A game of numbers: Walton, Cowboys describe how MLB's analytics movement is changing college pitching

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OSU coach Rob Walton visits the mound during the Oklahoma State vs. Southeastern Louisiana baseball game at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium in Stillwater on Saturday, March 16, 2019.

To Rob Walton, pitching isn’t synonymous with robotics.

Despite Walton’s reservations about baseball’s shift toward analytics, he can’t avoid the trend. With an app on his cellphone, Walton, the Oklahoma State pitching coach, can read the Cowboys’ statistics, including spin rate, release height and pitch velocity. He also can compare OSU’s data to numbers from other college pitchers and major league players such as Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.

This became possible because of a gift from Andrew Heaney, a former Cowboy and pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, and his wife, Jordan Heaney. They bought OSU a system called TrackMan, which is widely used in professional baseball and the NCAA. Walton said the Cowboys started using it early in the season.

“It’s a trial-and-error deal when it’s your first time through it,” Walton said.

The Heaneys’ investment helped the Cowboys keep up with major league clubs. Major League Baseball’s analytics revolution has transformed pitching in ways that influence college and high school teams. Instead of focusing on earning wins and conserving the bullpen, pitchers are bombarded with statistics. Although Walton said some data are useful, if pitchers dwell on them, they might get flustered. He said too many numbers take away the human dimension of baseball.

“You can’t measure somebody’s ability in a moment, their heart, their grind, their focus, their concentration, with a number,” Walton said.

The Cowboys can’t guarantee technologies such as TrackMan will work. When Walton looked at data from OSU’s series against Iowa during the first weekend in March, he noticed inaccuracies. TrackMan recorded multiple pitches, which were clearly balls, as strikes, indicating the umpire made about 25 wrong calls, he said.

“It’s not reading the strike zone correctly,” Walton said. “So now … their execution of the pitch doesn’t come on the page correctly. It comes in much higher than it’s supposed to, so the strike zone has basically moved up like a foot.”

When TrackMan functions properly, it allows players, coaches and major league scouts to look at the Cowboys’ data, from the height where a pitcher lets go of the ball to the speed of a pitch as it whizzes across the front of home plate. Walton said he isn’t sure how much it cost, but it required installment of cables in the ground at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium to read the measurements, which download to coaches’ computers and phones.

Noah Sifrit, a sophomore pitcher and outfielder, said he benefits from the data and thanked Andrew Heaney.

“You know everything about what you did wrong, what you did right, what you need to improve on,” Sifrit said.

Technology provides teams with a wealth of information, but some players and coaches are skeptical about whether these statistics matter. Walton explained the analytics trend has changed how pitchers approach games, making baseball a drastically different sport from what it was when he played for OSU in 1983-86. Young pitchers read professional players’ data on the internet, try to model themselves after those pros and focus on throwing as hard and as quickly as they can. As they strive to achieve the best statistics, their strategy and control of the ball are often lost.

“It’s more of carnival throwing, where you show up at the carnival, see how fast you can throw a ball, and you win the big bear,” Walton said.

This aggressive, high-speed style isn’t sustainable throughout a game, so teams are forced to rely on more pitchers. High school players on summer showcase teams might pitch for two or three innings, Walton said. College and major league starters aren’t expected to finish games. In the Cowboys’ road shutout of Wichita State on April 10, they used nine pitchers, and none threw more than two innings.

Coaches and players might try to use mathematics to shape raw talent into flawless, machinelike pitching skill, but ERAs don’t always indicate positive change. The major league ERA climbed from 3.74 in 2014, the year before major league teams started using Statcast technology in every stadium, to 4.14 in 2018.

OSU’s ERA has risen more dramatically from 2.84 in 2015, one season before the Cowboys advanced to the College World Series, to 4.24 in 2019. Mike Mulvihill, an outfielder and pitcher on OSU’s 1959 championship team, said he thinks analytics provide information about pitches but don’t improve them.

“You can only throw the ball so hard,” Mulvihill said. “I think it’s a little overrated myself, but what do I know?”

Despite the modern emphases on spin rates and launch angles, some fans and former players, like Walton, appreciate the classic aspects of pitching. Dick Soergel, who pitched in the 1959 championship game, said baseball is fundamentally the same as it was when people started playing.

“The technology helps to refine certain things, but the basics are there,” Soergel said. “Baseball has always had the basics.”

For others, the basics aren’t enough when they have information banks on computers or phone screens in front of them. Although the TrackMan system misreads the strike zone, the Cowboys have other ways of gathering analytics. Walton said they record pitch velocity without TrackMan, and he gathers data from each game’s film. He said at least 30 percent of his pitchers are interested in analytics. They have to balance keeping track of data with making sure they don’t let numbers get to their heads.

Joe Lienhard, a senior pitcher, called the analytics trend cool but said he likes a simple approach.

“There’s been plenty of guys that have helped improve their game based off looking off that stuff,” Lienhard said. “So if it can help you become a better player, definitely use it, but use it in the right way. Don’t get too consumed in it to where it’s starting to bug you on the field.”

Access to teammates’ data could create competition, but Lienhard said he wants to pay attention to his game.

“You don’t want to get too wound up in everyone else’s stuff,” Lienhard said.

OSU will continue to partake in the analytics movement when O’Brate Stadium opens in 2020. Walton said the new venue will be equipped with TrackMan and Rapsodo, which also tracks a range of statistics. Josh Holliday, OSU’s coach, said coaches need to analyze information obtained from technology and present it to players in ways that facilitate growth.

“I think if it’s applicable and understandable in ways that kids can learn, then it’s fantastic,” Holliday said. “If it’s just a bunch of gibberish and numbers that confuse people, then I could do without it.”

The Cowboys are waiting to learn from Rapsodo and a fully functioning TrackMan system, but it’s no problem for Walton. As a former scout for the Cleveland Indians, Walton said he can keenly observe the seams of a baseball flying toward home plate and quickly determine the pitch’s spin rate.

“Your eyes do adjust, and they do get the chance to see what you need to see,” Walton said. “And TrackMan just basically allows you to validate what you’re seeing.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com