Judging from Puig, McCutchen catches, Statcast could explode defensive evaluation
We got our first glimpse of Major League Baseball Advanced Media's new motion-tracking system three weeks ago with a comparison of two Jay Bruce groundballs to the left side -- one resulting in a double play, and another a two-run single. On Friday, we got our second with a comparison of two similarly spectacular catches by defending National League MVP Andrew McCutchen and current NL MVP candidate Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers. Even more so than that first look, this comparison of two similar plays suggest the ways in which the new technology, now called "Statcast" could change the way we evaluate both fielders and individual plays, and in turn, player values in general.
Both of the plays in question took place at Citi Field, one of three major league ballparks equipped with the Statcast system of strategically placed cameras and radar. The other two are Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minnesota (where, I'm guessing, we'll see Statcast used live during this year's All-Star Game broadcast). Both saw a Mets hitter robbed of a would-be double in the right-center field gap. In fact, from the routes laid over the video footage of the two catches, we can see the two catches took place within roughly ten feet of one another in front of the X in the Xerox advertisement on the outfield wall.
Here's the Puig play from May 22, which I named the best defensive play of the first third of the season without the benefit of any objective measures, presented with and without Statcast overlays:
[mlbvideo id="33676413" width="600" height="420" /]
Here's the McCutchen catch, from May 27, again with and without the overlays:
[mlbvideo id="33676415" width="600" height="420" /]
As handsome as the accompanying graphics may be, the key information here are five new statistics: first step, acceleration, max speed, total distance and route efficiency.
The easiest to understand are max speed (literally the top speed of the fielder in motion in miles per hour) and total distance (how far the fielder traveled in feet from his stationary position to the point of the catch). First step is how many seconds (or, more typically, fractions of a second) elapsed between the ball making contact with the bat and the fielder initiating his movement. Route efficiency measures the shortest distance between the fielder's starting and end points as a percentage of the length of the route he actually took. Acceleration measures how long in seconds it took the player to go from his first step to his top speed.
Here's the complete set of data for the two catches.
No wonder Jay Jaffe proposed calling this OMGf/x. How many times have you wanted to know how far a fielder traveled to get to a ball, how quickly he reacted to it and how direct his route to the ball was? How many times have you, even in this age of readily available highlights and high-definition on-demand video, squinted at pixels and bristled at live editing choices while trying to determine exactly where a fielder was positioned prior to making a ranging catch, or where exactly he made the catch (as opposed to where he finished his slide or dive)? I was doing exactly that with regard to Puig's catch for that post just two weeks ago. Well, there it is in black-and-white. Hard, objective data.
What does it tell us? McCutchen reacted much faster and took an almost perfect route to the ball. Puig, however, traveled 14 percent farther, something made possible by the fact that, at top speed, he was traveling almost nine percent faster than McCutchen.
What Statcast doesn't tell us is which player had more time to get to the ball. It does tell us that both balls were traveling at nearly identical speeds off the bat (93.3 mph for the McCutchen catch, 93.5 for Puig), and the trajectory of both balls is mapped out in the graphics, but hang time is not one of the stats presented (though one imagines it easily could be added). Using my own stopwatch, I estimate 4.2 seconds for McCutchen and 4.5 seconds for Puig, another reason Puig was able to travel farther for his ball.
So which catch was better? Well, that's still open to debate, but it's a debate that has never been more informed. In praising Puig's catch two weeks ago, I made particular note of how far he traveled to make the play. Statcast supports that evaluation, informing us Puig traveled five feet farther than the distance between the bases. Puig ran faster and traveled further, though he also had a fraction of extra time to do so. McCutchen reacted faster and took a more direct route.
The easy evaluation to make here is that McCutchen's catch was the result of superior skill, specifically anticipating the ball's destination based on pitch, swing and trajectory. Puig's, meanwhile, was the result of superior athleticism. In addition to running faster and farther, Puig made a back-handed catch while running at a 45-degree angle toward the warning track, whereas McCutchen ran perpendicular to the wall and caught the ball with his glove naturally facing the flight of the ball. I still favor Puig's catch, but the data on McCutchen illustrates how a great baseball player can make something so exceptional look so easy (he reacted to the ball in less than two-tenths of a second!). MLBAM hopes to have Statcast in all 30 major league ballparks by the start of the 2015 season, meaning we could soon have this kind of data on every single play. If that data is made available in a searchable database like Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, it could result in the largest leap of knowledge in the history of the game. I can't wait!