Category Archives: Portfolio

How one MLB player is using Rapsodo pitch analysis technology to revive his career

This offseason, Craig Breslow is searching for an edge. The 36-year-old left-handed pitcher won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, but was put on the disabled list after straining his throwing shoulder the following March and never seemed to fully recover. His ERA jumped from 1.81 in 2013 to 5.96 the following year. Last season he was signed as a free agent and then released by both the Marlins and the Rangers. “I hadn’t been a successful pitcher for three years,” he says.

To attempt to resurrect his decade-long career in the major league, Breslow is turning to a pitch-tracking camera made by Rapsodo. The Yale-educated molecular biophysics and biochemistry major is hoping he can reverse engineer the best pitches in baseball by looking back at other players’ PITCHf/x and TrackMan data. Then by getting real-time feedback on each throw’s velocity, spin, and trajectory through Rapsodo, he plans to tune up his own throws.

“We all just watched [Cleveland left handed relief pitcher] Andrew Miller dominate the post season with his devastating slider,” Breslow says. “There are a number of factors that go into his ability to make the ball do what it does. He’s 6’8”, he’s got incredibly long levers. He’s got a great ability to spin a ball. At 5’11” and probably a wingspan two feet shorter, I may never be able to impart the same spin rate on a baseball as he can, but I should be able to spin it in the same direction, which will give me the same shape of the breaking ball.”

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Paralympics a source of inspiration, advanced technology and (yes) doping

Every two years the sports world is treated to a celebration of exceptionalism—the summer and winter Olympic Games—followed by a festival of inspiration—the Paralympics—a few weeks later. But does the popular representation of the Paralympics reinforce stereotypes of those with disabilities?

Born in 1948 as an annual competition for World War II veterans with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England, the first official quadrennial Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960. In the 56 years since, the Paralympics have evolved from a competition for wheelchair athletes to a major international sporting event. Some 4,350 athletes, from more than 160 countries, will compete in Rio. In 1960, everyone was guaranteed a medal. In 2016, most will go home empty-handed.

The visibility of disability sports has been boosted recently with the introduction of events like the U.S.-based Warrior Games and the international Invictus Games, for injured military service personnel. At the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Games, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Sir Philip Craven recounted the story of a five-year-old boy, George Glen, whose response to seeing a peg-legged pirate in a children’s book was to say to his mom, “Well he only has one leg, so he must be an athlete.”

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Olympic change: In with the old (golf, rugby), in with the new (technology)

The Olympics of 2016 will be a Games of many firsts: the first Summer Games to be held in winter—though the Sydney Olympics were also in the Southern Hemisphere, their September start put it in spring—the first in South America, the first in a Portuguese-speaking nation, the first to feature a refugee team and the first Games for Kosovo and South Sudan. They will also be the first in 52 years without Kuwait (suspended due to government interference with its national Olympic committee) and in 32 years without a track and field delegation—and perhaps other athletes—from Russia or the former U.S.S.R. (sanctioned for systematic doping).

On the field, golf and rugby sevens are making their contemporary debuts, though most sports changes are subtle shifts in regulations. Scores from the qualification rounds of the shooting competitions will be wiped before the finals—gold will be decided in a head-to-head competition. Swimmers brought to Rio to compete only in relay events must compete in either heats or finals, or their team will face disqualification. The weight classes in wrestling have been revamped in order to achieve more parity between men’s and women’s events. Now there will be six men’s freestyle divisions, six men’s Greco-Roman divisions and six women’s divisions. Field hockey games will now consist of quarters of 15 minutes, instead of 35-minute halves. Badminton, handball, judo and modern pentathlon also have changes in format since London 2012.

The biggest alterations to existing Olympic sports apply to boxing and soccer. For the first time since Moscow in 1980, male boxers will compete without protective headgear. And for the first time, professional prizefighters will be eligible for the Olympics. The decision to allow pros to compete was made only on June 1, and thus is unlikely to have a significant effect this year. The highest-profile pros in Rio will be former IBF flyweight champion Amnat Ruenroeng of Thailand and former WBO middleweight champion Hassan N’Dam from Cameroon.

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Africa’s first pro cycling team races for change at home, at Tour de France

Look out France, Africa is coming. Last year Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot became the first African to wear the polka-dot jersey in the Tour de France, leading the King of the Mountain classification through stages 6 to 9. And British teammate Steve Cummings scored the first stage victory for an African team—in the first ever appearance of an African team at the three-week race—on Jul. 18, 2015: Nelson Mandela Day.

A couple of weeks ago Teklehaimanot won the best climber classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné, one of the main warm-up events for Le Tour, defending a title he’d also won in 2015. Now he is setting his sights on a first stage victory at the main event, which runs from July 2 through July 24.

Since last July, Teklehaimanot’s team has rebranded from MTN-Qhubeka to Team Dimension Data. In September, the team signed rider Mark Cavendish, a previous winner of the points classification at all three Grand Tours, and head of performance Rolf Aldag from the No. 4-ranked Etixx–Quick-Step team. Dimension Data has also rapidly climbed the cycling ladder. It was a Continental team four years ago, a Pro Continental team until last year, and is now a UCI World Tour team. “Those are big steps,” Aldag cautions, explaining that his team may need time to adjust to its new status.

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Power play: What cyclists teach us about energy efficiency

A road bike race is about just one thing: energy. Pro and elite amateur riders obsess about their personal power data extracted from sensors on bikes, but total energy—power multiplied by time—is what really counts. The team that reaches the finish line in first place is the one that figures out how best to create, conserve, and expend that energy.

Take stage 3 of the 2016 AMGEN Tour of California on May 17, for example. The route opened with a 96.7 mile ride up the coast from Thousand Oaks to Santa Barbara, interspersed with a couple of short climbs, and ended with a 7.4 mile, average 8% gradient, winding climb up Gibraltar Road. The long prologue required endurance, carefully conserving energy; the steep final climb needed raw strength. The rider who had best conserved his energy would be positioned to barge up that final climb.

“It all comes down to the power-to-weight ratio,” says former pro cyclist Jens Voigt of ending inclines. “It’s just survival of the fittest.”

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Two expert heli-skiing guides’ escape from Alaskan avalanche accident

Heli-skiing guide Jerry Hance took one step forwards and the ground collapsed. The group of five skiers behind him—four clients and a second guide, Adrian Ballinger—was sliced in half as a 40-foot section of the snowy overhang they had been set down on a few minutes before broke away. Kevin Edwards, busy taking photographs on the safe side of the break, turned around to see his friends were gone. David Cole had one foot on solid snow, the other dangling in thin air. Furthest away from safety, Ballinger tumbled into the abyss.

Instinctively, he reached across to his left shoulder to pull the handle on his Backcountry Access backpack. Larger objects rise to the surface in an avalanche, and fully inflated the airbag inside would help ensure that when the snow finally came to a rest, Ballinger would be on top. But he couldn’t find the trigger. Grasping aimlessly with both hands he cursed the manufacturer for making the handle so small, forgetting that the mountain had given way before he’d even had time to put it on.

After a second or so of free fall, Ballinger hit the first of the rocky cliffs below. His helmet and right shoulder took the brunt of the impact. This isn’t going to work, he thought, this is really bad. He was thrown into a tumble, crashing repeatedly against several hundred feet of snow, ice, and rock, then rolling rapidly down a steep snowy incline.

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One-legged high school mountain biker KC Fontes defies the odds

KC Fontes learned to ride a bike before he could walk. His dad, David, bought him a red DYNO BMX bike for Christmas 1999, when KC was just six months old. “He was my first-born son,” says David, “and all I wanted to do was get him on a bike as soon as I could.”

For the next decade KC spent almost as much time speeding around on two wheels as he did on two legs. But in sixth grade he came home one day from basketball practice at his school in Salinas, Calif., complaining that his right leg hurt. His calf just below the knee was swollen, and doctors discovered a rare tumor.

A month after the diagnosis, KC had an operation to remove the growth. Three months after that he started chemotherapy, but the tumor proved extremely difficult to eradicate. KC missed seventh grade, and for a year-and-a-half he often couldn’t be around friends because the treatment suppressed his immune system.

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Can electrical brain stimulation boost athletic performance?

When Kieren Duncan showed up at EXOS’s high performance training center in Phoenix in early January, he was looking to tune up his body, not re-wire his brain. Then, three weeks before the NFL’s Arizona Regional Combine, trainers handed the Colorado State University-Pueblo wide receiver a headset.

On the outside, the headset looks like a regular pair of noise-cancelling headphones, but this particular one isn’t manufactured by Bose, Sony or another common brand—it’s made by Halo Neuroscience. On the inside of the wide headband, above each ear pad, are rows of soft plastic teeth. Infused with a conductive saline solution, the teeth can transmit electrical pulses through the skull to the motor cortex, the region of the brain that controls movement. The electrical stimulation increases the ability of neurons in that region to build new connections, which is essentially how the brain learns new abilities.

“I’m kind of a nerd and into science fiction,” Duncan says, “so the idea of it sounded really cool to me.”

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Making weight: A lightweight rower’s struggle with the scale

Victoria Burke’s New Year’s Resolution this January was to lose weight, 11 pounds to be exact. Standing 5’6” and weighing 133 pounds, Burke had a healthy body-mass index of 21.5 and was working out more than 20 hours a week at the California Rowing Club in Oakland, Calif. But to achieve the dream of rowing for the U.S. Olympic team in Rio this summer, Burke and her lightweight double sculling partner, Nancy Miles, have to be under a combined weight of 114 kilos (251.3 pounds). That means 129 pounds for 5’9” Miles, and 122 pounds for Burke.

She has been here before, competing as an open weight rower in college at Vermont and Virginia—she helped the Cavaliers’ varsity eight to a second place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2009—then dropping 10 pounds to race as a lightweight over her summer breaks. When she began training in earnest for this Olympic cycle last fall, losing a couple of pounds a month seemed achievable. “I thought This can’t be that bad going into this again,” she says, “but I was wrong.”

Burke, 28, weighs herself at least once a day: every morning, and sometimes after working out, or just before she heads off to sleep. “You want to get comfortable with being hungry at night,” she says. She gets her carbs from fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods like bread, and turns to low-fat protein sources like chicken, egg whites, and non-fat yogurt. Building muscle is complicated because although that might increase her power, it will also increase her weight.

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OK Computer: How computers will—and won’t—change the NFL

In 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first supercomputer to defeat a chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, in a game. A year later Deep Blue edged Kasparov 3 1/2–2 1/2 in a full match. Why should you, a football fan, care? Because, as the late linebacker Junior Seau once said, “football is a chess game.”

Deep Blue defeated Kasparov by brute force, scanning through 200 million moves per second. And, ominously, over the last two decades that computational force has only gotten more brutal. At chess tournaments played in Bilbao, Spain, in 2004 and ’05, a team of three computers defeated their human opponents 8½–3½ and 8–4, respectively. But that was two decades ago. modern smartphones make even Deep Blue look painfully slow: A Samsung Galaxy S5, for example, can perform 140 billion floating-point operations per second, more than 10 times the speed of IBM’s old machine. Moore’s Law predicts that computational power doubles roughly every two years, so by Super Bowl 100, in 2066, computers should be several million times faster than today. Imagine a robot Bill Belichick flicking through a digital playbook of trillions of moves during the 40-second gap between plays.

The BCS computers already made their mark in the college game, before a human-only playoff committee overthrew them last year. The computers were either a digital force for good or evil, depending on whether they raised or lowered your school’s ranking. A company called Edge Up Sports is using Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing system, to gain an edge in fantasy football. Jim Rushton, head of IBM’s Sports & Entertainment division, predicts that in the next few years Watson could help teams predict and reduce injuries, and pick the best players from the draft.

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