Three months ago, Houston Astros All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa flat out told me he was going to have a breakout season and tech was going to play a big role.
I was expecting an endorsement pitch during a quick call about how he uses Blast Motion, a baseball bat sensor designed to help everyone from little leaguers to middle-aged softball players improve their swings. Our chat happened a week after Correa set the tone for his season, crushing a 450-foot home run on opening night.
But rather than offer a canned line, Correa lowered his voice and in hushed tones told me how he and his team really use the sensor. As many as four times a week, Correa attaches it to the end of his 33.5-ounce bat to measure his swing speed and impact. He says using the sensor during extended batting practice sessions before home games is particularly important.
“Listen, baseball is a game of feeling and constant adjustments,” the 22-year-old said. “And sometimes your swing may be a little off at times. [Blast Motion is] definitely helping me because every at-bat counts and I can’t afford to waste any of them.”
Correa’s certainly not wasting them.
This is a career year for the shortstop, who on Tuesday will be appearing in his first All-Star Game in Miami. His Astros, with 60 wins in 89 games, hold Major League Baseball’s second-best record. And the success comes as baseball, America’s national pastime, is diving head-first into next-gen tech with players embracing sensors and other wearable tech to track their performance.
This season, MLB is letting players wear the $500 Whoop wrist-worn biometric monitors that measure heart rate and fatigue during games. It joins two other devices that can now be used in games: the $150 Motus Baseball sleeve set (to track throwing) and the roughly $60 Zephyr BioHarness (a chest strap monitoring heart and breathing rates).
Blast Motion, which costs $150, can’t be used in actual games. But the increasing use of tech, from trackers to help athletes improve play to sneakers that could help people run marathons in under two hours, demonstrates a new level of gamesmanship, said Michael Goldman, a sport management professor at the University of San Francisco.
“Today’s athletes are geared to get as much information as possible on their performance,” he said. “Baseball is similar to golf where players have almost immediate access to analyze their swings and at times make very small changes which could have substantial impact on the field.”
An app on Correa’s phone tracks how fast he’s swinging, typically in the range of 85 miles per hour. That’s quick, considering he’s facing pitchers throwing between 90 and 100 mph. The app also measures hit speed, the time between contact with the ball and the ball leaving on its trajectory. Correa usually finishes up in less than a second.
After my first conversation with Correa, he had a slow start to the season, got hurt and landed on the disabled list. But he returned in early May, and he and the Astros have been on a tear ever since.
Interestingly, Correa was forecast to be the best shortstop in baseball this season, according to FanGraphs, the all-encompassing site for baseball stat geeks.
That’s notable because FanGraphs said Correa, “a guy with all the tools,” was the fifth-best player at his position last season. That ranking came while he played through ankle and shoulder injuries. FanGraphs said Correa “underperformed his batted balls as predicted by his launch angle and velocity.”
FanGraphs’ commentary, as well as similar evaluations from other experts, fuels Correa. We met after his pregame ritual, including watching video of previous at-bats, before he took the field against the Oakland A’s on June 20.
“Technology is a part of the fundamentals. It’s just as important as stretching out before games,” he said, attaching a Blast Motion sensor to his bat and taking practice swings at the Oakland Coliseum. “It’s something we rely on heavily.”
Blast Motion says about 10 MLB teams are using the device. Three of the teams were in first place as of this writing, according to Blast Motion. The company won’t name the other teams for “competitive reasons.”
Correa tells me again that the bat sensor is a key to helping him keep his swing consistent. His stats prove it. So far this season, Correa’s .325 batting average, which measures how many times he gets a hit, is 51 percentage points higher than he hit in all of 2016. His slugging percentage, another hitting measurement, is .577, is more than 100 points better than where he finished last season.
He’s already hit 20 home runs this year — including two homers Sunday in the Astros’ 19-1 clobbering of the Toronto Blue Jays — matching the 20 he hit during the entire 2016 season. His big game came one day after his career-high 15-game hitting streak ended.
Dennis Dougherty of sports data company STATS said Correa is on pace for an MVP-type season, projecting he will continue to bat at least .300, belt 30 homers and knock in 114 RBIs (runs batted in).
Sean Koerner, a STATS predictive analytics director, adds that Correa is also spreading the ball around, something that’s helping him get on base. That’s evident in a hit “heat distribution map” Koerner created, as seen below.
“I like to go to all parts of the field,” Correa told me in June as he fiddled with his sensor and took some swings.
Correa said he’s ready for the All-Star Game and, like all players, wants to perform for the fans who selected him in with more than 1.1 million votes.
“It’s going to be a dream come true starting in the All-Star Game,” he said. “It’s going to be a great experience.”
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