MLB has had a pretty good couple weeks in attendance, hitting a new high that it hadn't been near since 2005. Even as more people flock to the park, they continue to develop the other sides of their content platform with apps and TV broadcasts. It's TV that will be seeing what could be a pretty big change starting today.
Of course, not all innovations stick. Fox broadcast NHL games in the 1990s that featured the loathed FoxTrax or 'glow puck' that had the puck highlighted blue at all times. Before the advent of high definition TV, it was frankly a welcome sight for the casual fan, but hockey fans are anything but casual. MLB has featured broadcast innovations similar to this, including ESPN's attempt this year to have an always-on strike box.
These graphics try to make the game more accessible, turning the sacred into the profane, but also attempt to provide extra engagement. Instant replay, Sky Cams, graphics that tell you score or relevant season statistics, these all are an attempt to give the viewer to stick around.
MLB is rolling out a new system today, though, that will make these other innovations look like child play. That doesn't mean Statcast, the name of the graphic and information system, will be liked or welcome, but it certainly represents the possible future.
Statcast was rolled out last year for the All-Star Game and the postseason on highlights and replays, and it showed information gathered by special cameras and measuring systems to show anything from velocity of batted balls or runners, but also the routes taken by fielders and the flight paths of thrown or batted balls. Here's an example:
Pretty cool, right? As detailed in this Sporting News article, MLB is now preparing to roll this out as package for live coverage. Instead of inserting it on the replay, MLB production teams will be able to use it as a ball is hit, or as an outfielder attempts to run down a flyball.
It seems pretty neat, but is it overkill? As long as it doesn't clutter up the entirety of the screen I think it's pretty cool. Until we see it in action, though, it's hard to say how useful or intrusive it will be for live shots. It's utility for highlights and replays is obvious, but if I'm try to pay attention to what's happening in a play, do I really need to know the velocity of the ball?
And make no mistake, Statcast is coming whether you want it or not. MLB wants to not just use it in the broadcasts on its flagship channel, but on other nationally broadcast games and local games. Again, how precisely that will work or the roll-out schedule isn't publicly known yet, but soon we could have Bert and Brenly analyzing physics figures along with OPS. I'm sure some of you are jumping for you joy at the idea.
(I'll admit to chuckling to the idea of some of the more conservative broadcasters having to use this system, but that's not really or there)
Statcast has a backend application, one that might eventually have public-facing aspects. It isn't just a broadcasting gimmick but also a data generating system, one that tracks petabytes of information on player and ball movement before pushing it onto the teams for analysis. If and when some of the data is provided for fans to check out it could be illuminating. Get ready for a new alphabet soup of defensive metrics.
The backend data is more exciting, personally, but the TV package will probably have more obvious effects on how people interact with the game. Beyond perhaps moving the window in which we view how to value players, most of the statistical revolution can be hidden away from the fan who doesn't know or care. The game of baseball has largely been the same for a century, and how people have watched it largely hasn't changed.
But now fans will be forced to confront the stats they may or may not like. Sabermetrics already won the war even if the sides continue to fight, but Statcast will make it inescapable. Even if the data it provides on TV will be more like a physics lesson instead of set of probabilities, it's going to force people to pay attention.
What do you think? Is Statcast something you want? Or are you now dreading its larger launch?