Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by Joe Tevelowitz, Columnist -

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be one of the sports data denizens in attendance at the 8th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  A great event overall, providing me an opportunity to ask Phil Jackson a question (via tweet and through Jackie MacMullan), watch Malcolm Gladwell grill Adam Silver on unfair tax breaks for team owners, and grab a sweet pic with Lakers owner and Future Mrs. Tevelowitz, Jeannie Buss.  Despite a large basketball contingent grabbing many of the highlights and prime panel spots of the weekend, baseball –- the sport that first embraced analytics and its activists – made its own impact, even though part of that impact was Red Sox owner John Henry putting me to sleep with the most boring answers and blandest personality since….sorry, fell asleep again thinking about John Henry.

The biggest baseball news to come from the conference was MLB Advanced Media (or “BAM” as those cool stat guys like to be called) unveiling their new ballpark infrastructure that will improve upon the pitch f/x design introduced in 2006 with radar and panorama technology that will track not just the ball, but the players on the mound, at bat and in the field. BAM CEO Bob Bowman announced the new innovations, to be unveiled in three stadiums this year and potentially all 30 next year, as something that would “change the way we argue about the game” by analyzing everything from the route a fielder takes on a pop fly to the top speed and route efficiency of a base-runner coming to the plate.

The data (which includes radar tracking of the ball to determine release velocity, effective velocity, spin rate and pitcher extension on the pitch and batted ball speed, launched angle, distance and hang time when coming off the back) is looking to virtually recreate the game with geometric data.  However, one of the goals of the program is also to break that data down and present it in a way that will make sense to the average fan, the players who could study their own performances on a play-by-play basis like never before, and the front office staffs who now will have more information in deciding who to sign and for how much.

While the goal of the project and the theme of the weekend deals with unlocking and understanding analytics in new and interesting ways, there was also considerable push back from people around the game.  In BAM’s presentation, they played a video clip of former Mets GM Jim Duquette praising the software, but being careful to point out that it would be the blend of this raw data, mixed with the subjectivity of scouting, that would eventually improve the measurement of player performance and positioning.  Coaches of various sports throughout the weekend talked about the new things to be learned from analytics, but also talked about how numbers don’t tell you everything about the game. Indeed, while these numbers will no doubt be interesting to fans and players alike, processing the information they contain won’t likely change the way Derek Jeter approaches a grounder.  Rather, the derivative data provided would likely influence video games through motion capture in real time gameplay long before it is really implemented into coaches instructions or players habits.

The roughly 7 terabytes of media accumulated PER GAME will eventually lead to base runners taking different routes and fielders adjusting their positioning.  However, the real value will probably be in having more information for fans to argue about the relative merits of players based on their overall baseball performance – not just their hitting or defensive accolades based on reputation as opposed to performance.  Members of the media who make decisions for Hall of Fame and MVP candidacy will have access to all of this same information. However, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually use the added info to give the complete baseball player (::cough::MikeTrout::cough::) accolades over the defensively deficient slugger who exceeds in the old school stats that are much easier to comprehend.

Whether or not the general public or media comes to fully embrace these technological developments in sports or the information provided, having a guy who has a sense of these numbers and their value, like assistant GM Scott Servais, is important for any team, especially one trying to turn money spent into championships won.  Having that person overseeing player development is even more important, as the new frontier of data will likely have a greater influence on the minor leagues and prospects than current stars and veterans on both the field and the bench who are more inclined to stick with trusting their eyes, their gut and their experience.  There’s no way to accurately predict just how big of an impact the new technologies being introduced into America’s Pastime will have, but there definitely will be a lot more data for the debates.

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