Baseball All-Stars Big Data Homerun

| March 16, 2015

By Michael Hickins

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game Tuesday is an opportunity for the sport to showcase its biggest and brightest stars. Arguing the merits of the game’s greatest players is a tradition as old as Walter Johnson versus Christy Mathewson, Mickey Mantle versus Willie Mays, and Bryce Harper versus Mike Trout. Perhaps as soon as this October, fans, players and baseball executives will have a new tool providing more objective data than ever to replace more subjective measures, and inform their hot-stove league debates and player transactions.

The new tool, Field f/x, was developed by Chicago-based Sportvision Inc., which is known to most viewers
of televised sports for the yellow first down marker superimposed on broadcast images of football fields, which it introduced in 1998. Field f/x, which will track and display every movement of every player on the baseball field, also illustrates how one company has been able to transition from selling a TV special effects service to selling data about the service. Soon it will also sell new immersive experiences it hopes will hook a new generation of fans to televised sports.

Sportvision is already heavily invested in baseball-related products and services. In addition to K-Zone, used by TV networks to illustrate the location of pitches thrown during baseball broadcasts, its Pitch f/x service is used by MLB’s Advanced Media unit to broadcast pitch speeds and locations in real time to customers of its online app.

Field f/x can show data such as the angle of elevation of a batted ball, the highest point in its trajectory and the distance covered and top speed attained by a player attempting to field a ball. Sportvision does this by installing enough cameras at each baseball stadium to cover the entire field of play, and uses algorithms developed by its in-house data scientists to correlate events related to a given action on the field. The tool will come available later this year, “perhaps in time for post-season baseball,” according to Sportsvision CEO Hank Adams.

Field f/x illustrates how Sportvision has transformed itself from a company providing networks with graphics to a company providing networks, leagues and teams with data they can use to improve the experience of its viewers – and in the case of individual teams, to evaluate players for strategic purposes on the field, and at the negotiating table. “Every team takes some variance of our data,” he said.

This data won’t simply help settle disputes about whether Derek Jeter covers more ground than the average player at his position, but could also help baseball clubs more accurately determine the relative value of different players at the same position. “The data are going to be worth so much more [than the video rights] because you can do so much more with it,” said Mr. Adams. That value is accruing to the leagues and broadcasters that purchase it, of course, but it’s also much more valuable to Sportvision than the effects that gave it its beginnings.

CIO Journal reviewed video of two different outfielders reacting to balls hit at the same velocity, trajectory and distance from where they were first standing; one of those outfielders was able to catch the ball easily, while the other had to catch the ball on a hop. The data “will have a completely electrifying effect on player evaluation,” Mr. Adams told CIO Journal. “If you can start to aggregate that data for every play for every player, you can get a real bead on how valuable these guys are,” he said.

Neither Major League Baseball nor the MLB Player’s Association responded to requests for comment for this article.

The data can also show how close pitchers get to their actual targets, and how good catchers are at getting umpires to call strikes compared to their peers, by comparing the number of strikes called for one catcher compared to all others in the league. And while a strike here or there may not seem like much, “getting more outs, a couple of wins a season – for teams on the bubble, this could make the difference in making the playoffs. A catcher who’s good at framing pitches could be worth seven figures to an organization,” he said. “It’s something you could never ascertain just by watching the game.”

Mr. Adams said his company doesn’t provide this type of data directly to players or their agents, but assumes “the smart agents have worked out how to get the data” indirectly.

Through the use of video cameras, databases and analytic technology, Sportvision is now able to capture, store and analyze thousands of terabytes of data per year that baseball teams, agents, players and fans can use to evaluate the prowess of every player. The data can show how a given player hits left handed pitchers on Tuesday evenings in May, and which players cover their positions most effectively.

Sportvision’s business extends to sports other than football and baseball. Mr. Adams notes that the company now collects data that helps NASCAR racing teams better understand how their pit crews perform during tire changes and other stops. He said Sportvision used to track this data, but didn’t store it in a database or make use of it until three years ago because “we were so focused on the live event.”

Now, in addition to selling graphics to broadcasters, it can sell data about the broadcasts to the racing teams. “Shame on us, because the light bulb should have gone off earlier,” he said.

In 2006, 95% of the company’s revenues were from TV effects; today, that number is down to 70%, with the balance earned from licensing data – and of the 70% that is broadcast-related, only 30% is from TV effects that don’t track some element of data, Mr. Adams said.

As Sportvision has gone from being an entertainment services company to a data broker, it has also changed its approach to technology. As recently as 2006, when it first introduced Pitch f/x, the company developed all its technology in-house, and maintained data such as pitch speed or location in flat files. Unlike databases, flat files cannot be easily queried or have data extracted for analysis. “We didn’t think there was predictable data in all that stuff,” said Mr. Adams. Today Sportvision maintains multiple databases with data replicated on servers managed by Inc., and uses logic and visualization technology from analytics software vendor Domo Inc. to massage and display data.

According to Mr. Adams, the yellow first-down stripe made Sportvision the first to “broadly commercialize” augmented reality. And the company continues to evolve. Mr. Adams says the company will soon start selling a new service that allows viewers to place themselves virtually on the field of play, either by trying to hit a Mariano Rivera cut fastball, or racing against Mario Andretti Jr., from the comfort of their living rooms. This may be anathema to older fans, but Mr. Adams says the younger generation of fans demand interactivity. “If you’re going to grow that young fan base, you’re going to have to find a way to engage them in a compelling way,” Mr. Adams said. He said he believes the service will be commercialized within the next 12 months.


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