Joe Lavin

May 18, 2001

From Computoredge Magazine

Technology and Baseball

During a game last summer, Colorado Rockies' infielder Terry Shumpert was having trouble with his swing, and so in between innings he left the dugout and walked back into the clubhouse. There, he quickly watched a video of his previous at-bat. He immediately noticed the problem and made a minor adjustment on his next at-bat. The result? A home run.

Indeed, technology is having a definite effect on baseball. Just think for a moment of what players like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio could have done if they had been able to analyze their swings on video, and it's clear that this effect is profound.

Video Analysis

These days, players and coaches essentially have access to video-on-demand. John Dever, a spokesperson with the San Diego Padres, says it is common for many players to watch video of their at-bats during a game. And players are not just studying their own swings either. "Sometimes, a pitcher will tip off the type of pitch he's going to throw by a certain mannerism, and hitters can pick that up on video too," Dever explains.

The equipment that these teams use would make just about any geek jealous. Last year, the San Francisco Giants installed a video coaching system developed by Panasonic that uses 6 rewritable DVD drives and can archive over 400 hours of video in a database. That's enough to store an entire season of pitcher-batter matchups. Players and coaches can then search the database from any computer on the Giants' internal web and view each at-bat from one of four camera angles.

With so much video available, it almost makes one wonder how players find time to actually practice.

Electronic Scouting

Video isn't the only area of advancement. Teams now have elaborate computer systems dedicated to scouting, allowing them to look up the statistics and tendencies of any player -- amateur or professional -- at a moment's notice. With the Rockies, for example, all scouts have laptops and routinely e-mail their scouting reports to the scouting director. Gone are the days when scouts mailed in crumpled hand-written reports on paper. Instead of musty file cabinets, the reports are now stored in databases, so that the information can be easily accessed.

"Some of the older scouts were wary at first, but they soon realized that this was the direction things were going, and they had to go along with it," says Zak Gilbert, assistant director of communications for the Rockies.

These databases have led to much more efficient scouting. "We've basically eliminated paper," says Frank Marcos, director of the Major League Scouting Bureau. His office compiles scouting reports on all amateur players that are then sent to each of the 30 major league baseball teams. These reports, which used to be just on paper, now often include CD-ROMs with video of each player.

Marcos' scouts also use laptops and e-mail on the road. "We are saving a tremendous amount of time. We have increased the turn-around time for our reports, and the reports are more detailed because of the machines," Marcos says happily.

SportMaster Pro

Handheld computers are gradually becoming a part of scouting as well, though more so for the advanced scouting of opponents than for amateur scouting. Recreational Technologies of Olathe, Kansas has developed SportMaster Pro, a hand-held computer with a touch screen that allows scouts to track an entire baseball game in real-time. The small monitor shows a graphic of a batter standing over a plate; with a stylus pen, a scout can mark the location of every pitch thrown during the game. Later, the data can easily be analyzed to see which pitches a batter prefers to hit and which ones have the best chance of producing an out.

The SportMaster Pro, which costs $2,495, is only 12.5 by 8.75 inches and is designed to be as simple as using pen and paper. Scouts can use the stylus pen to write notes on the machine. They can also monitor pitch speed by connecting a radar gun to its USB port and even record video by attaching a digital video camera.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates beta-tested the system for a full 162-game season, and so far this season eight major league teams have signed on to use some form of Rec-Tech's software. Obviously, baseball teams have been compiling data like this for several years, but Rec-Tech's products remove much of the toil. Scouts can enter pitch-by-pitch information during the game, and that data will be immediately available for post-game analysis. The reports produced by the software are conveniently designed to be identical to the ones coaches already use today.

With it, scouts are also able to access an amazing number of historical graphs and charts. "If you wanted to, you could pull up all the fast balls that, say, Mike Mussina has ever thrown to Jim Thome and look at the results," says company president Craig Pippin. For the average fan, that might seem like overkill, but Pippin, a former minor league pitcher, obviously loves the detail. And so do his clients.

What Computers Can't Do

Baseball purists can at least take some solace in the fact that computers are still prohibited from the dugout. Even with all this equipment, many game decisions are based on managerial hunches, although managers are often reading computer printouts when they make those decisions. The game itself really hasn't changed. What has changed is the efficiency and accuracy with which statistics are compiled. Managers can usually base every decision on exact percentages, which probably doesn't make them feel any better when the unexpected still happens.

As for scouting, computers may help teams organize their information better, but scouting is just as subjective as ever. Raw numbers will probably never replace a scout's opinion of a player. "We scout individual ability more than statistics," Marcos says. While it's nice to know that a player hit 3 for 4 during a high school game, baseball teams care more about the future potential of players, and that is something only scouts can tell.

"That's why we pay them," says Marcos matter-of-factly. Despite the high-tech equipment now in use, a player's potential still can't be quantified with a single number.

One gets the feeling that scouts will never have to worry about being replaced by computers. As much as computers have helped baseball teams, the subtleties of the game may be the one thing that computers will never fully conquer.

©2001 Joe Lavin

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