Diamond Hogs embrace Doppler radar technology

Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson watches practice Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Fayetteville.

— There was an Arkansas baseball fall scrimmage with a towering fly ball down the line that went over the wall in left field. It was fair for a good bit, then twisted foul at some point.

The umpire behind the plate hesitated, then signaled foul. He was probably right, but the players in the third base dugout had some doubt as they leaned over the railing to help their angle.

“Check it on TrackMan,” challenged one player.

“Yeah,” came the shout from several teammates.

That didn’t happen, but it was a significant moment in my mind. It was the first time I came to realize that something was new at Baum Stadium: The TrackMan System, a Doppler radar device hanging on the Hog Heaven railing in front of the press box.

It looks like a square flatscreen TV, but it’s really the rage of the baseball world - a tracking system that coaches and players are using at all levels.

New UA pitching coach Wes Johnson is a proponent of TrackMan. He’s into the latest technology, although he’s also old school with the way he uses weighted sleds, weighted baseballs and medicine balls to increase velocity.

There are lots of ways to utilize TrackMan. The Hogs are using it to the max, both with pitchers and hitters. The system provides a vast array of information, including velocity, spin rate and shows the detail release of the baseball from the hand of the pitcher.

Imagine the ball tracers when you’re watching a tournament on Golf Channel, surrounded by dozens of pieces of data.

Players love technology and rave about TrackMan. Johnson has them fascinated with what they can learn about mechanics.

“Our pitchers love it,” junior infielder Carson Shaddy said “They are all about spin rate now and the word you hear from them is, ‘Velo,’ (or velocity). I think it all helps in recruiting. Everyone wants to throw hard. Coach Johnson shows pitchers how to throw hard.”

Recruiting coordinator Tony Vitello knows it has clicked with the entire roster and been a hit with recruits.

“It’s a good tool for me,” Vitello said. “It’s not so much that you have it, it’s how you use it. Coach Johnson uses it. Players see his enthusiasm for it. After a guy pitches, there are four pages from Coach Johnson in his locker with the breakdown of the data.

“The kids we are recruiting see his knowledge on how he increases their velocity and the tools he uses.”

The detail is incredible.

“When a pitcher releases the ball to when it’s hit or caught, it registers 46 data points,” Johnson said. “Velocity is one thing it gets and spin on the baseball, but more importantly to me is release point, tilt on their hands, spin access of the baseball, extension.”

The physics involved in pitching are easily followed with the system.

“The repeatable delivery that people think happens, that’s a unicorn,” Johnson said. “If you get into biomechanics, you find out really fast that a pitcher cannot repeat his delivery. You’ve got over 600 muscles in the body. To think that the roughly 240 that we use in pitching are going to fire at the same time - you’ve got a better chance at winning the lottery.

“With all that being said, TrackMan gives me a chance to show guys a consistent release height and some things we can repeat. It also lets me know how much break a ball has. Some guys have a straight fastball, and some guys think that’s bad, but it can be good depending on what your release height is.”

One of the important things Johnson tries to teach is how to disguise the pitches. Can they fool a hitter because of release point and arm motion?

“I’m constantly looking for the pitcher’s arm to tell the hitter one thing, but the ball does the complete opposite,” Johnson said.

It’s led to real changes in coaching. Johnson was quick to jump on board.

“This game was coached subjectively for a real long time,” he said. “Technology and video and just everything else has really brought us to an objective style of coaching.

“You can’t just tell a kid, ‘Hey, that looks right.’ You better be able to tell him why we’re doing something. That’s where the science comes in. I want to be able to tell the kids why I have them handling medicine balls, throwing this drill or doing whatever we’re doing.

“I’m constantly showing them pictures of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson and Dwight Gooden. When you look, you see that none of those guys looked very conventional but they got great results and scientifically they were really good.”

Vitello uses TrackMan to show hitters the exit speed of the ball off the bat. It led to emphasis on flatter swings, not upper cuts for home runs.

“You know how the ball is coming off the bat,” Vitello said. “You get exit velocity. I love it because we showed our hitters that a lot of their home runs in the fall were line drives. They don’t need to try to launch them. They saw that the exit speed of a line drive is much faster velocity.”

Vitello said the location of pitches through the strike zone is trackable. It’s a good tool for when an umpire has an odd zone.

“We really don’t want our guys chasing pitches out of the zone,” he said. “If it’s outside, don’t swing at it. Now there may be an umpire giving that pitch on a given day. But I don’t want our guys getting in a habit of going for it that might lead to bad habits. We can show our hitters location.”

Just as pitchers want to know who lights up the radar gun with high velocity numbers, Shaddy said hitters look to see who has the highest exit speed.

“I can tell you the guy with the top exit speed,” Shaddy said. “That’s Chad Spanberger. Chad wins that. He’s so talented. Then it’s Grant Koch and Luke Bonfield. I’m in the middle.”

The technology goes hand-in-hand with new workouts. The hitters see a big change in the pitchers throughout the staff. The sled work has added muscle to legs. Arms have been strengthened with work with weighted baseballs.

At least seven pitchers hit 95 mph on the radar gun during the fall.

However, Shaddy said the changes in the pitchers are just as much mental as physical. Johnson has given them a new demeanor on the mound. It’s the way Johnson’s pitchers looked like last year at Mississippi State on the way to the SEC title.

“The big difference you see is just the body language from our pitchers,” Shaddy said. “You see it when they step on the mound. They are ready to come after you.

“Then, the next thing is the velocity. Guys who were throwing 88-90 last year are hitting 97 with their fast ball and they back that up with a good breaker. That’s tough to hit.”

Shaddy sees things from Arkansas’ pitchers now that he saw at SEC-champion Mississippi State last year when Johnson was the Bulldogs’ pitching coach.

“Every single guy on their staff was throwing 97-98,” Shaddy said. “All those guys were very good.

“Our guys now, they have different bodies. They look more conditioned. They are strong and they look like SEC pitchers.”

Now the Arkansas coaches have proof far ahead of their season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 17. There is confirmation from TrackMan that the UA staff is improved.