By SUSAN JONES
When he was coaching his son’s travel baseball teams, William “Buddy” Clark always got questions from players and their parents about how to improve their swing.
HUMAN PERFORMANCE OPTIMIZATION SYMPOSIUM
Pitt’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine will host a symposium on June 11 at the University Club to address human performance optimization. Topics include Sports Analytics/Wearables, Sports Medicine & Injury Prevention, Strength and Conditioning for the 21st Century and Nutrition. The event is designed for scientists, engineers, clinicians, sports conditioning professionals, physical and occupational therapists, coaches, team trainers, athletic directors and personnel as well as others involved in the conditioning and rehabilitation of athletes. Other sponsors include: the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, the Innovation Institute, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, the Center for Military Medicine Research and the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. The symposium is free, but registration is required. Find a schedule and registration information here.
Those questions led Clark, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Swanson School, to develop the Swing Tracker, which is now used by about half the teams in Major League Baseball, including the Pirates, and more then 50 college baseball and softball teams. And his son, Russell Clark, is working for the company that was spun out from the invention.
As part of a project at Pitt to integrate athletics, human performance, academics, the Innovation Institute, the Office of Research and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Clark and the company he co-founded, Diamond Kinetics, are working with the Pitt baseball and softball teams to gather data and see how it translates into on-field performance.
“We get to do really complicated science and technology and data analysis and get to apply it right away,” Clark says.
Clark and Konstantinos Pelechrinis, an associate professor at the School of Computing and Information who is doing the data analysis, showed off the technology earlier this month at Life Sciences Week. Also on display was another Pitt human performance device — the Impulse force measurement system being developed by faculty in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in conjunction with the Pitt swim team to allow trainers and athletes to identify how changes in training or changes in stroke technique affect performance.
Both projects are part of an effort by the University to establish Pitt as a center for innovation in human performance taking advantage of its position as a top-five National Institutes of Health-funded university, a member of a top athletic conference, a partner with a major clinical health system (UPMC) that maintains a world-class sports medicine program; and being in a city with multiple pro sports teams.
“When you consider these competitive advantages, Pittsburgh has the potential to rewrite the playbook for what human performance means to the world,” Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, said at last year’s inaugural Performance Innovation Tournament at Pitt. The Impulse project, which includes a tether device and software platform, won the top award of $80,000.
Tracking swing plane, pitch rotation
Clark started developing something to measure a batter’s swing early this decade. Using Russ as his test subject in the basement of their home, he created the SwingTracker, which is now available online and at stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods.
One of Clark’s Ph.D. students, Minmin Zhang, was looking for a research project, and, even though he’d never been to a baseball game before, got involved with Clark’s research. Now Zhang works full-time at Diamond Kinetics as lead mechanical Engineer.
The device, which attaches to the knob of the bat below the batter’s hands, was developed using technology patented by a University of Michigan researcher. Clark patented the bat sensor in 2012.
It can measure swing plane and path and estimate the potential maximum exit velocity and ball carry distance for each swing. Launch speed is the newest hot statistic in baseball, which the tracker also measures, Clark said. The data is transmitted to an app.
Previously, teams had used a series of cameras to track a batter’s swing, Clark said. This was a cumbersome system to take on the road. Many of the pro teams using the Diamond Kinetics equipment use it for scouting because it’s so easy to take along.
In 2018, Diamond Kinetics added the PitchTracker baseball and softball, which measures rotation and spin and also can predict how the ball will travel. Clark said pitchers can see the extension of their arm and angle from the body.
The company’s biggest challenge now is helping coaches interpret the data that the tracking devices and app give them. “Even at the highest levels,” Clark said, “they (sometimes) don’t know what to do with it.”
The work the company is doing with Pitt’s baseball and softball teams will help to determine how the data correlates to performance.
“We’re excited to work with Diamond Kinetics and have them in our backyard,” said softball coach Jodi Hermanek, who came to Pitt in August 2018.
The softball team started using the products in January, but Hermanek hopes to use them more in the off-season to fine-tune training.
Getting up and running
Clark says the process of spinning out a company from research done at Pitt definitely has become easier since he first patented the SwingTracker in 2012.
As a professor, he’s allowed one day at week to consult with outside companies, and he uses that time to touch base at the Diamond Kinetics headquarters on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
The technology he developed while working at Pitt is licensed to Diamond Kinetics by the University. While he’s working in his Pitt lab on other unrelated products that might one day be patented, he keeps his baseball-related research limited to when he’s at Diamond Kinetics.
He said he didn’t know anything about starting a business. He reached out to Pitt’s small business development center who connected him with CJ Handron, who worked at a precursor to the Innovation Institute at Pitt. Handron is now CEO of Diamond Kinetics.
The company now has about 20 employees and Clark says they all have to swing a bat and throw and ball, but they don’t have to good at it.
The one thing he really underestimated, Clark says, was, “The customer, you really have to focus on their routine and what their data needs are and make it easy for them.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.