An Update On Wearable Baseball Technology

There are a number of things to consider when trying to implement wearable technology. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

In the two part series “The Future of Baseball Technology” in 2015, Jesse Wolfersberger examined state-of-the-art sports technology as it pertains to baseball. In Part 1, Wolfersberger provided an overview of the technology that had already been adapted for baseball use, and was immediately available. Part 2 was a look to the future and the technologies under development in other areas, but that could provide an advantage in the baseball world.

While we can’t quite say that the future is now, the landscape has changed significantly in the time since Wolfersberger’s exploration of the technology making its way into baseball.

The most significant development isn’t a technological advance per se, but rather the implementation of a policy that incorporates the use of technology on the field. Once again, MLB is at the forefront of adopting new technology, and recognizing the benefits it can bring to the game.

However, being among the first of the professional sports leagues to sanction new technology also means being the first to wade into the somewhat murky waters surrounding the use of new technology. MLB recognizes that this undertaking isn’t to be taken lightly, and there are a number of considerations to be made regarding the adoption and use of any new technology. Accordingly, MLB and MLBPA worked together to arrive at Attachment 56 of the 2017-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which not only sets forth the manner in which new technologies are evaluated and approved, but is forward thinking enough to establish rules regarding a player’s privacy, and the use and sharing of a player’s data (more on this later). The usage of new technology is entirely voluntary. It’s not clear whether a bioethicist was consulted – but the agreement has clearly taken a proactive stance in taking privacy and HIPAA concerns into account.

To approve new technology, the CBA established the Joint Committee on Wearable Technology (JCWT), which includes the joint MLB-MLBPA Strength & Conditioning Coordinator, two members appointed by the MLBPA, and two members appointed by the Office of the Commissioner. Chris Marinak, the Executive Vice President of Strategy, Technology & Innovation, and Chris Young, a Vice President in Baseball Operations, are the representatives from the Office of the Commissioner.

Thus we have representation from a former pitcher, someone with a the technology background, and a strength and conditioning coordinator who can speak to the needs of the coaching staff. Coupled with the MLBPA representatives, the JCWT can provide a multifaceted look at new technology, and review the use of these devices from a number of perspectives.

Now, what is a “wearable technology”? Per Attachment 56, “‘wearable technology’ refers to any equipment, program, software, device or attire which is designed to collect and/or analyze information or data related to a Player’s health or performance. Such technologies include, without limitation: activity trackers, electronic bat sensors, biomechanics compression attire, GPS/tracking compression attire and any device, sensor, equipment, attire or dashboard technology which is designed to measure a Player’s health, performance and/or readiness.”

At the time of Wolfersberger’s story, there were no approved devices, and there was no mechanism by which one could seek approval for the on-field use of these devices. In the three years since, MLB has approved a total of eight devices for on-field use, four of which are also approved for in-game use.

The first two devices were approved for use in-game beginning with the 2016 season: the Motus sleeve, often referred to as mThrow or motusTHROW, a biomechanics sleeve, and the Zephyr bioharness, which measures heart rate and breathing, and can thus be used as a proxy for monitoring fatigue. Since then, two additional devices have been approved.

Catapult is described simply by MLB as a “GPS Tracker”, but a 2017 profile of the Catapult baseball harness describes it as so much more:

“in addition to its GPS locator, [it] provides data via an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer to measure the lean, the turn and the force of the body. The company employs six sport scientists in the U.S., and that team has developed the machine learning algorithm to recognize patterns of exertion and identify throws, swings and sprints.”

The Zephyr and Catapult harnesses are worn under uniforms, and are not readily visible to the casual fan. Like the Motus sleeve, the WHOOP strap is easy to see, although one might not be able to distinguish between the wide wristband/watch look of a WHOOP and a Fitbit. WHOOP is described as a heart monitor, and provides information about heart rate, heart rate variability, temperature, and sleep data.

Teams and players aren’t allowed to access the data from in-game approved devices during the game, but the data is available immediately afterwards. And if the data isn’t accessed immediately, some devices have storage capacities ranging from several hours to several days worth of data. It’s also worth noting that while storage space is a concern, battery life is also critical.

In addition to the devices approved for in-game, on-field activity, four devices have been approved for on-field activity outside of games. These devices are external and embedded electronic bat sensors from Blast Motion and Diamond Kinetics used to track swings. Interestingly, although the CBA does not apply to the minor leagues, Attachment 56 of the CBA specifies that the Blast Motion external bat sensor can be used for swing tracking in-game at all minor league levels, with the Blast Motion embedded bat sensor approved for in-game use in complex leagues.

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These eight approved devices barely scratch the surface of the wearable technology currently on the market. Many of these devices are targeted towards measuring fatigue and in-game performance, using a combination of movement trackers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes. Although wearables are our focus for today, we need to remember that the rest of the sports tech world is making its own great strides forward. Some of the data we can glean from a swing tracker can now be measured using high tech equipment placed around the field. In other words, we can get the same information elsewhere, without requiring a player to wear a sleeve or attach a swing tracker to his bat.

Even the most unobtrusive wearable is an imposition on an athlete. While players must volunteer to wear these devices, they do so in the hopes of gleaning some insight regarding their health and performance. If other technology around the ballpark, in the batting cages, and in the bullpen can provide high quality data regarding movement, angles, and torque that a wearable device can’t, are we really making the best use of wearable technology? How can we better maximize the use of wearable technology in baseball? What are some wearable technologies that can really make the most of their proximity to an athlete, devices that can collect data which wouldn’t readily be observable via a distant camera or monitor?

As of now, we can’t monitor hydration, blood oxygenation, and muscle fatigue using high speed cameras or other external technologies. And this is where wearable devices will truly distinguish themselves from other sports technology. While not all wearable technology would be practical for in-game use or on the field, the provisions of the CBA don’t require approval for wearables used off the field. A more tech savvy player might try to incorporate wearable technology into his own routine, without attracting notice, as sports technology looks more and more like regular athletic wear.

As Wolfersberger alluded to, the Golden State Warriors use wearables from Athos to monitor a variety of biometrics, including heart rate, respiration, and muscle exertion. The Athos wearables are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, and look much like most compression gear, in the form of compression shirts, tank tops, and shorts. Along similar lines, StriveTech makes compression shorts which can monitor muscle usage:

“Just like competitors such as Catapult or STATSports, Strive Tech tracks an athlete’s movement using GPS, accelerometers, and gyroscopes, although the tracking module is located on the waist instead of the upper body. But electrodes in the shorts can also track heart rate through the femoral artery and monitor muscle function with ECG and EMG technology”.

No outfit would be complete without footwear, and yes, there’s wearable technology for your feet, too. Sensoria makes compression socks and footwear that can monitor pressure in the form of foot landings and impacts; one could easily envision Sensoria’s tech being adapted for use in evaluating a hitter’s stance, a pitcher’s form, or a defensive player’s positioning.

While not an article of clothing per se, the Firefly Sports Recovery Device has the same goals as compression clothing: to improve blood flow and circulation. But Firefly accomplishes this using neuromuscular electrostimulation. The Firefly sits at the top of your calf, and would be virtually unnoticed under clothing.

However, for off-field use, manufacturers aren’t as concerned with making devices that are unobtrusive, or avoiding tech that would otherwise hamper a player’s movements and activity on the field. This is where we see a greater variety of wearable technology, and it isn’t just limited to the measurement and collection of biometric data. It is also used for improving performance and diagnosing injury.

Of great interest to the athletes at the professional and youth levels are devices that can monitor concussion symptoms. Xerox, PARC and NextFlex are collaborating on a saliva measuring device in a mouthguard, with the thought that certain biomarkers and metabolites found in saliva could be indicators of a concussion. Other mouth guards have also been adapted to diagnose concussions, such as the HitIQ Nexus A9, which uses motion sensors, and Prevent Biometrics, which uses accelerometers, to measure forceful impacts.

Indeed, an obvious use of wearable technology would be a helmet which could detect impacts and possible concussions in real time. This could take the form of a helmet designed specifically for protection from impact, or a device that simply attaches to the back of a helmet, used to determine whether a force was severe enough to warrant a concussion test. However, these helmets would be most practical on the field, and baseball players have traditionally been reluctant to adopt newer, bulkier headgear on the field.

A startup called SyncThink is using a virtual reality headset to monitor concussions by evaluating eye tracking movements. The use of virtual reality in sports tech is widespread, typically as a proxy for an in-game playing experience to train an athlete’s brain. The idea of brain training to improve athletic performance isn’t novel – whether it’s mental conditioning or simply improving the quality and speed of pitch recognition, baseball has dabbled in brain stimulation for years.

But wearable technology is providing newer avenues for neuroscience, with an eye towards prevention, detection, and treatment of brain injury. Halo Neuroscience contends that their Halo Sport headband uses transcranial direct current stimulation to take a more active role than most wearable devices – rather than passively collecting data, the Halo Sport allegedly can influence brain activity through neurostimulation, and may even be useful in treating certain conditions or injuries. Along the same lines, deCervo also claims to use brain stimulation to positively influence a player’s performance, using an electroencephalograph (EEG) headset.

As we see with the application of neuroscience to athletic training, innovation in sports technology benefits from cross-disciplinary research. While sports technology shares innovation across sports – for example, TrackMan and Blast Motion both have their roots in the world of golf – perhaps it’s time for sport to look outward, and more actively adapt wearable technology from other disciplines. The most obvious contender is the field of medical devices. Indeed, the Firefly device is an adaptation of a device used to treat deep vein thrombosis and prevent blood clots. The medical device field is rapidly growing, and it is easy to conceive of methods by which one could adapt a medical device for use in sport.

One thing that might be on our wearable technology wish list for athletes: a device that can measure biomarkers for real-time physiology monitoring. It’s not practical to take and analyze blood samples at a frequency that would allow for meaningful information on a game-by-game basis, not to mention, the players would likely balk at the thought of a regular blood draw. But what if we could measure biomarkers without taking a blood sample?

One technology which could be repurposed for use by athletes: continuous glucose monitoring systems. Originally designed with diabetic patients in mind, continuous glucose monitoring systems measure glucose levels without the traditional drop of blood from a finger prick. Instead, these devices measure glucose levels from subcutaneous interstitial fluid. A small sensor is attached to the upper arm, and a thin, flexible filament is inserted just under the skin. When you want to measure your glucose level, you simply scan the sensor with a small handheld device.

While only one has already been FDA approved, other similar glucose monitoring devices claim to not only measure glucose, but also oxygen saturation, sleep apnea, blood pressure, and cardiac arrhythmia. Another company claims that their continuous glucose monitor doesn’t even require a thin filament under the skin, but instead relies upon near-infrared spectroscopy and bioimpedance to measure a variety of physiological data.

At this point, we need to take a step back, and survey wearable devices in sports and in medicine as a whole. While there is a vast array of medical devices which could be repurposed for use in sports technology, the development of said technology isn’t cheap. We would be remiss to ignore the substantial investments required to develop technology, and bring a device to market. For every established company, there are many more startups, some of which fare better than others.

For example, in his 2015 story, Wolfersberger discussed BSX Insight, which purported to use LEDs to measure the lactate concentration inside muscles. BSX Insight has since been discontinued, although the company has been reborn as LVL Technologies, which hopes to launch a hydration monitoring wearable device later this year. Given the paucity of rigorous science backing the claims of certain wearable tech startups (in combination with a fickle market), it can be challenging to bring an innovative product to the ballpark. While certain wearable tech companies enjoy the financial support of private investors, securing the backing of venture capitalists is no small feat.

With this in mind, the Los Angeles Dodgers and R/GA partnered to create the Dodgers Accelerator, which was founded in 2015 with the express goal of mentoring startup and growth-stage sports technology companies. One company that received a boost from the Accelerator is Kinduct, whose data and analytics software platform known as the Athlete Management System provides a platform for integrating the collection and assessment of data. In January 2018, the Accelerator expanded and partnered with multiple organizations to form the Global Sports Venture Studio. Global Sports Venture Studio continues the Accelerator’s work, acting as an incubator for fledgling sports technology companies. To look into the future of wearable technology in sports, one could take a peek at the companies Global Sports Venture Studio is actively investing in and promoting on social media.

While Global Sports Venture Studio is financing technology for use across the league, without Elysian Park Ventures, the investment arm of the Dodgers, this incubator may not have come about. However, if the ultimate goal in wearable technology is to minimize player injuries and maximize performance, and thus improve the product on the field, it would benefit the sport as a whole to have a more active role in developing and promoting sports tech. One could envision a scenario in which another party – perhaps BAMTech – would undertake a similar role in developing and propagating new technology. This could provide benefits in improving players’ overall health and preventing injuries, while also allowing for a more seamless transition and sharing of data between teams.

It’s exciting to take a peek into the future, and to anticipate how tomorrow’s technology will impact baseball in the future. But at the same time, there’s a wide variety of technology available to us today. Sports tech has made many advances in a short period of time, but it remains to be seen if players will embrace new technology. If this equipment is readily available, and acceptable for use in off-field training, why wouldn’t players use every potential advantage available to them in order to gain a competitive advantage?

On the flip side of the coin, with new technology comes new responsibilities. There are a number of valid privacy concerns associated with the use of wearable technology which cannot be dismissed. While one might be willing to relinquish certain aspects of their metrics in exchange for improved performance and injury prevention, without definitive evidence demonstrating the benefits of wearable technology, players may be reluctant to adopt these new technologies, especially if the data collected were to come to be used as part of the arbitration or contract negotiation process. Teams and their players work collaboratively to win baseball games but they are on opposite sides of the negotiating table, and players are right to continue critically monitoring the uses of wearable tech .

We sit at a crossroads. There is tremendous untapped potential, but as of now, there hasn’t been a proven impact. While we have seen a few players adopt new technology, we see many more players who are concerned with the use of wearable devices. But without wider adoption of these new technologies, players and teams won’t be able to adequately assess the usage of wearables, and the benefits they can bring to the game. Perhaps as wearable sports tech becomes more widely used throughout the minor leagues, we’ll see the use of such devices percolate through the majors. Wearable tech has the potential to change how we understand and react to player injuries and performance. It represents a bold, complex new field, and carries with it ethical concerns to match.

References and Resources


Stephanie Springer is an organic chemist turned patent examiner. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniekays.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
The potential for satire here is just too good to pass up. I remember an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the Professor discovered a plant that allowed people to read each other’s minds. It got him slapped across his kisser by Ginger. Likewise, we could have a “biometric” device that allows managers to know exactly what a pitcher is thinking of him as he is being pulled off the mound in the 3d inning with runners on 1st and 2d. The off the wall examples are limited only by one’s imagination. Mad Magazine, in the ’60s, had a feature… Read more »
vijay090
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vijay090

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carltonwrice
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carltonwrice

Fascinating and insightful!