Major League Baseball Advanced Media, or MLBAM, is now the clear leader in this field, moving toward a monopoly of sorts because it has been granted permission to install radar and cameras in all ballparks.
For two seasons now, the results of MLBAM’s spy work have been available to the public on its Statcast website. The home-run analysis system employs TrackMan radar that sits about 100 feet behind home plate, usually in a stadium’s second tier. To measure nonbatting events, stereoscopic cameras are set up in two arrays of three, 30 to 50 feet apart usually on the third-base side, attached to the underhang of the second or third tier.
“We’re just getting started,” said Matt Gould, the communications director for MLBAM. “Having hardware in ballparks, that was the big step. There never was that level of equipment in parks that could measure all things the system is trying to measure, from the pitch delivery to the conclusion of the event.”
Broadcasters who work in partnership with MLBAM can tap into all sorts of information, such as the odds that a certain outfielder will catch a certain fly ball. Or the chances that a specific base runner will reach third base on a specific single. Or the fact that the Yankees’ Aaron Hicks threw the ball in from the outfield at 105.5 m.p.h. to nail a runner at the plate.
The stats can be overwhelming, and it is amusing to consider how an old-school commentator like Phil Rizzuto might have handled them. Major League Baseball bans wireless access to these statistics in the dugout, though it does allow prepared scouting reports, complete with videos, on assigned iPad Pros.
As for the homers, it is important to understand that not all stadiums are created equal. When MLB’s Statcast or ESPN’s Home Run Tracker posts a distance, that length does not indicate the real-life landing point of the baseball — which might have struck a wall, a fan or a concourse. In order to make accurate comparisons between home run distances, it is necessary for analysts to complete the hypothetical arc of the batted ball back down to the exact altitude of home plate.
“The best way to look at it is that we have no topographical graphic at all in the analysis,” said Tom Tango, senior database architect for MLBAM.
Tango and other stat gurus, such as Greg Rybarczyk with ESPN, have been doing this on their own for some time, though not always with the sort of hardware now available. Unlike ESPN’s site, MLBAM does not recreate home run distances of the past. And even ESPN’s Classic Home Run Tracker can estimate distances for homers only as much as existing film, video and photography will permit.
The oldest so-called classic home run “measured” by Home Run Tracker was a rocket off the bat of Boston’s Ted Williams on June 9, 1946. The length of this particular homer is clearly a ballpark estimate, based on photographic evidence and meteorological records (76 degrees, a 21 m.p.h. wind). Interpolation puts the ball’s time of flight at 5.8 seconds at a launch angle of 30.3 degrees. The ball struck a Fenway Park seat 502 feet from home plate, and would most likely have carried an additional 28 feet, for a total of 530.