Camp calls on technology to improve baseball program

Published 5:51 pm Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The kiddie pool used for ice baths is about as low-tech as the Paul D. Camp Community College baseball team will get.

Most everything else puts the Hurricanes on the cutting edge of using technology to enhance player development as it aims to nurture and build a program in its infancy.

The program started in 2018 and had immediate success in reaching the Final Four of the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Southeast Regional, but it lost half a season in 2020 to COVID-19 and has had to wade through its disruptive force again this season.

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But coach Daniel Rollins and his intrepid staff aren’t afraid to try new things by bringing in technology that’s not only uncommon at the junior college level, but more importantly, will be of use to them in recruiting players, developing them and winning games.

“This technology piece has been a learning curve for me,” Rollins said, “and I know it’s like anything else in this world, it’s adapt or die, so I better make sure I learn it and understand it, but we’re going to have a good mixture of what it takes to, overall, be successful.”

The tech adaptation is well under way in Franklin for the Hurricanes.

ProPlayAI, a biomechanics tool designed to help pitchers and not yet on the market for widespread use, is one such technological tool. Camp is the only college baseball team in the country using the program, which takes video from the team’s coaches and breaks down a player’s mechanics. Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays is the only other team using this technology.

“As the head coach, I love it as a recruiting tool, but the cool thing is, our pitching coach is truly implementing it,” Rollins said. “Our guys are getting better because of it.”

Rollins, in his second year as the Hurricanes’ coach, said ProPlayAI, from a mechanical standpoint, was big for the team because the coaches were able to pinpoint deficiencies and then alter their daily training to attack it and, instead of throwing extra pitches and putting more wear and tear on their arms, they could work on their mechanics without throwing a pitch.

With ProPlayAI, the Camp coaches shoot an open-side video in slow-motion and then use its app to analyze it, getting near-instantaneous feedback.

Before having access to an app, Camp’s coaches would send ProPlayAI video and then they would run reports based on it and send the video back within 24 hours with markers overlaid on the players’ bodies, and then it would send a 15-page PDF document of the player’s biomechanical report. When it gets the video feedback, ProPlayerAI also sends a backside and aerial view of the pitcher’s mechanics.

“The partnership was basically, hey, we’re going to let you use our platform and let you use it to get your guys better,” Rollins said. “We want the information. We want the feedback from it, and so they’ve been able to collect the data from all the guys that we’ve had to use it and go through the process, and so it’s been a beneficial relationship from both sides.”

In conjunction with ProPlayAI, Camp also has a ground-mounted camera called Rapsodo, which it has been using for about three months.

Camp pitching coach Peyton Traywick uses it as an important tool in the pitch-design process.

“It just gives guys an idea of what their arsenal is, ways we can improve it,” Traywick said. “Try to look at the way of throwing a breaking ball, trying to figure out what kind of fastball they should throw, all those kinds of different things to give guys an idea of what’s going to put them in the best possible position to succeed.”

The Rapsodo — a more typical unit for baseball programs — is set on the ground 15-and-a-half feet away from the pitcher, and then the motion-activated unit will start when the pitcher throws and will film the ball as it flies over the device. It can also be used for hitters, in which case the unit is placed closer to them.

The unit can provide data on pitch velocity, spin rate, true spin rate, spin axis and spin efficiency. It will also point out how a pitch breaks either horizontally or vertically, its 3D trajectory and provide a strike zone analysis.

Traywick and the other coaches then get the data readings from it on an iPad, allowing them to make adjustments on a pitch-by-pitch basis and give pitchers an understanding of why a pitch is moving a certain way — pinpointing the spin axis of a pitch.

“Basically, the axis will tell you, OK, well here’s the axis, if the ball’s spinning on that plane, which way is it going to move,” Traywick said.

When Camp got its two Rapsodo units, it took baseline assessments of all of its pitchers, and then, throughout the season when they have bullpen sessions, get measurements on whether they are doing anything different.

The tool allows Traywick to potentially suggest changing grips or arm motion based on what the data is showing.

Prior to Rapsodo, he relied on a diamond kinetics baseball — available for about $100 at Dick’s Sporting Goods — which provided many of the same readings, but before Rapsodo, it would rely more on its own video of pitchers and analyzing that.

In particular, the technology has had a tangible impact on starting pitcher Dylan Beck, who played high school baseball at Grassfield High School in Chesapeake.

After using the ProPlayAI technology with Beck, they had him switch from throwing curveballs to sliders after determining that his curve was too inconsistent, and since using both that and Rapsodo, Beck’s velocity has increased from 84 to 86 mph to 92 mph, and he has shown more sound mechanics.

“I think the mechanical changes that were created because of this and things that coach Traywick has done with him has been really positive,” Rollins said.

Camp baseball players also use the core velocity belt as part of their workouts, wearing it to simulate what kind of throwing motion they want. Another person can grab at it to pull the player into the correct motion and let them feel what that is like. The coaches say it helps them develop rhythm and get in tune with their bodies to make sure they are moving properly.

“Basically, the whole thing in mind is you want to try to feed the mistake,” Traywick said. “I actually use it that way, but I also like to use it to try to feed the correct mechanical motion because if you can force the guy into the right spot and they can feel what it’s like with the belt on, and when they try to replicate it, one, they’re going to know what it feels like (and) two, it’s going to be the easier thing for them to pattern and feel.”

It’s not a high-tech tool as such, but it is getting results, allowing players to pinpoint what motions are mechanically sound, particularly with the lower body. If it had more of them — currently, Camp has two core velocity belts — coaches say they could do even more.

“We’ve actually only scratched the surface with what we could do with it,” Traywick said. “In an ideal world, I would have multiple of them and we could hook them up to weights and we could force guys to do it every day as a tool to get their body going, but these things aren’t cheap.”

Another program uncommon at the junior college level is DriveLine TRAQ, a programming database for their weightlifting workouts the Hurricanes began using last fall. It can also link to the Rapsodo program.

Each player has his own platform and page on the program, and it tracks their workouts and allows them to set goals. It can also be integrated with another product the team uses, BlastMotion, which provides hitting-specific data.

“We’re still trying to figure out a lot of things with it,” said Camp associate head coach Nic Love. “We’re trying to make it make sense to what we’re doing.”

He said that is the key to any technology the baseball program uses.

“When it comes to technology and how we use it, we’re not just using it because we think it’s cool,” Love said. “Anything that we use needs to be applicable. We need it to go straight back into the player development side of it.”

Before, workouts were tracked using a simple Google spreadsheet. The TRAQ program, Rollins said, is not common in the junior college ranks and is seen more by much-larger Division I programs such as Vanderbilt and Florida.

If it had paid full price for all of the technology it uses in the program, it would have cost at least $15,000 — one Rapsodo alone retails for between $4,000 and $9,000. But in large part by leveraging relationships, it has acquired these tools at a fraction of that. And as a small program at a small school, it has to be judicious about how it uses the limited money and resources available.

But the coaches understand there’s a balance between technology and old-school ways.

“Anything that we do and anything that we try to apply can’t overshadow overall competitiveness,” Love said. “Because at the end of the day, we’ll have guys who may not look that great based on their data. You would look at their data and be like, ‘This kid can’t play.’”

Love cited Davis Powell as an example of that. Powell, from Wake Forest, North Carolina, doesn’t have the best data, but, Love said, “the kid gets in the game and he competes his butt off.” He said the data side shouldn’t overshadow the competitive side of a player, and vice versa. “It’s being able to balance the fact that there’s a competitive edge with it,” Love said, “and there’s also a place for data, and somewhere in the middle these two meet and there’s common ground.”

Though it has the technology at its disposal, Rollins doesn’t want it just for the sake of having it, or to name-check it in the recruiting process. It has to have a purpose and be helpful for the coaches and players, as Rollins said, “to become the best version of themselves on the field.”

It’s something that sets the program apart as it builds toward a potential new facility on the same footprint it uses now and makes Repair Tech Field even more of a baseball showcase.

“The one thing that I pushed with our assistant coaches, whatever technology we have, and whatever technology we use,” Rollins said, “I want it to be able to be implemented and taught and understood so that our guys are able to get the absolute most out of us having it.”