Up to this point, watching a Major League Baseball game has been a very subjective experience. It appears as if Starling Marte is extremely fast. It seems as if Andrew McCutchen covers a lot of ground in center field. Last year, it sure looked like Russell Martin had a strong throwing arm.
But within a year, viewing a game will turn into an objective experience for those that want it. MLB Advanced Media will be using the 2015 season as a trial test for a new system called Statcast. Statcast was first rolled out last year in certain parks and featured during the All-Star Game. Viewers could see how fast Mike Trout peaked during his triple (21 mph), how much ground each outfielder covered, and the speed of the ball off of the bat. In 2015, Statcast will be installed in all 30 parks with viewers able to see certain features through the MLB At Bat App. Exactly which features will be released are still up in the air at this point, though.
The data for Statcast is obtained through two complementary systems. Trackman is a radar based system that tracks pitches, throws, and hits in the air. ChyronHego is an optical tracker for players and throws. Trackman’s radar is good when the ball is in the air, but loses efficacy on the ground; that’s where ChyronHego’s optic tracking comes into play.
This wealth of information will be compiled for every play during the course of a baseball game, so you can only imagine how much “big data” will accrue over the course of a month, let alone a whole season. Statcast will be heavily used by all analytic-driven teams (so…everyone but the Phillies) for evaluation of player metrics and lead to better positioning, refining future contract offers to current players and free agents, and perhaps even leading to injury minimization techniques for pitchers.
Statcast will also help enhance the game for viewers at home, both online and watching TV. Some tracking will be viewed live, while other items will be available on a 12 second delay similar to a standard instant replay. I’m not going to lie — there are some flashbacks to FOX’s terrible vapor trails during hockey game and dancing robots during football games. But with MLB running it, there is much less of a chance for goofiness. My true concern is if it will distract from the standard viewing experience or if it will be integrated smoothly.
Although Statcast will undoubtedly need to be refined, it’s not hard to imagine that this outbreak of new real-time data will make certain current stats either obsolete or need to quickly adapt. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is held with disdain by certain old-school types and info-doubters that especially dislike the defensive metrics like UZR. Statcast will create a whole new series of defensive metrics that take into account batted ball velocity, player foot speed and tracking, and defensive positioning through the optical tracking. Essentially, UZR will become a Timex watch in a digital world.
MLB Advanced Media’s guru, Joe Inzerillo feels that base running metrics will take a quantum leap forward with first step acceleration, secondary lead measurement, and route efficiency able to be tracked and quantified. ?Unlike pitching and batting stuff that builds on things that have come in the past, some of the base-running data was simply not captured in any objectively quantifiable way in the past, ? said Inzerillo at a recent conference called Sports Graphics Forum.
Not all of the data will presumably be made public, but it’s hard to imagine that the media rollout manufactured by MLB Advanced Media and the hype machine being fed to prominent stats-based websites will result in a stifled viewing product. It’s not like MLB teams will hoard all the data as they did with HitF/X and FieldF/X. Those systems were proprietary ones developed by private companies; Statcast is developed by MLB themselves.
There is a chance that once a game is viewed with Statcast, it will feel as if a viewer has been wearing a cheese cloth over their eyes all these years that has now been lifted. Naturally some Luddites and old-schoolers will lament the intrusion of nerds and data into their favorite, laconic game. Their eyes have never lied to them and this new-fangled technology can’t be trusted. For those of us that appreciate the incorporation of data and absorb information like a sponge, Statcast has the makings of being a transformative technology.