Technology has changed the way people consume baseball, and how teams evaluate players and construct rosters. Tuesday marked the beginning of yet another significant advance in that field.
Major League Baseball officially debuted Statcast, its newfangled, high-tech system that tracks and measures everything that happens on a field. Ever wonder much spin Gio Gonzalez gets on his curveball? In a recent game against the Phillies, he tossed one at 2,881.55 revolutions per minute. How much ground did Mookie Betts cover to rob Bryce Harper of that homer in Fenway Park? He raced 103.25 feet and hit a max speed of 17.85 mph. How about Yunel Escobar’s walkoff homer on Tuesday night? He smashed that out at 101.5 mph with a launch angle of 23.7 degrees and reached a max height of 69.9 feet. That is all thanks to Statcast.
MLB used the technology during broadcasts of last year’s all-star game and playoffs, but Tuesday was the first time it was used during a regular season game, although not available to D.C. area viewers. MLB’s Advanced Media wing spearheaded the effort and installed the Statcast equipment for use in three stadiums last season for testing: Citi Field in New York, Target Field in Minnesota and Miller Park in Milwaukee. Over the offseason, they completed the installation of the equipment in all 30 stadiums, an expensive undertaking.
At Nationals Park, there are three spots in the stands with the cameras. A radar device, developed for MLB from missile tracking technology by a European company, is behind home plate in between the 213 and 214 sections. Two more clusters of three high-tech cameras each, above sections 206 and 209, also look down onto the field and see it stereoscopically, essentially in three-dimensions like human eyes would.
“Radar is great because it can see very fast,” said Joseph Inzerillo, executive vice president and chief technology officer at MLB Advanced Media, during a tour of the new technology on Tuesday for Washington beat reporters. “It takes 2,000 samples a second of the ball coming into the plate. And it also isn’t affected by optical things like the sun or shadows or rain. It sees right through all of that.”
Computers at Nationals Park, enhanced by some on the MLB Network truck and on a data cloud, stitch together a panoramic image of the field and everything happening on it. MLB worked with New York University professor of computer science, engineering and mathematics Claudio Silva to ensure the formulas they were using to calculate everything were accurate and correctly adjusted. And what has resulted is a treasure trove of information on pitching, hitting and, especially, defense. It the biggest step in advanced statistics since Pitchf/x, the system that measures pitches, velocity, location, movement and more.
The Statcast system measures route efficiency, essentially how much a player veered from a straight line from their position to the ball. It can also measure the projected distance of a home run ball, if it hadn’t hit anything on the way down in the stands. It can also measure the speed of a defender’s first step. To rob Harper’s homer, Betts took his first step in 0.059 seconds from Harper’s bat making contact with the ball. Joe Panik had a negative reaction on his highlight-reel double play in the World Series, meaning he moved before contact was even made, anticipating where the ball was headed based on the pitch and location. To the naked eye, the quality of those plays may be obvious — they were all clearly great — but Statcast looks to quantify it and perhaps reveal what is overlooked.
For now, Statcast is used during MLB Network games. MLB officials said they hoped the system could soon be made available to other national networks and then the regional networks. By next year, they hope to have a searchable leaderboard for fans to sort through the hard-hit ball of the year or all-time, or the best run route of the season. But in order to that, a big base of data is needed. A home run ball coming off Harper’s bat at 109.5 mph against the Phillies means nothing if it isn’t in context.
“It’s so much information that we’re really trying to make sure we know how to tell people what it means so it’s not just a number but a meaningful number,” Inzerillo said.
“One of our biggest challenges as a network is putting it in context,” added David Patterson, senior vice president of production at MLB Network. “Like route efficiency. We know that was a great route but compared to what? A guy’s speed, too. We know Bryce Harper is fast. 21 miles an hour: is that fast? We just have to put things in context.”
Statcast is only the beginning. Now that the technology is in place, figuring out how to use the data is key. It could be a useful tool for front offices in evaluating players. All the data collected is available to all teams this season. Each play that happens in a game is documented and each team can analyze it how they want.
“Teams are definitely looking at it,” Inzerillo said. “Using? It’s still pretty new. But looking at it and trying to understand the data and seeing what they can get out of the data. A lot of the times, it depends on what the team will do. The coaching side of it is a little bit different than say trade deadline-type things. I think what you’re going to see is, as the cannon of data stacks and stacks and stacks, you’re going to see and more uses of it.”
The Nationals have their own in-house defensive advanced analytics but never had anything like Statcast to measure defense. They have looked into the Statcast data and its potential uses.
“It doesn’t necessarily measure other parts of the game but it’s a good scouting tool,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s a good tool for the folks watching tonight that they can see real-time why a play was made or not. Who had a good beat on it or not. It measures everything on the baseball field that you can possibly imagine. It’s a great tool for evaluation. It’s a great tool for scouting. It’s a great tool for looking at players. The intangibles, nothing can measure that. It’d be interesting to see everybody’s reaction to it because it’s something new and a different way of looking at the game than most people are used to looking at this.”