MLB wearable technology expanding into biometrics, game play


Wearable technology has been making forays into professional sports for years as another way that athletes and teams can track performance. Major League Baseball has approved an expansion on this front for players in the 2017 season and beyond.

The number and quality of ways that MLB has measured every movement on its fields during its games has recently boomed, thanks to its partnership with Amazon Web Services to produce the data-collection behemoth Statcast. There has been one area in which Statcast has been insufficient, however, and that’s where an expansion of MLB wearable technology comes in.

Biometrics from the players are one component that Statcast can’t capture, and MLB teams see the value of that information. The league has approved an expansion of the devices that can be worn by players, and the devices have the potential to deliver a new wealth of information to players and teams on and off the field.

The Whoop Strap 2.0 has just been approved for in-game use by the league, making it the first device of its kind given approval for use during game action by one of North America’s four major sports leagues. Prior to the sanctioning, players could use such devices at any other time, but had to remove them during games.

The device monitors heart rate, body temperature, and other biometrics. If worn properly, the device can accurately denote when an athlete is under strain or is sleeping. This is a big step forward for wearables in MLB, as previous devices measured only batting and pitching performance.

In order for interested parties to get the most use out of the data recorded by the strap, it must be worn without removal for whatever time period the user wishes to record his biometrics. That way, the player and his team can get a thorough understanding of the range of his biometric readings and the normal measurements for him.

If worn properly, teams can look at a player’s biometrics during times of peak or diminished on-field performance to try to identify deviations and patterns. If a hitter is slumping at the plate, for example, teams will know whether or not the player’s sleep has been irregular recently. That can point to other physical or psychological issues.

The real power of biometrics gets unleashed for teams when that data is combined with the data gleaned from Statcast.

For example, suppose that a pitcher’s curveball is lacking movement, as shown by the measurements generated by Statcast. Teams could go to the biometrics data from those moments when the pitcher threw the curve and look at indicators of strain, such as elevated pulse and body temperature. That could be an indication that something is off in the delivery of that pitch, causing the amount of effort necessary to throw it to be increased. With that information, teams can focus on specific issues with players more precisely.

The concern with this technology, as with any other biometric device, is user privacy. Does a MLB player want his employer knowing every detail of all 24 hours of each day of his life? A player’s pulse will be elevated when he is sexually active, for instance, and most players would probably prefer to keep the incidence of those times private.

That’s why teams have no authority under the collective bargaining agreement to force players to wear it or any other device like it. The manufacturer also touts 27 different privacy settings, and does not have access to the data. Wearing it, along with for how long and at what privacy setting, is something that teams have to work out with each individual player.

Other than perhaps improving player performance, this expansion of data probably won’t affect the fan experience much. It’s unlikely that MLB is going to impose graphics on the screen that show a player’s pulse rate like it has with Statcast showing the measurements of the leads that players take from first base. It also remains to be seen how many players will agree to use the device.

For MLB players and teams, however, big data could be about to get much bigger.