Last Saturday in Boston, I was in the crowd for the public unveiling of MLBAM’s latest contribution to Big Data: a camera-and-radar-based system that tracks not only the baseball, but also every player on the field in great detail. I’m sure you’re familiar with PITCHf/x; well, that soon will be gone, replaced by this new system that doesn’t yet have a name (Jay Jaffe suggests OMGf/x, which is probably as good as anything else). Watching MLBAM’s presentation at the MIT-Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I wrote these words in my notebook in big letters:
NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME
Hyperbolic? I don’t know. Maybe. But watch this demo and you tell me …
If you need to go back and watch that again, this time with your whole screen, please do. Look at all the numbers in those little boxes. Now let your imagination run around in your brain pan for a minute or two. Now multiply your brain pan by hundreds or thousands of really smart people.
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.”
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.
It does seem unlikely that the players themselves will spend a lot of time looking at this new data when it’s available. Oh, it’s going to affect their lives. Jobs will be won and lost, some players paid more and some less, championships won and lost directly as a result of analysis that’s done or not done. But it won’t do much good to show a player that he’s slower than average when advancing from first to third; he’s probably already getting there as quickly as possible. You might flatter a player by telling him he averages a 96-percent efficiency while tracking down fly balls, but he’ll probably not be inspired to somehow hit 97 percent. These new numbers will be for coaches and front-office types, but only the particular analytical players will want to muddy their minds with them. Same as today.
For now, we’re content just to look at the pretty pictures. But there’s no end to the questions we can ask, and — theoretically, at least — no end to the questions we could answer. Of course, just because the data will be provided to every team doesn’t mean they’ll all be on an equal footing when it comes to leveraging it. Teams that are better equipped to handle and extract insights from large amounts of data will have an edge; expect to see the Internet continue to be picked clean of its most astute analysts. The more a team has already invested in its infrastructure and analytics department, though, the less it might want to see the data go public and jeopardize whatever advantage it’s already carved out.
Well, yes. But on the other hand, teams are only able to pick the Internet clean of its most astute analysts because they’re on the Internet in the first place. It’s probably more efficient to let the internet serve as a sort of farm system, than lock up a bunch of wanna-be analysts straight out of college. And without publicly available data, the farm system doesn’t function as efficiently. So I’ll guess that few teams will militate against making at least a fair portion of the data available.
Another question to consider: What will this new system mean for traditional scouting? Some teams have already shifted resources away from advance or pro scouting as advances in technology have made it possible to fulfill some of the functions of a scout without hitting the road. When someday this system is installed in every professional ballpark, will pro scouts be reassigned to amateur coverage? When the system is installed in every college ballpark, will they be reassigned to the indy leagues? Will they eventually run out of places where the system isn’t installed? And if so, can the human eye add anything that isn’t captured by a complete record of where everyone was at all times?
Yes, probably. There will always be some role for human evaluators, whether it’s assessing makeup or determining whether an efficient fielder positions himself or has some help from his coaching staff. Still, it’s hard not to imagine that that role won’t be reduced as baseball continues to embrace Big Data. In the final part of my diary series from Scout School, I wrote, “I’m not sure I’d encourage my grandson to go into scouting; it hasn’t happened yet, but in the long run, technology may make teams less reliant on organic eyes.” It’s going to take decades, but it’s hard not to see Saturday’s presentation as a step toward that eventual outcome. Since before “Beer or tacos?” we’ve been talking about the benefits of drawing upon both statistical and scouting information. But the distinction between the two is about to disappear.
A fair number of years ago, I was invited to speak to the Angels scouts. In my introductory remarks, I made the mistake of saying I could imagine a time when scouts would become obsolete. Although I qualified that by saying such a time was in the distant future, I could see at least a few of the scouts bristle. I regretted saying that, if only because they weren’t really willing to hear much of what I said afterward. For which I couldn’t really blame them.
Well, that time is now more imaginable than it was. Now I think that scouts will be largely extraneous before the planet becomes uninhabitable, which I wouldn’t have bet on when I offended those scouts. If nothing else, the profession will soon be forced to change in a fundamental way. Will there be any reason at all to send advance scouts on the road? I don’t know. Another set of eyes never hurts, I guess. And considering how much money’s in the game these days, the salary of even a great scout is barely a rounding error in a franchise’s budget. But while tradition is powerful in baseball, we might assume that the scouting profession is going to look quite a bit different in 10 years.
At the conference, your CTO [Joe Inzerillo] said the system would be available “for baseball operations and some fan use for 2014.” How much access are we talking about? When exactly? And what will we get in 2015?
First and foremost, we want accuracy. We’ve talked to baseball ops people, letting them know that the path we’re going down is to make it available to everybody, and we want that to be well understood by every team. It won’t be as granular as stats folks want initially, more like looking at the finished product rather than ingredients — though ops people will see that granular data right away. Plus with only three parks this year, we wanted to make sure there was a proper sharing arrangement between all the teams, so even if your team doesn’t play in a particular park this year, that team still has access to the data coming out of it. Maintaining on-field competitiveness and fairness was important. We want to get it out in somewhat varnished form to the masses. But the goal is to also get it out in unvarnished form to people who want it eventually. That provides value, too, so that [analysts] can think of things that we haven’t thought of. Then there’s broadcast TV; we think this will be very interesting to fans, to be able to see the path a fielder takes, the line to the ball.
Getting more specific, we expect to have unvarnished data on March 30 to send to baseball ops folks. For regular fans more like me who just want to see it and start debates with their neighbors, you’ll start to see those in April of this year. It seems odd to have a whole season for a trial, but that’s what we’re doing. The goal is to put the product out this year, then get to all 30 parks, then release the data in unvarnished form in 2015.
So there you go: We can guess that something interesting will be available in 2014, but of course we’ll need a few months’ worth of data for anything to be truly useful. When does the world really begin to change? I’m going to guess in the late summer or winter of 2015. And when that happens, if nothing else, every publicly available and proprietary defensive metric will immediately become obsolete. All your Defensive Runs Saved and your Ultimate Zone Ratings and your Runs Saved Above Average … they’re not going to matter any more. All those guys should get together and come up with one metric based on the new data – actually, Defensive Runs Saved is a pretty good name, or just Runs Saved – and publish that on all the websites and run that on the TV broadcasts. In the winter of 2015, we won’t have to guess any more. Not about that, anyway.