Analyst vs. Statcast, who do you trust?

Statcast is here and it’s neat and fun. There are lasers and lights and there is some usable data but unlike some people may want you to believe, it can’t replace a good game analyst.

As Rob Neyer wrote back in April, Statcast will need context. I also believe broadcasters will have to be smart in how they use it. Just like most viewers don’t want to listen to a game drenched in advanced metrics they also don’t want Statcast data over a game that doesn’€™t tell the whole story or takes the fun away from how we watch a game.

Case in point this piece from Mike Petriello on MLB.com. Comparing two catches, one by Andrew McCutchen and one by Jordan Schafer, the column tells us by using Statcast data we can accurately say which of these catches was better using route efficiency. Route efficiency declares the winner, which was McCutchen, case closed.

Not so fast. 

Mike says the catches "objectively, look close to identical".  I couldn’t disagree more, these plays are very different. Both videos are below. In the McCutchen play the ball is hit right at the centerfielder. The hardest ball to read in all of baseball in the outfield is the ball hit right at you. Judging speed, distance and carry on a hit baseball is most difficult on the straightaway play. Statcast offers us nothing in that regard.

On the Schafer play the ball is hit well to his left, which is an easier read for an outfielder. But the batter is also jammed on a fastball inside. He took a big swing, which can deceive an outfielder and the ball died as it made its way to the gap. That is why Schafer’€™s first step was back and why he ultimately took a curved route to the ball as the piece mentioned. Statcast doesn’t tell you that.

There are other factors in these plays that a good analyst can bring a viewer that the numbers just can’t. Things like one was a day game versus a night game, one ball was in the gap and the other a straightway play, one was a fastball in versus a fastball up and away, etc. In this example both batters are lefty but one pitcher is right-handed and one is left. That matters because of how the ball comes off the bat, it matters even more when discussing left-handed batter versus right-handed batter. There are so many factors that route efficiency just can’t give us.

I like some of what Statcast is doing and I believe data like exit velocity, running speed and homerun distances are numbers most viewers can easily digest. Route efficiency and launch angles don’t tell us much of anything and don’€™t offer much in the way of analysis we can use.

Route efficiency especially is incapable of settling any debate on who made the best catch.

Keep this is mind as well, baseball fans, like all sports fans, like to debate things like greatest defensive plays. Let’s not throw a number on them and try and ruin all the fun, especially numbers that don’t tell us the whole story.