Lindbergh: Takeaways from the new MLBAM play-tracking system

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus on March 3, 2014:

If you were at the Sloan MIT Sports Analytics Conference or on Baseball Twitter this weekend, you’ve already seen this video, but you probably won’t mind watching it once more.


That’s a sneak peek at Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s new play-tracking system, a marriage between radar (via Trackman) and camera (via ChyronHego) technology that promises to measure every movement that takes place on a baseball field. The as-yet-unnamed system, which was announced by MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman and CTO Joe Inzerillo at Sloan on Saturday, will be functioning at three ballparks—Miller Park, Target Field, and Citi Field—for the full 2014 season, with the rest theoretically rolling out by Opening Day 2015.

It’s been almost five years since we first heard about the possibility of an all-seeing system installed in every major-league park. In July of 2009, Bowman said he “hoped to have meaningful data flowing…from all 30 stadiums in 2010,” so some skepticism is understandable. But there’s an important difference between the 2009 claims and the ones from this weekend: All we’d seen before Saturday were mockups and proofs of concept. The numbers in the Heyward video, though, are the real thing—and since that play took place in July, we know that this presentation was in the works for a while. “Those are actual calculated data points from the plays…not mock-up values,” says SABR member Cory Schwartz, VP of Stats at MLBAM. “That thing’s operational,” added Lando Calrissian.

This sort of information doesn’t stimulate every fan’s pleasure centers to the same degree. It’s possible to appreciate the difficulty and aesthetic appeal of Heyward’s catch without knowing all the numbers involved, and for some people who still suffer from painful flashbacks to math class, it might not be welcome news that baseball broadcasts are about to start looking like word problems. (“If Jason Heyward accelerates at 15.1 ft/s and reaches a top speed of 18.5 mph, how fast must his first step be for him to catch a ball with a hang time of 4.0 seconds at a distance of 83.2 feet?”)*

But you’re reading Baseball Prospectus, so you’re probably not one of those people. You’re probably one of the people for whom this is just about the best thing imaginable. So let’s discuss what we learned about the system, what we still don’t know, and what it all might mean for the future of baseball analysis. (Note: You can watch the full presentation and Q&A on YouTube, though you will have to pay or sign up for a free trial.)

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Originally published: March 4, 2014. Last Updated: March 4, 2014.