MLB Unveils Field Tracking System at Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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By Patrick Harrel

A few years ago, NBA teams started installing the SportVU system in their stadiums to get proprietary player tracking data and an edge over the competition, a decision that cost them $100,000 a pop. In the run-up to the 2013-14 campaign, the rest of the league caught up, making the tracking system standard and releasing the data to the public. Today at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Major League Baseball released their plan for a counterpart system, unveiling a player tracking system of their own.

This system has been in the pipeline for a while, with a pilot setup being deployed at Citi Field last year. This season, the system will expand to three stadiums, with all 30 MLB ballparks receiving the technology for 2015. Major League Baseball has been making a push to improve their technology in recent years, with PITCHF/x being released to the public years ago, giving us greater access to detailed pitch data.

Quite simply, the system looks beautiful. Check out this sample video the MLB released of Jason Heyward making a game-winning catch against the Mets last year.

Ultimate Zone Rating and Total Zone Rating have advanced the field of defensive statistics, but they have their problems as they struggle with defensive shifts and do not differentiate between a high fly ball and a more looping strike. The idea with those systems are that over a large sample those variations balance each other out, but this new player tracking system will give teams and fans much more tangible evidence to determine if someone is a quality defender or not.

The biggest question will be how much of this data the MLB will hoard for themselves. PITCHF/x has been available in the public domain for years, so one can hope they will follow their own precedent (and the NBA’s) in releasing the data to the public. The possibilities for meaningful research are simply endless.

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