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New Era in Sports

By Alex Piazza
apiazza@umich.edu

A Detroit Tigers outfielder grabs his bat and approaches the cage.

As the player steps on a platform and swings, researchers measure how he uses the ground to generate force. They also assess the time it takes for the player to shift his weight and the speed of the ball as it leaves his bat.

These data points could help show a player the ideal, repeatable process to turn a slow grounder to third base into a deep ball past the centerfield fence. This is all part of a new era in sports, as teams across Major League Baseball are embracing research and data science to gain a competitive edge.

The Tigers have partnered with the University of Michigan since 2018 to explore ways in which research can help enhance and optimize player performance.

“All of us with the Tigers are focused on bringing a World Series Championship back to the State of Michigan, and we are exploring all avenues for improving player performance to make that happen,” said Al Avila, Tigers executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager. “Partnering with the University of Michigan makes great sense for our organization, and we’re very pleased with how our relationship has developed.”

U-M researchers have traveled to Detroit’s Comerica Park and the Tigers training facility in Lakeland, Fla., working with players and coaches to identify how sport science and data analytics can impact various facets of the game — from hitting to pitching to baserunning. The partnership stems from the U-M Exercise and Sport Science Initiative, which draws on expertise across the university, Michigan Athletics and industry partners to optimize physical performance and health for people of all ages and abilities.

“We are building a workable and sustainable system with which we can get players to perform at their maximum capacity and stay healthy through the use of traditional baseball mechanisms and advanced technology,” said Jay Sartori, senior director of baseball analytics and operations for the Tigers. “Our connection with the University of Michigan makes a lot of sense because of the close proximity between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and access to top-notch researchers in this field.”

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Georgia Giblin and Stephen Cain

Some of those top-notch researchers include Georgia Giblin and Stephen Cain. Giblin is a research fellow in kinesiology at U-M, but works primarily at the TigerTown training complex in Lakeland, working with coaches to develop players in the club’s minor league system. She also will travel to affiliates and the Tigers’ headquarters in Detroit throughout the season, in addition to stops at U-M.

Giblin is responsible for collecting and interpreting data that allows the team to measure player biomechanics, which can help the team identify a wide range of actionable conclusions, such as performance issues and whether certain players are more susceptible to injury.

“We’re fortunate to be in a period with sports where there’s a tremendous amount of technology to measure so many aspects of player performance,” said Giblin, whose university fellowship is funded by the Tigers. “Many teams are using these technologies, but at the end of the day, you need somebody who can translate that information to the coaches and players so they can act on it in an impactful way.”

Cain, an assistant research scientist in mechanical engineering at U-M, has partnered with Giblin to develop algorithms that make sense of the data. And he already has plenty of data to sift through. Cain and Giblin have collected data on more than 30 Tigers pitchers this season, each of whom threw at least three bullpen sessions.

Analysis of various performance metrics will be shared with Tigers players, coaches and management throughout the 162-game regular season.

“Today’s market is flooded with sports technology, so our job is really to figure out how teams can use these new technologies to improve health and increase performance,” said Cain, who also is working with the U-M baseball team on a similar project. “The players are really interested in having this type of instant feedback, and if it helps improve their play on the field, the entire organization benefits.”

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