2024 SABR Analytics: Watch highlights from State of Baseball Biomechanics Industry Panel

2024 SABR Analytics: Michael Sonne, Adam Nebel, James Buffi, Arnel Aguinaldo, Ethan Stewart

At the SABR Analytics Conference on Friday, March 8, 2024, in Phoenix, Arizona, a panel discussion was held on the State of Baseball Biomechanics Industry.

Panelists included Arnel Aguinaldo, Point Loma Nazarene University; James Buffi, Reboot Motion; Adam Nebel, Auburn University; Michael Sonne, Chicago Cubs; and moderator Ethan Stewart, Oakland Athletics.

Here are some highlights from the panel:

On the use and role of single camera systems in baseball

  • Sonne: “One of the unintended consequences I’ve seen … is how many people come up to me and say that was their first exposure to getting access to biomechanics data. And then they move into a role with a team and they have access to a way more robust system like KinaTrax. [The single cam systems have] given them a feel for it. … If you are looking for a single camera system to replace a multi-camera system or a marker-based system, you’re not asking the right question. It’s how can you fill in the gaps? In a perfect world, you have a single camera system for when you’re at the plyo(metrics) wall or doing something like that. And then you can kind of say, all right, we need to get this guy in the lab and then get more data.”
  • Stewart: “We’re no longer trying to publish research all the time. We’re not looking for the most scientific method that’s going to give us exact numbers. We need something that is reliable and appliable, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something we can utilize, that we trust. It does not have to be the exact same, but as long as we can see a trend and know what’s happening, it’s a lot better for us. When I find a 2-degree difference with a markered motion capture system, I can’t go tell my coach to go make an adjustment for 2 degrees. You can’t see that with your eyes. But being able to measure those things and being able to apply it, to be able to use it in those small settings, is what is really important for me on the applied side.”

On Statcast bat-path metrics

  • Aguinaldo: “Taking the bat metrics, whether through Hawk-Eye or Blast Motion or one of these modalities that we use, is understanding the relationship between the body – the biomechanics – and the swing itself. You can have ‘improper’ or ‘bad’ kinematics and kinetics, however that’s defined, and still make good contact and it’s a hit. Understanding that from a statistical perspective and trying to find relationships between what we see and the ground-reaction force, the kinematics, the kinetics, as well as these bat metrics, is very helpful for the coaches, the S&C (strength and conditioning staff), and athletic trainers to make some really good, informed decisions where it’s not just the performance side, but potentially even some injury risk in various joints of the body. Obviously it is not as prevalent as we see in pitching, but it can certainly be an issue for some of the swings that we have been seeing. For the biomechanics of baseball hitting itself, that’s where the research… needs to move. I think that’s where we really need to understand a little bit more from a biomechanical perspective on the hitting side.”
  • Nebel: “Data availability in general, giving everybody the opportunity to answer your own research question, however that might be. If you find something cool, then use it, publish it, put it on Twitter. People might disagree with you, but that’s room for growth too. It’s room for growth for the entire sport. … Make [bat-path metrics] publicly available and figure out what you can figure out.

2024 SABR Analytics: Michael Sonne and Adam Nebel

On interpreting and analyzing new baseball data

  • Buffi: “Don’t assume someone’s mechanics are static. People change a lot over time. When I was at the Dodgers, we did some studies to see how (pitchers’) velocity progressed in the minors and (pitchers) generally gained a couple of miles an hour through the minor leagues, not even counting college. … People will change a lot, especially as they are coached, especially as they grow. So the ‘don’t’ is don’t assume that someone’s mechanics are static, which leads to the ‘do.’ … We can do more longitudinal studies now. It used to be where the biomechanical data was only available at the major leagues. These are well-developed adults, so we have data on one set of people. But now we can get data on those people going back to when they’re 18 years old. We can track them all the way through to, if you have a long career, 37 years. We can have longitudinal data to better understand how things change over time.”
  • Stewart: “The important thing for us is, we’re getting more and more information, so we have to be able to A) bring it all in, but then pick out what is the most important thing. There is a huge shout-out to MLB now with the draft combine. We’re getting a lot more players, we’re seeing a lot more data on these guys. So now we have to learn the best way, in the professional level, to ingest that and utilize that to its maximum potential. … It’s important to know as guys go through their careers, they adjust, they change, they get stronger, they get bigger, they mature, their bodies change, and understanding how that affects everything we’re trying to look at. And trying to measure it at a level of college and high school guys, trying to draft them based on where they’re at.”

On the next big thing in baseball biomechanics

  • Sonne: “I think the idea of moving biomechanics from being a discipline to being a tool is probably the most important next phase. … We see all these data points, we see ball flight, we see spin rates, all these things. But I think sometimes people forget that there is a bag of meat with electricity running through it that’s making those numbers. And there’s a lot that can happen with people that can change things, like somebody’s having a bad night’s sleep because they just had a baby or something. It’s using biomechanics as a tool to measure things that may be changing in other spaces. Including that in the toolbox for any analyst to solve problems. I think that’s going to be the biggest shift.”
  • Buffi: “I think one big thing is just doing stuff at scale. … Over the last few years, we’ve gotten lots and lots of data at the major league level and people have been trying to do it more and more at scale. But I still think there are challenges that I’ve seen doing it at scale. But, again, related to what I said about AI and Compute … I think people are going to be able to build bigger and bigger models and do larger and larger studies. … The second big thing is connecting intent to biomechanics. … Some of the eye tracking with hitting maybe starts to get at that or understanding where a pitcher is trying to throw a ball versus where they actually throw the ball. … Can we go one step further and figure out what the brain is doing to tell the body what to do?”
  • Aguinaldo: “I’m really excited about where the research paradigm in biomechanics is moving, especially in baseball (with) pitching-related injuries. … Part of the thing with biomechanics, and I find this with coaches, is that they assume we have the answers to why these are occurring. We use a mode called inverse dynamics to estimate the reaction torque at the shoulder and elbow, but it doesn’t tell us what the individual structures are responding to. … Using musculoskeletal models to understand the relationship between what human movement is doing on a macro level to what the individual structure … is able to respond to those torques that are imposed.”
  • Nebel: “Data availability and having access at all levels is going to be the biggest thing in biomechanics. And it’s not so much just from how well can we predict who’s going to do well when they get to AA, AA, major leagues and going through those systems. But it’s going to give us that much more data to try and answer some of these questions of: Why haven’t we been able to predict elbow injuries? Why haven’t we been able to save people’s careers when they are coming back from elbow injuries? Seeing how many pitches we actually have, how many swings we actually have, and having that number exponentially grow as more and more systems get installed and we start to see more and more people on those systems at all different levels. It’s just going to give us that much more of an idea of what we could be looking at versus what we are looking at now.”

Transcription assistance from Sebastian Kirkpatrick.

For more coverage of the 2024 SABR Analytics Conference, visit SABR.org/analytics.


Originally published: May 1, 2024. Last Updated: April 26, 2024.