Baseball technology is about to rock our worlds

Soon, with the expansion of technology-based analytics, hits and plays will be measured, broken down, and digested in a way that will change how we evaluate baseball players.

Did Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Khris Davis really need to dive for this ball?

Gregory Bull / AP

There was a time not too long ago when we would watch a defensive player race into the gap and make a spectacular, diving catch and be in awe of his sheer athleticism.

Technology, however, is fleeter of foot than those fielders and fans are about to discover one of baseball’s secrets. For every great diving catch, there is a bucket of fielders who might have made the identical play standing up, more efficiently and less dramatically.

Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB Advanced Media (BAM), announced last week at the Boston Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that BAM would be capturing new data capable of measuring much more accurately how baseball defenders make -- or fail while attempting to make -- the plays we see in the highlights we consume and love.

Imagine Bryce Harper sprinting toward the left-field wall, on a deep fly ball stroked by David Wright. Upon his arrival at the warning track, Bryce makes a sharp left turn after realizing Wright had hit the ball with some tailspin back towards the left-center field gap.

Harper’s adjustment forces a bit of a stumble, but his raw, athletic ability allows him to stay on his feet, make the grab and crash face first into the fence. An hour later, fans are at a bar, high-fiving, while watching Jay Onrait announce the play as “The One” on Fox Sports Live.  

So what if another outfielder attempted to make that same play?

What if the St. Louis Cardinals’ Peter Bourjos, for example, jogged effortlessly to the precise spot where the ball would land and didn’t need to make contact with the wall?

Sorry, Peter. No FSL for you.

The ball was the same, the result not nearly as dramatic.

Our goose bumps, induced by perceived extraordinary plays, may soon be replaced with skepticism and questions. Did he take a good route to that ball? How many fielders would have made that play and been in a better position to make a stronger throw, thereby turning a bang-bang safe call at first base turn into an out?

BAM’s technology will measure information valuable on both sides of the ball, and on the bases. Among the metrics on the offensive side will be “batted ball speed,” or exit velocity, “launch angle,” which is essentially the degree the ball leaves the bat, the distance that the ball traveled, and its “hang time,” how long it stayed in the air.

You think broadcasters and fans had homework in figuring out what makes a player great before, forget about it. You may have thought you had player evaluation licked with OPS, but now you’ll be able to analyze Giancarlo Stanton based on what angle the ball leaves his bat.

As for that outfielder you think is phenomenally gifted based on that diving play he made to end the game, you’ll now have some data to back you up -- or make you feel foolish. BAM is tracking “first step,” which is basically how quickly a defensive player reacts to a batted ball, top speed, and acceleration. Soon, the baseball articles we read may start to feel like Car and Driver.

We already have UZR and DRS, defensive stats put in place to better explain the range and competence of fielders. But they are based on math and can be cumbersome for the average fan to navigate.

The measurements proposed by BAM are far more intuitive and simpler to digest the first time you see them. It’s almost like high-quality photographs to accompany the text.

What we’ll get to consume as fans, and what data is proprietary to the clubs isn’t yet clear.

Eventually, all this information and much more will be digestible by the general public. At that point, yet another paradigm shift will occur and a deeper divide between old and new school will be in place.

Speaking of old school, I described the new technology to former MLB All-Star and 15-year veteran, Derek Lee. I asked him if he’d like to have the information regarding exit velocity, etc. while he was playing. He told me “That’s cool, but probably not.”

Players and fans alike fall into buckets. Those who like the things the way they are and those that love the excitement of change, which Rob Neyer touched on today.

I love trying to predict outcomes utilizing as much information as I can get my hands on. Anything that gives me an edge in understanding who’s on the field and why they’re productive is of paramount importance to me.

2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell suggested that some of the metrics might be valuable as a defender. “Angle off bat could be interesting as it relates to making adjustments based on fly balls or ground balls,” he said.

With instant replay, advanced metrics and BAM’s technology, one thing is for certain; the game is constantly evolving and we all have a choice. We can get on the spaceship and appreciate the speed at which we’re moving or relish in the comfort of the horse and carriage. I’ll admit the latter was a more leisurely way to travel.

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