Answers Could Come to Elusive Questions
Baseball America’s Alan Schwarz looks at the future of defensive evaluation.
This article appeared in the most current issue of Baseball America, and is reprinted here with permission of Alan Schwarz as a favor to Baseball Primer Readers.
NEW YORK?You are the general manager of a team whose home park has a massive outfield. You decide that defense is paramount, and are resolved to acquire the best center fielder in baseball. Who do you go after?
Scout favorite Andruw Jones? Torii Hunter, baseball?s Dominique Wilkins? Jim Edmonds, who dives more often than Martha Stewart?s Q rating? How about Vernon Wells, whom some scouts rate over Hunter? While evaluating these guys as hitters is a snap?dozens of statistical methods have the exactitude of heat-seeking missiles?fielding statistics are still as clunky as the Flintstone Flier. Errors don?t measure range. Range factor does that, but can?t reveal how many balls entered their zone. Zone rating does that, but can?t recognize where the fielder started. Around and around we go.
What we want to know, of course, is who turns the most catchable balls into outs. It?s as basic as it is elusive. But the answer is closer than you think.
This spring, Major League Baseball?s Internet portal, mlb.com, will install in select parks a three-camera set-up to measure pitch speeds, locations and breaks?to automate the collection of pitch data that until now has been generally eyeballed. This is only the first step, though, in mlb.com?s three-year plan to have up to six cameras in every major league stadium capturing everything?from line-drive trajectories to outfielder running speeds.
We?ll finally be able to know whether Derek Jeter?who is aesthetically wonderful?actually has the range statistics say he doesn?t. We?ll measure Vladimir Guerrero?s throwing speed and accuracy from right field. And we?ll get a lot closer to identifying the best center fielder in the game.
Believe it or not, this technique was first explored almost 100 years ago. Hugh Fullerton, a nationally known baseball writer for the Chicago Examiner, wrote a long magazine piece called ?The Science of Baseball,? where he personally measured not just how many balls infielders reached but also the speed, thanks to his 20th-of-a-second stopwatch, with which those grounders were hit. (One exasperated reader replied that baseball was no place for ?a tape-measure, a T-square and an intimate knowledge of algebra and fractions.?)
Fielding statistics stayed relatively stagnant until the early 1980s, when Bill James popularized range factor, which measured how many outs a fielder made per game. (This helped illustrate that even though Bobby Grich made a few extra errors a year, he also reached 50 more balls, making him extraordinarily valuable.) Ten years later zone rating, invented by STATS Inc. president John Dewan, recorded (by sight) the percentage of balls hit into a fielder?s area that were turned into outs.
Today, Dewan and his new company, Baseball Info Solutions, have refined that method into a plus-minus system, showing which fielders made the most outs compared to the league average at his position. By that measure, Jones led center fielders with a plus-19, while Edmonds had plus-10. This information is sold only to teams?the Red Sox were the first client?while fans cannot access it.
Mlb.com?s plan is to make all its data available on the Website, probably part of a subscription service.
Brave New World
That system, somewhat QuesTec-like?please Curt, don?t hurt us?will focus three cameras on the tunnel between pitcher and batter, allowing them to three-dimensionally measure the speed, location and trajectory of pitches. (We?ll be able to see whose fastballs really do have late movement, and perhaps whose hits come off the bat hardest.) Each system costs about $40,000. MLB has signed off on the expenditure, and mlb.com is in talks with Seattle stat company Tendu to work together on the real-time processing of the data.
If that linkup works?and it should, after the inevitable early hiccups?the next step is to add a few cameras to capture the whole field. Everything, from the ball to the runners to the fielders, will be followed as if by little global positioning systems. It will afford fans a whole new picture of the game: Who is fastest going from first to third? Which helps a right fielder more, 4 extra mph on the throw or 18 inches of accuracy? Does Juan Pierre?s speed make up for his vertiginous routes to fly balls?
Most important, though, is we will finally capture the slippery concept of range. The cameras will finally measure where the fielder is stationed before the ball is hit?a skill in itself?and how quickly he gets to any ball hit near him. Fan arguments, and team decisions, might never be the same.
Mlb.com CEO Bob Bowman vows to take his grand plan slowly. ?We?ve waited over 100 years, we can wait another one or two,? he says. ?We?re going to walk, then run, then sprint.?
Soon, we?ll know just how fast.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America. His first book, “The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics,” will be published by St. Martin’s Press in July.
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Posted: January 26, 2004 at 05:00 AM | 35 comment(s)
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