The old ballgame is now dominated by stats, biometrics, and VR.
Still colloquially known as the national pastime, baseball has for the last few decades lagged behind football in popularity and basketball in cultural relevance. The game has been seen for some time as slower and less exciting than those other sports, and to some degree, it’s an impossible divide to bridge; there is no baseball equivalent of sick dunks or crunching tackles. But both Major League Baseball and people working independently of the league have spent the last decade or so trying to make the game more exciting, entertaining, and relevant for younger viewers.
The effort to modernize the game — without the help of steroids — began with the statistics revolution brought on by the program run by Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, which was chronicled in the book Moneyball. Stat nerds have swarmed to the sport in subsequent years, completely remaking both teams’ on-field evaluations and how fans talk about and watch the sport. But there’s far more than just numbers — MLB has also introduced technologies that have made players better made it more fun to watch games. Here’s a look at some of the most prominent tech-aided changes made over the last few years.
Enhancing the experience for fans
MLB Advanced Media is a powerful technology company that does far more than produce the league’s TV channel and facilitate game streaming. Along with all the work it does for other businesses, including HBO and the NHL, MLBAM is a video game developer, website builder, and VR pioneer. Over the past few years, it has focused on expanding the game’s audience by putting potential fans in the game, from the Hall of Fame roadshow VR experience and broadcasting last year’s Home Run Derby in 360 degrees, to releasing a new VR game this winter.
Teams are getting in on the action, too; the San Francisco Giants have in-stadium VR, while the Chicago Cubs took their elated fans inside a World Series celebration that was over a century in the making.
Baseball has been called a game of inches, but for over a century, it was also a game people were just eye-balling. Players would perform insane feats of athleticism on the field, from diving catches in the gap to slamming bombs with whip-fast bat speed. Generations of fans debated which players covered more ground in the outfield, boasted more range at shortstop, and hit the ball harder. Now, all of that information — and far more — is readily available thanks to StatCast, the revolutionary motion-tracking system. Making use of high-tech cameras placed all around the ballpark, the technology measures just about everything that happens on the field, and delivers relevant numbers to fans against replays of the action.
MLB.TV and in-market live streaming
It’s not all that hard to be a football fan, even if you live far from the city in which your favorite team plays; all you have to do is head to a sports bar on Sundays and watch the game on Sunday Ticket. For a long time, there was no equivalent for baseball fans, and given the 162-game schedule, it was basically impossible to follow a team from afar. MLB.TV, the streaming app provided a solution for out-of-towners … but in the era of cord-cutting, young fans that did live in the same region as their favorite team couldn’t watch the games, due to local TV rights and blackout rules. This season, 27 of 31 teams will now have their games available for streaming in-market, a huge win that keeps the game in front of a new generation of fans.
Training for Players and Teams
Smart Bat and Blast Motion
Video doesn’t just offer new ways to enjoy the game; it’s also become a key tool for players. In fact, the technology used to break down body mechanics is far more advanced than what fans can access; players can watch frame-by-frame analysis of their swings, pitching motions, approaches to batted balls, and more.
Peripheral add-ons enhance the technology even further. Bats now come equipped with sensors — slip-on versions are available as well — that measure players’ swings in practice, giving them vital data that is paired with video to refine their approaches even further. MLB teamed up with Blast Motion, which makes one of the sensors, to outfit any teams that are interested in making use of the technology. Anyone can buy one of their sensors too, and it’s even been sanctioned for use in Little League.
Once again, players get a more advanced version of the technology that fans are just beginning to enjoy. Players around the league have for the last few years been able to step into the batter’s box and onto the pitcher’s mound using VR goggles and video provided by a company called Project OPS. The technology allows the athletes to feel like they’re really in a game, so they can study their opponents and simulate what it’s like to face a pitcher or batter. They can see the ball move just as it would out of the hands of an ace pitcher, and react to contact in real-time on a virtual playing field.
PitchFX and TrackMan
Consider this tech the spiritual successor of Moneyball. Teams are no longer just looking at the results of plays that happen on the field; now they’re measuring what happens to the ball during the game. Using sensors installed in Major League stadiums in 2006, PitchFX tracks the physics of every pitch, and teams have used that data to find pitchers who have special talents but are perhaps not being utilized properly.
The most famous case is how the Astros noticed that pitcher Collin McHugh had crazy spin on his curveball, signed him off the scrap heap, tweaked his approach to facing batters, and turned him into a mid-rotation starter.
Meanwhile, TrackMan technology — which is available to players at all levels, including Little Leaguers with crazy parents — measures lots of others data points, like how fast a ball is struck by a bat, what the spin rate on a batted ball is, and how hard it hits the ground.
MLB teams are not just interested in what their players make happen, but also what happens to their players. There is only so much you can change with practice and positional adjustments; players have their limits. The solution? Extending those player limits.
This season, teams will be allowed to ask players to wear bio-monitors, which measure and record all sorts of physical data. Produced by WHOOP, the wristband monitor tracks vital signs and physical duress during sleep, play, rest, and recovery. They can use this data to adjust workouts, pitching motions, running styles, and sleep cycles.
This innovation opens a serious debate: Who owns the data on players? Should they be allowed privacy from their employers during their off-hours? Or should teams have the right to know all about bodies of employees they pay millions of dollars to perform physical tasks? In this way, baseball is far ahead of its time, presaging conflicts that will likely touch all sorts of businesses.
It doesn’t take a WHOOP monitor to know that more sleep equals better athletic performance, and some teams aren’t waiting to take action. The Boston Red Sox have outfitted Fenway with a new “Sleep Room,” filled with performance mattresses and bedding, to allow players to get comfortable and well-rested even at the ballpark. And to make sure they sleep well at home, they gave all the players new pillows and other perks, as well.