By: Anthony Franco, Staff Writer
“Velocity is the number one predictor of success.” That’s how Angels General Manager Billy Eppler responded to a question from the LA Times on constructing his pitching staff. The organization’s analyses demonstrated that velocity was a sort of foundational skill in pitching, supplemented by command and movement. Each pitcher needs some level of all three, but arm speed is principal. This isn’t a unique opinion. Velocity has been increasing league-wide for years. Indeed, if Eppler thought he was saying anything controversial, he wouldn’t have said it publicly at all. Why reveal a competitive advantage unless everyone else already knows?
If velocity is paramount, it follows that calculating velocity is equally so. This is nothing groundbreaking, of course; scouts have been lugging radar guns to games for years.
Figure 1 Scouts with Stalker radar guns
The traditional Stalker gun has been ubiquitous at baseball games, a necessary evil for scouts and coaches alike. It’s not easily transportable, but as Eppler noted, quantifying velocity is a must. Pocket Radar is filling in that gap, creating a velocity-reader significantly less burdensome than its competitors’. Compare Pocket Radar’s newest model, the Smart Coach, to the Stalker guns seen above, and it’s clear how much easier the former is to carry from game to game.
Figure 2 Pocket Radar Smart Coach with companion app
The company’s name isn’t a misnomer. The Smart Coach literally fits in one’s pocket. University of Missouri pitching coach Fred Corral remembered taking its predecessor, the Ball Coach, to the doctor’s office one day, mistaking the radar gun for his wallet. Of course, portability is only an asset if the product correctly tracks pitch speeds. Just as velocity is the foundation of pitching, accuracy is the foundation of any measurement device. The Smart Coach has no such issue. “Pocket Radars are just as accurate as any other gun out there. It’s something you can have with you at all times,” Corral told CBBSN. “It does its job, especially when I’m going field-to-field. I (only) have my scouting book, my Pocket Radar and my stopwatch…. It’s as accurate as the Stalker guns we use in games and in bullpens.”
Already noteworthy for its convenience, the Smart Coach stands out for its technological capabilities. Its updated interface allows for instant feedback. Traditionally, a radar gun would require the user to clock a pitch, dial up a search history, and then record each value. No longer. The Smart Coach, when paired with the Pocket Radar app on mobile devices, allows for immediate visual tagging. Record a player pitching on an iPhone or iPad, and the velocity readings tracked by the device will pop up in real time in the top right-hand corner of the video. The app has an auto-clipping feature that then kicks in, isolating each pitch while cutting out all the fluff (the catcher’s return throw to the mound, the pitcher identifying signs, etc.) and rerecording immediately before the next offering.
A coach or scout can watch and record a series of pitches and immediately access a synthesized transcript. Entire innings can be cut into short videos, with each pitch’s velocity popping up in the corner. What’s more, the app allows for evaluation from multiple angles without sacrificing data collection. The evaluator needs only to set up the gun on a tripod behind home plate, where it will track each pitch (a lower-bound velocity can be set so the device knows not to pick up the catcher’s return throws). They can then record video on their iPhone or iPad from any angle. The scout can record a pitcher’s open-face mechanics from down a baseline, for instance, while getting instantaneous velocity readings relayed from behind home plate.
This autoclip feature has value for remotely evaluating talent, Corral notes. “The Smart Coach has really helped (recruiting),” he said. “I can videotape a prospect and send that to (recruiting coordinator) Lance Rhodes, who’s in another part of the country…. He can evaluate the video or vice versa. He can shoot me a video of someone he’s watching.” While Corral extols the value of in-person scouting, he notes that video scouting is sometimes a necessary fallback. Especially for college programs with limited staff, it is impossible for every coach to see each potential recruit in-person. The ability of one evaluator to capture a pitcher’s mechanics from all angles without losing the velocity measurements is critical. “It’s almost as good seeing it first hand, if you have scouting experience,” Corral said of breaking down pitchers on video. “If you’ve already acquired that expertise, it’s really not that tough to look on video, see the gun read show up and say, ‘ok, that looks pretty good.’”
Figure 3 Pocket Radar app screenshot of speed in video
The instant feedback isn’t just on video, though. There’s an audio callout function available, too, which is useful for individualized training. A pitcher can hear his velocity readings called out from his iPhone after each pitch, enabling him to tinker with his effort level or mechanics and evaluate their impact on his velocity in real-time. He needn’t leave the mound to check his gun after each pitch.
The Smart Coach’s immediate feedback is a favorite of Jackson Zarubin, a former Angels farmhand released by the club last season despite strong numbers in the low-minors. Zarubin prevented runs and induced ground balls in Low-A in 2017, but he admits that his stuff wasn’t eye-catching enough to stick around. “I was 90-93 (MPH), and the Angels wanted guys hitting 95-plus,” he said, unintentionally echoing his former boss, Eppler. In an effort to save his career, Zarubin turned to Driveline Baseball, a Washington facility for professionals and amateurs noted for its weighted ball training designed to increase pitchers’ velocities. Zarubin only logged five weeks at the facility in-person but, with the aid of the Smart Coach, he’s been able to continue training remotely.
Zarubin sets up his radar gun and iPhone on a pair of tripods in front of him on the mound as he throws, so he can monitor his mechanics and velocity readings in real-time. He’s been working on shortening his arm stroke, believing that inconsistency in the length of his arm action has impeded his velocity. The Smart Coach’s technological capabilities are equally valuable for Zarubin’s training as they are for Corral’s recruiting. Not only can Zarubin monitor his velocity as he throws, he can upload the auto-clipped videos to Driveline’s database, where his personal trainer, Sam, can evaluate his mechanics and velocity simultaneously. Zarubin and Sam then bounce ideas off one another for future training sessions in advance of Driveline’s January pro day, where the pitcher will throw in front of professional scouts with an opportunity to revive his affiliated ball career.
While velocity has long been a commonplace metric for pitchers, it has increasingly become a part of the offensive evaluation in recent years. Exit velocity- how hard the ball comes off a hitter’s bat- is a statistical proxy for a player’s raw power, having become a feature in the baseball lexicon after the 2015 advent of Statcast. Again, as teams have incorporated the metric into their player evaluation models, players began to train to improve it. Perry Husband has been at the forefront of that training. An independent instructor with ties to myriad MLB teams, including the two most recent World Series champions, Husband has worked with players for the better part of two decades. He opined that the Smart Coach was among the most impactful of tools he’s encountered in that time.
“It’s incredible. You set it up with your (iPhone) or iPad, put it on a tripod and you can watch the side view, or any view actually, to see what the hitter’s doing,” Husband said. “It registers pitch speed and hit speed, so if you’re doing simulated at-bats, I can simulate what game reactions would look like based on knowing the pitch speed on every pitch…. It’s a really, really impressive tool.”
Figure 4 Pocket Radar app showcasing exit velocity speed in video
Husband has used the Smart Coach in both baseball and softball, incorporating it into his work with the Peruvian national baseball team as well as the Oregon and UCLA softball teams. Despite that work with organizations, Husband thinks the gun’s value is most apparent in independent training. Unlike Zarubin, though, Husband sees it primarily as a tool for hitters. “I can imagine being next to the cages during batting practice and having the radar set up so it’s picking up every ball hit. You can get feedback on every (swing). The pitch speed coming in is really important because it tells the hitter the reaction time of each pitch. Most guys aren’t going to go that deep into (the data), but when I’m simulating an at-bat, I need to see what reaction times guys have.”
This isn’t just a niche product for struggling minor-leaguers. Carlos Peña, who hit 286 home runs in his MLB career, has been in contact with Husband about establishing a Smart Coach-based training regimen for his son in high school. Again, the product’s accuracy and video capabilities drive the program. “The video I get is consistent from one day to the next, so when we’re doing remote training…. we know we can trust the speeds that we’re getting,” Husband said.
While the Smart Coach hasn’t yet made its way into baseball’s mainstream, it seems only a matter of time. The product was only rolled out a few weeks ago, so not all MLB organizations or college teams have had an opportunity to experiment with it. The brand, though, is another story. Pocket Radar has built a strong reputation among those in the industry through its willingness to take feedback from its clientele. “(Co-founders Chris Stewart and Steve Goody) helped me become a better coach, just through the interactions we’ve had and the thoughts we’ve shared,” Corral said. “Have I contributed to their current product? I don’t know. The interaction, though, was top of the line. If I had a question, they were there to answer it.”
Husband echoes the sentiment, lauding Pocket Radar’s receptiveness to his request for higher-resolution video capability, which is forthcoming in an update. That reputation for adaptability has spread. Jerry Weinstein, a roving minor-league coordinator for the Rockies, reached out to Stewart and Goody about testing out the Ball Coach- Pocket Radar’s first product- upon Corral’s recommendation. Now, he equips some of Colorado’s prospects with their products for use in independent training, especially in injury recovery. When a player is away from the team with a long-term injury, he can use the Ball Coach to track his velocities during recovery. As his velocity climbs, the injured player has tangible markers that his condition is improving. Husband sent the Ball Coach to Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who recognized its portability convenience. Even analysts have joined the Pocket Radar rush. With Pocket Radar having such a strong reputation among baseball’s inner-circle, it should only be a matter of time before Pocket Radar products become as commonplace as the Stalker guns so recognizable behind home plate.
“I think the new Smart Coach Radar is going to revolutionize the ability to do remote training,” Husband concluded, without hyperbole. “That’s the part that’s so exciting for me, being able to get this in people’s hands all over the world. That part of it is really exciting.”