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Tech me out to the ballgame: Baseball’s new tracking system affects fans, managers

By Frank Seravalli Philadelphia Daily News (MCT) • Dec 15, 2015 at 2:38 PM

BOSTON — Baseball’s first in-ballpark advance to change the way the game was consumed by fans was made here 80 years ago, when Fenway Park installed lights to indicate balls and strikes in the Green Monster scoreboard in 1934.

The lights, green to depict balls and red to display strikes, were considered high technology at the time.

Yankee Stadium later added the game’s first electronic scoreboard in 1950. The Astrodome dazzled fans with the first video scoreboard in 1965. The SkyDome installed the game’s first operable retractable roof in 1989, to shield patrons from Toronto’s chilly April temperatures and snow.

Fast forward to 2014.

This year, as you stride toward a gate at Citizens Bank Park, an awaiting Apple iBeacon will communicate with your iPhone and your tickets will automatically pop up on the screen — ready to be scanned for entry into the stadium.

Frequent travelers wouldn’t think of heading to the airport without a boarding pass on their mobile phone. Why would baseball fans not do the same?

Major League Baseball says only five percent of fans used mobile ticketing last year, but they estimate that number growing to 50 percent within two years.

Using iBeacon micro-location technology, when a fan arrives at a concession stand, a rewards card could pop up on his or her screen. It could keep track of purchases, if scanned at the register, offering one free hot dog after the purchase of 10 during a season.

Or, for a fan strolling through Ashburn Alley, historic information about Hall of Famer “Big” Ed Delahanty might show up when approaching the Phillies’ Wall of Fame.

The possibilities are endless with the endeavor by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the digital arm of the sport, to increase connectivity with fans. The iBeacon technology will be available at 20 parks on Opening Day and all 29 American ballyards by the end of the season.

Yet, iBeacons are just the tip of baseball’s technology iceberg.

Last Saturday at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, MLBAM announced its revolutionary new radar tracking system, which will forever alter the way baseball is watched by fans, coached by managers and analyzed by front offices.

Using cameras and radar placed strategically around the ballpark to stitch together thousands of images per second in real time, this new technology will be able to virtually recreate the game using geometric data.

In layman’s terms: Baseball is building off its PITCHf/x tracking system that you’ve seen on television for years to track speed, break, curve of pitches and expanding it to the entire field. The system will debut in three cities this year — New York’s Citi Field, Milwaukee’s Miller Park and Minnesota’s Target Field — before expanding to all 30 next season.

“Baseball has always been a game of inches,” said Joe Inzerillo, MLBAM chief technology officer. “Now we’ll be able to tell you exactly how many inches.”

To illustrate his point during the conference, Inzerillo cued up a game-saving catch by Atlanta’s Jason Heyward against the Mets from July 22, 2013.

With MLB’s new system, we are able to look at the play from an entirely new, data-filled point of view. On that play: Justin Turner had a batted ball speed of 88.3 mph; the launch angle of the ball was 24.1 degrees; the distance was 314 feet.

Using a complicated set of algorithms, the system can pretty accurately predict where that ball will land in the outfield, aside from the adjustment of wind. We can then tell that Heyward made his first step from centerfield an amazing 0.02 seconds after the ball left Turner’s bat. The direct path to the ball was 80.9 feet. Heyward’s actual path was 83.2 feet, meaning he ran a route of 97 percent efficiency — and he even adjusted from a first step that was six degrees off-line of the ball.

At first glance, that data may not seem all that impressive or helpful. What does it mean?

“The exciting thing about this new technology is you can start to take the subjectivity that is given to you by a scout and blend it with raw data now, and come up with a truer picture of evaluating a player,” former Mets general manager Jim Duquette said. “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, current free agents.”

The cameras and radar can also calculate how far in feet a player is out on a throw, speed of a runner at any point on the basepaths, distance of a lead off a base, seconds it takes to transition from catch to throw, spin rate on pitches and effective velocity.

You can see why front-office personnel around MLB are giddy. It can be used for evaluating players, to judge instincts and brain connectivity as well as physical attributes. It can be used to teach players on defensive routes to balls and routes when rounding bases.

Most important, the information from this $300 million project is expected to come in real time and be available on broadcast replays. It will change the way the game is watched by the average consumer, or analyzed by reporters.

We will soon be able to measure if Domonic Brown’s route to balls in the outfield is improving or stagnant. We will soon be able to determine whether Jimmy Rollins’ reaction speed at shortstop is waning with age or he still has plenty left to give. We will soon be able to point out efficiencies, inefficiencies or unusual talent with help we’ve never had before.

Was the gaffe by Phillies outfield prospect Steve Susdorf in Detroit last year simply a case of nerves, or was there a fundamental flaw in his route to the ball?

“We want to create debate, not silence it. What if his reaction time was slower?” Inzerillo asked. “We are putting puzzle pieces together. The holy grail of analytics has always been figuring out the defense and running side of the game. We can now observe those phenomenons directly. We’re only scratching the surface.”

And since MLBAM is interested in interaction with fans on mobile devices at games, you may even be able to access this data in your seat.

MLBAM’s tracking system does not yet have the capability to conclusively determine whether a runner beat a throw, since it computes images based on center of body mass and not extremities. The limiting factor is in pixels and processing power, which both increase by the day.

The system, installed with 10 miles worth of cabling, samples the average ball flight path 20,000 times per second, records player position 30 times per second and syncs with video to create a whopping seven terabytes (7,000 gigabytes) of data for every game. There will be kinks. Without help from a manual operator, the system can solve only 80 or 90 percent of plays with “occlusion,” or when two players cross paths on the field.

For now, MLBAM wants to work out those snags exclusively in New York, Milwaukee and Minneapolis this season. The commissioner’s office, with input from those front offices, will monitor the data before deciding how much to release publicly.

“We’re stewards of the game,” Inzerillo said. “When you fundamentally change what the players are doing, I feel like that’s cheating. We can do this without having to take a timeout to change the second baseman’s battery pack.”

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