Metaball: Can Baseball Data Help Market Baseball?

Michael Lewis’s 2004 book Moneyball documented a revolution in how baseball teams evaluate players.  More than a decade after the book, all Major League teams use statistics like WAR, Fielding Independent Pitching and Range Factor per Game.  Now, Major League Baseball wants fans to get in on the act with Statcast,  Using both radar and special cameras, Statcast gives incredibly detailed information on nearly every movement on the field.

 

Not pictured: Explanation of how a Major League infielder flubs a cutoff throw

I’ve written extensively on how sports and data combine to make sports themselves more marketable.  So I thought I’d discuss what impact Statcast might have on baseball’s challenged popularity in the US.

In, short, I think that the data won’t hurt, but they might not help.

Even before Moneyball, baseball had a love affair with data.  From baseball cards to the Rotisserie restaurant, where a bunch of stat geeks cooked up fantasy baseball, fans and teams have used numbers to describe the game.  Notwithstanding that Harry Chadwick’s concepts of batting averages, earned run averages and at-bats don’t make complete sense (c’mon, just because a player walked, it’s a plate appearance and not and at-bat?), they have become concrete enough to be contract terms for players.

However, not every fan really enjoys the statistics.

Some people watch baseball out of misguided loyalty, for its displays of athleticism, or even for the aesthetics of the uniforms.  Sure, we all want to see our favorite team win and our favorite player win, but not everyone really cares about how closely an outfield tracks to the optimal route to a fly ball.

Will those fans enjoy the game more because MLB covers the screen in information?

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It’s an easy grounder to [SYNTAX ERROR]

That was a rhetorical question, like “has baseball ever had a better catcher than Yogi Berra?”  In fact, the data may literally obscure what the fans enjoy, the game itself.  As a fan, you don’t have to read the box score to enjoy the game, but you can’t ignore the stats if they become a constant screen presence.

Ideally, an all-digital viewing experience would allow fans to toggle among choices of how much data they see on their screens (none, score only, FoxBox, full-on Statcast), much in the way DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket allows viewers to watch up to eight games at a time on one screen.  I, for one, would pay extra to have the YES Network mute the audio every time Michael Kay opens his trap.  However, contractual issues keep pushing this kind of access into the future.

All kidding aside (and I’m not kidding about Kay), MLB needs to ensure that Statcast adds to but never detracts from the viewing experience.  Right now, the technology only works in near real-time, such as during an instant replay.  Even as MLB tries to cut down on time between pitches, Statcast doesn’t seem to present an issue now.  Sportscasters have plenty of time to show Statcast-enhanced replays.  In fact, Statcasts highlights the athleticism of great plays and demystifies mistakes for those who are interested.

Once true real-time capabilities emerge for Statcast, usage becomes a question not of how but when.  As in, “when will broadcasters employ Statcast?”  Will they keep it confined to parts of the broadcast or will it be a continual overlay?  In the latter case, as Yogi himself might say, “nobody watches anymore because the screen is too crowded.”

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