Tradition Meets Innovation on the Baseball Diamond

May 27, 2014

There may be few things in America more steeped in tradition than baseball.

But despite its long roots, the sport is way ahead of the curve in one area: the use of data. New advancements in player tracking and statistical analysis foreshadow a data revolution in baseball that other industries may seek to follow. 

Consider that it's now possible to know precisely how fast a baserunner is traveling. We now know exactly how far a leftfielder ran to grab a flyball. Camera tracking technology is being put in place in every Major League Stadium, with a potential to produce more pieces of data per game than there are stars in the Milky Way. 

Baseball and numbers have long gone hand in hand. Fans have sat and debated the value of batting averages and strikeouts since the Civil War. In the last decade or so, statistical analysis moved from fans to the front office, with the so-called "Moneyball" philosophy of evaluating talent and constructing a roster.  

But the use of data moved into hyperdrive this season with the introduction of new technologies that track the movements of the ball and players on the field. 

This article on outlines the type of information collected. It ranges from determining the speed of a baserunner, to angle and speed of a batted ball. We can now know precisely quickly a catcher releases a ball when trying to throw out a baserunner. The data will even tell you whether a fielder took an optimal route to make a catch. 

By next year, all 30 stadiums in Major League Baseball will have the camera systems in place, each with the abilty to crank out an amazing seven terabytes of data per game. Soon, all Major League teams will need to employ the use of supercomputers to slice and dice this data. 

Of course, data is just data until it finds a purpose. In the case of baseball, this information will be used to help with player evaluations, taking much of the guesswork out of the scouting. Data is increasingly used to find players who may be undervalued by other teams, and can be used to determine everything from the proper defensive positioning to correct batting order. 

The baseball executives and managers who eschew data collection and analysis do so at their own peril. 

In recent years, we've seen new statistics that seek to capture a players' entire contribution in a single measurement, often presented with acronyms such as WAR and VORP. To some fans, these numbers represent the Holy Grail, but there has been pushback. Purists will argue that statistics will never be able to measure everything, and that deconstruction of the game into pure numbers strips away its beauty. 

"The problem for those of us who prefer dealing with reality and actual human beings is we can’t buy into the idea of using mathematical formulas instead of real players," wrote Hall of Fame sportswriter Murray Chass in 2010

To many, Chass is simply a Luddite, unable to adapt to a changing way of viewing the game. And indeed, the emphasis on data has changed the nature of the good-old fashioned barroom argument. If a player's on-field contribution can be distilled to a single number, no longer are fans debating whether Willie Mays was better than Mickey Mantle. Instead, fans are more likely to debate whether they believe in using statistics to evaluate players in the first place. 

But these are philosophical arguments that may never be settled, and it's important to know that even statistical measurements change as more data becomes available.

I prefer to view the statistical revolution from the perspective of how it can be applied elswhere. In particular, how can the tracking of peoples' movements be used to enhance other industries?

Could a shopping mall track the movements of customers to optimize store layouts and product placement? Could airlines track travelers to determine the most efficient way to board planes?

Rest assured, it's already happening. The collection of data about human behavior is now big business. But it's exciting to know that a 150-year-old game played on grass and dirt is taking a leadership role.