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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

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Eddie Bajek

I have this prediction that all statistics we have grown up with and the numbers derived from them will be obsolete in ten years. Who cares how many home runs a guy hits when you know the statistics of the exit velocity and angle of all of his contact? That seems like a lot more powerful information from a projection standpoint. Even more powerful than pitch by pitch data for pitchers.

Also, I'm inherently curious about the ability to foul balls off with two strikes. It seems like statistically savvy teams (Boston, Oakland) are the best at doing this, and maybe something can show up in the data that can look for clues as to what leads to that skill, if it is a skill.

Tons of data coming our way. Assuming it's free or cheap, this could be a lot of fun.

Mar 10, 2014 04:54 AM
rating: 2
 
Kyle Matte

We can also garner information on the impact of caffeine on baseball players and how much of an effect the crash has as the game progresses.

Lets say Brett Lawrie drinks two Red Bulls before the game, and then only water or gatorade from that point on. How does his first inning reacton time differ from his eighth inning reaction time? Is the decline in reaction time linear or exponential? When would be the optimal inning for Brett to have another Red Bull? THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS THAT NEED ANSWERING

Mar 10, 2014 05:29 AM
rating: 4
 
DaveKavanagh
(776)

Excellent ideas, Russell, although the last part of question 5 has already been answered: Derek Zoolander showed how it's possible to learn to turn left and what a big difference it can make.

Mar 10, 2014 06:10 AM
rating: 5
 
jfranco77

Do park effects include things like reaction time? Does an outfielder get a better jump in his home park?

Do players really have better reaction times when a pitcher on the mound "works fast" or is that just speculation?

Mar 10, 2014 09:24 AM
rating: 4
 
Brad Clark

I like the first question a lot. Kind of akin to basketball players saying they "know their spots" on their home court.

Mar 11, 2014 09:33 AM
rating: 0
 
Bryan Cole

Important to note that, at least for now, "HINZO" only has the resolution to measure center-of-mass movements and not limbs, which might make the fidgeting measurement difficult.

Also, in re: fielders tipping pitches -- I think it's clear this is happening (or how else did Heyward and Reed Johnson start moving within the first five-hundreths of a second after the ball was hit?). But is it useful to know that (say) the center fielder cheats a little bit before the pitch? I know MLB batters have crazy good eyesight, but I feel like picking up subtle movements in fielders ~300 feet away, then trying to pick the ball up out of the pitcher's hand, then confirming the pitch type, then making a swing/don't-swing decision ... that seems like some Matrix-bullet-time-level slowing the game down, doesn't it?

Mar 10, 2014 09:30 AM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

If Heyward were cheating he would've moved to his left--toward RF--given that Kimbrel throw nearly 100 mph, and a righty was at the plate, no?

Mar 10, 2014 23:14 PM
rating: 1
 
ttt

Personally, I can't wait for TOOTBLANf/x.

Mar 10, 2014 09:33 AM
rating: 8
 
CrashJones

Wow. I love it!

Mar 10, 2014 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

Frickn cool. I hope they add stuff like bat speed/ball exit speed, etc.

Mar 10, 2014 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
eliyahu

On the home/road splits, I'd be keen to see how different fields accentuate specific skill sets. jfranco above talked about reaction time; I'd like to go a step further, i.e. what parks are better at reaction time vs others? What fields play faster in the outfield and the infield? Would the infield at a faster-playing park necessitate better reaction time among infielders?

Mar 10, 2014 13:43 PM
rating: 2
 
Brad Clark

GROUNDSKEEPERf/x? I'm all in.

Mar 11, 2014 09:35 AM
rating: 3
 
Brad Clark

Great article, this new tool seems fantastic. As for availability, I'm assuming that the fact that you know about it is a good sign. My prediction: for a mere $45 extra per year this will work 30% of the time as an add-on to MLB.tv (not available on connected devices, of course).

Mar 11, 2014 09:30 AM
rating: 0
 
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