Big Data in Baseball

Abstract 

As Major League Baseball starts to implement player tracking it will become a big data league. Once this system is implemented, next year, alot of things will change in baseball. Teams will be able to better evaluate defensive talent, but at what cost? This shift will cost the fan’s excitement as teams limit hits by putting better defences on the field.

Big Data in Baseball

Like many others before it, this year Major League Baseball is venturing into the realm of big data. This year MLB is piloting a new player tracking system that it plans to implement in all 30 of its stadiums next year. This system combines radar and two cameras to track player movements throughout the game. This is being implemented for one reason, defense. Up until now scouts, GMs, and mangers alike have struggled to put quantifiable numbers on defense. All of this will change with the launch of Statcast. This will lead to teams better being able to evaluate defenses, which will in turn lead them to the age-old question of which is more important, offense or defense? Ever since the Billy Beane introduced the world to sabermetrics, what “Bill James defined…as ‘the search for objective knowledge about baseball’”(Grabiner), the choice has been an easy one, choose what you can evaluate over what you cannot. For that reason offenses exploded in the late-90’s, until pitchers were able to catch up. Over the last few years as advances in pitching metrics have been made, run totals have started to decrease every year. This is what we can expect from the implementation of Statcast and long awaited definitive defensive statistics. This is very good for baseball, but not so much for the everyday fan. Big data in baseball is bad for fans as it will take offensive excitement away from the sport.

chart(Langager)

 

Statcast, as one might imagine, takes a lot data. It is said that this new Statcast system will record over 7 terabytes of data each game. That’s 7-14 times as much as on an average laptop hard drive. Teams will not just have to sort through data for one game however, for with the longest regular season in sports of 162 games, MLB teams will end up sifting through over 1000 terabytes of data when the season ends. This, according to one High-Ranking Official with an American League club whom I contacted, will be the largest challenge that MLB clubs will have to overcome as a result of this new Statcat system. Advances in defensive metrics will be invaluable to Major League franchises as they seek to better evaluate defensive talent, and put the best team on the field. The same American League Official told me that, “Everything from a players arm strength to escalation to the efficiency of his path to ball should be able to be quantified and compared to his peers.   This information will help reinforce and refine scouting projections of a player’s skill set and future ability.” This means that better defensive players will be more highly valued than they were in the past. This higher value in defense will inevitably come at the expense of hitting because many of these more highly valued defenders will not have the bats that their predecessors possessed. This replacement of defense for offence has started to happen already, with a prime example being Darwin Barney. Darwin is not extraordinary at the plate, he averaged only .208 in 141 games in 2013 (mlb.com). However his glove is fantastic, he won a gold glove in 2012 at second base while only committing 2 errors on nearly 750 chances. That means he converted 99.7% of all balls batted to him into outs. His glove is the reason he is slated to make over $2 million in 2014 (baseball-reference). As these defensive stats become more available and teams can better scout defensive talent we will see more and more players like Darwin-players who can barely bat their weight, but are the best defensive talent in the league. This better evaluation is just one of the steps in the leagues gradual change from defense to offense.

This shift is proving the old sports adage “defense wins championships” once again. We are seeing this truth very evident even in today’s MLB. The Kansas City Royals World Series run has been no accident, and their theory no secret. And that theory? Defense and base running. When looking at season statistics someone would never guess that the Royals, a team that is in the middle of the pack in almost all traditional statistics, could have made the post-season, let alone the World Series. This is where Statcast will be useful. Right now, there are not many definitive statistics available to clubs, and nearly none available to the public, that can quantify the Royals success. To do that we must go deeper. The Royals defensive strength lies in the speed and defensive ability of their outfield. So in order to exploit this, their pitchers let opposing batters hit the ball to the outfield. The Royals are 4th in the league at inducing fly outs as opposed to ground outs, letting the club take full advantage of outfield’s speed and range. The Royals left fielder, Alex Gordon, ranked 2nd among MLB outfielders in the Zone Runs statistic which measures, “The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made” (baseball-reference). This has allowed the Royals to limit the number of hits to the outfield and consequently the number of runs. This use of defense has allowed the Royals to reach the World Series despite being in the bottom half of the American League in runs scored (mlb.com). As more data becomes available, more teams will use this approach to attempt to win championships this way, resulting in less runs throughout the league.

Runs are what makes baseball exciting. Fans go to games to see their home team score runs. Ask a group of fans whether they would rather see an 8-2, or a 4-2 win and they will respond nearly unanimously with the former. Homeruns get fans on their feet the way a ground out never will. Walk off hits and homeruns are shown everyday on ESPN, but never game winning routine grounders. There is a simple reason for this, hitting a baseball is hard. For example, if I get a 40% on a test, people would say that I failed miserably. However, if a baseball player hits .400 for even a couple of weeks, the whole nation starts watching him. There is not that excitement factor on defense. There are some notable exceptions of course: a pitcher throwing a perfect game, Willie May’s over the shoulder catch, Derick Jeter diving into the stand, but these moment are few and far between. Not only are they very rare, but they are over shadowed by offensive excitement: whether it be Babe Ruth’s called shot, Bobby Thomson’s shot heard around the world, or Kirk Gibson’s 1988 world series homerun. All of these moment have been fixed in baseball lore, but it is the offensive ones that people continue to remember.

(The Shot)

(1988 WS)

Statcast is going to stunt offense production and give fans less to cheer about. These advances are going to hold teams to fewer runs and put a premium on defense and pitching. However, in the long run players will adapt and hitters will concentrate on their defensive skill set, while retaining the strength they have while standing in the box. This means that although fans might have to wait a little longer to get up and cheer, they will still get the excitement of a hard hit fly ball soaring over the outfield wall. This decline will be similar to the one at the end of the steroid age, because as fewer real power hitters are in the league, there will be fewer runs, and consequently less excitement. Fans will get used to this, but at the same time we will never again experience the exhilaration of watching Bonds and McGwire racing to hit 70 homeruns.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, R.J. “With Big Data, Moneyball Will Be on Steroids” Newsweek.com. 7/24/14. Web. 10/20/14

Baseball-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC, 2014. Web. 10/22/2014

Grabiner, David. “The Sabermetric Manifesto” seanlahman.com. Web. 10/23/2014

Langager, Chad. “What is the average number of runs scored in an MLB game?” sportingcharts.com. 10/16/13. Web. 10/20/14

 MLB.com/stats. MLB Advanced Media, 2014. Web. 10/22/2014

“The Shot Heard ‘Round The World.” YouTube. YouTube, 7 Apr. 2007. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.”1988 WS Game 1: Kirk Gibson’s

Dramatic Game-winning Home Run.”YouTube. YouTube, 20 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

 

 

 

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