The mysterious apparatus sits high above the home plate seats at Tradition Field, the spring training home of the Mets. Dark, glossy and rectangular, it resembles an expensive flat-screen television.
The first indication of its significance might be how unwilling the Mets are to speak about it. Beyond acknowledging that it exists, the team will not say much about the object.
So what is it? An extra TV that the Mets did not know where to put? A spy device on the lookout for errant Yankee fans? Actually, neither. The device is a three-dimensional Doppler radar and represents the Mets’ latest effort to keep pace with baseball’s feverish technological arms race.
“You’re always on the lookout for various tools that can help enhance what you do,” said John Ricco, the Mets’ assistant general manager, who, like other team staffers, would speak only vaguely about the technology the device offers. “It’s something that we’ve just started, and it’s just one of many different things we are using.”
The Mets use about a half-dozen information services — some for data, others for analysis — picking from a crowded field of vendors that continue to raise baseball’s standards for objective evaluation.
But the provider of the Mets’ newest tool, a Danish company called TrackMan, which first adapted its technology for baseball five years ago, claims it offers something no one else can. Using technology borrowed from missile-tracking radars, the TrackMan radar unit can measure the exact spatial location and rotation of the baseball once it leaves a pitcher’s hand.
This allows teams, for example, to study new metrics like extension, which quantifies how far from the pitching rubber a pitcher releases the ball. More extension correlates to more swinging strikes.
“A guy could be throwing 90 miles per hour with 7 feet of extension, and he gets the ball to home plate quicker than a guy throwing harder that doesn’t release the ball as close to home plate, essentially redefining velocity,” said Josh Orenstein, the company’s director of baseball operations and analysis.
Beyond tracking exact release points — which can be used to evaluate a player’s ability to mask different pitches — the radar also detects spin rate, or the speed at which a ball rotates while airborne. Faster spin means a nastier pitch.
And the company also tracks the speed, angle of flight and exact location of batted balls relative to various fixed positions on the field. This data can be used to evaluate hitters and also to form more objective defensive metrics, which remains one of baseball’s elusive goals.
Whether any of this, or all of it, can actually help the Mets get back over .500 at some point remains to be seen.
“We don’t really know exactly what the teams do with it,” John Olshan, general manager of the company’s baseball division, said of the data. “We give the rubber. They make the tires.”
TrackMan, which started in 2003, has already become accepted as a valuable coaching tool for elite golfers. Since opening its baseball division three years ago, TrackMan has seen its Major League Baseball client list grow to 17 teams. The company said it could not comment specifically on any of those clients, but the Yankees this week acknowledged that they use the technology, too.
The Mets signed up for TrackMan this past winter, and though they would not reveal how many radar devices they have purchased, two have been visible this year at the spring training facility — one inside the stadium and one by the practice bullpen.
Dan Warthen, the team’s pitching coach, has already showed some of the team’s pitchers their TrackMan data. Warthen said he had embraced all of the team’s information sources, such as Inside Edge, a pitch charting service; and B.A.T.S., a video database.
Warthen said he was only beginning to explore the possibilities of TrackMan, but he predicted it would be just as useful for game-day planning as it was for scouting and development.
“Guys that are doing this sort of analysis are getting more credibility within their organizations,” Olshan said. “It’s a way for teams to be more efficient with how they evaluate players and at the same time maybe save money by finding diamonds in the rough.”
All TrackMan clients join the company’s data-sharing network, which is dictated by a basic set of access rules.
While each team can choose whether to share the information collected at their stadiums — from their major league park to each of their minor league homes — there exists a clear incentive to do so. However many stadiums a team shares, it is entitled to receive data from an equivalent number of ballparks from every other participating team.
“The concept is, the more you put in, the more you get out,” Orenstein said. “And by and large, teams always want more data.”
I would swear that I saw this at Yankee Stadium last year. I recall seeing something that looked like it, and wondering what the heck it was, when I saw it. Interesting that no one wrote about the Yankees using it – and now we hear about the Mets doing it.