FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Minnesota Twins have a few new toys to play with this spring training. Only these ‘toys’ are actually really expensive pieces of force-measuring equipment designed to collect data and help to better understand their hitters and pitchers.
They’re called “Force Plates,” and they just might be the next wave of innovation for player development in baseball. The Twins have a Force Plate pitching mound out by Tom Kelly field at their spring training complex. This story will focus more on the hitting Force Plates, a raised batter’s box loaded with expensive sensors, which is tucked under the concourse at Hammond Stadium in the netted batting cages outside the home clubhouse.
For now, some sources say, the force plate is a bit of technology with accompanying software, and its usefulness to the Twins is still being uncovered. Still, the Twins are leaning into the toolbox to figure it out. This spring training they’re committing time and attention — not to mention money — to learning more, says Twins president of Baseball Ops Derek Falvey.
“Every year we think about different ways we can invest in new ideas,” Falvey said. “New systems, new people, new resources.”
“There’s new technology in all sports that you are aware generally, and I would say it’s not unlike anything else we’ve looked at,” he said. “There are [already] different sensors and things you use to measure strength in the weight room, measure swings, measure arm path, measure all kinds of things. … [Force Plates are] another thing that you want to explore and see if it could potentially help you.”
— Derek Wetmore (@DerekWetmore) February 12, 2020
At one recent batting practice session, the Twins had a half-dozen people there working with the new tool. From hitting coach Edgar Varela, to advanced scout Frankie Padulo, strength and conditioning director Ian Kadish to motion performance coach Martijn Verhoeven.
A lot of hands and brains, in other words.
Wes Johnson and his team are spearheading its applications on the pitching side. For hitting and for pitching, these Force Plates, developed by a company called Newtforce, offer another tool to the team.
“As we are understanding how guys are moving and evaluating guys in the weight room, I think this could be another piece to the puzzle on the hitting side,” said Varela, the new hitting coach. “‘How are these guys moving?’ And, if anything, ‘Where can we make adjustments?’”
Related listening: Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi talks about his use of Force Plates on the mound
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The concept of measuring biomechanical force in this way has been around since the 1970’s, and is commonly applied to sports and medicine, although it has advanced since it first came on the scene. The sensor-plate platform is synced with video, so coaches and players can review how the measured forces were created, and that 200 frame-per-second camera is essential to the feedback loop, according to Varela. Without it, understanding of the movement graphs “would be a guessing game,” he says.
Think about standing on one of the Nintendo Wii balance boards. When you shift your body weight, the machine senses it and adjusts your character on the screen accordingly. These Force Plates are along the same lines, although seemingly more complex, and instead of playing a game of virtual tennis with your neighbor, it records a baseball player’s swing movement data in a graph for analysis and learning/coaching opportunities.
How will it help make better hitters?
If the Twins have the answer, they’re protecting it. Most sources interviewed for this story said that the application for baseball hitters is still so new that it’s not yet obvious if there’s a straight-line path from collecting data to improving outcomes.
“One of the great parts about this culture is that we don’t think we’ve got it all figured out, ever,” said advanced scout Frankie Padulo. “We’re constantly trying to learn and trying to get better as a staff, from our front office group all the way to our field staff.”
Whether it’s video scouting, TrackMan data, Rapsodo, Edgertronic high-speed cameras, other advanced in-park camera systems — and now Force Plates — the Twins are not shying away from technology to try to help their players improve.
The club is leasing the gear for spring training, and could look to incorporate it more in the future. Leasing a mound costs between $30,000 and $50,000 per year, according to the Associated Press, for fees and setup. That, plus the brains to maximize it does start to add up, and Falvey said it’s part of the process of constantly trying to push forward in research and development.
“We’ve been supported at every turn [by ownership] when we think there are some new things that we want to include in our budget,” Falvey said. “I would say that [process] is unending, and Jim [Pohlad] has been very supportive of that. …. He trusts the baseball people with that.”
Multiple people with the Twins made clear for this story: this is another coaching tool, not some magic potion.
The technology was refined by a company called NewtForce. Kyle Barker, who helped adapt the technology to a baseball environment, is a close friend of Twins pitching coach Wes Johsnon, according to the Florida Baseball Ranch.
The Twins, I’m told, won’t force their players to use any tool like this. That might be counter-productive and erode trust.
“For us nothing is mandatory,” says Twins director of strength and conditioning Ian Kadish. (His involvement is a great example of the cross-department work going on at Twins spring training.)
“It depends on the player; some will like it more than others and some are very in-tune with having all the metrics and data thrown at them, and some of them would rather not,” Kadish said. “I just think it’s about finding a way to tailor that and find what’s best for each individual player and how we can help them.”
When Josh Donaldson shows up at camp and he gleefully steps on the raised, green-colored apparatus and takes some vicious cuts, a funny thing happens. Suddenly a group of minor league hitters wanders over and wonders what he’s doing. If that dude won an MVP and he’s curious about ways to get better, it could be worth a try.
At minimum, these tools do something invaluable for the team’s coaching and support staffs. Successful use of the tech requires that group-to-group communication is on point. Any kinks in the hose and it likely would disrupt the flow of useful information. Coaching needs to work closely with research, which needs to work closely with strength & conditioning, which needs to stay in lockstep with the medical group, and so on. All of them need to show up with the daily purpose of helping the players.
“How can we maximize players’ potential?” Varela said. “That’s the whole key to this.”