Baseball in the Big Data Era

2014 World Series. Game 7. Third inning. With one out and a man on first, Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer scorches a ball towards second. Three hundredths of a second before the ball touches the bat, San Francisco 2nd baseman, Joe Panik is already breaking towards where the ball will go, leading to a rally-preventing double play. In a game of inches, was it Panik’s superhuman instincts or Hosmer’s desperate dive for first that decided the outcome?

 

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Statistics and data are important in every sport, but it’s been a key part of baseball ever since the game was concieved. It’s gone from simple ratings like batting average and ERA to over 85 different individual statistics. The Oakland A’s carefully studied offensive stats and found the wrong ones were being used to rank players. So they chose On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage (see Moneyball) as the basis for fielding a cheap, competitive team.

 

And it’s not just new stats that are being dreamed up. It’s revolutionary ways to interpret and gather them, too. Since 2000, The Cleveland Indians have used a proprietary program, Diamond View, to analyze players. Diamond View was capable of deciphering large amounts of data very quickly, updating its statistical database on a daily basis, while also pointing out trends and other important information.

 

With new technology, computers at all 30 MLB stadiums can stitch together a panoramic image of the field. With a series of high-resolution optical cameras and a radar device developed from missile technology, teams can track everything happening on the diamond. Runner speeds, ball speeds, player’s movements (before, during and after plays), and more are all gathered and sent to an in-house analytics expert to be interpreted. This means that when teams study players, they can learn things such as whether a fielder’s speed or route efficiency is of greater value. Or the spin rate a ball needs to achieve in order for a pitcher to dominate hitters.

 

While technology seems to offer baseball new ways to feed its rabid desire for information, the result may not always be positive. One Major League club is even under an FBI investigation for hacking into another club’s system in order to steal proprietary statistics and scouting information.

 

Now back to that Game 7 play: Panik’s instincts lead to the ball getting to first base .02 seconds before Hosmer. But, if Hosmer had run through the base instead of sliding head first (Baseball 101), he would have beaten the throw, possibly changing the outcome of the game.

 

 

It’s clear that new technology and data analysis are both having a profound impact on teams and players. Will it change the way you watch the game?

 

For even more background on baseball and the data behind the game, visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, powered by HP.

 

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