Baseball Finds the Holy Grail for Measuring Defense (Again)

Courtesy MLB Advanced Media
A new technology promises to solve baseball’s very old problem: evaluating defensive play.

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference over the weekend in Boston, Major League Baseball Advanced Media announced the rollout of a new system for measuring everything from a fielder’s acceleration toward the ball to the efficiency of his route to the distance he covers. The yet-to-be-named system was tested at Citi Field in New York last season and will be installed there and at Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minnesota this year.
“This is going to be pretty exciting,” MLB Advanced Media Chief Executive Officer Bob Bowman said at Sloan. “We think it’s going to change the way we argue about the game, but we don’t think it’s going to settle any debates. We hope it starts more.” The league operates Advanced Media (or BAM, for short) as the unified technology wing of its 30 teams. The early returns on the new player-tracking system, seen below in the breakdown of a spectacular catch by Jason Heyward of the Atlanta Braves, are pretty thrilling (for people who get their thrills from baseball stats).

It’s hard to imagine needing more data than the seven terabytes per game this system spits out. Then again, it was hard to imagine three years ago that the league would already be upgrading its efforts in player tracking.

In 2011, I wrote at length about Fieldf/x, a player tracking system being installed in ballparks by BAM that promised to solve the very old problem of evaluating defense by tracking and logging virtually every player movement. That system, made by the Chicago-based Sportvision, provides two terabytes of data per game. “It’s almost overwhelming how much data we’re creating,” Ryan Zander, the company’s manager of baseball products, said at the time.
At first glance, the new system would appear to kill Fieldf/x, which cost six figures per stadium to install, before it really gets started. The announcement seems to have caught Sportvision by surprise. Zander sent the following statement by e-mail:

“Sportvision and MLBAM have been in partnership since 2007 and have together created the PITCHf/x tracking system that has revolutionized baseball analytics. FIELDf/x, our player tracking system, is production ready and installed in five MLB parks. Contrary to some published reports, we have been assured by MLBAM that no decision on player tracking partners has been made. We look forward to any competitive process around player tracking partner selection as we are very confident in our baseball tracking technologies.”

BAM’s new player-tracking system combines a binocular camera system made by ChyronHego and radar from Trackman, a company best known for its work in golf. BAM integrates data from both with traditional video feed to analyze plays. “We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket because it’s important that this is right,” BAM spokesman Matthew Gould says of the competing technologies.

Both systems will be in operation this season. Gould wouldn’t comment on the fate of Fieldf/x, but For Bowman to tout a new system at Sloan says a lot about where BAM thinks the future lies.