Software Review: ESPN iScore Baseball Scorekeeper for iPhone

I love keeping score at baseball games.  For my money, there's no better way to engage yourself in every pitch than to keep score.  Like most people, I started out as a kid using the scorecards that come with the team programs you get at the ballpark.  From there, I moved on to buying my own scorebooks, and my current favorite is one I reviewed here.

But I'm also a bit of a techy, and so when I saw that there was an iPhone app that lets you keep score, I decided to check it out.  I've scored four games with it now, and I'm pleased to say that iScore Baseball Scorekeeper is a perfectly viable alternative to the traditional scorecard/pencil.  And, in fact, for some purposes, like those responsible for keeping score at amateur games, it probably is a significant upgrade.

Installation and Set Up

ESPN iScore (the branding partnership with ESPN is very recent) is available in the App store for $9.99, and is a fairly small download.  I'm running version 2.75.92.  There is also a version available for the iPad, but I am Ipad-less and thus can't speak to it. You can also purchase yearly subscriptions to download updated MLB rosters and day-of-game lineups for $19.99 (I didn't), and server space for a team website for another $19.99.  The latter option might be very appealing for those taking on the role of team scorekeeper for little leagues, for example.  

Opening_screen_medium

When you start the application, you're presented with a screen  that lets you edit teams, rosters, or start right into scoring a game.  The app definitely works best if you have team rosters set up ahead of time: this is where the $20 download of MLB rosters comes into play.  Nevertheless, it's fairly quick and easy to add payers to a team's roster: I can input a 25-man active roster from scratch, including names, numbers, positions, handedness, etc, in under 10 minutes.  But if you're short on time, as the helpful tutorial videos on their website show, it's very possible to generate a team and add as many players as you need with generic names ("player A," "player B," etc) in a matter of seconds.  You can then later go back and edit in the appropriate names.

Scoring a Game

Once you have your teams created, you can create a game and start scoring.  The lineup screen comes in first, and initially can be confusing.  If your rosters are set up, drag players up and down to set your lineup.  A key point is that if you want someone to bat, you must select him and toggle him the Batting flag on his record.  Furthermore, if someone is not in the lineup, he needs to not have the batting flag set!  This allows a lot of flexibility--if your league allows 20 hitters in a lineup, you can do that without a problem.  But it's not necessarily intuitive, especially when you're scoring a game using MLB rules.  Once you understand what's happening, though, it's easy enough to set a lineup.  It would be nice to be able to mass-select players and turn on/off their "batting" flag, or set their position, though, as entering every player's record and checking "batting" is a bit tedious.

If you don't have a lineup ahead of time, you can go back and do this mid-game via the "Misc" button without having to use substitutions--a very helpful feature for amateur games as well as tv games where you don't see the home lineup until the bottom half of the first inning.  

Game_screen_mediumScoring a game itself is surprisingly straightforward given all of the crazy things that can happen on a ball field.  Balls, strikes, and fouls are scored by tapping the appropriate buttons as they occur (a swinging strike can be scored by tapping strike and then dragging up before releasing).  When something more substantial happens, you tap either "out" or "in play" and choose from a menu of options (see below).  Typically, the sequence goes like this:

1. Report what happened on a play "e.g. In Play-->Hit Single"
2. Indicate with a tap where the ball was hit (hit location data!), as well as which fielders were involved in any outs (entered in sequence, i.e. "4-6-3").
3. Report with the menus what happened to each of the baserunners "e.g. runner on first advanced to third on the hit."
4. If necessary, report any extra details that might have happened after the initial round of input "e.g. after reaching third runner scored on throwing error by right fielder."

There is a small learning curve, but after a game or two I was just as fast scoring most plays through this interface as I would be with a pencil.  To give you an example, here's an example video from the publisher showing how one can score a fielder's choice.  Double plays are entered in a similar manner, though there is a separate option to clearly designate the play as a double play.  Furthermore, while there are some "Other Play" options for extremely unusual events, I've yet to encounter a play that isn't scoreable with this interface.  You also have the option of adding a manual text note to any play you wish.  This shows up in iscorecast (see below), but unfortunately does not show up in the scorecard output.

And best of all, if you make a mistake, you can always just hit Undo (or Redo!)!  The result is much cleaner than the partial erase/scratchouts you see throughout my traditional scorebooks. :)

Play_selection_medium

Ball_location_medium

Plays involving runners but not batters, like a stolen base or a wild pitch, are initiated by tapping the runner.  Substitutions (pinch hitters, defensive replacements, etc) are also initiated by tapping the relevant player, be it a fielder or the batter.  And since lineup position and defensive position are handled separately, it's easy to accomodate things like double-switches, etc.

Ok, so you may be convinced that this program can be used to score a game.  But you might not see why you might want to make the switch.  First, there are a lot of small perks to using this system during the game.  The game shows you data throughout the game on the screen.  For example, you always can see a running pitch count for the current pitcher, with a breakdown of balls and strikes.  The program also shows you spray charts for each hitter (see game screenshot above).  The first time they come up during a game, you can see all of their plate appearances in your database to date.  Throughout the game, though, it will just show you balls put into play by that hitter--it's just as good, if not better, as scanning across your scorebook to see what a hitter has done so far in a game.  Finally, throughout a game, you have very quick access to career stats on a player, stats on the game itself, and to the automatically generated scorecard.

Pitch_location_mediumThere's one additional reason: if you like, you can not only keep track of balls and strikes, but also pitch location, type, and velocity for each pitch.  This can be done either before or after entering the related play (default is after, and I found that easier).  Pitch location is entered by simply tapping where the pitch came in on the screen (see right).  Velocity and pitch type can then be entered by tapping the relevant pitch and dragging the velocity indicator as desired.  The pitch location works great, but I did have a hard time getting the pitch type buttons to respond to my taps at times.  I think they also could use an additional button for two-seam vs. four-seam fastballs (though in all honesty I often can't tell the difference most of the time anyway).  Furthermore, the velocity "spinner" thing wasn't always responsive and I found it to be pretty difficult/slow to use in practice...but the option is there if you want to use it.

Battery life-wise, I'm pretty pleased with how well it all works.  A typical game scored at home (and thus with a fairly dim screen thanks to auto-brightness) consumes 40-50% of my iPhone 3GS's battery, with iscorecast enabled (more on that later), and scoring every pitch.  You should be fine scoring a game during the day on a full charge as well.  Nevertheless, I found that when I tried to pop between iScore and my favorite twitter app, battery life went down too quickly.  Also, in very informal testing, I'm finding that simply leaving the application open and on throughout the game uses LESS energy than turning the phone on and off in between every pitch.  If you need to score more than one game in a row, though, you'll probably need a supplemental power source.

Overall, the program has run extremely well for me.  The interface feels crisp and is generally very responsive.  I did encounter one freeze-up mid-game when I tried to take a quick look at the scorecard.  Exiting to the iPhone menu screen, waiting for a minute, and then loading the software again solved the problem.  You don't want to be dealing with this in the middle of an inning, of course, but I think this was something of  a "freak" occurrence.  All the same, I now leave glancing at the score card screen as something I do in between innings.  

My over-arching opinion of the scoring system is that while there is a small learning curve, I'm very impressed at how flexible the system is.  This may be heresy, but because it's less bulky than carrying a pencil and scorebook to a game, it has already become my method of choice for scoring games in person.  At home, it will probably depend on my mood whether I use a pencil or the iphone...but that's saying something, as I count sitting on my couch & scoring a Reds game among one of life's great pleasures.

Game Output

Among the most important things for an application like this is is the scorebook output, which I'm pretty pleased with.  If you click here, you can download a scorebook of Sunday's Reds @ Cubs game if you'd like to take a look (it's a PDF), though I'll give you a screen capture of a part of the Reds' book here:

Scorebook_medium

In the first inning, you should be able to see that Heisey was hit by a pitch, and then next two Reds hitters grounded into fielders choices...and by the ball location, you can see they both probably should have been double plays but weren't!  Joey Votto's AB included five pitches: strike, strike, ball, foul (the "x"), and then the ball hit into play.  He advanced to second on an errant throw by SS Starlin Castro.  Finally, Jay Bruce brought both he and Jonny Gomes (who walked) home with a 2-RBI double to right field before Juan "El Nino Destructor" Francisco struck out swinging to end the inning.

It's a very readable scorebook, with good use of colors and notes to convey a lot of information.  I like the inclusion of hit location information, in particular, although this unfortunately is the only place I've seen where this information is reported in the output--though I imagine that enterprising codemonkeys could extract this information from the database if they wanted.  

* As an aside, I can definitely see why hit location data can be so unreliable after doing this myself--it's very hard to judge where a ball was actually hit, ESPECIALLY when you're just watching on the tv.  I'm certain I tend to place balls either right at a player, or right along the line far too often.  I'm sure the BIS guys do a better job, but how much better?

Pitch location shows up on a separate page, e.g.:

Scorebook_pitch_location_medium

I wouldn't put my pitch records up against those on gameday (I'm sure I probably cluster too much along the edges of the zone), but it's fun to keep track of during the game.  I'm especially enjoying recording pitch type, as it's something I've never really tried to do before and it's really forced me to try to identify pitches as they come.  I'm not particularly reliable, but if I get radar gun readings on the tv, I can distinguish most pitches at least a decent % of the time. :)  The one critique I'll levy on the output is that there is no key to help you remember which pitch type corresponds to which color "dot" above.  Fastballs are while, but I'd have to check to figure out which colors correspond to curves, change-ups, sliders, etc.

All of the game data can be emailed to yourself, making it easy to access the data and scorebooks.  Furthermore, you can also access compiled team data within the software.  Here's a link to a spreadsheet produced by the program of Cincinnati Reds stats for the four games I've scored over the past couple of weeks.  While this information is obviously available elsewhere, and probably with fewer errors, this could be fantastic functionality for scorekeepers of amateur games.  You can post the data online manually, or you can pay $20 to have your team's statistics hosted by iscore's servers, which will keep it updated and easily accessible to parents/players/fans.

Iscorecast_mediumFinally, during a game, there's one final extremely exciting feature: iscorecast.  Think MLB Gameday, but for your kid's little league game.  I mean seriously, you can't tell me that's not cool!  It's pretty bare bones at this point--you don't get broadcasts of pitch location or hit location data, for example, and you can't pull up player statistics or jump around to different points in the ballgame...but for parents who can't make their kids' game, I can see this being incredibly well-received.  You can check it out for games I've already scored by going to the iscorecast website and typing in my customer ID: 2F2A51B5FD.  Or, if you get lucky, you might catch me scoring a game live. :)

iScore also has very basic twitter functionality.  Once you give it your login info (which is only stored locally), it will automatically tweet when you begin an iscorecast and when the game ends.  You also have the option to manually tell iscore to issue a short tweet describing the current game situation, which could be nice for followers not at the game and not watching iscorecast.  I'd still like to see an option to automaticlaly tweet text play by play, including your own manual game notes, over a twitter feed.  And as a wishlist item, I'd also love to be able to send and view my own tweets through the software at games, because I like to banter on twitter while at games.  But hey, at least the very basic functionality is there.

So there you have it.  iScore is a well-designed program that works extremely well.  It takes the complicated task like scoring a game and successfully makes it something that can be done with surprising ease on an iPhone.  For someone who has never scored a game before, I can actually see it being more approachable than learning the symbolism of traditional scorekeeping (though that said, my kids are still going to learn it the old fashioned way first. :) ).  And the ability to automatically compile team statistics is a real boon for those in charge of keeping such data for little leagues, etc.  If you're looking for a portable, computerized scorekeeping option, this program is definitely worth a look.

All in-app screenshots were taken from the iScore baseball website.  Other screenshots were generated myself.  

Update: Someone asked over e-mail, so I thought I'd state it here: this is an unsolicited review and was made on a copy of the software that I purchased myself.  iScore was not informed in any way that I was going to publish it.  The review is just my opinion about a software package I enjoy and I thought others might too.

Update2: There was a major part of the package that I missed, and recently discovered.  That's the admin team website.  This is a free website that the software creates to help you do a number of tasks (listed below).  The data on it are behind the password wall, but you could save them to your computer and post them elsewhere if you don't purchase the team website subscription.  Here are the admin website features:

  • Manage your iscorecasts (i.e. delete old ones you no longer want to be available)
  • Edit your teams, including editing team rosters
  • Ability to view all player's hit charts (see screenshot below)
  • Ability to view each game's boxscore and play by play information (see screenshot below)
  • "Tune Up" your database, where apparently you can export the database, have their server process clean it up, and then re-import it.  I haven't tried this, but it is a good feature to have available once you have a large number of games scored.

Hitcharts_medium

^^Those are pretty awesome.

Playbyplay_medium

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