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March 10, 2014

Baseball Therapy

The Baseball Questions We're About to Be Asking

by Russell A. Carleton


At the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Santa Claus (dressed cleverly as Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB Advanced Media) delivered a new toy for us all to share—or at least the promise of a new toy, in 2015 or so. Santa Bowman announced that MLBAM has begun a project to put revolutionary—dare I say Orwellian?—tracking technology in every major league ballpark. For now, I’ll name it the HINZO System (High Information Nerdy Zootropic Online System) after former Indians second baseman Tommy Hinzo. It needs a name, and I grew up in Cleveland in the 1980s. Take that, Bill Pecota!

HINZO is already active in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Queens and capable of tracking the movements of all the players on the field, including all nine fielders (and potentially all four baserunners) plus the ball. It will also provide information on swings, hangtime for balls, and all sorts of other fun numbers. No word yet on whether we’ll also get HOTDOGVENDORf/x out of this, but I’ll send them an e-mail and let you know.

In his speech revealing HINZO to the world, Bowman stated that while of course the system will provide evidence to answer questions that were unanswerable before, he hoped that the new data stream would start more debates than it ended. Already, there’s plenty of buzz about how this new data set will revolutionize fielding metrics, and it probably will. We will soon be talking more intelligently about positioning, reaction time, acceleration, sustained running speed, and everyone’s new favorite term, “route efficiency,” rather than just crude measures of “range.” For all we know, we’ve been doing it wrong all these years. Maybe it’s not a good idea to focus on finding the guy with sprinter speed to play center field when there are a bunch of other candidates who would do just as well with slightly slower wheels.

It’s easy to see how HINZO will provide answers to questions that we already have. It’s not as easy to see how it will spark entirely new questions. After all, how do you solve a problem like Maria when you’ve never met Maria? But in the way that no one expected PITCHf/x to yield the observation that we have completely misunderstood a gigantic part of a catcher’s job (and how much it can matter), there will be questions that the new MLBAM toy will generate. I promise you.

The roadblock right now is that those of us who analyze baseball, either as hobbyists or as professionals, have been working within the confines of the tools that are already out there. Retrosheet and PITCHf/x are wonderful data sources, but they have their limits. It’s easy to base all of your thinking around those limits and to have those walls become part of your thought process. In psychology, we call it functional fixedness. We not only have to come up with brilliant ideas about what the new toy can do, but we have to learn how to come up with brilliant ideas within the headspace of “We have a database that tracks the movement of everything on the field.” That takes time.

The other roadblock is the simple fact that while we now have the broad contours of what HINZO will provide, we don’t know exactly what the technical limitations will be. Will it be beset with errors? Will some parks have more reliable data than others? What exactly will be in those XML files (assuming we ever see them)? It seems like rank speculation to dream on something that isn’t really there.

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Related Content:  Mlbam,  Player Tracking

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