Track to the future: The game's new metrics
Four regular-season plays featuring precise data illustrate value of technology in game
As MLBAM began to roll out the first player tracking metrics from the 2014 season, it was with the promise that the fun was just beginning. On Tuesday, a little more fun was unveiled.
Four new examples of the technology are now available, from four games at Citi Field early this season -- two between the Mets and Reds, and two between the Mets and Cardinals. And with the added information, fans (and clubs) can begin to see some of the true value in all of these data.
One clip is interesting, but the intrigue increases exponentially with more info.
Here's the thing: This stuff is already cool. But it's going to be so much cooler when it's in more context. We know that Anthony Recker's "pop time" of 0.60 seconds is faster than Travis d'Arnaud's 0.70.
But just wait until there are dozens, even hundreds of pop times to compare it to. As more of this information rolls out, you'll be able to know whether 0.60 seconds is quick, extremely quick or maybe even historic.
As the system rolls into every ballpark and the information becomes visible on your screen of choice in real time, imagine the richness of the viewing experience. It will give live games new layers of excitement and knowledge, better talking points and comparisons or contrasts between pitches and innings. Explanations won't involve quite so much guesswork. Bottom line, the future looks brilliant. We all benefit, and it's coming soon to a ballpark near you, where this material is sure to enhance the in-venue presentation on scoreboards, on air and in handheld devices.
It will be fun for fans, and of course valuable for front offices.
"This is quite simply going to add immeasurably to the amount of information that's available," said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. "To the extent that things become more granular, then we make fewer inferences as to what actually is going on. The critical thing is to be able to use the data in such a way that ultimately it can be used either in terms of player evaluation or even player education or instruction."
It's a bit like PITCHf/x. When that tool debuted, there were some things that we knew how to use right away -- everybody knows that a 98-mph fastball is serious heat and an 89-mph fastball needs to be located awfully well. But we didn't necessarily know what the individual break distances meant until we had more context.
Now that there are things to compare these numbers to, they have meaning. And for many fans, more information just means more fun when it comes to baseball.
"[Statistics in baseball] is one of the things that actually drives the relationship and makes it so meaningful to people," Alderson said. "Statistics are just inherently part of baseball, and the more, the better for a lot of people."
As MLBAM began this next round with the tracking metrics, one player we wanted to get an early look at was Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, who may be the fastest human being in Major League Baseball history. He's the subject of the first play, but the key is that we have two pairs of plays -- two sets of information, where one play provides context for the other.
Hamilton vs. Recker
The gaudy number here is Hamilton's top speed, 18.71 mph, and yet it does Hamilton no justice. That's because he was running on a wet track, slowing him down quite a bit.
Still, it projects to a mile in 3 minutes and 12 seconds, and 100 meters in 11.96 seconds. And that's not Hamilton's full sprint, given that he had only 78 feet from when he started his run (he had about a 12-foot lead) until he was at second base.
The end result was that Recker caught him. That's in part due to a "pop" time, or release time, of 0.60 seconds. Getting the throw off at 78.84 mph was nice, as was that perfect location on the throw.
Recker was even working at one small disadvantage: Kyle Farnsworth's pitch wasn't a blazing heater. The ball came in at about 87 mph, docking Recker a small fraction of a second that he would have had on a faster pitch. He had the benefit of knowing that Hamilton, in the game as a pinch-runner, was likely in to run, but that's been of little help to plenty of other catchers.
"You just hope that you get a decent pitch to handle and that the pitcher gives you a decent time, because all that stuff factors into it," Recker said.
Hamilton credits Recker for a "great throw," but he also notes that he didn't fully get to show off his greatest tool.
"It was a wet night," Hamilton said. "It was situation where a lot of guys wouldn't go. I still feel like if I get a good jump, no matter how it is, I can go. ... I didn't get a good jump and was hoping he'd make a bad throw. He ended up making a great throw, and I was out."
Phillips vs. d'Arnaud
Brandon Phillips takes virtually the same lead as Hamilton, a little under 12 1/2 feet. He accelerates more quickly (perhaps due to the dry track), though he reaches a slower top speed -- an indication, perhaps, that Hamilton goes farther before he starts to decelerate into the base.
Jon Niese, though, gets a little more on his fastball than Farnsworth, topping 91 mph. That gives d'Arnaud, a fine defender, a little extra time to work with. However, d'Arnaud's pop time is a full one-tenth of a second slower than Recker's, a significant difference. His throw also has less velocity, coming in about 4 mph slower.
It adds up to another fairly close play, one that might have been a bit less close if d'Arnaud's throw had been as perfectly located as Recker's.
That's the whole thing here, though -- we're dealing with tiny fractions of seconds and minuscule distances. It's not a second or two that determines out or safe. It's one-tenth of a second.
Mets turn two
It becomes clear as we delve into the data just how many pieces have to come together to make what seems like a common play. With Jenrry Mejia on the hill, Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy turn a pretty double play on a grounder by Jon Jay, but as the breakdown shows, a great many elements combine to make that double play happen.
Jay, not known as much for his speed as some of the players discussed above, gets after it. He reaches 18.65 mph up the baseline, nearly as fast as Hamilton. That's apples and oranges, of course, since Jay keeps running through the base, while Hamilton has to slide, but it's still somewhat illustrative.
The Mets get Jay, though, because Tejada makes a very quick first step (0.15 seconds), ranges 16 1/2 feet to the ball and releases in less than a second despite being on the ground. Murphy releases in .55 second and gets some nice mustard on the ball (nearly 67 mph) despite being in the air.
Jay drives in two
This play, in contrast with the double play, reveals some of the ways baseball can be an unjust game. After all, Jay hits the ball to a similar location with less velocity, and yet instead of a double play, it's a single up the middle.
The ball comes off of Jay's bat at 94 mph, rather than 102. But the shortstop, in this case Omar Quintanilla, is playing about 3 1/2 feet farther off the bag than Tejada on the double-play ball. And, what do you know, he misses the ball by 3 feet, 7.59 inches.
That's a bit curious because it's against Dillon Gee, who doesn't throw as hard as Mejia -- you'd think the shortstop might be playing more toward the opposite field against the harder thrower, but it's the opposite.
In each case, the double play is in order. In each case, it's relatively early in the game. In each case, the score is close. But one shortstop is playing farther to his right than the other, and it makes a difference.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.