Baseball is changing. The sport known as America’s Pastime has quickly turned into a technology-savvy industry filled with new numbers, ideas, and philosophies.
In 2015, Major League Baseball introduced Statcast; a high-speed program that was created to analyze the movement of players and their abilities. Its purpose was to help professional baseball organizations look in-depth at what players can do, how they do things, and why they do them.
All of this was created to provide a new understanding for a game that had been the same for decades prior.
The new age of baseball has slowly found its way into the college ranks. In the basement of the biomechanics research building, you’ll see how UNO has joined that trend with a state-of-the-art pitching lab.
Tyler Hamer, a current Ph.D. student in biomechanics, is a driving force behind all of it. A former Division I pitcher himself, Hamer specializes in bodily movements, specifically those of a pitcher. To use an oversimplified definition, the lab uses high-speed motion capture cameras to determine how well a pitcher throws a baseball. This is measured in a multitude of different ways through numerous variables.
When pitchers come into the lab, they are outfitted with retro-reflective markers that are synced to cameras centered around a force plate-instrumented pitching mound. Players will then go into their throwing motion and pitch as they would in a game. The output from the cameras displays a body-like outline within Hamer’s computer software, which he and his team analyze.
“It’s kind of like connecting the dots,” Hamer said. “We take the angles and the accelerations to better understand what is going on underneath the hood.”
Players who are evaluated receive personalized reports that Hamer and his team break down into layman’s terms. That simply means telling pitchers what needs to be improved or changed in their throwing motions.
Hamer is close with Omaha’s pitching coach, Payton Kinney. So much so that the two are almost always texting back and forth and remain in constant communication about drills and what needs to be improved.
“Him and I are on the same wavelength so I could be like ‘hey a player has a late arm’, and boom, he’s off doing his drill work with them,” Hamer said.
When Hamer first floated the idea of the pitching lab to his advisor, Dr. Brian Knarr, Knarr was all for it. The next steps were determining the how and the what. How can this be done and what kind of equipment is needed for this? The biggest concern was how they would get clientele into the lab for evaluations.
His big break came in a parking garage near the Biomechanics Research Building. That’s where Hamer ran into one of the current Omaha coaches.
“He asked me what I was up to, and I said I’m building the pitching lab,” Hamer said. “He was all about it. Before you know it, I’m in talks with the coaching staff trying to get their guys in here. They really helped kind of get this off the ground.”
Hamer uses a set of 14 state-of-the-art Qualisys Motion Capture cameras that are part of the Biomechanics Research Building. Co-Directed by Dr. Knarr from the Biomechanics and Dr. Adam Rosen from Athletic Training, the UNO Pitching Lab uses a training system that encompasses a clinical and biomechanical approach to pitching in hopes to increase strength and velocity.
He considers himself fortunate to work with the high-end tools that allow him to focus on the baseball side of things rather than having to worry about the quality of his equipment. However, that doesn’t change the amount of work he puts in to make the lab functional.
“I’ve been the one behind the scenes; placing cameras, tinkering with settings, studying how the pitching motion happens from a biomechanical standpoint,” Hamer said. “I’ve evaluated myself a million times. I’d be in there by myself and turn the computers around so I could see them on the mound. I’d do the throwing motions with the mouse in my hand just to get everything in the right place.”
In October of 2019, the first evaluations were done on a group of Maverick pitchers. It’s continued to take off from there. Players come into the lab a minimum of four times a year, usually twice in the fall, once at the beginning of the spring, and once at the end of the season.
Players have the option to come in more often, but like everything else, COVID threw a curveball into those plans. Evaluations that were scheduled for when players got to campus in the fall had to be pushed back and spaced out. Hamer says it’s all about getting back to a regimented schedule.
There are a few priorities for the lab, but the biggest is to simply help guys throw in a healthier manner. Biomechanical assessments are coupled with a series of clinical evaluations, led by lab co-director Dr. Rosen and his team of athletic trainers.
They examine the strength and range of motion of the upper and lower extremities and then use advanced ultrasound imaging to measure ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) spacing in the elbow joint. The overall pitching motion is very whip-like.
It begins with a linear stride towards home plate and then turns into rotational energy as you follow through.
“I’m looking to see a multitude of things,” Hamer said. “I’m looking at stride length, knee flexion and maximum knee flexion angular velocity, which means how well their knee hits, accepts force, and extends. I look at pelvis rotation angles, torso rotation angles, a million different arm action things. There are probably 20-30 variables we look at.”
Hamer tells his pitchers the best way to explain it all is to relate it to something practical.
“The kinetic part of pitching is a lot like a stream in a forest,” he said. “If you’re downstream and there is a weak flow, you look upstream and there’s probably a dam, that’s why it’s slow. If something is off in your lower half, that will hurt your upper half. When you tweak things in the lower half, that’s when you start to see things fall into place.”
Time of year is also an important factor. If a player is in the preseason months, there won’t be many recommended mechanical changes. At that point it’s all about competing in the upcoming year. Hamer says if any changes do come up, he always makes sure to do them in the less stressful times of the year, typically after the season or in the fall.
“If I’m telling someone to change something drastic right before the season, they are going to feel completely off or they are not going to compete as well, and then their year is a sham,” he said.
Sometimes the tweak is as simple as fixing the landing zone of the player. If a stride is noticeably long or short, Hamer says that something as easy as putting tape down on the mound can fix a lot.
The goal isn’t to create the same pitcher out of everyone. In fact, it is the complete opposite. He understands that everyone has gotten to this level of the game by doing their own thing. By working with the talent that all of these pitchers already have, he can tweak and tune the mechanics to see little adjustments turn into big increases.
“My biggest fear is making people cookie-cutter robots,” Hamer said.
The facility in Omaha is not the first of its kind at the Division I level. North Carolina was the first school to include a pitching lab within their baseball facilities with Wake Forest University and Georgia Tech University using motion capture analysis with their pitchers as well.
When it comes to noticing players who have been in the lab compared to players who have not, there isn’t really a trait you can pick out. Different arm slots, different pitches, and different mechanics make each pitcher unique in their own ways.
While there is quite a large interest in the pitching lab throughout the baseball department at UNO, there’s also an interest at the plate. Hamer has spent time helping Wake Forest analyze hitting motions, but in Omaha, that is still a little way down the road.
“Wake Forest has their labs in a baseball facility, we have ours in a research facility. It’s hard to convince the department to agree to people crushing five-ounce spheres at very expensive equipment throughout the room,” Hamer said with a smile.
Analyzing and improving pitching mechanics can change the path of a player’s career, even at the highest level of baseball. Trevor Bauer, a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, took mechanics into his own hands. His career was able to make a significant turn for the better through studying and changing the way he threw a baseball.
Bauer went from a replaceable fifth man in a rotation to a Cy Young winner, an award that is given to the best pitcher in each league of Major League Baseball. He’s coming off a career-best 2020 and recently signed a three-year, 120-million-dollar contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Bauer might be the poster child in a game that is becoming more technical by the day, but it’s only the beginning of an analytics-driven, technological revolution in the sport. As that revolution has started to work its way into the college game, the impacts are now being felt right here in Omaha.
“Technology is definitely the driving force in baseball right now,” Hamer said.