News & Opinion

Baseball goes deep with golf-inspired data

It’s been a source of sports chatter for most of 2017, prompting angst among traditionalists and glee among forward thinkers, while generating grist for the mill among data junkies on both sides.

As big hitters whale away with a stick in hand, hardly a day passes without TV commentary about the eye-jarring spin rates, launch angles, ball velocity or distance amassed by modern players.

Obviously, we’re addressing mortar shots such as the one launched Sunday by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, an ear-splitting 341-yard drive that led to a playoff victory at the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup series opener.

This is clearly about Titleists and titanium, no?

Nope. Try horsehide and hardwood.

In one of the wildest parallel paths in sports over the past couple of seasons, for a growing multitude of analytics junkies, golf has helped pave the way toward swing changes, increased power and strategic optimization in Major League Baseball.

You read it right. MLB, the most stat-intensive sport on the planet for more than a century, is stealing a printout page from the applications and technology used in golf, which until a few years ago worried about little more than the yardage numbers on tour scorecards. As a result, the MLB home-run barrage of 2017 looks a lot like the bomb-and-gouge mindset that is so pervasive on the PGA Tour.

“They’re starting to swing for the fences,” said Hans Deutmeyer, who handles baseball sales for TrackMan, the Doppler-based device that supplies golfers and MLB teams with reams of key game analytics. “It’s amazing, the analysis that is being done to optimize all aspects of the game.”

TrackMan, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and founded in 2003, was golf-specific for its first decade before adding baseball-related devices five years ago. The striking similarities are no accident: the Statcast numbers flashed in MLB stadiums are generated by TrackMan devices mounted near the press boxes. In golf, smaller, portable TrackMan devices are placed on tee boxes.

Thus, when Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton pounds a baseball 500 feet, with an exit velocity of 110 mph off the bat, it’s TrackMan technology that supplies the data. In all, the MLB devices can provide 27 different data streams for pitchers and batters, Deutmeyer said.

Roughly a decade ago, as pro golfers began using the devices in large numbers on practice ranges in an attempt to find optimal spin rates, launch angles and the individualized magic bullet that yields max distance, the sport was reinvented.

“It really changed the game,” Deutmeyer said. “Players, coaches, they are looking for every advantage they can find and using every bit of data available.”

It’s the same for MLB. A couple of years ago, on the leading edge of a wave that would change many basic tenets in baseball, a handful of players began trying to hit more batted balls into the air. Partly as a means of beating the defensive shifts that have become so prevalent, trend-setting players such as Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals reasoned that hitting a fly ball in the direction of the outfield was far better than pounding another ground ball to infielders. After all, there are only three defenders in the outfield compared with four in the infield, right? Eyeing the data, Murphy figures that ground balls had an 18 percent chance of resulting in a base hit.

Toronto slugger Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP whose mantra is to hit it hard and high, put it this way on Twitter: “Just say NO … to ground balls.”

After a century of being told to hit down on the ball and pound the ground, baseball quickly has changed its collective mindset and morphed into an air force. With a month left in the season, the 5,000-homer mark was reached Tuesday, and the MLB record of 5,693 – set in 2000, during the era of performance-enhancing drugs – seems destined to fall. Players such as Murphy, Yonder Alonso, rookie star Cody Bellinger, Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez eyed the data and reasoned that an upper-cut swing potentially would generate higher batting averages, more hits and plenty of homers.

“Clearly, there is a lot of data that is telling them that putting the ball in the air is leading to more runs and more success than trying to put the ball just in play or on the ground,” Deutmeyer said. “It’s all changing.”

Sound familiar? 

For PGA Tour players, adjusting their equipment for optimal performance and distance has been an occupational necessity.

Even more quickly, baseball has copied a page from golf. Big-league hitters are tracking data on an almost identical set of swing metrics, including launch angle, spin rate, carry distance and velocity. In fact, in 2017, some of that data is being flashed on TV screens after home runs.

“No question, we have some guys coming back to the dugout wanting to know about the numbers,” Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward told Morning Read.

The numbers have been a revelation. In 2016, ground balls resulted in an MLB-wide batting average of .239, while line drives and fly balls combined for a .411 average, according to USA Today. The slugging percentage for line drives and fly balls was three times higher than for grounders.

So, in a way, for proponents of MLB’s sky-jacking mindset, baseball has become a game featuring an increasingly aerial attack, just like golf. Reams of data in both sports allow players to make changes to accentuate the assets, and minimize inherent liabilities, of their physiques and swings. It’s not just the hitters, either. Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, an admitted techie, bought a TrackMan golf device (price: $19,000) for his home to measure the spin rates of his off-speed pitches over the winter.

For fervent golf fans, the MLB lingo should sound familiar. Earlier this summer, Murphy hit a home run against the Atlanta Braves and the numerical feedback was flashed on the TV screen: 99.7 mph exit velocity, with 36.0 degrees of launch angle and 393 feet of carry into the bleachers.

The ball in question might have stitches, not dimples, but Dustin Johnson certainly could relate.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling