Tracking systems have the potential to revolutionize Major League Baseball
In the bottom of the ninth inning in a game between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets on July 22 last season, the Braves held a tenuous 2-1 lead. With two outs and the winning runner on base, the Mets' Justin Turner drove a Craig Kimbrel pitch into the left-center field gap. Braves center fielder Jason Heyward quickly broke to his right and covered a tremendous amount of ground to make a diving, game-saving catch.
More remarkable than Heyward's catch was that every movement on the field, including the flight and speed of the ball off the bat, was recorded by Major League Baseball Advanced Media's yet-to-be-named, player-tracking system.
Such a system offers the potential to be a Holy Grail for baseball analytics. What was thought to be unquantifiable — true defensive value, base-running efficiency and instincts in the form of first-step quickness — is being measured in several major league stadiums this season. Two competing systems are testing and refining their products, and the resulting data soon are expected to begin being employed as a new tool for front offices.
At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March in Boston, MLBAM demonstrated its system, including unveiling findings from the Heyward play. Heyward reached a top speed of 18.5 mph. He began 80.9 feet from where he caught the ball and covered that ground in 83.2 feet — nearly a perfect route to the ball — for a route efficiency of 97 percent. First-step quickness? That was measured, too, as Heyward reacted 0.02 seconds after the ball was hit.
Everything was tracked.
The ball left Turner's bat at 88.3 mph. It had a 24.1 degree launch angle. It traveled 314 feet and had a hang time of four seconds. The system also can track the distance of leads by runners, a runner's route around the bases and an infielder's throwing velocity.
MLBAM installed the system this season at Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minneapolis in addition to having it in Citi Field in New York. The hope is to have the system in every stadium by 2015. Whatever the final tracking system looks like, whoever produces it — Sportvision's tracking system, FIELDf/x, is a competing product and was installed in five stadiums last year — the day soon is expected to come in which every player and ball movement on a major league field will be quantifiable in real time.
“Baseball is a game of inches,” MLBAM's Joe Inzerillo said at the Boston presentation. “Now we are going to be able to tell you how many inches.”
Some believe correctly valuing things like a defender's true ability, a base runner's efficiency, even instinct in the form of first-step movement, is within reach, Sportvision CEO Hank Adams said.
“I think we are going to be able to tell you, ‘What is this guy's range? How does he move to his left versus his right? How good is he at estimating his own abilities to get to a ball? How often does he misjudge?' ” Adams said. “Next we'll be able to pick apart every part of a player's game … even their instincts. Do they anticipate? Do they expect players to do certain things? How smart are they about baseball?”
Ball-tracking systems already exist.
Sportvision's PITCHf/x system has used object-recognition cameras to capture the location, movement and speed of every pitch since 2007.
TrackMan technology records the speed, movement and spin of every thrown and batted ball and shares the data with teams that subscribe to the Doppler radar-based system. A handful of teams — including the Pirates — use the system at the major league and minor league levels. But those systems track one object: the ball. The idea is to expand and track everything.
So how does that work?
In Citi Field, a twin set of ChyronHego binocular cameras, also used in England to track Premier League soccer matches, are spaced to allow the system stereoscopic vision, allowing for 3-D capabilities and for the system to differentiate when players overlap on the field. The cameras cover the entire field and every player.
The MLBAM system also includes a partnership with TrackMan, a Sportvision competitor. While the cameras track player movement, radar tracks the pitch, the release point of the ball, bat speed, exit speed and flight of the ball on the field. The radar and video readings then are spun into real-time data.
A potential game changer? Absolutely.
“It all comes back to quality information, whether it's from your best scouts or it's just getting better information, better data,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “Hopefully it will allow us to make better decisions. It will be really fascinating to see where we take this and what we can draw from it.”
While MLBAM's system is seen as the favorite after its unveiling at the Sloan conference and additional video demonstrations released last week, Sportvision remains serious about competing.
Sportvision, best known for enhancing telecasts with the yellow first-down marker in football, employs four similar motion-capturing cameras that track player and ball movement in its FIELDf/x system.
Ryan Zander, Sportvision's general manager of baseball operations, said FIELDf/x is in five ballparks this season: Kansas City, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Boston.
“We have been assured by (Major League Baseball) that our system is going to be compared with the other,” Zander said. “It's going to be more or less evaluated alongside.”
Regardless of what system is employed as the standard, major league executives and analysts are eager to have the data. Players are interested in it, too.
Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes said he always believed his instincts were a defensive strength. Soon he might be able to measure them.
“I feel like one of my strengths is my first step,” Barmes said. “I would definitely be interested to see on a personal level whether my (reads) are correct or making me worse.”
New challenges, new opportunities
MLBAM has yet to produce real-time graphics that would allow the tool to be used for telecasts.
“(At the Sloan conference) the graphics were mocked up. But the data was real,” MLBAM vice president Matthew Gould said. “The goal is that it has to be accurate and reliable, and that's the work that's going on now and will go on over the course of the 2014 season.”
The FIELDf/x system has worked through issues tracking the flight of batted balls.
“To give you context, when we first started the project several years ago, we were tracking everything (including) the seagulls that entered (the playing surface),” Zander said. “There was a lot of trial and error. … The data at this stage is very accurate. We are tracking all players on the field at a very high resolution.”
After a system is online, challenges just will be beginning for teams, Adams said. Teams will need to hire more analysts to make sense of the millions of new data points entering the game. A large sample of data also will be needed to make comparisons and for baselines of measurement.
“All of the sudden, you're going to have a hell of a lot of information,” Adams said. “In a presentation with a major league club, and it wasn't one of the more data-savvy teams, they eventually said, ‘(We) don't know what (we'd) do with all that data.' ”
Representatives from neither MLBAM nor Sportvision have guaranteed information from their systems would be made publicly available like PITCHf/x data. Teams would prefer such information not be made publicly available so they can create proprietary measurements in the hope of creating competitive advantages. For instance, pitch-framing skills revealed from PITCHf/x data were discovered by hobbyists, and that knowledge proliferated throughout the baseball community, eliminating it as a possible competitive advantage.
“We've seen how the data can change how you think about player performance,” Adams said. “It's data (teams) desperately want. It will change how baseball operations is done.”
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