Illinois baseball takes advantage of advanced analytics technology

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

The 2018 season is going to be different for the Illinois baseball team.

The Illini struggled last year, finishing at 23-28 (9-15 Big Ten Conference), and they have spent the offseason doing more than just lifting, conditioning and practicing what they can in limited indoor space.

They have a new approach, a hyper-analytical one made possible with the technology of the FlightScope Strike, a three-dimensional radar machine that measures distance, speed, positions and angles of the baseball when it is thrown and hit.

University sophomore Charlie Young, now the team’s manager of analytics, and graduate data analyst Kameron Wells are leading the new wave.

Young has been working with the coaches and team for about a year now, and in the fall, Young and the Illini received their FlightScope Strike.

Young and Wells are working with other programs such as the soccer, basketball, gymnastics and volleyball teams, have deployed the machine to bring new, in depth analysis to the Illinois program.

It’s early yet to have concrete results, but Young and Wells are anticipating the beginning of real-game data collection and are beginning to analyze it to see how the team can improve.

“We’ve got to hit the ground running and see what the coaches want to see, what we want to see and go from there.

“It’s mostly off-the-cuff stuff right now, we’re not really getting deep into the analytics because we don’t have a lot of solid data yet because the season hasn’t started,” Young said. “But hopefully when the season starts, with all the website and database stuff built already, we’ve got to hit the ground running and see what the coaches want to see, what we want to see and go from there.”

Young and Wells set out to maximize what the team could figure out about itself and its opponents, beginning to use the machine during fall ball during games against Illinois-Springfield, Indiana State and Millikin University.

But before Illinois made the move to acquire FlightScope’s innovative machine, Dr. Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University, met with representatives from the company to learn about all the aspects and abilities of the machine.

Illinois is a pioneer in the college game, though FlightScope has partnered up with some other collegiate programs, and it was important to know what the program was getting itself into before investing in it.

Wells estimated the machine’s cost to be at least in the four-figure range, although he could not specify the exact amount.

It’s still early, as the Illini have yet to use the machine in a meaningful game, but Wells is excited about what the team is finding out through its early trials in practice and from the fall slate of games.

“We’re hopping in on these data-driven decisions to help our athletes, so it’s pretty cool to be on the pioneer front,” Wells said.

The machine collects and records everything from how hard the ball is thrown to where in the strike zone it arrives, to its movement track — from the pitcher’s release point until it lands in the catcher’s mitt — and the ball’s trajectory when hit. It also tracks how many rotations the ball goes through when pitched and how far the ball travels upon contact.

There have already been several moments of excitement in practice that have been made possible with the machine’s data collection and display. It’s even helping the players push each other harder.

“The players have definitely been involved, they’ve been asking me, ‘Oh, what’s my exit velo?” Young said. “There was one time, I think with (junior infielder) Ryan Haff and (junior outfielder) Bren Spillane; Haff hit a ball that was like 100 (mph) off the bat and Bren got in and it was like 95. Haff started like, ‘Hey I got this better than you,’ and it became a competition with one pitch going back and forth.”

While his team is enjoying the benefits of reading into more and more information, head coach Dan Hartleb is wary of how players knowing too much about their own games can get into their heads.

“I think there are certain things from a data standpoint, that if you give that stuff to the players, I think it will freeze them up,” Hartleb said. “So I really like some of it for the coaches, but I think we need to be careful with how much we give to our players.”

Hartleb also realizes that just because some players may have better off-the-bat velocities or may be able to drive the ball further than another does not directly correlate with who is going to be the most successful at the plate.

If a hitter can hit with a high velocity off the bat, but always pops out for example, then it doesn’t do him any good.

“There are some things I really like about the analytical part, but there are some things that can be dangerous, so I think we have to pick and choose what we’re using,” Hartleb said. “The guys that have the highest velocity or spin rates, they may not be the guys that get hitters out. And the hitters that may have the best exit velocity may not be the guys who make contact on a consistent basis.”

Hartleb, Young, Wells and the rest of the Illini are all taking the new data with a grain of salt, but they acknowledge that there are definite benefits to being able to learn more about the individual players and the team’s trends with the help of their new technology.

Young is interning with Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in the summer as a statistical analyst and manager of databases. He sees the future of baseball as one filled with even more data than the already stat-heavy sport has currently.

With every club in the MLB on board with some form of the technology the Illini are using, it is only a matter of time before the trend continues to spread across the collegiate sporting world.

“I think (statistical analysis) is good, both to win and help students build their credentials to go work in the industry,” Young said. “For the players, when they get drafted and go play for a team they’ll be familiar with these numbers and maybe have an advantage over other players because they know how to treat these numbers, how to work with analytics.”

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