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MLBAM introduces new way to analyze every play

BOSTON -- Baseball is a game of inches, and those inches will be measured in a brand new way.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media on Saturday introduced a revolutionary plan for in-ballpark infrastructure designed to provide the first complete and reliable measurement of every play on the field and answer previously unanswerable analytics questions.

The announcement was made by MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman at the eighth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Hynes Convention Center near Fenway Park. MLBAM gave an overview of how it continues to implement various fan experience technologies, including iBeacon and widespread connectivity, to ensure MLB ballparks are crucibles of technology.

"This is going to be pretty exciting," Bowman said. "We think it's going to change the way we argue about the game, but we don't think it's going to settle any debates. We hope it starts more."

The goal is to revolutionize the way people evaluate baseball, by presenting for the first time the tools that connect all actions that happen on a field to determine how they work together. This new datastream will enable the industry to understand the whole play on the field -- batting, pitching, fielding and baserunning -- and enable new metrics for evaluation by clubs, scouts, players and fans.

For instance, on a brilliant, game-saving diving catch by an outfielder, this new system will let us understand what created that outcome. Was it the quickness of his first step, his acceleration? Was it his initial positioning? What if the pitcher had thrown a different pitch? Everything will be connected for the first time, providing a tool for answers to questions like this and more.

There will be something for everyone, far beyond what has been available in the past. Miller Park in Milwaukee, Target Field in Minnesota and Citi Field in New York will be operational for this tracking in 2014. The plan is to start rolling out the rest this season so that all 30 ballparks are operational by 2015 Opening Day.

Bowman began his presentation with a nod to baseball's heritage, calling MLBAM "a temporary custodian" of the game and noting that this will be developed with a look backward and ahead. He said this technology will be available "for baseball operations and some fan use for 2014," adding that it "has to be an accurate rendering of what happened." General managers and baseball operations staff at each club, along with the Commissioner's Office, will closely scrutinize it this year for accuracy.

"The goal over time, and hopefully certainly by this season, is to make these plays available in real time and start the debates," Bowman said. "But we have to make sure baseball operations sees it and they agree that these are accurate renderings. But this year, fans will be able to see these data and these videos."

Claudio Silva, PhD and professor of computer science and engineering at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, said the biggest challenge was to ensure that the data received reflects actual game play. He said anyone who watches baseball, from club to player to fan, will see a new baseball world that is "completely unexpected."

"One of the things we had to do to be certain that was the case was to design a whole validation scheme, where we recorded our own video, and designed algorithms that would independently generate some of the metrics to be compared to the data that we were getting out of the vendors," Silva said. "It's really very complex algorithms that are going into making this thing work, into the validation process, and actually eventually into all the analysis that people are going to be doing on the metrics.

"One of the goals of what we wanted to achieve was to virtually recreate the game using the geometric data. This actually turns out not to be straightforward. So let's say you want to compute a player's speed, you want to compute a ball's speed. We could actually take the 3D data and match it to a verbal description of the game. This was a very exciting finding for us. You can imagine, it's kind of like a two-way street. You can use the experts' opinions to then generate information. You can even imagine other forms of storytelling about a season of a team."

He called this "a completely new data stream" and added, "To be one of the first few people to have the luxury of looking at the new datastream was a true privilege. I believe that this data is so rich, there are so many interesting things we can do with it, we're going to be able to comb through this data and find layers and layers of features that we never could see before." analyst Jim Duquette, who spent 20 years in front offices, including four years as an MLB general manager, said this will remove much of the subjectivity from a club's own player analysis.

"When you look at how scouting has been done in the past, there's a lot of subjectivity to the evaluation," he said. "Some guys I have found have varied, from scout to scout, in terms of their opinion of each player. There is a lot of quality defensive statistics out there, but they're not completely accurate. A lot of them are dependent on somebody charting, whether it's UZR or DIPS or Defensive Runs Saved, and they can only go so far. Some players . . . range to their left better, some range better to their right, some come in on ground balls better than others, some have better first-step quickness.

"The exciting thing about this new technology is, you can start to take the subjectivity that is given to you by the scout and blend it with raw data now, and come up with a truer picture of evaluating a player. So when you take that data and compare it to others in the game, you can really find out if that position player is the best at his position. You can measure potential free agents, you can measure current free agents."

How exactly will clubs use this new data?

"Just on the field, with the coaching staff and the manager -- when you start to look at positioning, and you start to see the exit velocity of the ball coming off the bat, and is he late or is he ahead of a lot of pitches, and then you move your infielders and outfielders accordingly," Duquette said. "Along with the spray charts that are already used. A ball goes into the gap and an outfielder picks the ball up, sometimes with his bare hand, and he throws it into the infielder, and the infielder gets rid of the ball as quickly as he can, and makes a strong, accurate throw to home plate to nail a runner. You can evaluate and measure each of those points in the relay.

"There's a speed component to the game from an offensive side, too. You can start to see how quickly they get down the baseline as they make contact, and as they hit a ground ball, or as they hit a double into the gap. If they didn't score, we always say that the game is a matter of inches, well if he gets thrown out or he is safe at home, you can actually go back and measure it from an evaluation tool, and say, did he get a big enough lead, was he running hard enough, did he take the right angle, you now have the ability to measure that, which we've never been able to do."

Five-time All-Star Steve Sax experienced the new data and said it will be a game-changer for players.

"Players today have really been able to take advantage of technology, and they've been able to see video before, during and after the game," he said. "But this really does take it to a whole new level. They're going to be able to measure distances, they're going to be able to see it from different angles, and they're going to be able to take their knowledge of what they're doing, instantaneously, to a different stratosphere.

"This technology is outstanding to hitters, but it can also be a great help for baserunners. Not only for the players, but for the coaches as well. This tool can be utilized in gauging distances where it could never have been done before."

Sax watched a video from a game last season in which Adron Chambers of the Cardinals extended his lead at first base off Brewers closer Jim Henderson. Chambers began with what would be considered a normal lead for someone his size. When the pitcher became set, Chambers extended that lead. In the next video clip that Sax watched, though, he saw the tracking feature showing real-time leadoff distance.

"Here (he is) stretching out the lead from seven to eight feet, and this is generally the normal lead for a player about six feet tall," Sax said. "But watch him extend that to about 12 and then 13 feet. Well, you know player and coach can go back and say, 'Hey, this was a darn good lead, this is going to set a good path for me to possibly steal a base or go from first to third or first to home. It's a great tool.

"Really, the future of baseball and able to quantify the great things about this game is here now. For players and coaches alike, to be able to judge distances and speeds and ranges and how fast people get there is just an amazing tool that they're going to be able to use going forward. I just wish they had this when I played."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.