Techbeat: Smart baseballs

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is tax day in America, Tuesday, April 17th, 2018, the last tax day for the old tax code.

Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Next up on The World and Everything in It: baseball season. It is in full swing, and, apart from the simple enjoyment of the game itself, fans of America’s national pastime love obsessing over the data of baseball.

EICHER: Because baseball is largely about individual performance, analysts keep track of literally dozens of statistics on batting, base running, fielding, and pitching. But technology is now allowing managers and coaches to track even more granular details of player performance. For example, the precise speed and rotation of a pitch can be captured using sophisticated Doppler radar.

REICHARD: With the advance of smartphone technology, even Little Leaguers can now capture the same kind of pitching data previously only available to Major League teams. WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to talk to us about “smart” baseballs.

OK, Michael.  These days, it seems so many companies are introducing so-called “smart” products, from refrigerators to vacuum cleaners. What on earth is a “smart” baseball?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: That adjective, “smart” in front of a product simply means that it contains sensors that collect data on its environment and then communicates that information to a user, typically via the internet. And this year two Japanese companies have applied that concept to a baseball. Acrodea, a Tokyo-based smartphone app maker, started selling its “Technical Pitch” baseball in Japan last September. Sports equipment maker Mizuno is launching a similar product there later this spring.

What sort of data are these smart baseballs capturing?

COCHRANE: A smart baseball captures data on its velocity—meaning how fast the ball is traveling—as well as the speed and angle of its rotation. The core of the ball contains the exact same kinds of sensors that are in your smartphone that measure the location and orientation of the handset. The ball transmits this data via Bluetooth to a smartphone app.

Now I’ve seen those guys who sit behind home plate with the guns that track a pitch’s velocity and rotation with radar. So what’s the advantage of having a baseball collect that data?

COCHRANE: That’s true. The gold standard of radar systems is probably the TrackMan, which is used in professional ballparks. But those systems are likely too expensive for amateur teams and they’re not very portable. The new smart baseballs are set to retail for about $190. That cost includes the app, so they could be used by anyone almost anywhere.

That could make a great Christmas gift for your Little Leaguer.

COCHRANE: It’s a huge benefit to amateur players, but even professional players could benefit. Chuck Hixon, writing for the Philly Baseball Insider, points out that those in-park radar systems can’t track pitches thrown in the bullpen or during a side session with coaches. And the smart baseball’s sensors can measure the ball’s speed at any point along its path, which means that coaches can see if the pitch is slowing down as the ball approaches the hitter. Even in-park systems can only capture the speed of the pitch at one point in its path.

Are these baseballs designed to be used during an actual game? I would think hitting one might destroy all those sensors!

COCHRANE: Ha, yes, that’s a good point. The balls are regulation size and weight, but they’re not designed to be hit – at least not yet! They’re really meant for pitching practice. And here’s why that’s important. Let’s say a player isn’t getting sufficient break on his curveball. Well, the data provided with a smart ball would tell him if he’s not spinning the baseball fast enough. If he is, then maybe it’s his arm angle or some other issue. The data promote smarter practice and faster improvement.

Are these smart baseballs available in the U.S. yet?

COCHRANE: Acrodea does have plans to sell its Technical Pitch baseball in the U.S. eventually. But it has been hugely popular in Japan, with eight professional teams testing it during their autumn camps last year. Many of their players are continuing to use it. Some teams have even started using it as part of their scouting activities, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. The smart baseball has been such a hit with Little League, high school and adult teams in Japan that the company temporarily sold out of them within a month of launching the product.

Alright. Well, this will be fun to watch develop. Michael Cochrane reports for us on all things science and technology. Thanks Michael!

COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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