Cubs begin to embrace baseball’s technological revolution, but not everyone is convinced

Pitcher warming up in bullpen
An Iowa Cubs pitcher warms up in the bullpen before a game at Principal Park. Cubs prospects have lots of advanced technology available to them, but not everyone has bought in. (Benjamin Rosenberg/MEDILL)

By Benjamin Rosenberg
Medill Reports

Ian Miller just felt stuck.

Drafted in the 14th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by Seattle, Miller was still in the Mariners’ organization at the beginning of 2019 without having spent a day in the major leagues. He had put up solid but unspectacular numbers for Triple-A Tacoma the previous two seasons, and he decided it was time to change things up.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results,” Miller said. “I’d never been open to the metrics or the data or any of the technology that’s been offered.”

Miller finally embraced the modern technology that all clubs have access to, from companies such as Rapsodo, TrackMan and Driveline. These services all help prospects track and understand new-age metrics including exit velocity, launch angle and spin rates. Miller credited blast motion sensors, which he attached to the knob of his bats during practice sessions, for keeping him in baseball.

After slugging just .315 and .327, respectively, during his first two seasons in Tacoma, Miller began driving the ball with more authority. He hit just two home runs combined in 2017 and 2018 at Triple-A, but had 11 through 108 games in 2019.

Miller’s improvement drew the interest of the Minnesota Twins, who traded for him in early August. He spent a few weeks with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester before finally making his big league debut in September.

“We threw the blast motion sensor on there, and it was a revelation,” Miller said. “Talking about swing paths, staying through the baseball, how the ball is jumping off your bat. Basically making your swing as efficient as possible.”

Miller became a minor league free agent after 2019, signing with the Chicago Cubs that December. He spent the shortened 2020 season at the alternate training site in South Bend and is now trying to make his way back to the top, currently playing for Triple-A Iowa.

Although reluctant at first, Miller is a great example of a player who has bought into baseball’s technological revolution. But some players and coaches still have more of an old-school view of player development.

Miller’s manager in Des Moines, Marty Pevey, is among them. Pevey was grateful for his players to have access to technology and analytics, but he emphasized that if players don’t have the talent to succeed at Triple-A and in the majors, all the technology in the world won’t help.

“You can show them the numbers, but we walk out there and they won’t know how to fix it, and we have to show physically how to fix it,” Pevey said. “We’re teachers, we’re not just baseball coaches. We’re not guys who go in the library and do research and all we have are numbers. We teach from what we do.”

Pitcher Ryan Jensen, the Cubs’ No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, also said he hasn’t taken a hard look at analytics. Currently at High-A South Bend, Jensen said he’s more focused on adding pitches to his arsenal in order to remain a starter as he advances through the Cubs’ system.

But Jensen’s manager, Michael Ryan, was more open to advanced technology, saying he stresses its importance to his players.

“In order to get that information, to make the players better, it’s such an advantage,” Ryan said. “We’ve seen the results and how quickly they can come by using that technology.”

Like all teams, the Cubs now employ instructors whose main purpose is to introduce players to the latest technology, including Director of Hitting Justin Stone. Stone, who was promoted after the 2019 season, previously founded Elite Baseball Training, which used the BioTech cage to help hitters track every small movement within their swings.

Stone said the technology he has brought to the Cubs paints a clear picture of the specific skills each prospect needs to work on.

“It goes to the approach they have in the batter’s box. It goes to vision and reaction time quality, as well as decision-making,” Stone said. “And the mechanical side is really where the technology comes into play, to make sure you’re not missing something that could potentially shave off milliseconds, (and) those milliseconds are really worth millions.”

Miller, for his part, is now all-in on advanced technology after using it to completely revamp his swing. Now that he’s able to generate more power thanks in large part to the blast motion sensor, he encourages his teammates to get on board as well.

“That blast motion sensor put my swing on the map,” Miller said. “I was able to channel my energy and my thought process to make things more efficient, just based off of the data it allowed me to see. It really saved my career.”

Benjamin Rosenberg is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @bxrosenberg.