The FIELDf/x camera-based tracking system developed by sports broadcast technology pioneer Sportvision changes the field for baseball stat-heads, allowing quantitative evaluation of defence, the game’s most elusive skill to track. Its implications reach from the dugout to your home, changing the way managers, scouts, and fans watch the game.
“We’ve sort of reached the holy grail of baseball metrics,” said Greg Moore, Director of Baseball Products for Sportvision. “Defensive metrics can actually be realised.”
The potential for these new metrics comes from the object-recognition capabilities of FIELDf/x’s software. Cameras placed all around the stadium record every play while also tracking the exact movements of all the players on the field. The software then collects movement data and spews out valuable information such as a fielder’s reaction time, his path the ball, the baserunner’s speed, or the arc of a fly ball. All of it can be used by scouts, managers, and announcers to get more accurate comparisons between players.
Sportvision set up the cameras and software in AT&T Park in San Francisco last season and ran it all year in a “testing capacity,” explained Moore. They are now in the final stages of getting the product ready to be deployed league-wide.
The plan is to be collecting information throughout as much of the league as possible by Opening Day 2011, but no dates have been finalised, according to Moore. “We’re actively engaging the league to determine how, when, and where we can roll this out to each of the stadiums,” he said.
On that day, baseball’s most mathematically apt stat-buffs will hold rowdy parties, rejoicing through the night, celebrating the demolition of the final barrier between them and statistical perfection. Or maybe they’ll just gape at the stat feed. Those that will have access to it anyway — FIELDf/x won’t be available to the public yet.
While sabermetrics gave baseball more in-depth statistical analysis, practitioners of the complex art could never nail down defence. Many have tried, developing stats like range factor that used existing concrete defensive statistics to help quantify a defender’s aptitude.
But even these metrics were limited – there was no data available involving a player’s actual movement, just the frequency of their involvement in getting outs. Now, Sportvision has stepped up to the plate – again.
Sportvision is no rookie in professional sports – you can’t make it through most TV broadcasts of the NHL, MLB, NFL, and NASCAR without seeing its products. The creators of the annoying blue streak that trailed pucks during the 1997 NHL season have scored across the sports world since that disappointment. The bright yellow line on your TV that signifies a first down on the NFL’s gridiron, the pointers identifying drivers in their sponsor-laden cars on a NASCAR oval, and the virtual advertising that looms ominously on the glass behind a hockey net are all thanks to Sportvision.
They also developed the PITCHf/x system that baseball using for several years now to gauge the effectiveness of umpires when calling balls and strikes.
But few of the company’s innovations could impact a sport the way FIELDf/x may. “It’s a very disruptive product,” said Moore. “This is much more than just a stepping stone. I really envision it making the game better.”
Sean Forman, founder of one of the largest baseball statistics databases in existence, Baseball Reference, also respects the value of the new technology. Not only that, he respects the value of maths – he has a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics. “defence is one of the most difficult things in baseball to measure. It’s going to be a huge jump forward in terms of what we know about player defensive ability,” he said.
No longer tethered to traditional defensive tools, managers will be able to use the new data to optimise player positioning on the field. Scouts will be able to quantitatively analyse an opposing shortstop’s defensive weaknesses. Front offices will be able to value free agents more accurately. “Perhaps players peak defensively much younger than they do as hitters,” Forman speculated. “Older players would start to be valued less because their defensive skills went off, so older players will get signed for less.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Sabermetrics have already affected voters’ decision-making for the big annual awards, such as Most Valuable Player. Data provided by FIELDf/x may eventually tug voters even further away from Paleolithic-era defensive metrics like errors. Sabermetrics guru Tom Tango noted that “[FIELDf/x] should impact Gold Glove voting, but it’ll take a few years for that to happen.”
Fans also have something to look forward to. Moore confirmed that Sportvision will “potentially reach out to the consumer market,” like its wildly successful predecessor PITCHf/x, which has been featured on MLB broadcasts since its 2006 debut. PITCHf/x found another home in apps as well, earning starring roles in MLB Gameday on the web and MLB At Bat on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.
Technological change has pestered baseball purists since its inception. The new Yankee Stadium boasts 1,100 HDTVs, backed by $15 million of Cisco’s wiring, which traditionalists argue distract fans from the brilliance happening on the field itself. Instant replay crept into MLB beneath a wave of resentment. It’s attackers say it takes more of the human factor out of baseball, protracting an already lengthy game.
But the potential fan benefits from FIELDf/x seem unlimited. What could be next? A live game feed of numbered dots sliding around on your computer screen as you sneak a peek at GameCast in your cubicle? Real-time statistical analysis beamed straight to your iPhone or iPad, telling you that the centre fielder you’re screaming at for dogging it wasn’t going to reach the ball anyway even if he dove for it?
Maybe one day. FIELDf/x may not slide into the corner of your TV screen or feature in a game-update app any time soon, but while we watch baseball, baseball will be watching FIELDf/x.
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