Kyle Cameron’s fastball is the perfect example of why the Alabama baseball team invested in Rapsodo.
The senior right-handed pitcher was running into a problem over the fall: he was not getting swings and misses with his fastball at a good rate. He was toying around with a four-seam fastball grip, but conventional wisdom would deem that counterintuitive: Cameron delivers from a three-quarter arm slot, thus a more lateral delivery is more likely to deliver the lateral movement of a two-seam than the true vertical plane of a four-seamer.
Cameron, it turns out, is an exception. Rapsodo showed impressive spin rate and spin efficiency numbers when he threw his fastball with a four-seam grip. Once he made the change, his swing-and-miss percentage jumped 10 percent for the rest of the fall.
Alabama pitching coach Jason Jackson brought UA into the data age of baseball when he arrived as part of head coach Brad Bohannon’s staff after the 2017 season. Jackson asked around the baseball community and decided on Rapsodo, getting it in just before the staff’s first season in 2018. They start their third year on the job Feb. 14 with a three-game series against Northeastern, and the data age has served UA well in more ways than one.
“I think the kids today are just more visual and they’re a little bit more data-driven,” Jackson said. “You need to be able to speak that language with them and show them stuff.”
In that sense, Rapsodo has helped Jackson communicate with his players. He relayed the story of a freshman on a previous Alabama team who had a breaking ball-forward approach. His curveball was good and he could throw it for strikes, thus his fastball was not a go-to pitch. Jackson thought the fastball was good enough to be a featured pitch, though, and encouraged him to use it more often, particularly high in the strike zone.
The response: “‘Thanks Coach, yeah whatever,’ keeps flipping curveballs,” Jackson said.
Then Jackson showed the pitcher the Rapsodo data on his fastball. It compared favorably to average Major League fastballs in its spin rate, and the Rapsodo proved the movement Jackson saw in it, too. All of a sudden the pitcher realized he had a next-level fastball, so he started throwing it more.
“As a coach, you see it, but the data on that screen just confirms what your eyes are already telling you,” Jackson said. “It helps for them to be able to see it. In that one instance, it gave him a lot of confidence to be able to use those numbers and stack those numbers up against somebody else’s in the big leagues and say, ‘Wow, okay. Now I’ll buy it.’”
Rapsodo gives them enough data to make nearly limitless tweaks.
Seth Daniels, the Director of Diamond Sports for Rapsodo, said the system measures velocity plus data on spin and release. On spin, it measures total spin but also breaks that spin into three categories: vertical spin, side spin and gyro spin. Vertical spin correlates to vertical break and side spin correlates to horizontal break, while gyro spin does not correlate to movement. The amount of vertical spin and side spin creates a pitch’s true spin, another metric tracked by Rapsodo, which leads to the most important spin metric: spin efficency, the percent of total spin that is true spin.
The system also tracks release height and the horizontal and vertical angle of the release, giving pitchers even more data to monitor as they toy with differnet grips and releases on pitches. Release information can be useful for pitch tunneling or even avoiding pitch tipping, ensuring there is no delivery difference between pitch types that hitters can pick up on.
“The term that’s gotten a lot of attention is pitch design: the ability to see the characteristics of your pitches and be able to mold those characteristics to a desired outcome, if you will. This is sort of that unique perspective,” Daniels said. “Not everybody is meant to be a really hard-throwing righty that sits up in the zone and has high vertical break. This tool can help you decipher who that is.”
Monitoring spin efficiency as tweaks are made is how Cameron made his new four-seam fastball as effective as it was at the end of the fall.
“A four-seam you want a higher spin rate. You want it to be as straight as possible so it has the illusion of a rise effect, and that’s what we track with Rapsodo, vertical axis,” Cameron said. “When I’m throwing in the pen and we’ve got Rapsodo out, that’s what we’re looking for: a high spin rate and you want it to be as close to 12 o’clock as you possibly can. That means it’s exactly upright.”
The illusion of a rise effect is created by high spin rates and nearly perfect spin efficiency, giving the batter the illusion that the pitch is rising despite gravity’s obvious deterrence of that effect. This tends to lead to batters swinging underneath fastballs high in the zone, a trend that has been prominent in MLB in recent years and is beginning to make select collegiate pitchers more effective, too.
“The spin rate was better, spin efficiency was better and I ended up having better results against hitters,” Cameron said.
UA is taking the Rapsodo data a step further, beyond the pitch design it is most often used for. They’re combining it with Edgertronic cameras to give pitchers a database of their best stuff for reference when they lose it.
The Rapsodo data on a pitch is displayed within five seconds of the pitch being thrown. Since Rapsodo’s data allows them to know a good pitch as soon as they see it, they can mark said pitch with the Edgertronic camera, a specialized high-speed camera. That way, a pitcher can watch themselves throw that excellent pitch and see exactly how they did it.
“Each guy has a folder,” Jackson said. “This was a good ‘pen, let’s mark this, so when he’s in a bad spot in a month, we can see what it looked like when it was going really good.”
For those that are well-versed in baseball’s data revolution, or are at least open to it, Rapsodo and accompanying accessories give Jackson any tool he could possibly want to teach a player. But not all players are better with a hand in the data, and he recognizes that.
“Some guys don’t even like to look at it, and I don’t force them. I spoon feed it to them as they need it,” Jackson said. “Landon Green’s just a good ol’ boy from Helena, Alabama, he don’t care about that thing. Just give me the ball and let me go pitch, you know?
“Then there are guys that have grown up with it, they know it. You might have to direct them a little bit — like a lot of things, they might not know as much as they think they know — but they’ve dabbled with it and you have to be able to speak their language with it. You have some guys that really proficient in it: they know when they’re going good, this is what happens and they want to see where they are.”
As the years pass, there will be more and more pitchers coming to UA with at least beginner knowledge of Rapsodo and other baseball data services. Alabama is well positioned to give them what they need and develop them.
“Some of these kids that are going into college now have been on it since they were 14,” Daniels said. “That’s four years of data, understanding and terminology that previously just didn’t exist.”