Monday, July 27, 2009

Digitization and the Game of Baseball

Sportsvision digital imaging of NASCAR

It was bound to happen--the digitization of everything. I'm not even a person anymore--I'm the creation of a major corporation that wants you to buy my hotties, buy my politics, buy my opinions, buy my soul.

Pardon me for talking like a robot.

Not really, but you get the idea. Sportsvision is a company that is applying digital statistics to everything under the sun. This makes sense for NASCAR--the car and the driver are perfectly represented as statistics and the car itself is easy to analyze. But baseball? Hmmm...

Runs, hits, errors - these are some of the classic measures of a pro baseball player's potential and value. But is there a way to compute what separates an average player from a great one? [...]

Baseball has always been a game of statistics and stats provide valuable information:

"Knowing what kind of hitter, what a hitter's tendencies are is all stuff that we study before a game, before a series," said San Francisco Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand.

It's easy to measure how many times a batter strikes out or how fast a pitcher throws. Judging a fielder's performance is much harder to quantify - but that may be changing.

The Giants' AT&T Park in San Francisco is the testing ground for a revolutionary data gathering system for Major League Baseball - combining cameras on top of the light grid and computer software designed by physicist Marv White.

The technology has been around for several years. It began with tracking pitches now that technology is being expanded to track everything that happens on the field for the entire game where the players are, where the ball is - more information than the league has ever had.

White demonstrates how the computer, almost like a video game, maps out the movements of the players during a typical baseball play. The batter hits a high fly ball and the system tracks the exact trajectory. The left fielder tries to catch the ball but misses it, then picks it up and throws it to the shortstop who throws it home, but too late. Two players score. It all unfolds on the screen, just as it is happening on the field.

"The player motion gives us information that, in the past, a statistician could only get with a stopwatch," said white, chief technology officer of Sportvision. "Now, we can see exactly what happened in a play."

As long as baseball is a game umpired by humans, all of the digitization in the world won't change the nature of the game, which is controlled deception in a clear field of play. A pitcher tries to deceive the hitter; a hitter tries to mask his intent as to where or how he is going to hit the ball; a runner tries to deceive the defense; a manager plays his players in a way to deceive his opponent and denies everyone a chance to second-guess his actions by using statistics to support his decision-making process. This technology may make it easier to scout teams. What it won't do is tell you how to read the mind of a skilled player, who adapts and learns faster than any technology. The adjustments a single pitcher can make over the course of a few innings are staggering.

Sportsvision is the company that put that infamous "blurry dot" on hockey pucks, something that I never cared for, since I know how to follow the field of play in the sport of hockey:

Sportvision got its start in 1996, when engineers from News Corp. developed a hockey puck that appeared to glow onscreen—an effect created by embedding an infrared emitter in the puck—to make NHL broadcasts easier to follow. Hockey purists protested (“We joke that some of our key scientists aren’t welcome in Canada,” says Sportvision CEO Hank Adams), but the company made its bones with other innovations shortly after being spun off as an independent company two years later. Its first offering, the first-down marker, became the best known; before long, watching a game without the glowing line began to seem unthinkable.

Today, Sportvision controls about two thirds of the live sports-broadcasting-enhancement industry, working on 3,000 broadcasts a year, including NBA games, Nascar races and golf tournaments. By collecting huge amounts of data on the field of play and the participants, it has shifted the viewer’s focus from the sort of perspective you could see in the stadium with a pair of binoculars to the field-level views of the players. Instead of stats you could track on the back of an envelope, it offers fans information previously beyond the reach of entire coaching staffs.

Consider it technology-creep; it's here to stay. It will change the game of baseball, perhaps. Or, as I suspect, the game will become much better at deceiving even the technology.

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