Major League Baseball: Sportvision and the Future of Sabermetrics

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Major League Baseball: Sportvision and the Future of Sabermetrics
courtesy of www.sportvision.com

During the 1970s and 1980s, Bill James revolutionized baseball through his collection of Baseball Abstracts.  His unique perspective of evaluating players and discovering their true impact on their teams' chances of winning was the beginning of a movement that would shake the very foundation of the sport.      

Since the last Baseball Abstract was published in 1988, baseball sabermetrics have only continued to become increasingly popular and crucial to the ways franchises construct their teams.  They even developed a presence in pop culture through the release of the Michael Lewis’ best-selling novel, and the later Hollywood film, Moneyball.       

As sabermetrics have proved through the success of teams like the Oakland A’s to be effective in terms of evaluating the value of players, the precise statistics used have continued to evolve.  Over the last ten years, sabermetrics have moved from the days of Bill James’ Runs Created, Win Shares and Range factor statistics to even more complex formulas with more specific aims.

For example, the original Runs Created statistic developed James has now been superseded by Weighted Runs Created plus (wRC+), a new equation which compares a player,s On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) against the league average and then accounts for ballpark factors and run-scoring environments.  

While sabermetrics have continued to become increasingly refined and specific, all of these detailed new statistics still only evaluate results.  These advanced statistics such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) and Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA), as effective as they are, are results-based.  They fail to answer the question of why these results occurred. 

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Introduce Sportvision, a company whose technologically advanced cameras have been placed in Major League Baseball stadiums since 2006.  Most fans probably already know Sportvision from the K-Zone cameras featured prominently by TBS and Fox this postseason.  While Sportvision cameras might be enhancing the fan experience, their real value lies in the data they collect for teams to analyze. 

Sportvision has developed services called Pitch F/X and Hit F/X, which track and record data from every single Major League Baseball game.  For example, Pitch F/X tracks the velocity, horizontal movement, vertical movement and location of each pitch thrown.  This data allows teams to analyze which pitch was most effective for a given pitcher and why that pitch was effective.  A team could also analyze the value of velocity compared to location or movement. 

Hit F/X takes a similar approach in analyzing batters.  Instead of focusing on the results of each at bat, Hit F/X tracks the contact point, speed of the ball off the bat, elevation angle and field direction of each batted ball.     

The new technology developed by Sportvision has opened the door for an endless number of new ways to evaluate the effectiveness of players, as well as help teams develop their own players. Sportvision itself has recognized the value of their data in the creation of SCOUTrax, which uses the data from Pitch F/X and Hit F/X, as well as a third creation of theirs, Command F/X, to create heat maps and charts to better display the data to fans.   

For example, teams will be able to see the value in an added half inch of movement to a pitcher’s fastball compared to extra velocity.  Or the team will be able to see that although a particular hitter might not have had the best statistical year, he actually hit the ball particularly hard a high percentage of the time and should have fared better. 

As the Sportvision data continues to be analyzed further, look for the development of future sabermetrics that are completely process-driven.  Websites such as www.fangraphs.com have already started developing these types of statistics using Pitch F/X, such as Pitch Type Linear Weights, which attempts to determine a pitcher’s run expectancy per a given type of pitch. 

Yet the data from Sportvision is still in its youthful stages and needs to be further refined.  For example cameras in certain stadiums may read pitcher’s velocity or movement slightly differently, thus altering the way the data matches up.  This issue might only create minor variances, but it is essential that it be fixed in the near future so a totally uniform data set can be collected.  

Despite these minor deficiencies, Sportvision still holds the potential to greatly affect the way coaches, player personnel directors and baseball operations professionals develop players as their careers progress.  As sabermetrics continue to evolve and become more refined, expect the data collected from Pitch F/X and Hit F/X to be a central focus and have a profound impact on the game.   

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