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The Future of Defensive Statistics Is Here

A revolutionary announcement was made recently regarding the ability to track defensive statistics, and I am absolutely giddy about it.

Baseball is a game chock full of statistics. Many years ago, we focused on batting average, home runs, and RBI for hitters, while wins, ERA, and innings were what mattered for the pitchers. As sabermetrics have taken over, we've turned more to WAR, OBP, OPS, ISO, wOBA, FIP, SIERA, and many other acronyms that make many casual fans' heads spin, but have been touted as being more accurate than the statistics of yesteryear.

However, defense has been one tough nut to crack. We've shied away from fielding percentage as stats like UZR have been introduced, but they've still been rather spotty. Ichiro Suzuki is regarded as one of the best defensive outfielders during his career, and yet from 2010 to 2012 he put up the following UZR numbers: 13.4, -5.1, 13.2. So basically, he went from top-notch to below-average, and then back to excellent in three consecutive years. That's a big reason why many people say that you need three years worth of data to accurately judge a player's defensive prowess with this measure.

But, there is a big advancement on the horizon, and a little bit of it will be available starting this season. Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, we now will have the ability to measure new aspects of defense such as first step quickness, top speed, acceleration, distance traveled, and more for defensive players. While this will only be tracked in three ballparks this year, one of the big announcements is that Target Field will be one of those ballparks (Citi Field and Miller Park are the other two). That's right, we'll now have hard evidence on who is more glacial, Josh Willingham or Jason Kubel?

Like PITCHf/x (the tracking of thrown pitches, which is already publicly available), FIELDf/x was supposed to be the next breakthrough for baseball statistics, but unfortunately it never arrived. One of its fallbacks was that it was to be entirely camera-generated. This new unnamed system appears to be the alternative to FIELDf/x, and its apparent success will stem from the use of both cameras and radar to collect its data. The cameras will capture video at 32 frames per second, meaning that an estimated 7 terabytes of data will be generated per game. Translation: 7,000 gigabytes. Second translation: You'd need one hell of a computer to store that data.

There are still some bugs in the system, which is why it will only be available in three stadiums this year, but already I see it being a huge leap forward in terms of baseball analysis. In additional to the factors I mentioned above, another one that I'm greatly anticipating is called "route efficiency." This will simply be the shortest distance from where the player started to where the batted ball landed, divided by the actual distance the player traveled to catch the ball, and it will be reported as a percent. In the video from the linked article above, we saw that Jason Heyward had a 97% route efficiency on his game-saving catch, an impressive number. We see so many Web Gems every season, but how many of them actually were created by a player getting a good jump or taking an excellent route to the ball? Sometimes, the player actually misjudged the ball and then used his speed to make the play, a la Ben Revere on occasion. Route efficiency could be used to identify which players can find the spot on the field to make the catch, and which circle the ball or have a tough time judging the flight path.

This system from MLBAM is revolutionary, but therein lies my fear that this system will not be made available to the public. While MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman said that, "This is something we think fans want, and we can deliver it, so that's what we're going to do," but one has to wonder if a team came knocking with a truckload of cash, if MLBAM wouldn't instead keep the data private. Bowman said that MLBAM hasn't given much thought towards turning a profit with their new system, but the dollar signs could make them change their tune.

Regardless, even seeing this data on Baseball Tonight or the MLB Network would be a big deal for me. This would change how we see the game, and now I have another reason to look towards the 2015 season (well, along with Miguel Sano's return) as MLBAM plans to roll out the system to all 30 ballparks that year. Even better is that the radar will also track baserunners, again adding another layer to a rather complex game.

It almost makes me want to move back into my mother's basement.