hitters, prior to facing them the next time. He also does something common to most competitive professions: He compares himself to other top practitioners of his craft.
“I’ll look up maybe Broxton vs. Pablo Sandoval and see how he’s pitching him,” Hanrahan said before the series began.
I asked Hanrahan if there’s any hitter he just can’t figure out, no matter how much video he studies.
“I can’t tell you that,” he replied.
Stewart, 29, began the season as a .187 career hitter in the major leagues and didn’t have a home run until Tuesday night. So, he isn’t going to hit like Posey. But if anything, that makes it more important for Stewart to receive the pitching staff like Posey would.
The Giants are doing what they can to help. Before the All-Star break, they gave an iPad to each player on their major-league roster.
“I don’t even have a smartphone,” Stewart said. “It was new technology to me. But I’ve sat down with it quite a bit.”
And it’s not because he loves playing Angry Birds.
The Giants’ baseball operations and video staffs make sure that Stewart and fellow catcher Eli Whiteside have videos and scouting reports for opposing hitters on their iPads in advance of each series. In this case, the information comes from the team and not the Bloomberg tool.
Stewart even studies when opposing managers like to steal or hit-and-run.
“We used to get stacks of papers,” Stewart said. “It’s a lot thinner. It’s a lot easier to use. We can pull it up whenever we need to. If we want to go to a specific guy, a couple clicks and we’re into it.
“I didn’t even know how to use a scouting report (when I got to the big leagues). I would just watch the game. Now we have video back to 2006. I might be watching a game at home on TV, and something looks strange, and I’ll pull up the scouting report and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s why they threw that.’”
Knowledge is power. But can an iPad win games for the Giants?
“Absolutely,” Stewart said. “Any edge you can get against another team is huge. Our scouting department is pretty good. We have a lot of information that I don’t know if I’ve had from other teams.”
Last Friday evening, AT&T Park buzzed before the Phillies and Giants played (and brawled) in a matchup of first-place teams. Around 5:30 p.m., as the home team hammered through batting practice, the Philadelphia players came out to stretch.
Apart from the din of a ballpark always teeming with energy, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sat alone in the visiting dugout, seemingly unaware of the music booming over the loudspeakers.
He was tapping on an iPad.
“I got it a month ago,” he said.
Good timing. Amaro, like most major-league general managers, was a walking telecommunications toolkit leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. At times, he was juggling three devices at once – BlackBerry, laptop, and iPad.
Amaro likes his newest toy for settings such as the dugout: He wouldn’t bring a laptop there and preferred not to type a lengthy email on the small BlackBerry keypad. In a job that requires instant (and constant) communication, the ability to type with ease is a valuable skill.
“Now guys can do trades on email and text,” Amaro said. “They throw names back and forth that way. ‘Would you mind moving this guy? Is that guy available?’ Sometimes it’s important to have a conversation, because maybe things pop into your mind a little easier that way.
“The communication happens so fast now. There was a report (last month) that (outfielder) Dom Brown was available, and right away I got 15 calls or emails or texts from different GMs about it. I had to tell them, ‘No, he’s not.’”
Amaro, who acquired outfielder Hunter Pence from Houston on July 29, said he used the iPad to conduct negotiations over email while watching Phillies games last month. Philadelphia is a scorching 11-1 since the trade. Now, if an opposing starter logs into his Pitch Review tool before a game against the Phillies, he will see Pence’s data right alongside Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and all the rest.
On second thought, maybe that’s one case when an iPad tool won’t be much help at all.
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