In the past, here is what we would have known about the best catch in the major leagues this season: Yasiel Puig ran really far and really fast and took what looked like a weird route because Puig always takes weird routes. He craned his neck to track the ball while running on a full sprint, dove for it in the right-center-field gap, somehow caught it and perhaps even more miraculously managed not to break his wrist. He barrel-rolled, leapt to his feet and sizzled a throw to try and double-up a runner back at first base. This was apex Puig, a brilliant player at his very finest.
All of that is to say everything we know doesn't amount to a whole lot of substance beyond oohs and ahs. For that we can blame our eyes. They are a paradox; the things that shape our truths happen to be phenomenal liars. We want to believe our eyes because they're ours. And yet everything we intuit on a baseball diamond, particularly on defense, is visceral and subjective, regurgitated through our own biases.
Consider, then, what we actually know today about the best catch in the major leagues this season. A little less than half a second after Wilmer Flores barreled a would-be double – 0.45 seconds, for those who care to be exact – Yasiel Puig booked it toward the gap to make up for the lackluster jump. The ball would land 95 feet from where he first started his sprint, and to get there before it hit the ground he would need a near-perfect route. He ran one, actually, 97.9 percent efficient compared to the optimal path, far better than what a perceived Puig route may look like. He reached his maximum speed 4.27 seconds after Flores made contact, topping out at 21.1 mph, which is 6 mph less than Usain Bolt's fastest-ever speed but still patently absurd for a man running in spikes with a full baseball uniform on his body, a glove on his hand and grass beneath his feet. It could have gotten him arrested for speeding in a school zone.
The data comes from Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which today released two new video clips showing off the fruits of its camera-and-radar technology being tested in three ballparks with the hopes of expanding to all 30 by next season. If the system proves accurate and does what it purports to do – track every single thing on the field, from pitcher to hitter to ball in flight to fielders on the run, down to the slightest movement – calling it anything other than the holy grail undersells it. This is Big Data personified, bringing together technology, a company that has shown great faculty at harnessing it and a sport that embraces every morsel of information it can glean. While MLBAM still hasn't released anything to the public beyond three videos showing its massive capabilities, the system has managed to do something that seemed damn near impossible.
Make Yasiel Puig look even better than he already does.
The revolution is imminent, this is what it looks like: Numbers. Every number you can possibly imagine. And not metrics like Wins Above Replacement or regression analyses that necessitate a far greater understanding than most possess. The sort of numbers that even someone who hates math can appreciate.
Soon enough, we will know who takes the best leads off first base – down to the inch. We'll be able to answer whether Billy Hamilton really is the fastest player in baseball, and just how slow a Molina brother runs. We'll grow obsessed with route efficiency for outfielders – the shortest distance to the ball divided by the distance actually run – and we'll be able to say exactly how far Yoenis Cespedes threw his ball from left field. We'll know how fast (or slow) the ball comes off the bat and how fast (or slow) the person toward whom it's going reacts.
When Puig makes a catch like his one against the Mets, the barroom debate about who else could have made that catch will rage until some guy whips out his cell phone or some girl her tablet and says, actually, yes, looking at this player's speed and route efficiency, he probably could have made the catch, too.
All of this is contingent, of course, on MLBAM releasing the data to the public as it has with PITCHf/x, the Apollo 11 of baseball's information boom. And all indications are it will. Never did the company whet fans' appetites with beautifully produced slices of what two other technologies, HITf/x and FIELDf/x, could do. For it to tease fans with all of this information only to keep it a secret outside of the 30 teams that own MLBAM would be Lucy yanking the football out from under Charlie Brown.
The possibilities for growing fandom with a superior, publicly available technology are simply too great to pass up the opportunity. MLBAM might be baseball's greatest success of the Bud Selig era, the antidote to those who call the game staid. It knows the Internet better than any other sport, and this will be an extension of that. The data could go into MLB's At-Bat app, as PITCHf/x does now. It could be channeled by television networks into incisive highlight and lowlight reels that put the onus on broadcasters to analyze the good and the bad.
Imagine the Pittsburgh Pirates running side-by-side clips of Puig's catch with one by Andrew McCutchen, the second that MLBAM tracked it. The ball came off Juan Lagares' bat at 93.3 mph, practically identical to Flores' exit velocity of 93.5. McCutchen got a far better jump: 0.17 seconds after bat-crack, more than a quarter-second faster than Puig. He couldn't match Puig's speed, topping out at 19.4 mph, though the most remarkable part of McCutchen's diving grab was just how perfect a route he ran: 99.7 percent efficient.
One misstep, something as little as one spike catching askew, would have thrown McCutchen off his line. Up until now, our eyes have told us who runs the best routes in the outfield. Soon enough, we'll know – down to one-tenth of a percent.
The next piece of the roll-out is due a month from today. Target Field, home of the 2014 All-Star Game, is one of the three test stadiums with the technology in place. A TrackMan radar system does the heavy-duty work following the ball, while along the third-base line 60 feet separates two sets of three-eyed cameras made by ChyronHego that track the players. By the end of the game, the system has spit out 7,000 gigabytes worth of data. It is a massive undertaking.
Getting the infrastructure in place for 2015 won't be easy, though MLB outfitted all 30 stadiums with replay technology in a far shorter amount of time than it will have to install this system, which Sports Illustrated writer Jay Jaffe deemed, rather perfectly, "OMGf/x."
It is more than worthy of that acronym, especially once MLBAM figures out the details that will take it from concept to consumer-ready. At the Futures Game, scouts can cross-check the data from their radar guns and stopwatches with the system's output. The information can give them a better idea, too, whether their eyes were telling the truth.
A day later, at the Home Run Derby, we could see every swing's launch angle and speed off the bat and an exact measurement of how far it went – or how far it would have gone. We'll be able to see how hard the Derby pitchers are throwing and, better yet, how similar each of their throws really is. Maybe consistent velocity is the key to making a Derby champ. Maybe not.
Nearly every hypothesis, no matter how ridiculous or inconsequential, becomes a realistic test subject with this system, and that is what is most exciting. Every play, let alone every game, breeds questions that up until now came with no answers. They floated in the ether, almost rhetorical, because what we knew in the past amounted to bupkis.
What we know today is about to change. When Yasiel Puig makes another great catch, we'll still sit around and argue about which was better, because that's what baseball is: a great, long, endless argument. And soon enough, we'll have enough context to settle that argument. When years of data pile up, and we see who ran the furthest, or the fastest, or had the best jump, we'll rage against the lies of our eyes with the ability to actually quantify what made one greater than the other.
The past was a fun place, certainly, and baseball did just fine in it. The future? The future is just beginning, and it's going to do something that seemed damn near impossible.
Look even better than a Yasiel Puig diving catch.
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