In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a runner is on first base with no outs in the top of the seventh inning. Alabama freshman relief pitcher Kyle Cameron enters for the Crimson Tide, which leads Houston 6-3 in their March 13 series finale. The Cougars insert a pinch hitter, Caleb Morris.
The sequence sends Kevin Ottsen clicking inside Alex Box Stadium, 350 miles away. Controlling a massive computer in the far corner of the press box, the 21-year-old LSU senior moves his mouse furiously.
Cameron begins the at-bat. He comes set, and Ottsen clicks a button to record the proceedings. The pitch is a tailing fastball that misses outside. Ottsen stops the recording, clicking buttons that save the pitch type, its velocity (Ottsen estimates in the mid-80s) and the location, which he logs by clicking just outside of a nine-box strike zone.
He rewinds once, ensuring the information he has entered into Sydex BATS is correct before advancing to the next pitch.
“After this game is done,” Ottsen said four days before the Crimson Tide were to open Southeastern Conference play, “I’m pretty sure we’ll have cut every single Alabama game available.”
Cutting games takes two hours for Ottsen, a four-year LSU baseball data analyst and one of five students hired to man these programs. While also juggling a 16-hour class load, he can do as many as four games in a day, sometimes keeping him in the empty ballpark until midnight.
For the teams that can afford this luxury, this is the future of college baseball. Twenty-nine programs, including LSU, Mississippi State, TCU, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, use Sydex BATS — an advanced scouting video software program that, among other things, allows teams to cut recorded games pitch-by-pitch, sorting the results by count, pitch type, hit type and creating spray charts for each player.
TrackMan, a radar-measured tracking system of spin rates and velocities — both on balls off the bat and out of a pitcher’s hand — that offered LSU and former director of baseball operations Ross Brezovsky the program as part of a collegiate pilot program in 2012.
As cleared by the NCAA Compliance office, Major League Baseball subsidized the data collected from the 12 schools that participated in the program. Brezovsky was then tasked with presenting the proposal to Paul Mainieri — his traditionalist boss and former coach who, to that point, had been averse to the technologies starting to invade baseball.
“I just figured one of these times he’s going to crack,” Brezovsky joked. “One of these times he’ll just say ‘OK, whatever, just try it.’
“And he did.”
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Though he declined to name specific schools, Zach Day estimates TrackMan is installed in “close to or around 20 colleges.” LSU volunteer assistant coach Nolan Cain estimates half of the SEC’s schools use the radar tracking system.
“We turned that corner not that long ago at the MLB level to where it becomes almost a necessity as opposed to a want,” said Day, the company’s manager for player insights and development. “I don’t know if we’re quite there yet at the college level, but we’re close.”
Day is also tasked with some international affairs. He has just finished consulting with Japanese teams about the products. Wherever he goes, he speaks with coaches and directors to present the product’s usefulness, explain terms and sell how this technology could aid their teams — both present and future.
There’s a gray box that sits just above the foul netting at Alex Box Stadium, shooting the TrackMan radar down to the field where Makhail Hilliard threw as part of an LSU showcase.
The Central High School pitcher committed to LSU on Feb. 29. He stands 6 feet tall and, at just 150 pounds, is an otherwise unassuming right-handed pitcher that sits around 88 mph with his fastball at a high school more renowned for its football prowess.
LSU’s coaching staff, as it customarily does, fired up TrackMan before the showcase. The average major league breaking ball spin rate — how many times the baseball rotates — is 2,400 rpm.
Hilliard’s was 2,900.
These products are a substantial financial investment for schools wishing to utilize them. Day declined to reveal the costs for colleges who request TrackMan, but he said a change in demeanor is mitigating the cost to a degree.
“As soon as they understand the value, it certainly becomes more affordable to the value it brings,” Day said. “The early adapters are learning and will definitely have advantage over late comers.”
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Cain sits alongside Ottsen on this Monday afternoon inside the press box. The Tigers’ new volunteer assistant coach still cuts one or two games a week, but his demanding new on-field duties necessitate more scouting.
What’s happening on the computer screens makes the task more advanced than Cain’s days as a Tigers pitcher in the late 2000s.
“Before we had (BATS), it was like, ‘Let’s go through the (opponents’) spray charts from last year. Oh, these five graduated, but we have these four guys. But this was a year ago,’ ” he said. “Kids change week to week, day to day.”
Cain brought BATS to LSU last season, when he was still the Tigers’ director of baseball operations, overseeing an installation of four cameras inside the stadium — one on top of the batter’s eye, one on top of the press box and one under each suite at the farthest left and right of the stadium — during Christmas break.
Soon, University of Houston catcher Connor Wong is on Ottsen’s screen. He takes a 1-1 pitch for a single off Cameron. Ottsen opens a new window, one he only opens when a batter makes contact, and is hammered with questions.
Hit type? Line drive. Was it hard, medium or soft? Ottsen selects medium — again, this is at his discretion. He mouses over to a diamond, clicking where the baseball landed. The program creates a spray chart for each player based off the data analysts input, Ottsen adding Wong’s liner to right field.
Cain uses these spray charts in-game. NCAA rules prohibit electronic devices inside the dugout, so Cain has a three-ring binder with information on each hitter. He shifts the defense according to the BATS spray chart, sometimes abandoning the entire left side of the infield if data shows a propensity to hit balls through the right side, or vice versa.
“I don’t know what kind of spurred it on, but (Mainieri) kind of mentioned it to me and I thought ‘We could make this happen,’ ” Cain said. “We don’t want to fall behind, and if it can create just a little bit of value, why not do it? And I think it’s exceeded his expectations.”
Everything in this stadium is filmed. Footage from practices and fall intrasquad games are used in Mainieri’s numerous “Baseball 101” classes where program newcomers are taught LSU’s baseball nuances and rules.
Gone are the days of the coach using a dry-erase board and marker to accentuate his point. Now he can go to the video and point out, exactly, where a player erred or succeeded.
“It becomes an awesome teaching tool,” Mainieri said. “Again, I can’t emphasize enough, though, we don’t become totally dependent on it.”
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“I don’t want to call myself a dinosaur,” Mainieri said Monday, beginning an hour-long conversation about the advances in scouting, development and stats in the sport to which he’s devoted his whole life. “Because that would not be accurate. You have to stay up with the times.”
Brezovksy pitched TrackMan three years ago, and Mainieri admits he was reluctant. When he began coaching, Mainieri refused to call other coaches for scouting reports. He would just be getting another man’s opinion, he said, and that coach may not see the game the same way he does.
Mainieri is an aggressive adversary, relishing the “me versus you” aspect of baseball and often scouting the opposing coach and his tendencies just as heavily as the team LSU will play.
“He comes from pure competition,” Brezovsky said. “When the game is on the line, what is TrackMan really going to do for you? And I understood that, and when I played for Paul he made me understand it a lot better than he ever did. His teams always show that.”
Mainieri’s foremost concern is for his players — 18-to-22-year-olds who play baseball along with balancing class schedules and social lives. The coaching staff purposely keeps most of the information TrackMan and BATS generates to themselves, used for advanced scouting and in-game adjustments.
Players are permitted to watch their at-bats, if they so choose, but they’re not — like football players — given iPads loaded with strategy, critiques and percentages. Coaches give their findings in bits and pieces. Hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, for instance, will share insight moments before his hitters step to the plate.
“I don’t really want them to have too much of a cerebral overload,” Mainieri said. “I want them just to play the game hard, believe in themselves, hustle and just do the fundamentals of the game.”
Yet the coach is entering his 34th year and slowly embracing his program’s overture into advanced statistical and scouting analysis. He and Cain said they think they’ve found a medium at LSU.
“I think sometimes it can be a crutch; you don’t want to overdo it,” Mainieri said. “You don’t want the players just to think, ‘Oh yeah, the video will tell us what we’re doing wrong.’ ”
Whether he likes the changes, Mainieri said, is relative. He doesn’t want to see the beauty of the game diminished or the competitive edge eradicated by stats and number-crunching.
But he said if the programs aid in his team’s successes, then he likes it.
And have these programs aided his Tigers?
“To some degree,” Mainieri said, “but I wouldn’t give it total credit.”