The robots mount an offensive on MLB

By Jason Wojciechowski on July 10, 2009 at 1:55 PM

This is sweet. Cameras tracking fielders, tracking the speed of balls hit and thrown, the routes taken around the bases ... as Alan Schwarz says, a lot of this was guesswork and human-operated stop-watches before. Now it'll be much more exact, and I'm excited about it.

A few notes about the story: Bob Bowman is quoted talking about the broadcasting applications of the technology. This strikes me as, for the near future anyway, a long shot. Pitch f/x is in every ball park and available to every broadcasting team, and yet pretty much all we get are little pitch-trackers every once in a while that show us whether a pitch hit or missed the strike zone. You still don't have broadcasters mentioning the average speed and break of Johnny X's slider tonight vs. on previous nights. You have to figure it's going to take a good long while before this information is put to actual good informative use in broadcasts. (For another example, see the route-tracking done in football. It's neat when it's done, but does it really tell us anything? "Ok, he's running 20 mph at this point of the run. Um ... and?")

There is, of course, disagreement within the player community over whether this is a good thing or not. Rather than focus on Scott Rolen, who made some noises about "baseball can't be encapsulated that way" (he's right, by the way -- as Schwarz points out, players will still have to deal with midges in Cleveland, sudden bursts of sun, and so on), let's applaud Vernon Davis for being excited for what the technology can bring: "It can be another tool to help you improve in areas of the game." Exactly! From a player's perspective, if you suspect that you are a below-average baserunner, you can see whether this is true or not and work on the things you can (particularly your routes around the bases -- your speed, there's only so much you can do, and there's a good chance you're already doing it). (And if you're a good baserunner, you'd like that reflected somewhere so that you can get compensated appropriately for it.)

Finally, there's the scout. On the one hand, the scout quoted in the story used the obnoxious phrase "stat rats". Come on, dude, those battles have been fought. It's over. We're all on the same side now. On the other, I'd like to give him a little reassurance as he worries about his job: this system is not only not yet in all major league ballparks, it's also a long way from being in every minor league, independent, college, high school, and international ballpark. Scouts will have a major role to play in the amateur realm for many many years to come. The program doesn't seem that expensive relative to major league revenues ($5 million to outfit 30 parks), but multiply that figure by thousands to cover all of the ballparks you might want to install this system in for amateur scouting purposes (and note that the schools and minor league teams themselves have almost zero incentives to do this themselves) and you have to figure that, even down 20-30 years down the line, this system is likely to only be used within organized professional baseball.