Advanced analytics aid Rockies pitchers

Colorado coaches use TrackMan, Statcast to optimize effectiveness

Advanced analytics aid Rockies pitchers

CINCINNATI -- Rockies right-handed pitcher Christian Bergman chuckled when asked if he could recite his pitch velocity and how it relates to his perceived pitch velocity.

"I have no idea," Bergman said.

But does he understand the concept?

"I guess it's what the radar gun says and what it looks like," Bergman said. "I know I've had people tell me that my 90 [mph] plays up to 93 or whatever it is."

Bergman has the basic concept as he, and his entire sport, learns to meld flesh with detailed information. Analytics are widely used in economical roster building, strategy and evaluation. Now coaches are using high-tech tools to help them optimize the best players a computer and a payroll can spit out.

The Rockies, especially pitching coach Steve Foster, are using tools such as TrackMan and Statcast™ in hopes of digging through the results to the "how" and "why."

TrackMan uses radar technology that measures such factors as arm angle, velocity and spin rate (projected revolutions per minute) of every pitch thrown, and it groups pitches by type. TrackMan is a component of Statcast™, which presents detailed measurements for nearly every conceivable action at every position for clubs, players and fans.

The data may be more applicable for coaching pitchers, since they control the action to a greater degree than hitters and fielders, who are reacting. TrackMan operates during all games. The Rockies have it at the Spring Training bullpen, and they are working on installing it in the Coors Field bullpen. Many teams, Colorado included, use TrackMan in the Minors.

"Our eyes can see a lot, but the TrackMan gets the exact data," Foster said. "It turns gray into black and white."

In Bergman's example, his four-seam fastball this year averages 90.81 mph, but TrackMan computes that from the hitter's perspective, the pitch seems 92.73 mph.

"It could be deception in my motion. ... I don't know what it is," Bergman said.

TrackMan knows. Perceived velocity, one of several measures of every pitch that every pitcher in the Majors has thrown at least 10 times his season, is velocity combined with arm extension.

Rockies right-handed reliever Justin Miller considers TrackMan and Statcast™ "mostly for the fans, so they can understand and grasp how we do what we do." But Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes are helping pitchers use it without knowing, by carefully boiling the data into concise pointers the pitcher can feel and see.

"We might say, 'Make sure you're finishing out front,'" said Foster, who said he uses the data between performances but gets a better read off video during games.

Teams are best advised to use data to enlighten, not to evaluate. For example, pitches with a spin rate above 2,200 tend to draw swings and misses. But lower spins often produce ground balls.

"It's not so much trying to change what you already have," Bergman said. "It's learning more how to use what you have."

Maybe in the case of rookie righty Jon Gray, who will start Friday night at Coors Field against the Dodgers, it's simply learning.

Last year during a get-your-feet-wet trial, he struggled to an 8.27 ERA in Colorado, but on Aug. 15, he held the Padres to one run and four hits, with five strikeouts and no walks in five innings. Data showed he had greater extension -- the ball left his hand closer to home plate -- than in other home games. When presented the data, he said the extension resulted from an adjustment to Padres hitters. He had similar success in San Diego on Sept. 8.

Gray's strong start

"I put a lot of angle on the ball. I didn't try to reach back and blow it past them," Gray said. "But I don't know if doing that all the time is going to take away from my delivery. I've heard changing mechanics leads to injury."

But Friday is Gray's first start of the season because of an abdominal strain he sustained this spring, caused by rotating toward first base rather than extending. Maybe extension equals injury prevention.

Foster said all of the information needs context. Changes in arm angle, for example, could be signs of trouble. But maybe not.

"We don't take the science and say, 'This is what you must do,'" Foster said. "Say it shows us your release point is changing on your breaking ball. But you're trying to bounce it down and away, so your elbow drops some.' Don't lose the creativity because of the science.

"Pitching will always be an art."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.