In Baseball, It Pays to Be a Data Nerd
In Baseball, It Pays to Be a Data Nerd
Motion Analysis Technology
“One thing that has been interesting recently is the coverage by the WSJ on performance enhancement/sports science tools that MLB players are utilizing. While neurostimulaton has been utilized for restoration of health, the science fiction applications are compelling.” Will Rosellini
By JOHN LETZING
When the San Francisco Giants battled the St. Louis Cardinals on their home field during Monday’s National League Championship, a lone technician sat in the bowels of AT&T T -0.78% Park tracking players on three computer screens covered by video and computer graphics.
Image 1: Darcy Padilla for The Wall Street Journal
Motion analysts study activity last week at a Giants-Cardinals game.
Image 2: Mark Osborne, a FIELDf/x operator inside the bowels of AT&T Park, collecting data using motion analysis software.
He watched as special motion-analysis software was layered over game footage, charting precise data on how efficiently each player moves as they hustle to catch the ball. The exercise was part of an early effort by Major League Baseball to stamp hard numbers on one of the sport’s softest sciences: Measuring a player’s defensive ability.
“Forever, we’ve had our good-natured smack talk about [which fielder has] a good jump” on the baseball, said Bob Bowman, who heads up Major League.
Baseball’s digital efforts. “Now we’ll have a few more empirical data points.” San Francisco’s stadium is one of five in the big leagues this season equipped with Sportvision Inc.’s FIELDf/x technology, which tracks fielders with cameras and software to gauge their efficiency. Mr. Bowman says Major League Baseball could roll out the technology to all big-league parks next year.
The new tool is part of a broader movement in sports to crunch numbers on an athlete’s motion, ranging from a basketball player’s jump shot to a skier slaloming down a mountain. Top athletes have long studied themselves and opponents on film in order to gain an advantage. Now, thanks to increasingly sophisticated software athletes and their coaches are able to overlay video images with data to pinpoint the slightest flubs, evaluate rivals and scout prospects.
Shara Proctor, a long jumper who represented Great Britain at the London Olympics, discovered a new way to practice last year thanks to motion analysis technology. Instead of spending time between leaps just catching her breath, Ms. Proctor says she started poring over video images of herself frozen in mid-motion and overlaid with graphics and data from analysis software firm Dartfish SA.
“It was a little bit of a relief,” said Ms. Proctor, “I could see myself practicing, and go back during the same day to correct my mistakes.”
Using the software, Ms. Proctor began mapping key indicators such as the positioning of her feet and hips in motion. In June, she smashed a nearly 30-year-old British long-jump record, and in August competed in the Olympic Games but fell short of winning a medal.
Rana Reider, Ms. Proctor’s coach, said his copious use of software developed by Dartfish often has his athletes calling him a “big nerd.” Other competitors coached by Mr. Reider at the London games included men’s triple-jump gold medal winner Christian Taylor.
“I would love to say I’m the only one using it, but I think a lot of people are starting to smarten up,” Mr. Reider said. Golf is especially suited for motion-analysis technology as minute changes in golfers’ swings can affect their game. Zepp Technology has created a gadget equipped with sensors that golfers can slip onto a glove to trace and compare the arc of swings, club speed and hip rotation.
While demonstrating the device at a recent conference, Zepp CEO Jason Fass took a pair of swings with an invisible club. He then tapped on an iPad to call up images of himself making the swings side by side, traced in bright colors as numbers appeared to show how much further one backswing was than the other, and where a swing hit top speed. Ideally, a swing accelerates just before striking a ball. “Golf is the first implementation, but we’re looking at a variety of sports” for the technology, Mr. Fass said. “Baseball is one that we’re really excited about.” With its intense focus on rote repetition of pitches, swings and throws, baseball has proved particularly fertile proving ground for analysis software.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are heavy Dartfish users.
Angels pitching ace Jered Weaver said he uses the technology to analyze his pitching delivery against opposing hitters he’s slated to face again, for example.
Then there is Angels infielder Albert Pujols, one of the most feared hitters in the game.Shortly after the season began in March, Mr. Pujols was mired in an uncharacteristic slump, and Dartfish was a key part of his effort to bounce back, according to Angels senior video coordinator Diego Lopez. For a hitter like Mr. Pujols, here’s how Dartfish works: He and his coaches can load into the software two video images of him hitting—one from last season and a recent swing—and display them side by side on a computer screen.
They can then draw lines over those images captured frame by frame, and trace the precise size of an angle created by Mr. Pujols’ legs, or the elevation of his hands. “He was comparing swings from 2011 and 2012 to see where he was positioning his stride…and the bat position as he was loading,” said Mr. Lopez.
Mr. Pujols’ batting average was stuck at a paltry .217 in April amid a power drought. With the help of the software, he finished the season hitting .285 with 30 home runs. Mr. Pujols declined to comment.
To be sure, there are potential downsides to motion analysis software. One can rely too heavily on the technology, according to Ms. Proctor.
“You can easily over analyze stuff, and that’s not good. You just have to tone that down,” she said. There is also the errant notion technology alone can make a good performance great. Dave Reddin, the British Olympic Association’s head of performance services, said the British team’s haul of 65 medals at the London games came as it constantly captured and analyzed video footage with Dartfish. Still, he added: “Software does not win medals.” It’s also a struggle to have the technology keep pace with the speed and intensity of a professional sports event.
FIELDf/x can provide an array of statistics on the speed of hit balls and the efficiency of a fielder’s path to its landing point. But as of now, it can only be accessed by all Major League teams after a game ends. Eventually, Mr. Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media LP, expects the data will be delivered to everyone in real time.
“Every team sees potential,” he said of the technology. “But I don’t think anyone thinks we’ve exactly baked the cake here.”
Write to John Letzing at John.Letzing@wsj.com.