Advanced Metrics

The Ultimate “Eye Test”

The cricket writer Henry Chadwick saw baseball being played on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1856 and was smitten. Widely considered the Father of Baseball, Chadwick was perhaps the first to evaluate players using numbers. He designed the score sheet we are familiar with today. He invented the box score as we know it. ERA and AVG were his ideas. That “K” you mark down in your scorebook or hang in the outfield? His idea. Long before the Baseball Encyclopedia, the Elias Sports Bureau or even Bill James, there was Henry Chadwick. What would Henry think of the crush of numbers on the horizon of Baseball now? Good lord.

It’s coming to a ballpark down by the river near you, Cincinnati. It will change the game like nothing else since the dead ball era gave way to the lively ball, Jackie Robinson and the end of the Reserve Clause. It will SEE ALL and TELL ALL about nearly everything that happens on the diamond that doesn’t fall under those ephemeral categories of GRIT or THE WILL TO WIN. Get ready for MLB Advanced Media Tracking Technology.

Sabermetrics on steroids, if you will. Some folks will hate it. Others will fall in love with it. But, it’s coming, like a fiber-optic freight train of sorts. And what it portends is merely the next evolution of advanced metrics. Not an eye in the sky per se, but rather thousands of eyes that see virtually everything—and never blink.

The game is already being observed as never before. The advanced metrics we are just beginning to get comfortable with have always been somewhat linear in nature—result-driven. Now, they will be looked at anew in three dimensions, using Doppler radar and high-speed cameras. Today, when we talk about on base percentage (OPB) or Swinging Strike Percentage (SwStr%), we are usually discussing the rate at which an event occurred. Now, we will begin to see WHY it occurred and precisely how other actors in these events affected the result—in real time.

For example, the new tracking technology will not only reveal the EXIT VELOCITY of the ball off a bat, it will tell us the PITCH VELOCITY and PERCEIVED VELOCITY, how that affected the exit velocity, thus helping provide an explanation of why a shortstop did or didn’t get to the same ball he got to yesterday.

You’ll know the CATCH-AND-RELEASE time from Brandon Phillips’ glove as he shovels the ball to Zack Cozart to start the double play. Want to know the exact lead Billy Hamilton has off first base in the third inning? Got that. His MAX SPEED as he approaches second and the POP-UP time for the catcher as he rises to foolishly attempt to nail Billy? Got that, too.

MLBAM

The new tracking technology is already in place at Citi Field in New York, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minneapolis. Next year, it will be in all 30 parks, providing real time stats not just to the experts, but also to fans. For front offices, it will change how they evaluate players:

“When you look at how scouting has been done in the past, there’s a lot of subjectivity to the evaluation,” he said. “Some guys I have found have varied, from scout to scout, in terms of their opinion of each player. There is a lot of quality defensive statistics out there, but they’re not completely accurate. A lot of them are dependent on somebody charting, whether it’s UZR or DIPS or Defensive Runs Saved, and they can only go so far. Some players . . . range to their left better, some range better to their right, some come in on ground balls better than others, some have better first-step quickness.

“The exciting thing about this new technology is, you can start to take the subjectivity that is given to you by the scout and blend it with raw data now, and come up with a truer picture of evaluating a player.  — Jim Duquette, former MLB GM

For those that covet more information, it will be Christmas 162 times a year.

Using traditional advanced metrics (now there’s a unusual company of words), we’ve been able to stitch together 100+ years into a singular tapestry we can unfurl and examine. Now, that tapestry will be replaced by a three-dimensional rendering of a real game we can pause, then view from any angle of our choosing, panning the infield dirt like an old prospector—sifting for metric gold.

From the MUFFED THROW stat in newspapers in the late 19th century to the soon-to-be ubiquitous VECTOR and ROUTE EFFICIENCY stats that will evaluate the throw Jay Bruce will make to nail the runner trying to go from first to third, understanding the game has changed in unimaginable ways, even as the bases are still 90 feet apart and peanuts and Cracker Jack continue to be hawked up and down the aisles of Section 124.

In the last scene of the baseball screenplay I will never write, Henry Chadwick will sit in that same Section 124 keeping score with a pencil and a small parchment booklet, his woolen coat and hoary white beard protecting him from the harsh Opening Day cold. Across the aisle, a young fan swaddled in Gore-Tex and a light polar fleece will look up from the numbers scrolling down the display of his impossibly-thin phone, their eyes will meet and both will silently nod, then turn their gaze to the field as Billy Hamilton dives onto the warning track and the crowd roars.

17 thoughts on “The Ultimate “Eye Test”

  1. More information available for assessing talent, the better. These appear as if they will be totally objective measurements and who in their right mind can argue with that? One step closer to the truth.

  2. There gets to a point where you reach information overload and you can be over-saturated with the amount of information flowing in. What is wonderful is that people can choose how much information they want to digest. This won’t put to rest the debates that go on between alleged “old-school” or “advanced metrics” thinking but it should lead to more information to be used when discussing the various merits and shortfalls of players. BTW, Billy Hamilton at 18.71 MPH makes me wonder if I could even crack 6 MPH these days.

    @RICHARD – Love the righting style in this piece and you presented this. An informative and entertaining read.

  3. This sounds very exciting. One of my hot buttons has always been when sabre oriented guys (and gals) start talking about “luck” in situations which seem to belie the numbers. This kind of added granularity is going to wring a bit more of the “luck” factor out the equations.

  4. As long as the information is available to everyone and for free. Doesnt seem fair in a competitive way if say the yankees were to have advanced tracking technology they used it but did not allow the visiting team access to the same technology.
    Im sure this will ratchet up fantasy league players more than anyone.

    • The overhead cost would be great but I see one of the greatest uses as a teaching tool if it can be brought down low enough in the minors for youngsters to see their activities and how they could be improved.

  5. Yes, this is great news. Hopefully, as OhioJim said, it will help everyone better understand the “WHY” of stats as opposed to just “Oh, he’s been lucky.”. I’ve always maintained that sometimes, players make their own luck, and hopefully having this deluge of VISUAL information will help to finally prove that notion.

    • Not that I want to start a whole thing… but wouldn’t video just as easily point out where luck is a factor? Where the bloop hits fell that 90% of 3b get to that contributes to a pitchers inflated ERA, stuff like that.

      First everybody has to be on the same page about what “luck” means in the first place… that good swings yield good results most of the time, but sometimes the best hit balls are going at someone, and sometimes not. I guess some of it depends on exactly how much power one feels a player has to make the ball go to a specific place in the first place.

      • Or maybe the velocity of the ball off the bat? More velocity less reaction time for the fielder, luckier hitter perhaps??

        • That’s it exactly. The same ball coming off a Bronson Arroyo offering is going to result in less velocity off the bat than one coming from Chapman–all other factors being the same.

          And cameras–no matter what their speed or superior hi-definintion qualites–only reveal one angle. And I think that’s where Doppler Radar comes in. Now you’re getting 3 dimensional data.

        • Yeah… thank you Charlotte… and then we could see how a singular hitter maintains fairly consistent velocity of the bat, but is in a slump, yet he hits it just as well when he’s “on.”

  6. Will it fix the strike zone? One of the most arbitrary falsely called items in sports. Why don’t refs stand behind backboards in basketball with no baskets and just call if the ball goes in or not?

  7. The technology is certainly there to make a laser controlled strike zone. If the ball interrupts the laser line it is a strike. If the laser is not interrupted it would be a ball. Pure science and removes the umpires that don’t even come close to the baseball definition of a strike zone. Of course it would cost big bucks but certainly well within the billion dollar industry that is major league baseball.

    • The art of catchers framing pitches would be out the window. I guess it’s a worthy sacrifice if it leads to more objective results, but I personally love watching catchers set themselves up and work to convince umps that balls were strikes.

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