A decade ago, as portrayed in the book and movie “Moneyball,” the Athletics put a new spin on the game of baseball through statistics and data. A new generation of baseball executives huddled around computers in Oakland and threw out century-old scouting traditions, relying instead on technology to select undervalued players in the 2002 Major League Baseball draft.
The A’s have no pennants or World Series rings to show for their innovation; other clubs quickly adopted the technology, and today, as they prepare for the draft in June, every rival club employs “sabermetricians,” more adept at software than at hardball.
But by tapping into the tech corridors of Silicon Valley, the Bay Area teams and their partners are once again transforming the game, from the ticket booth to the locker room to the concession stands. Baseball may have been invented elsewhere, but it is being reinvented in the Bay Area.
“This is like Moneyball 2.0,” said Hank Adams, chief executive of Sportvision, the company perhaps best known for augmenting reality on football fields with the yellow first-down lines. The company’s Pitchf/x technology, developed in Mountain View and pioneered by the Giants, tracks a pitched ball at 60 discrete points in its half-second flight from the point of release to the catcher’s mitt, measuring speed, arc, spin, break and location in the strike zone.
In stealth mode, the Giants are now able to track the ball in the opposite direction. Fieldf/x, which the Giants are fully deploying for the first time this year, tracks the hit ball and the defensive players as they react to it. For the first time since baseball statistics have been kept — we are talking 150 years — baseball statisticians will soon have objective data on how quickly fielders react to balls in play, how fast they get to the ball, and the accuracy and location of their throws.
On deck for the Giants: Controlf/x, which shows precisely where a pitch goes in relation to the spot where the catcher sets the target. Some catchers are better at framing a pitch for the umpires, Adams said, resulting in more strike calls, which in turn leads to as many as 20 extra outs a season. It does not sound like much, but it equates to two extra wins a season and potentially millions of dollars in extra revenue.
“That’s just one tiny example that a catcher might be undervalued,” Adams said.
Keeping a video eye on the ball during just one game generates as much as 2 terabytes of data, Adams said, requiring advanced algorithms, powerful graphics-processing chips developed by nVidia of Santa Clara, data storage tools and other technologies that are abundant in Silicon Valley.
The Giants were also the first team to adopt motion sensor suits, the same technology used to digitize human movement in video games and movies, to capture the nuances of a pitcher’s motion or hitter’s swing on a computer. They were first in the major leagues to embrace wireless Internet service in the stadium, to set up Internet kiosks and to welcome iPods and iPads into the locker room and stands. Fans can text-message the club to enter contests and to get exclusive updates on player injuries and insights from coaches and players during the game.
Sparta Performance Science of Menlo Park, meanwhile, uses computers and algorithms to train some 50 professional baseball players for peak performance and to keep them healthy.