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Statcast's Debut Broadcast: A Running Diary

Statcast is upon us! The long-awaited source of spatial data made its broadcast debut in Tuesday’s game between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals. Going forward, Statcast will be incorporated into every MLB Network Showcase game as well as various other broadcasts over the 2015 season. To add some different perspectives, I watched the inaugural game with two longtime friends: Adam Sonabend, a catcher in the San Francisco Giants organization, and Brian “Merdy” Merdinger, a law student at Arizona State University and lifelong New York Mets fan. I recorded a running diary of my thoughts and our conversation as the game progressed.

4:08 p.m. MST: Shift track graphic appears in the upper-right corner of the screen as Matt Carpenter steps into the box. The graphic displays where each defender is positioned. Bob Costas does not acknowledge the graphic.

4:10: Adam, sitting between Merdy and me on the couch, describes Statcast data as "good (stuff)" and explains how he worries this type of technology could expose holes in his game. I imagine this sentiment is shared by many ballplayers.

Adam goes on to describe the Statcast breakdown of a Brett Gardner catch he saw on MLB Network earlier this week. "Guys like Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, they’ll be fine. It’s like, they didn’t even know there was a test and still got the highest scores in the class."

I ask if players who flunked the first test can study and do better next time around. Can players who will not score well on route efficiency, for example, study harder and do better next test. "Yeah, 100 percent," Adam answers.  "Reading bat paths and the trajectory off the bat is what great fielders do and that just comes with preparation."

4:23: In the bottom of the first, we have the first signs of Statcast information. A graphic appears while Denard Span is leading off first. The graphic follows Span as he moves and displays the distance of his lead in terms of feet. It’s a neat graphic that updates the length of the lead as Span moves back and forth. However, the graphic is large and somewhat intrusive.

4:38: Ian Desmond fields a ball deflected by the pitcher. Desmond’s defensive woes worry me. It feels like something is bound to go wrong today for Desmond. Pray for Ian.

4:41: Jon Jay dives for a fly ball of the bat of Ryan Zimmerman. Route efficiency looks great, except his route ends about 10 feet short of where the ball lands. Statcast will not be pleased.

4:52: Joe Inzerillo, executive vice president and chief technology officer at MLB Advanced Media, makes his appearance in the broadcasting booth. Inzerillo explains how Statcast will be instrumental to evaluate defense, which is something that has proven quite difficult in the past. I agree, however, it will be tough to make comparisons across plays because of the unique nature of each batted ball (e.g. a fielder’s top speed is dependent on how close his initial position is to the eventually landing point of a batted ball.)

Merdy brings up another point. "It’s hard to understand what a top speed of 20 mph will mean without any context." The lack of context is a fair criticism and will not be resolved until the viewers have exposure to Statcast information for an extended period of time.

The full Inzerillo conversation can be viewed below:

5:00: The discussion turns to the perceived velocity metric.

Merdy: "I’m not sold on the value of perceived velocity. How much of a difference can extension really make?"

Adam: "It makes a difference. There are guys who throw 92 mph invisi-balls. Sometimes a 92 mph fastball feels like 95."

Merdy: "Well I’ve never seen a 95 mph fastball so…"

5:10: Bob Costas asks Inzerillo if Statcast could ruin the pageantry and poetry of the game. As Inzerillo responds by explaining that the intent is not to make the game look like a video game, the lead graphic from earlier reappears. I wouldn’t say the graphic is video game-esque, but it does remind me of the sometimes-distracting graphics displayed on a football field during NFL broadcasts.

5:14: The network shows the Statcast on the Jon Jay catch near the right-center wall. Max speed 17 mph. Average speed 10. Inzerillo talks about how his deceleration can be perceived as a positive quality when examining similar plays.

5:16 Statcast reviews Yadi Molina’s double to left center. Exit velocity of 99+, angle around 15 percent. Turns out Molina is good at baseball.

5:23: Mark Reynolds has first step of 1.9 seconds. That sounds fast, but it’s hard to say definitively without knowing typical first-step times.

5:27: The broadcast cuts to a clip of Joe Panik in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Panik records a negative reaction time on a ground ball.

Cody: "How do you have a negative reaction time?"

Adam: "Bat path. You know what pitch is coming and you read the batter’s swing. We played a center fielder from Kentucky who could do it and it’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen."

Merdy: "You saw me do that in softball this season."

Adam: "Go home, Merdy."

We’re already in Merdy’s home.

5:31: Statcast on a Johnny Peralta single.

5:47: Kolten Wong lays down a sweet push bunt.

All simultaneously shout out: "Statcast!"

5:47: Right on cue, the Statcast replay of Wong running to first appears. He reaches of max speed of 19.9 mph. Very fast.

6:08: Tough-to-watch commercial comes on.

Cody: "This commercial is brutal."

Adam: "We need to Statcast how brutal this commercial is."

Cody: "98.4 percent brutal."

6:28: Desmond tracks down a ground ball toward third base, leaps off his right foot and nails Jay at first.

stlwsh-desmond-makes-stellar-throw-to-retire-jay.0.html

Ian Desmond fears no form of spatial data.

6:36: Statcast reviews the pop-up that Matt Adams’ booted. Poor guy.

7:04: Statcast shows a graphic comparing the infielders’ current location relative to where they typically play, but the starting points do not seem to reflect where the infielders actually play. It may be some type of spatial average. The graphic itself does not add much value and is not explained well to the viewer. Matt Holiday singles to tie the game.

7:22: "Jordan Walden is what Statcast is all about," John Smoltz declares. "What he does defies science."

Me: "Well this is exciting."

The pitcher jumps off the rubber at the delivery point, a la Marlins pitcher Carter Capps.

7:24: A Statcast graphic explains Walden gets almost 8 feet of extension and has a perceived velocity of about 2 mph greater than his actual velocity.

7:28: Span grounds to first. Matt Adams boots it and everyone is safe. The bases are juiced as Desmond steps up to the plate.

Merdy: "Who would have thought Ian Desmond would be the star of the debut Statcast broadcast?"

Desmond strikes out.

7:30: Jayson Werth steps in, now with 2 outs. He smacks a low liner to center. Jon Jay, already playing in, makes a great diving catch to send the game into extras.

First step time: .3 seconds

Wow.

7:44 Wong grounds out to send the game into the bottom of the 10th. Adam is getting antsy.

8:00- With two gone in the bottom of the 10th, Yunel Escobar digs in against Carlos Villanueva. Villanueva throws a first pitch, 90 mph fastball right down the pipe. Escobar puts it into the leftfield bullpen.

The ball left Escobar’s bat at 101.5 mph at a 23.7 degree angle. The projected home run distance was the same as the actual distance because the ball landed in the field-level bullpen.

Takeaways: Statcast did not dominate the broadcast, especially in the early innings. Walden and Storen provided MLB Network with great examples of the potential difference between perceived and actual velocity. The maximum speed and route accuracy metrics were interesting, but difficult to appreciate at this point due to a lack of contextual support. I personally found the lead graphics to be a bit too large, but still is an informative tool.

Statcast data is going to have a major impact on both the way front offices operate and how the fan consumes our national pastime.

For the baseball community, this is an exciting time.

. . .

Viedo courtesy of MLB

Cody Callahan is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on the Twitter at @codycallahan.