As baseball’s statistical revolution marches on, the last refuge for the baseball aesthete has been the sport’s less quantifiable skills: outfielders’ arm strength, base-running efficiency and other you-won’t-find-that-in-the-box-score esoterica. But debates over the quickest center fielder or the rangiest shortstop are about to graduate from argument to algorithm.
A new camera and software system in its final testing phases will record the exact speed and location of the ball and every player on the field, allowing the most digitized of sports to be overrun anew by hundreds of innovative statistics that will rate players more accurately, almost certainly affect their compensation and perhaps alter how the game itself is played.
… “It can be a big deal,” the Cleveland Indians’ general manager, Mark Shapiro, said. “We’ve gotten so much data for offense, but defensive objective analysis has been the most challenging area to get any meaningful handle on. This is information that’s not available anywhere. When you create that much data you almost have to change the structure of the front office to make sense of it.”
Yet another example of how structured, widely available data changes decision-making; just as better, more available, more transparent and “promotable” data about daily life impacts the decisions people make (i.e. energy consumption, investment strategies and personal financial management just to start), and structured data about hitting and pitching changed baseball management, better data about fielding and baserunning will continue the evolution of data-driven decision-making in baseball. How will better data continue to challenge baseball’s axioms and “traditional wisdom”? How will better data, ranking and comparisons change player compensation and team structure strategies?
Bob Bowman, the subsidiary’s chief executive, said he hoped to have meaningful data flowing by the end of this season from the San Francisco installation, and from all 30 stadiums in 2010. The data could be made available to the public on a subscription basis, Bowman said, although what data is released and in what form could be affected by clubs’ competitive concerns.
Bowman said he preferred the data be more open so that statistically minded fans and academics could brainstorm ways to wring useful information from what would become petabytes of raw data. Software and artificial-intelligence algorithms must still be developed to turn simple time-stamped x-y-z coordinates into batted-ball speeds, throwing distances and comparative tools to make the data come alive.
“It will give fans other things to argue about and discuss, and highlight details of the sport that you hear about a lot but don’t know too much about,” Bowman said. “It has broadcasting applications for graphics, things like that, and also has real-world applications to teams who have to evaluate players.”
I would love to see all the data be open to the public: could a baseball team effectively outsource analysis to hardcore stats geeks?
“I would say it would be threatening to more scouts than not — here come the stat rats,” said the Houston Astros’ Paul Ricciarini, now in his 35th year of scouting. “It’s the same diamond and same distances between the bases, but the way the game changes from generation to generation, you have to adapt with it. I’m confident that I can be accurate in judging players. But history has taught us that that’s not always the case.”
Scouts aren’t fortune-tellers; predicting how players develop over time is notoriously hard and inaccurate. But data doesn’t solve that problem: past performance does not guarantee future results. The scouts that survive and thrive will be the ones that can blend their eye for the game with a mind for statistics.
Just like the most businesspeople :)