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Understanding Spin Rate And Baseball’s Tech Upgrade

in Men/Season/Sports by

Over the past several years, the art of throwing a baseball has undergone some pretty drastic changes. When it comes to both training and mechanics — the actual technique used to throw a pitch — a new wave of science and technology has arrived that has replaced some traditional methods. For the last century, the method of efficiently projecting a baseball out of one’s hand, as well as the methods of training to do so, had held steady up until now. As a result of new technology, training methods, and better sports medicine, pitchers are throwing harder than ever.

Although high velocity is no doubt a benefit to have as a pitcher, with this new generation of players that light up the radar gun, scouts are finding it more difficult to separate the throwers from the pitchers. By this, I mean that while some pitchers throw hard, that does not necessarily mean they are effective at getting hitters out. These pitchers still need movement, command, and deception in a wide arsenal of pitches.

Essentially, as pitchers have adapted to throw harder, the way we evaluate pitchers needed to adapt as well. As a result, more and more analysts have begun to hype up a new metric: spin rate. Spin rates measures what it sounds like: the amount of times a baseball spins around its axis. It is usually measured in rotations per minute.

Due to a large amount of very recent research regarding spin rate as a metric, we can now use spin rates and spin efficiencies to determine which pitchers and pitches are more effective and how they can increase movement on a variety of pitches. We have discovered something that at least helps us begin separating the throwers from the pitchers.

When a ball is spinning upward, the pressure on the bottom of the ball overcomes the pressure on the top, causing the ball to rise. However, since the force of gravity is relatively strong, the ball doesn’t actually rise; it just sinks at a rate slower than a fastball with no spin. Since a ball with high spin rate sinks slower, it gives the illusion that the ball is “rising,” making it more difficult for the hitter to hit. A ball with a very low spin rate sinks faster, giving the illusion that the ball is “diving” downwards, making it tougher to hit. Fastballs with an average spin rate, which in the MLB is 2200 rpm, experience less illusion, making them easier to hit.

It is most important to look at velocity in the context of spin rate. Kyle Boddy, founder of Driveline Baseball, is responsible for the new wave of training methods that attempt to increase velocity. One of his pupils is Trevor Bauer, pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. In honor of Bauer, Boddy and his team have invented the Bauer unit, which is simply spin rate in rpm divided by velocity. They found that the average velocity of a major league fastball is 92 mph with an average spin rate of 2200 rpm. This comes to about 24 Bauer units.

Essentially, it is better to have a very high or very low Bauer unit, relative to 24 Bauers. High Bauer units mean that the spin rate is unusually high given the velocity, and that the baseball is not only perceived as faster by the hitter, but also appears as rising. However, it is important to note that not all high spin throwers have high Bauer units.

Luckily for the baseball team here at the college, the coaching staff decided to acquire new piece of high tech: Rapsodo.

According to the product’s website, Rapsodo uses a “radar-triggered camera system that captures real-time ball-flight data, allowing pitchers to get an accurate understanding of exactly what their pitches are doing during flight.”

The new Rapsodo devices captures velocity, spin axis, spin rate, true spin, spin efficiency, location, and both vertical and horizontal movement. It tracks the data for every pitch and allows the player to log in on their own computer and look at each pitch individually or collectively, while also taking a slo-mo video of each pitch.

True spin, also called useful spin, is the amount of spin on a pitch that directly affects the movement of the pitch. Spin efficiency is the true spin divided by the total spin. We can essentially think about it as how much movement on a pitch is left inside a pitcher that isn’t currently being used. This is perhaps the greatest benefit the Rapsodo brings to Swarthmore pitchers. For example, when practicing throwing their curveball, Swarthmore pitchers can throw a pitch and then immediately check the Rapsodo data to see if their spin axis and efficiency was optimal. They can then make the mechanical changes to their curveball, and the learning process moves much faster than it would without the Rapsodo.  

With this new device, the baseball team is remaining up to date on the newest development technology and is giving itself a huge advantage in the quest for a Centennial Conference Championship. This year, expect Garnet pitchers to not only throw harder, but also have more movement, control, and command, on the pitching staff’s quest to be more than just throwers.

The modernization of the pitcher

in Columns/Sports by

One day in the summer of 2015, I found myself on a seemingly endless three hour drive from my home in Washington, DC to Atlantic City, MD. The old pitching hermit my dad said we were meeting to work with awaited at the other side. After the excruciating drive through cornfields, woods, and unpaved roads, we finally arrived at a ramshackle pitching facility in an abandoned warehouse in the woods. Upon meeting the man and paying three hundred dollars for his “advanced arm care program,” I found myself seriously questioning the legitimacy of this man‘s renown baseball tutelage. However, for the next three hours, I found myself undergoing one of the most physically challenging baseball and weight programs I have ever seen. Rejuvenated by the strenuous day and expert refinement, I took on the program as a long-term project to improve my endurance, arm strength, and velocity as a pitcher.

For all of those who are not familiar with baseball, the sport seems to lack much physical ability between standing for large periods of time and the endless flow of sunflower seeds, bubble gum, and Gatorade. However, the athletic ability required throughout the game derives from a far greater technical basis. Particularly at the position of pitcher, quite arguably the most important in the game, the combination of brute strength, endurance, and mental toughness make the prospects of success for the average person quite slim. On top of that, the risk of detrimental injury as a pitcher remains quite high as the constant wear and tear weakens the tendons and muscles in the arm irreparably. Taking a further step past basic arm care, to be more competitive, pitchers constantly seek to improve their arm strength such that they can throw faster — a process that can add even more stress to the developing arm.

Therefore, from Little League to the MLB (Major League Baseball), the never-ending question of how to care for pitchers physically encounters constant scrutiny. At the most basic levels, coaches generally restrain their young pitchers to pitch limits, such that the children can grow and potentially be more successful when games matter more. However, beyond that, the biological facts and baseball folklore constantly intertwine to create a confusing mashup of eclectic training styles, all with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, for many professionals, the pressure to succeed debilitates their mental preparations, thereby affecting their performance on the field. However, for others, the same strive to succeed leads to cheating whether through performance-enhancing drugs, altered equipment, or some other means. Therefore, this topic widely and dramatically affects the play of the game and the culture of the sport.

Here at Swarthmore, the baseball program generally follows a strict arm care regimen to combat the constant strain undertaken in the rigor of games. The seven-day workout schedule generally consists of only a few days of actual throwing, supplemented with other drills — weighted balls, elastic Jaeger band work, sprinting, hip mobility exercises, and long-distance running among a slew of others. However, on top of these workouts, each pitcher has their own individual style to caring for their arm, ranging from unique throwing drills to holding towels as they throw. The culmination of this has resulted in a relativelyhealthy and successful pitching staff. The general arm care of pitchers at all levels of talent and competition is an extremely important science.

However, just as baseball statistics have expanded in their breadth and analysis, so too has this arm care science modernized to better aid the pitcher. Similar to football’s current issue with concussion technology and minimizing the damage to the brain through the daily rigor of the sport, baseball too must come to terms with its rapidly increasing arm injury problem that takes away the bright futures of so many young pitchers. Simply sitting in a discussion between a trainer with the Philadelphia Phillies organization and the Swarthmore pitching staff, it became quite clear that many pitchers actually had been taught incorrect and potentially harmful methods in the past for strengthening and caring for their arm.

Two young MLB superstar prospects, Baltimore Orioles’ Dylan Bundy and Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer, who played an integral role in their respective teams’ playoff runs last year, both swear by the science of Alan Jaeger (whose elastic band workouts Swarthmore baseball uses extensively). Both pitchers have thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour during certain drills with impressive success, but Bundy has undergone the fated Tommy John surgery, calling into question the legitimacy of their long-distance throwing program. Others swear by modern tactics such as biometrics, as Swarthmore baseball implemented via a University of Pennsylvania initiated science lab, or more old-fashioned lifting and running techniques. Nevertheless, the combination of these large scientific progressions with the individual flair of baseball players everywhere has created a sport far more aware of the injuries and care necessary to be successful in the sport.

However, not only has biomedical progress aided the plight of the modern pitcher, but psychology has made leaps and bounds in the field of high-pressure performance. It is often described of pitchers that they control the game entirely, as their performance sets the tone for the rest of the game. That high intensity, coupled with being the center of attention on each played, can debilitate even the most talented of pitchers with one fell swoop. Recently, former professional pitcher Rick Ankiel published a memoir, in which he admitted to drinking vodka before games to calm the nerves of being the main actor on baseball’s biggest stage. At the same time, it is also rumored that legendary ace, Dock Ellis, even pitched a no-hitter on LSD. On account of all of this mental stress, psychologists now have calming techniques for these pitchers in high-intensity situations that let them slow the game down, focus better, and perform at a far higher level.

All of this scientific empirical evidence just adds to the rhetoric already surrounding the betterment of pitcher performance. In the rapidly modernizing world, the game has sought to keep up with the technology and speed of daily life, and the arm and mental care of pitchers has been just one facet of this initiative. It has enabled pitchers to come more prepared to succeed and stay healthy, and has altered the game for the best. Hopefully at Swarthmore, the bright future scholars we produce will further the progress already made thus far.

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