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OC Register: Hoornstra: For MLB’s cutting-edge teams, the force is with them

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The force is with them

Matt Long’s first minor league season ended the way most do: quietly. He started in right field for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes on Sept. 7, 2009, went 1 for 4 against the Bakersfield Blaze, packed his things, and headed home to the Bay Area for the offseason.

The Angels drafted Long in the 30th round that year, part of a class that included Mike Trout, Patrick Corbin, Garrett Richards, Randal Grichuk and Tyler Skaggs. The high point of Long’s baseball career would come in 2014. He batted .408 in spring training, forcing the Angels to bring him back to Southern California for the Freeway Series. Long was among the final players cut from a team that would go on to win 98 games – the last Angels club to qualify for the postseason. For a young outfielder looking to make his first Opening Day roster, it was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Long couldn’t have known it at the time, but the 2009-10 offseason was the opposite.

“I was looking for somewhere to train,” he recalled. “Phil Wagner had opened up a high-performance training facility in Menlo Park for athletes. I visited. It was Sparta Performance Science at the time. It was super eye-opening for me.

“Being an athlete you’re always being tested. You do functional movement tests, questionnaires, and never hear anything about it. (The tests) went to practitioners, coaches, and you’d never hear why you were doing what you’re doing. I went in there and within 5 minutes I’d completed the assessment, which was new for me. Usually, they take 30 to 45 minutes. ‘You’re doing this, this and this, and you’re probably going to experience chronic hamstring injuries,’ which I was. The fact that they knew that then, it was 11 years ago. It blew my mind.”

The key ingredient to Sparta’s secret sauce is something called a force plate. The idea is simple enough: measuring how a person’s feet or arms interact with the ground, a force plate underneath them collects data points that highlight “movement deficiencies,” patterns that serve as warning signs for future injuries. Long said Sparta Science’s force plates collect 1,000 data points per second, enough to form a powerful prediction tool.

Long never got the big league call from Angels. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2015 season, spent the year at Triple-A, then decided to retire. After the season, he returned to Menlo Park to thank Wagner and the Sparta training staff for their help over the years.

“I left with an interview offer,” he said.

The Angels’ Matt Long takes batting practice before a Freeway Series exhibition game against the Dodgers in 2014 at Dodger Stadium. Long was among the final players cut from a team that went on to win 98 games – the last Angels club to qualify for the postseason. He’s now the director of product marketing for Sparta Science, one of several companies that have helped make force plate technology more common throughout MLB. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

Six years later, Long is still with Sparta as their director of product marketing. Considering how widespread force plates have become within Major League Baseball, Long’s post-playing endeavor is shaping into the more remarkable chapter of his career.

Sparta counts two major league organizations as clients, the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies, Long said, have Sparta’s force plates installed in facilities at multiple levels of the organization. The Dodgers and Seattle Mariners purchased the hardware from Kistler, an industry pioneer based near Detroit, about five years ago. The Angels have force plates installed in their weight room in Anaheim.

Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer said the Cleveland Indians bought force plates in 2017, and the Cincinnati Reds had them when he was traded there in 2019. The consensus within the force plate industry is that at least half of all MLB teams currently have some form of the technology in-house.

The technology gradually evolved to allow smaller, portable force plates, which became popular among individual players. Bauer owns a pair of ForceDecks’ portable plates and said he uses them daily.

This technology became especially useful a year ago. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced spring training camps to shut down, players were left to train on their own. Those who had personal force plate systems connected to their team’s data cloud could provide coaches with critical biomechanical feedback from their workouts, allowing teams to identify potential “movement deficiencies” from thousands of miles away.

“It gives you that extra layer of insight into a player’s mechanics,” said William Lehmann, a Biomechanics Application Specialist with Kistler. “For a swing, knowing where the bodyweight transfer is from front to back, and where that correlates to their swing and their bat – you’ll know if a guy has too much weight in his front foot, or if he’s hanging onto his back foot too long.”

In general, pitchers and pitching coaches have been quicker than hitters to adopt the latest technology for training purposes. Force plates are no different; Long and his early-career workout buddies in Menlo Park were among the exceptions.

When Wes Johnson became the pitching coach at the University of Arkansas in 2016, he placed a call to his friend from high school, an aviation engineer named Kyle Barker. Johnson needed him to make a training tool that didn’t exist.

“They weren’t having a lot of success at the time with off-the-shelf force plates,” Barker said. “The issues were ease of use and reliability of the data. You could go buy a force plate, but getting it affixed to a regulation (pitching) mound was no simple task.”

Barker tinkered around at his testing lab in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Before long, NewtForce was born. NewtForce’s “force mound” captures a pitcher’s biomechanical data on a slope that replicates the kind a pitcher stands on during an actual game.

After it caught on at Arkansas, NewtForce units popped up at Vanderbilt and TCU. Johnson brought the NewtForce with him when he was hired to be the Twins’ major league pitching coach, and he credits the system for helping Kenta Maeda finish second in the 2020 American League Cy Young Award race. The Atlanta Braves purchased a unit from Barker as well, giving him two major league clients.

“I do think that ground forces will be a commodity in baseball, at the professional level and the Power 5 level, inside of two or three years,” Barker said. “Everybody today has access to ballistics, meaning they’ve got a Trackman, or a Rapsodo, or a Hawk-Eye, or a number of other ballistics packages that tell you the velocity of the ball, the spin, the induced vertical break. Even some high schools are starting to use those. I think that evolution chain will replicate on ground forces.”

Some in baseball might consider the technology cutting-edge. If anything, major league teams can be considered late adopters.

Lehmann said Kistler has collected force data for the automotive industry for a half-century, where it’s been useful in crash tests, among other applications. By the time the Mariners and Dodgers installed their plates, highway weigh stations were using Kistler systems to monitor force data on commercial trucks for years. A Major League Soccer club, the Seattle Sounders, began using ForceDecks before Long’s first visit to Sparta. Until the last decade, however, collecting and interpreting ground-force data was too challenging to gain widespread acceptance.

Now that professional teams are catching on, force plates are just one of many tools being used to maximize mechanics and identify potential sources of injury. It’s easy to gloss over the trend as just another example of “analytics” invading the game. Look carefully and it’s more than that: a competitive advantage for teams and players, one that could potentially leave the late adopters behind.

Research engineer Matthew Solomito analyzes data as Central Connecticut pitcher Michael DeLease throws off a smart mound at the Center for Motion Analysis in Farmington, Conn., on Jan. 28, 2020. Force plate technology, which is becoming more common throughout baseball, allows scientists to better study pitching mechanics to enhance efficiency and prevent injuries. (AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb)

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