Photo: The Associated Press
“Changing the game” is the motto of Sportvision, a company that takes pictures of sporting events.In baseball, at least, Sportvision is doing exactly that.
Sportvision’s primary business is selling “enhancements for sports television.” The images it captures are used to create neat graphical overlays shown on TV.
But the data Sportvision collects is doing a lot more than that. The company’s baseball analytics tools, PITCHf/x, HITf/x, and FIELDf/x, capture the precise flight of the ball and movement of the players at every stage of play, giving teams, analysts, and fans far more information about the game than would have been possible just a few years ago.
In an industry that generates over $6 billion a year, that’s serious business.
For a baseball fan, it’s also incredibly cool.
PITCHf/x gets most of its information from two cameras positioned high in the air along the first and third base lines.
Each camera takes roughly 30 pictures between the time the pitcher releases the ball and the time it crosses the plate.
A human operator monitors a third camera out in centre field, which he uses to manually verify the strike zone based on the batter's stance before every pitch.
PITCHf/x uses the 60 pictures it takes to generate precise data about the flight of the ball from shortly after its release to the point where it crosses home plate.
For every pitch thrown, PITCHf/x reports the position of the ball when the system begins tracking it, its initial velocity in all three dimensions, and its acceleration (again in all three dimensions). With those data, you can calculate just about anything you want to know about a pitch: it's location and speed at any moment, as well as its 'break' -- the movement imparted by the spin of the ball.
Sportvision and MLBAM give out all of this data for the more than half a million pitches thrown every season to anyone who wants it.
The PITCHf/x software needs to generate that data quickly; just a few seconds after a pitch is thrown, Sportvision's first customers -- tv networks -- need the results.
PITCHf/x is the engine behind the pitch graphics you see when you watch a baseball game on television. The most basic ones, like ESPN's K-Zone, put a graphic of the strike zone and show the spot where the pitch crossed the plate, so fans can see how well the pitcher located the ball, and if the umpire got the call right. (This data is also used by the league to evaluate its umpires' performance.)
Increasingly, networks are adding fancier graphics to show how pitches break. Tracing the arc of vicious curve balls that fall of the table, and flat ones that get smashed into the seats.
Sportvision doesn't have a separate system for tracking batted balls. Instead, HITf/x is simply a software add-on to the PITCHf/x system.
The PITCHf/x cameras take around 10 pictures of a hit ball before it leaves their field of vision. For balls hit into the outfield, they miss most of the action, but it's enough to get a good picture of the trajectory of the ball and how hard it is hit. Combined with outside data about where the ball ends up, HITf/x provides a more detailed, and more objective means of characterising batted balls than the traditional classifications of line drives, pop-up, fly balls, and grounders.
FIELDf/x uses two additional cameras mounted high up in the outfield.
These cameras track the movement of all of the players on the field while the ball is in play. The system records data about the position and movement of each fielder each time the ball is struck, adding up to over 600,000 data points per game.
This provides a vastly clearer picture of how players perform defensively than has ever been available before.
Every year, Major League Baseball teams dish out over $2.5 billion in player salaries.
Figuring out the best way to spend that money is the primary job of each team's front office. Teams estimate what a player will be worth in the future primarily by looking at what he has done in the past.
Outcomes can be misleading, however. Pitchers can 'get away' with terrible pitches when batters take them for strikes. Great pitches are sometimes hit for home runs. Broken-bat bloopers drop in for base hits, while scorching line drives become outs.
It's often said that these things 'even out', and over a long enough period, they necessarily must. But they don't even out fast enough. Complicated stats already exist to determine if players are benefit ting from particularly good (or bad) luck, because this says a lot about how they can be expected to perform in the future.
Sportvision data will advance these efforts by light years.
For almost as long as there has been baseball, there have been baseball stats.
But historically, the only stat evaluating defence was the error, which is very close to worthless. In recent years, defensive stats have been rapidly catching up, but they are still miles behind stats for hitting and pitching.
Because it is difficult to evaluate, defence has generally been undervalued on the market. Over the last few years, teams like the Seattle Mariners have capitalised on this, improving their performance on the cheap.
FIELDf/x will completely revolutionise the evaluation of defence. This is great news for baseball fans, but perhaps not such great news for the Seattle Mariners.
Teams sink a lot of resources into 'scouting' -- watching baseball games to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of opposing players (as well as their own).
Traditionally, scouting was all done in person. Human scouts remain an extremely important part of the game, but one can only have trained scouts in so many places at once. In recent years, video analysis has become and increasingly important second layer; since video recordings are available for every MLB game, as well as many minor league games, this analysis vastly increases the reach of teams' scouting operations.
Sportvision data provides a third layer with equal reach, and an insane amount of detail. Want to know how well Alex Rodriguez handles 92+ mph fastballs on the inner third of the plate in two-strike counts? There's a stat for that.
The possibilities are mind boggling.
PITCHf/x has been live in every major league stadium since the beginning of the 2008 season. For now, only AT&T Park in San Francisco has FIELDf/x, but the system will be installed in more stadiums over the course of the year, and is scheduled to be universal by opening day 2011.
Some teams are sufficiently impressed that they've paid up to have PITCHf/x installed in some of their minor league parks; the system is live in 11 of them thus far.
Once all 30 major league parks have FIELDf/x installed, and once all of this has been around for a few years so that there is a large body of data to work with, people will be able to analyse baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Sportvision will track the precise flight of the ball from the pitcher to the plate, from the bat into the field, and the movement of all of the players on the field, reducing everything that happens in a game to a spreadsheet full of data.
Some fans find that sort of thing depressing. We think it's awesome.
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