Sports And Technology: How digital scouting is changing baseball
Which outfielder has the best jump on the ball? And how much is that worth financially to a general manager or in playing time to a coaching staff? Those questions have closely guarded answers as Major League Baseball has upped its digital scouting ability to dissect intricacies of the game never before seen, thanks to high-tech in-park cameras and elaborate analytical services. That's the power of technology, even in the tradition-laden MLB.
While advanced scouts still crisscross baseball's 30 major league parks, they no longer do it alone. They bring digital scouting with them.
"We stay on the cutting edge of things and continue to find ways to improve the way we analyze players and information we provide to our players," says Jeremy Shelley, the vice president of pro scouting and player evaluation for the San Francisco Giants. "We certainly advocate making a push to the forefront."
The Giants' 14 pro-level scouts have access to an in-house scouting system built specifically for the club that stores video and data. If the scout thought he or she spotted a trend over a five day-assignment, then going back to the scouting system allows more video history -- including multiple angles of players -- and data to draw from.
"You may get a bullpen guy for one inning and 12 pitches," Shelley says. "Scouts are then able to pull up the previous three innings and see 40 to 50 pitches opposed to just 12 pitches."
But this system presents more than just highlight reels. Companies such as Baseball Info Solutions and Ari Kaplan's AriBall have entire systems and staffs of analysts breaking down video and building thousands of specified reports nightly, delivering them straight to teams.
Jeff Spoljaric, vice president of information technology for Baseball Info Solutions, says he works with more than half the MLB teams charting pitch types, locations, velocities and a host of proprietary stats focused on defense and "enhanced fielding," including how that data interacts with base running times.
"It is kind of like an extra list of poor plays or good plays that don't make it into the box score," he says. "We go through and give them the ability to see every single pitch of every single game."
Spoljaric says the newest "hot data point" focuses on collecting shift information in specific situations. Kaplan says putting the player in the right position can boost Gold Glove credentials.
"You can get multiple feeds of every game and see different angles," Spoljaric says. "We can chart pitches from center field and see signs and get more accurate pitch types."
The Ariball system automates data based off available Sportvision-recorded information for "actionable" reports. "A scout could be watching a pitcher and see his arm slot comes up for curveball," Kaplan says. "I add that as a rule to my system to detect when he is releasing a foot above to put it in a scoutable report."
By watching arm slots, pickoff moves or what a pitcher throws in certain situations, searchable data analysis gives instant history. "It took quite a long time for habits to get noticed in advanced scouting," Kaplan says. "The cycle of having to adjust has to shrink and shrink. It is a game within the game."
That's why building a history -- clubs have added new camera systems even in their lowest-tier stadiums -- has teams excited to track player minutia over the course of a career.
And with only about five MLB teams sporting the latest Sportvision equipment, the vastness of the data -- especially defensive and baserunning -- will only grow.
"The ability to track everything in the field, how a baserunner runs or the reaction time of a fielder, that isn't even up in all Major League stadiums," Kaplan says.
With the advances in technology it will be soon.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for SI. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.