Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Saturday, March 1, 2014
MLB breakthrough unveiled at Sloan

By Matt Meyers

Andrelton Simmons
Soon we will be able to really calculate just how good Andrelton Simmons is on defense.
BOSTON -- While MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference tilts heavily toward the NBA, MLB Advanced Media took center stage Saturday when CEO Bob Bowman and Vice President Joe Inzerillo unveiled tracking technology that will be introduced this year and revolutionize the game.

The tracking system, which will debut this year at Citi Field, Miller Park and Target Field, uses multiple cameras around the field to capture player movement in multiple dimensions.

This will allow us to track every player movement. So, for example, when a fly ball is hit, we can see how far the outfielder ran to catch it, his direct route and his route efficiency, which is his direct route relative to his overall route. In other words, we can now prove which fielders take good routes to batted balls.

MLBAM says shots like this -- for fielding -- may come as quickly as normal TV-replay lag time.
A tv sports bonanza. pic.twitter.com/z2PqcS2gfM

— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) March 1, 2014


This "route" statistic just scratches the surface, but it is a major step toward definitive defensive metrics on par with offensive stats. This tracking technology will also allow teams to measure baserunner speed and angles, and give us another level of batted-ball statistics, such as velocity of the bat and trajectory.

The plan is for the other 27 parks to have this implemented over the course of the year so that every park has the tracking technology for Opening Day 2015. The future is now.

Takeaways from the MLB analytics panel

Before MLBAM made its presentation, there was a separate MLB analytics panel earlier Saturday morning, which was moderated by MLB Network's Brian Kenny and featured Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver, SABR's Vince Gennaro, former ESPN writer Rob Neyer (now of Fox), and Bloomberg Sports exec Bill Squadron.

Here are three key takeaways.

1. Location is everything

"Will we get to a point where a team moves its best defender to different positions from hitter to hitter based upon analytics?"

That was a question asked by the audience that really seemed to resonate with the panelists.

As Neyer noted, the Pittsburgh Pirates showed last year just how much defensive positioning can help a club when the field staff buys into, and Silver posited that it would only make sense, if you had a superlative defender with a variety of skills, to put him in the space where the ball is most likely to be hit.

So if you're the Braves and you've decided to "shift" Ryan Howard, instead of just shifting everyone to the right, you would put Andrelton Simmons exactly where Howard is most likely to hit it, whether or not that is right next to the first baseman or up the middle. Squadron made the point that it's surprising that teams don't flip-flop their left and right fielders more often depending on the hitter, and quite frankly this makes a lot of sense. There are a number of teams on which the guys in left and right have extremely disparate defensive skills, and this is an easy, yet logical, switch.

Luhnow said that another potential gain is using your left-handed relief specialist in the outfield for a batter or two if the opposition has two lefty hitters separated by a batter or two. He said Brad Mills did this with Houston two years ago, and I have been in favor of doing this ever since Davey Johnson did it with the 1986 Mets. Of course, Johnson was forced to do it because half of his bench got kicked out of an extra-inning game after a brawl with the Reds, but it worked! (You can get the full context of that game by watching this).

2. Positive contact

There was a two-part discussion on the rise of strikeouts, with Neyer focusing on the aesthetic aspect and Silver and Luhnow discussing how the game might adapt.

Neyer worried that strikeouts have made for a less entertaining game, and that when you combine that with defensive shifts, we're not seeing as many doubles and triples, which make the game exciting. He'd like to see a rule change or two to reduce the number of whiffs.

Silver countered with the point that just because something is increasing -- in this case, strikeout rates -- doesn't mean we should expect it to keep rising, and that teams will value different kinds of players, such as high-contact hitters, to counter the K's and shifts. This is something Dave Cameron touched on recently for ESPN Insider, when he wrote that Freddie Freeman's spray-hitting ability makes him impossible to shift, and therefore more valuable.

Luhnow echoed Silver's sentiments and said that the Astros acquired prospect Ronald Torreyes from the Cubs specifically because he had the lowest strikeout rate in the minors last year.

Perhaps we are looking at a new generation where Placido Polancos will rule the world.

3. What's a win worth?

Toward the end of the panel, Kenny brought up Mike Trout and asked the panelists how much his performance is worth. Squadron replied by saying, "I come from a Bloomberg perspective, so I say he's worth what the market will pay."

The other issue, as Gennaro pointed out, is the rise of lucrative local cable deals, which change the value of a player depending on the team. A team making billions from its deal might find a guy such as Trout more valuable if he can improve ratings by even a fraction of a point. In other words, there is no absolute value you can put on Trout, or any player.

And although WAR has become an accepted metric, the tracking technology unveiled by MLBAM will change the way we can value players. Earlier in the discussion, Luhnow said that the Astros are trying to put run probabilities on batted balls based on the velocity off of the bat and trajectory. And if tracking technology eventually allows us to put a number on defense like we can on offense, we might find that Trout's true value is actually 15 wins above replacement -- or possibly 5.