Inside IT
Interesting IT Features in Major League Baseball (MLB)

Professional baseball grand arena in the sunlight

The audience cheered fanatically when the scoreboard lit up with Aroldis Chapman’s three digit number, 100MPH. Fans in front of their TVs at home also clenched their fists seeing the outstanding number. It’s only been 17 years, however, since we started seeing the exact figures for velocity. In 1999 ball parks began to show velocity for each pitch on their scoreboards. These days, even super computers and big data are utilized to analyze player movements. Today, let’s take a look at some of the technology used in Major League Baseball (MLB), to see how developments in IT are related to the baseball industry.

The Emergence of the ‘Radar Gun’

Walter Johnson also known as “The Big Train” for his pitches that sounded like trains and Bob Feller, nicknamed “Rapid Robert,” were the best at throwing fastballs. Yet it wasn’t easy to find out exactly how fast their pitches actually were without radar guns[1].

Radar guns were introduced in 1954 for law enforcement to catch speeding vehicles, and started being used at baseball games in 1973. According to record, it was Danny Litwhiler who saw a police officer use a speed gun on a university campus and thought of using them for baseball games.

Litwhiler measured the difference in velocity between fastballs and changeups using a radar gun, and then suggested remodeling them for ball games to the MLB commissioner. Radar guns designed to measure the velocity of pitches were finally introduced to MLB coaches in 1975, and the Baltimore Orioles and LA Dodgers began to use them. All MLB ball parks were equipped with velocity measuring systems for their scoreboards in 1999, so this technology hasn’t actually been around that long.

800px-Dodger_Stadium

Dodger Stadium (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dodger_Stadium.jpg / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

The Era of PITCHfx

Seven years after the introduction of radar guns for scoreboards, baseball went through another revolution called PITCHf/x[2]. PITCHf/x is a pitch tracking system created by Sportvision, which provides various types of data including velocity, movement, and the release point of pitched baseballs as well as pitch location.

PITCHf/x transcended the “analogue times” in which pitches could only be evaluated by the naked eyes of scouts and numbers on radar guns. It digitized multiple factors such as the minor movements of pitchers and the trajectories of pitched balls, which had been impossible to measure before this technology came out.

With PITCHf/x, we can measure the vertical movement of Clayton Kershaw’s fastball or see how Felix Hernandez’s changeup breaks.

PITCHf/x opened its records to both the MLB teams and their fans, providing a tremendous amount of data. Multiple websites such as Fangraphs.com, brooksbaseball.net, baseballsavant.com, baseballheatmap.com are now providing data from PITCHf/x for free.

PITCHf/x has become closer than ever to MLB fans, thanks to the development of media related devices. Through the MLB At Bat application available on smartphones and tablet PCs or Gameday on MLB.com baseball fans can find out the pitching arsenal, the velocity of the pitch, and the pitch location in real time.

Even though we take this type of data for granted now, it has actually been less than a decade since it became available to the general public. MLB fans can now share this data, and baseball teams are deploying different analysis strategies using PITCHf/x data.

In the past, radar guns and PITCHf/x were used to get more information from pitchers. When we think about the history of radar guns, it was the naked eye that had been previously used to evaluate players. Once radar guns were introduced, baseball teams could finally figure out the velocity of fastballs and the velocity difference between fastballs and breaking balls, or even whether their pitchers were worn out.

Even PITCHf/x has its limits, however. For example, although Aroldis Chapman is known as one of the fastest pitchers in MLB, with an average velocity of 100mph, it’s Carter Capps with an average of 98.1mph that hitters feel is the fastest. Capps’ fastball is about 2mph slower than Chapman’s, yet hitters felt like Capps’ fastballs were about 101.7mph, 1mph faster than Chapman’s 100.8mph. Mechanical radar guns and PITCHf/x can never measure these differences.

Aroldis Chapman & Carter Capps

Aroldis Chapman (left) and Carter Capps (right) (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AChapman.jpg / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. & https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carter_Capps_pitching.JPG / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

The Introduction of Statcast

Up till now it has been nearly impossible to measure how hard and accurately the bat hits the ball, how fast the base runner was going when stealing a base, and how immediately the defense was made when the ball was hit. With Statcast[3], the world of baseball is going through another big change.

Statcast, which was introduced last season, is designed to measure and provide accurate data about hitters and their movements. It is a new tracking system technology for the MLB, and measures everything that happens on the field, unlike other devices that only focus on pitchers.

Statcast collects data from every player using radar equipment from TrackMan and a TRACAB optical camera developed by the graphic development company Chyronhego. TrackMan radar equipment was created using radar technology that was first created for military purposes, and provides twenty-seven different types of data from the moment the ball is pitched to the moment the hit ball touches the ground. For example, it collects data such as spin rate, pitchers’ extension, ball angles, perceived pitch velocity, as well as the velocity, angle, hang time, and distance the ball travels as soon as the ball comes off the bat, on top of the data that was already available from PITCHf/x.

Chyronhego’s camera tracks movements of base runners and defensive players. It takes twenty-five photos every second and analyzes them to see how fast the defensive players were and how immediately their decisions were made, as well as how quickly the base runner stepped on the base.

The introduction of Statcast makes your TV screen for baseball games look like a video game. With the data on pitching and batting from TrackMan combined with the camera and graphic techniques from Chyronhego put on top of the screen, viewers get the sensation of watching a type of video game.

Statcast will change the way we analyze and evaluate players and games for the rest of our lives. The velocity and launch angle information finally makes it possible to provide numeric values that show each hitter’s capability. Each team will work on creating meaningful changes using this data. Chyronhego’s video data will track every movement by the defensive players without any blind spots for further analysis.

Thanks to the introduction of Statcast, each team is now given over seven terabytes of data every game. The teams that are able to properly analyze such a large amount of data will have better chances of leading the baseball market in the future. Data that isn’t processed is basically just a bunch of numbers, so it’s important at this moment to find the means to process this large amount of data. The first team which decided to adapt to this new trend was the Houston Astros. They scouted an engineer from NASA, and formed an analysis team which includes physicists and statisticians.

We also hear that one of the teams bought a supercomputer from Cray Inc.[4], which built the first supercomputer (the rumor is that it was the Houston Astros, but Cray Inc. has denied it). This means even supercomputers are now being utilized for baseball to analyze data from Statcast.

Professional baseball players on the grand arena in night

Since 1973, when radar guns were first used in the games, baseball related technologies have advanced constantly, and forty years later, we now notice that we are in the age where supercomputers are needed to analyze games. MLB teams are already competing against top IT companies such as Google and Apple in order to hire the best in the field for analysis.

What will be the next big change for Major League Baseball? Using Virtual Reality (VR) screens for broadcasting? The day MLB At Bat starts using VR technology may be much closer than we think. Players may even start checking their physical conditions in real time with wearable devices specifically designed for them.

Written by Nam-woo Kim, bizball project


Further reading and references:

A short collection of Player Tracking and Ball Tracking videos has debuted by MLBAM. ChyronHego’s TRACAB Player Tracking and TrackMan’s Doppler Radar technologies are highlighted.
http://chyronhego.com/solutions/sports-tracking-analysis

Statcast primer: Baseball will never be the same
http://m.mlb.com/news/article/119234412/statcast-primer-baseball-will-never-be-the-same


[1] A radar speed gun (also radar gun and speed gun) is a device used to measure the speed of moving objects. It is used in law-enforcement to measure the speed of moving vehicles and is often used in professional spectator sport, for things such as the measurement of bowling speeds in cricket, speed of pitched baseballs, athletes and tennis serves. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radar_gun) [back to the article]
[2] PITCHf/x, created and maintained by Sportvision, is a system that tracks the speeds and trajectories of pitched baseballs. This system, which made its debut in the 2006 MLB playoffs, is installed in every MLB stadium. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PITCHf/x) [back to the article]
[3] Major League Baseball (MLB) Statcast is a high-speed, high-accuracy, automated tool developed to analyze player movements and athletic abilities. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MLB_Statcast) [back to the article]
[4] Cray Inc. is an American supercomputer manufacturer headquartered in Seattle, Washington. It also manufactures systems for data storage and analytics. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cray) [back to the article]

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