Unlike some other major sports, baseball has been exceedingly slow to change too much about how it operates from one year to the next. Even as copious amounts of data enabled teams to exploit market inefficiencies so they could compete with their bigger-budget rivals, teams that relied on analytical insights were looked down on by the sport’s old guard. Numbers are for nerds, they said. Well, once the statistical insights started bringing in World Series trophies, the game started changing its tune — albeit slowly.
These days, every team has adopted statistical insights to some degree, and technology has sped up the analytical revolution. But as the sport continues to lose ground in popularity to the likes of the NFL and NBA, which have been quicker to adopt more advanced technologies that optimize player performance and the viewing experience, Major League Baseball is embracing the tech takeover to help capture the interest of the next generation of fans.
In 2016, MLB and Apple reached a deal to offer iPads in the dugout for any team that wanted one. While most clubs traditionally relied on more analog materials like a notebook, the tablet offered a treasure trove of detail when it came to player data.
“It’s all proprietary information with your scouting reports,” former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said at the time of the deal. “This is not anything you go on the internet and (find). This is basically the information you have anyway; mostly it’s in books, now it’s going to be transferable to iPads. We’re streamlining things a little bit.”
But teams have found ways to gain real-time insights during a game as other devices such as vests and bat sensors have given teams more biometric data regarding batters’ swings and pitchers’ arm angles, among plenty of other minutiae that matters a great deal in a game of inches. All of this data updating constantly throughout the game is why you’re seeing teams play the percentages when it comes to strategy, constantly searching for a statistical advantage.
The data revolution isn’t exclusive to the players, however. While robotic umpires aren’t here yet, the real people calling balls and strikes are analyzed thanks to all the pitch data available. MLB doesn’t publicly share information regarding an umpire’s performance, but Boston University performed a study that concluded that MLB umpires made “34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game or 1.6 per inning,” which is why you probably yell at the TV at least every other inning or so.
Human error has been woven into the fabric of the sport, but as technology improves and TV broadcasts can clearly show when an umpire makes a horrendous call at the plate, it may be only a matter of time before the robots — which are being tested in one minor league — come to take another historically human job.
MLB did eventually concede that some blown calls by its umpires were too egregious or game-altering to let stand, but it was pretty late to the game on this one. While the NFL, NBA, and NHL have been using instant replay for more than a decade to either reverse or confirm a disputed call, but it wasn’t until 2014 that MLB decided to embrace the technology after decades of being a staunch opponent of it.
“There will not be instant replay of any sort. We’re just not going to do it. The umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game. We don’t want to lose that flavor. You can make a dish so bland that it’s not worth sitting down at the table,” former MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth said in 1988.
Ueberroth was awfully prescient. While the current replay system tends to get the calls right, there’s been plenty of griping about slowing down an already slow game.
Sign stealing — or ways in which teams try to figure out their opponent’s nonverbal communication (usually how catchers signal the desired pitch and location to their pitcher) — has been around since the sport’s inception. But in the old days, the most advanced piece of equipment a team would use was a person with pair of binoculars who would watch the opposing team’s signals and subsequently relay that information to their team.
With the advances in technology, teams have a plethora of ways of gaining inside intel, to say the least. Whether it’s using an Apple Watch or blatantly standing over the opposing team’s dugout with a phone in hand, the rise of handheld surveillance devices has everyone in the sport on their guard and often trying to run their own countersurveillance to make sure teams aren’t stealing their signs.
Technically, sign stealing is allowed as long as you’re doing without the aid of any device beyond your body. But with cameras everywhere in the ballpark, the league and its players are more paranoid than ever and are searching for answers to combat espionage.
“It sucks that it’s now come down to that, that you have availability to steal signs through computers and technology,” Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester told Bleacher Report. “It used to be — I remember the guys who would write things down in a book, guys who were good at [picking off signs from second base]. If somebody could do that, you tipped your hat: My signs aren’t that good, and I need to make them better.
“But now, you’ve got cameras that are focused directly on the catcher’s crotch, and you’ve got guys trying to figure out sequences from that. It makes it difficult, and the product of it is the passed balls and wild pitches.”
The grainy days of broadcast baseball games are long over, but that doesn’t mean networks have stopped trying to improve the viewing experience. When the 2019 American League Championship Series begins, Fox Sports will broadcast in 4K high-dynamic range (HDR) for the first time, making the granular details of baseball resonant even brighter under the playoff lights.
In addition to the 4K HDR technology, Fox Sports will also bring an 8K camera to select World Series games to “conduct zoomed-in extractions of the action” and probably give the viewer a clearer picture of the action than MLB’s older-aged umpires.
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