By Chris Weikel
The most critical exchange in any baseball game is the battle between the hitter and pitcher. Happening on average more than 300 times per game, every swing of the bat has the potential to change the fate of a game. Two of the most important — in the past unquantifiable — skills in this exchange are hitter reaction and decision-making time. In more basic terms, it is critical to know whether a batter has the mental and physical skills to determine the type of pitch, whether it is in the strike zone, then quickly get the bat into position and make contact with the ball. For years, scouts, coaches, and front office officials have lauded players for their “plate discipline” and their “good eye,” without any number-based method to back up these assumptions. Other than calculating walk numbers, which as an end result, not a predictive method.
However, in recent years two neuroscientists, Dr. Wesley Clapp and Dr. Brian Miller, have found a way to not only quantify these important skills, but also train players to improve them and prepare for upcoming pitching matchups. In 2007, the duo created NeuroScouting LLC, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in analyzing players’ brain waves with high tech neuro-sensors and converting the data to usable tools in player scouting and skills training. This new technology was initially limited to a few Major League Baseball teams and greeted with some skepticism, but already many general managers and players are impressed, saying anecdotally that it has improved their ability to assess players and improve skills.
This technology could be highly beneficial to college teams. Not only would NeuroScouting help coaches assess recruits making use of their limited scholarship and recruitment resources, but it would also help in the developmental of young athletes. During their college years, a player’s mental skills are reaching their prime in terms of reaction times and information gathering. This makes college the perfect time to train their brains using NeuroScouting systems. This early development would help the team get the most out a player and also prepare him for the high spin rate and velocity environment of the MLB. In an era where every college player is a physical specimen, mental development could be the next edge.
George Horton, the head baseball coach at the University of Oregon, is interested in using NeuroScouting to help assess and improve the skills of his players. “If there is a high degree of accuracy, it would absolutely help,” Horton said. But, he added, to be most beneficial to college teams, the technology must be easy to use by his staff on the field. “It would make perfect sense to use the technology if it’s portable and user friendly,” Horton said. In fact, this is one of the main perks of NeuroScouting. Most of the system’s software can be downloaded into any computer, assuring both portability and a user-friendly system. The system’s electrode caps, which pick up brainwaves, also have portable versions that can be transported easily.
How Does NeuroScouting Work?
The process behind NeuroScouting’s technology is held confidential as a trade secret. However, various players, front office executives, and NeuroScouting employees have indicated that the system works in the following way: First, neuroscientists strap a brainwave scanner, something that most people have only seen in science fiction movies, to a player’s head. Then attach electrodes and wires that are connected to the doctor’s computer. Brainwave scanning is a conventional, well-proven technology in the medical field, as it has been used for decades to record electrical activity in the brain. But this is one of the first times it has been used in sports.
The player is subjected to a series of tests that are similar to video games, including recreation of real MLB pitches. The player than decides as quickly as possible what type of pitch was thrown and whether to swing. The NeuroScouting team obtained these recreations of actual pitchers by digitally capturing each player’s windup, arm action, pitch movement, and spin rate from thousands of offerings each year.
The technology then transmits the hitter’s brain waves into workable data that the team or NeuroScouting’s data scientists can analyze. So far, the skills quantified and recorded by this technology include reaction time, hand eye coordination, spin pickup, location pickup, and natural vision. Once this data is collected, the team can use it to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each player.
How Does It Help Scouts?
NeuroScouting and MLB teams have made some significant strides in using this technology. The first and most obvious benefit is for scouting and player evaluation. This was the initial use when the company was founded in 2007. At that time, the three early adopters were the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, and the Tampa Bay Rays. Their main use of the data back then was for evaluation of young players in the draft process. There are numerous published accounts from players experiencing this testing during their first, pre-draft meetings.
Supporters say one of the biggest early success stories for this system was the All Star and Most Valuable Player candidate Mookie Betts. When the Red Sox sat down this 5’9”, 18-year-old high school kid before the 2011 draft, there was little draft hype around this undersized, 165-pound infielder. But after he underwent the Red Sox’s new, innovative testing, the team decided that Betts was someone they wanted to draft. In these tests, Betts reportedly scored off the charts in quickness in picking up pitches, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination– three of the most important skills in hitting but formerly unquantifiable before NeuroScouting developed its tests, according to the Boston Globe.
Since then, this fifth-round selection by the Red Sox has more than shown the tools he flashed in this initial testing. He has excelled at the plate with one of the best hit tools and plate vision (4.7% swinging strike rate, 87% contact rate, and 19% outside the zone swing rate, all of which are near top of the leaderboards) in the league, and he has used these skills efficiently in the field, leading him to be a premier right field defender despite only being 93rd in sprint speed, according to MLB’s Statcast. Betts is the most well-documented example of how NeuroScouting technology can help teams find “diamonds in the rough” and create an important edge over other teams.
However, there is so far no completely comprehensive data showing conclusively that NeuroScouting can predict the best players. “Intuitively, it would make sense that this would be a helpful tool,” [Red Sox General Manager] Ben Cherington told The Wall Street Journal last year, “but I just don’t know if anyone yet can prove that it’s predictive. The hope is maybe it can be.”
How NeuroScouting Would Assist in Batting Practice
Another aspect of the game that NeuroScouting has influenced is not only quantifying the aforementioned skills but actually training hitters to improve them. The NeuroScouting team has created drills and other tests that have been shown to improve the reaction and vision numbers recorded by the system. They keep the specifics of these drills secret due to competitor interference and a need to retain an advantage, but they generally work like this: The player, with a brain scanner attached, runs through hundreds to thousands of different baseball-related activities and reaction games while the sensors record his brain waves. The doctors then specify exact times and scenarios when the player’s thoughts are either too slow or incorrectly taking in data, and then create an inclusive training regimen. The player then incorporates this into his daily practice regimen while the neurologists record progress and tweak the program when necessary.
Already Helping in the Minors
Many teams now have adapted this technology in all of their minor league developmental facilities. Player and coaching staff reactions have been largely positive. According to a Sportsnet article, former Cub and current Mariners first baseman Dan Vogelbach said during his stint in the Cub’s minor league system, “It’s a good thing [that] Theo [Epstein] did it in Boston. When I was in a pre-draft workout with Boston, I did it. And we do it here. It’s something that I think helps us.” Some players realize that with all the work they put into getting their body ready for the game, they need to train their minds as well. After all, according to the old cliché that every coach has preached in Little League, “Baseball’s a mental game.”
More Simulated At-Bats
Another benefit that NeuroScouting can bring to the collegiate level is in the field of video breakdown and game preparation. Players have always watched film on upcoming matchups and their previous game performances, but what NeuroScouting has added to the equation is the ability to get simulated at-bat experience with an upcoming pitcher, relive and rework bad at-bats from their previous games. “I think it makes a tremendous difference…It’s like getting extra at-bats. You may only get four at-bats in a game, but you can get 20 at-bats during the day if you take the time and do the NeuroScouting,” Stephen Bruno, a Double-A infielder in the Cubs’ organization told Sportsnet.
With this new system, collegiate players who have probably never faced a pitcher throwing 97 mph can get training as close as possible to actual Major League level at-bats preparing them better than ever for their next step. This allows hitters to more quickly adjust to new levels as well as help diagnose what a college pitcher is doing. This could partially eliminate the adjustment period most batters have when facing both a new arm and a new league. No longer will batters need to take first pitch to “get a feel for the pitcher” because they already have “batted” against him hundreds of times in the simulation. This neurological data could vastly improve a player’s worth if it is in fact accurate. If this technology can add even a win or two to a team it could end up making the difference in the College World Series.
Does It Really Work?
UO Coach Horton’s reference to whether there is a “high degree of accuracy” reinforces the concern many baseball experts have: Does it work? While it definitely has an immense amount of potential, the results are not well-studied so it is difficult to assess its success rate. Only a few teams have incorporated it, and while there are other, similar techniques, only one company offers NeuroScouting.
Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak told Sportsnet in 2015 that he was aware of the technology, but had not tried it. “I have an understanding of what the product is and what it’s looking to measure, but at this point, it’s pretty limited on how you could actually take advantage of it and it’s because a couple teams have purchased it off the market,” according to Sportsnet. Mozeliak went on to say that it would be interesting to see if its usage “grows or if it is going to be something that just ends up being contained by a couple major league clubs.” He added, “anytime there’s what’s almost a monopoly on something, you always want the free business market to open up and allow other people to have access to it. So hopefully that happens over time, but it’s certainly interesting.”
With more teams signing up, it is critical for researchers to start collecting data to analyze its effectiveness because the evidence is not entirely conclusive. The cost of the technology is not publicly available, so it is difficult to assess its cost-effectiveness, especially for college teams. Because it remains a semi-monopoly, the cost could skyrocket, so it’s important to collect quantifiable evidence to judge whether it is a legitimate expense for college teams.
Is It the Next Baseball Revolution?
With every collegiate team striving to find the new competitive advantage, many of the teams may find it with NeuroScouting. Years ago, a similar transformation in baseball was greeted with skepticism — the undervaluing of On Base Percentage (OBP), made famous in the book, Moneyball. Now all teams believe in the value of OBP. Perhaps NeuroScouting will be the next big baseball revolution. So far the technology is too new to fully know its usefulness, but there are early signs that it could have potential to change professional and collegiate games. Baseball is a cerebral game, and many pitchers have 95+ mph, high-spin-rate fastballs and incredibly sharp-breaking balls, so teams are eager to find ways to quantify the vision and reaction time necessary to hit these pitchers.
Only time will tell if these two neuroscientists have paved a new analytical path, but I believe this new technology could be the next big edge for progressive, forward-thinking programs.