Commentary
7/10/2009
03:22 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary

Sadly, Baseball Emerges From Age Of Technology Innocence

Professional baseball scouts as well as managers and, yes, fans, will be soon have access to technology allowing them to measure the heretofore unmeasurable and forever-debatable: who is the best shortstop in all of baseball? Is it Derek Jeter or Omar Vizquel?



Professional baseball scouts as well as managers and, yes, fans, will be soon have access to technology allowing them to measure the heretofore unmeasurable and forever-debatable: who is the best shortstop in all of baseball? Is it Derek Jeter or Omar Vizquel?The technology involves strategically-placed video cameras combined with software that can differentiate baseballs from sea gulls and provide all the raw data needed to determine how much ground a given player covers and the speed and accuracy of his (or her) throws, according to a report by Alan Schwartz in the New York Times.

I can understand why professional talent evaluators and managers need this tool, because there aren't any universally accepted metrics for measuring defensive prowess the way there are for offensive success. All manner of statistics have been devised to measure a given player's offensive skills, from how often he gets on base to the direction of his hits -- even the ratio of times he hits the ball hard. The same type of statistics don't exist for fielding, if for no other reason than there are so many more variables involved and actions to quantify, but this new technology can finally provide the raw data needed to measure defensive aptitudes.

Bob Bowman, CEO of major league baseball's Internet subsidiary, told Schwartz that the data will probably also be made available to the general public (for a fee), allowing the likes of Bill James and writers of the Baseball Prospectus to create new ways of measuring players, and giving ardent fans more data to back up their arguments about Jeter versus Vizquel.

But it's a sad day, really, when you imagine that people would have been able to settle the argument over who was better: Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizutto or Rabbit Maranville. Cool nickname aside, would Rabbit Maranville even be in the Hall of Fame if observers had been able to measure how good he really was on the field? (He certainly wouldn't have made it based on his anemic .258 lifetime batting average.)

This kind of metadata overload is coming everywhere, and not just on the pastoral baseball diamond. Stately Wimbledon was recently the proving ground of a relatively new technology from IBM, called Seer, which adds a layer of data over what you see in your smartphone's camera viewfinder -- in this case, things like identifying a given tennis court and the players and score in real time.

Several kinds of applications have already been tested, from real estate companies providing listing information for properties viewed through the smartphone camera to tourism agencies showing data about points of interest.

I can only imagine how popular this could be, assuming the services don't become too overtly commercial, but I also know there are some things I'll never want to measure, like knowing where Derek Jeter stands in the pantheon of shortstops. That's the kind of thing that should remain in the province of the romantic in all of us.

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