Tip of the Iceberg: MLB Advanced Media’s Joe Inzerillo on Baseball Data Tracking — So Far

Pop time. Two words that mean virtually nothing to the average baseball fan of today, but they represent one of an abundance of statistics that could change the way we look at the game and its players forever.

Last month, MLB Advanced Media gave the public its first taste of some of the data that’s being collected in the early stages of the preliminary rollout of the league’s new data-tracking system.

MLB Network breaks down some of the early data being pulled in by MLB Advanced Media's new optical tracking system.

VIDEO: MLB Network breaks down some of the early data being pulled in by MLB Advanced Media’s new optical tracking system.

The purely optical tracking system — developed with graphics guru ChyronHego and European radar tracking specialist TrackMan — is pouring in data related to player speed, defensive routes to the ball, and, yes, pop time (which, by the way, is the time measured from when a catcher receives a pitch to the point it leaves his hand in an attempt to throw out a would-be base stealer). On the player end, it’s non-invasive and requires no chips or materials on uniforms, a major element for MLBAM. As for the ball, TrackMan has modified its radar-based golf-tracking technology for baseball.

The system opened the season and is currently active in three MLB ballparks: Citi Field in New York, Miller Park in Milwaukee, and Target Field in Minneapolis. According to Kevin Prince, president, Americas Unit, ChyronHego, installation included two sets of “eyes,” or cameras, positioned about 60 ft. apart at a relatively high position in the stadium. Those cameras cover the entire field, and the images are merged into two sets of images to produce a stereo view of the entire field.

The first two months of the season have mostly been a test drive as the MLB Advanced Media team gets a feel for the system internally. That process will continue through the summer with MLBAM planning additional data reveals.

“We’re still out there, we’re still collecting data, we’re learning things every day, which is great,” says Joe Inzerillo, CTO/SVP, content technology, MLB Advanced Media. “It’s really exciting times here, because we’re just [getting] to the point where, as we demonstrated at MIT, we’re starting to see some real results with it. Things that you can actually look at and say, Wow, that’s actually interesting. It’s not just the rudimentary of ‘did it track the players correctly’ but getting into ‘that guy really ran fast’ or ‘that [outfielder] took a terrible path to the ball.’ We’ve got a lot of folks focused on cooking that stuff up and trying to figure out what the user presentation is and how we start rolling out that functionality this year.”

A league-wide rollout of the system is expected by fall 2015, with ballparks added gradually along the way. But Inzerillo lays out MLBAM’s goals for the three-stadium system in place for the 2014 campaign.

“I think that there are [three] primary goals. One goal would be that we get some product out in a more meaningful way so that we can both gauge the fans’ appetite for it — which I think is going to be tremendous — and also just listen to what fans are talking about. I think that was one of the coolest things that happened [when we first announced it], the amount of conversation that it inspired. And it was a very small data set relative to what we’re working on now. So, I think, getting it socialized, getting people to think about it as part of the game is one of the main goals.

“The second main goal is, this is all great but it doesn’t really work long term if you can’t do it day in and day out, in every ballpark, for every game, for every play. And so, on this not directly user-facing but ultimately user-facing side, what we’re also trying to learn is what it’s going to take to support this; what it’s going to take to get the data out; how fast can we do things; how accurately can we continue to measure; all that sort of stuff.

“The third element is a little bit more business of baseball. We also have to continue to socialize the data with our clubs, to make sure they believe in the veracity of the data, to make sure that they understand how they’re going to use it. It’s not something where we’re just going to throw it out there and everybody gets it at the same time. The clubs need to see this stuff, start to work with it, and figure out how to use it. That’s an internal baseball-industry thing, but we also need to be very mindful that we’re taking this year to educate clubs, so that, when this data becomes broadly available to them next year, they’re actually going to be able to take some value for the industry and raise all boats with it.”

The plan is to stick with the three ballparks in place for this season, although Inzerillo doesn’t rule out the possibility that there could be a scenario where the project could expand as the season rolls on.

“If we get to a point where we’ve learned all we can from those three, perhaps we consider going further with it,” he says. “But the reality is, we’re getting a lot of great data, and we’re continuing to learn stuff; literally every day, we’re learning something new about the system, and so it doesn’t make sense to go broader than that until we get the product as mature as we want to get it.”