Baseball fans might have missed the news over the weekend out of the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference: MLB Advanced Media is creating a new tracking system to analyze fielding. As an analyst and as a supporter of analytics in general, it's one of the most exciting baseball announcements I've heard in a long time.
The new system will be able to track the speed of fielders and how efficiently they're running routes to grounders and fly balls, as well as give detailed data on the hit itself, including speed, angle off the bat, and distance. It will presumably dwarf the systems that clubs currently have in place to track player movement and fielding, and the data that comes out of it could completely revolutionize the way fielders are evaluated forever. This is the kind of miracle that seamheads and stat wonks have been begging for for close to a decade.
So why does all this make me so uncomfortable?
First, I'm worried that it might not be available in any kind of usable form to fans like you and me who watch the game. I don't want MLB to just spit out a number based on its ratings and ask me to trust them that Gerardo Parra is worth an extra 35 runs or whatever with his glove. I want to see how that sausage gets made*. Major League Baseball hasn't figured out yet how or if this data is going to be available, but if they keep the most important information to themselves, there's essentially no difference between what the future holds and what is available to us now. This wouldn't be a step forward for fans, in other words.
*Okay, so more accurately, I want other people much smarter than me to see how the sausage gets made and to tell me that there aren't rat parts in it.
Second, and contradictory, I'm concerned about the democratization of data in the game today. In general, we have the notion that more data is good for us, and that it can help us to understand complex systems. I think that absolutely has the potential to be true, but we've also found that a little data in the hands of people who don't respect it leads to less understanding and more to unproductive and angry exchanges on Twitter (of which, admittedly, I've been occasionally guilty in the past) and in articles that make everybody look bad for both creating and consuming.
My biggest concern, however, with this new, definitive data collection system is that it will spit out the exact same information for all 30 clubs. "Great," you're thinking. "Then everybody will be more accurately valued and we can all celebrate a meritocracy in its purest form!" Quiet, Imaginary You.
If everybody is working off of the same data set, I'm worried that this will kill off one of the advantages at the margins that have helped allow teams like the Rays to stay competitive for the last six seasons, the A's to win the last two AL West titles, the Pirates to finally become successful again, and the Nationals to cobble together an impressive looking club again. Clubs like the Astros, Cubs, White Sox, Padres, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Twins are counting on being able to work smarter than their opponents to return to prominence, and this new system potentially cuts off one avenue by which they can develop a competitive advantage.
Similarly, the labor agreement worked out between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association in 2011 also limited the strategies these clubs could use to build winners, placing caps on the draft pick and international spending that smart teams were using to stock their minor league systems at a fraction of the cost it takes to acquire a Marlon Byrd or a Nelson Cruz in free agency. Indeed, we're just about to start seeing the fruits of those restrictions, as the Rays now have one of the 10 worst farm systems in the game, and no hope of restocking it without trading superstar assets like David Price. Ditto for the A's, who are in also in the bottom third of farm systems.
Clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Dodgers already have a built-in advantage in the game, able to outspend their mistakes at the major league level while still participating as much as anyone else in the amateur marketplace, and don't need more help from the league placing restrictions on other teams.
Those restrictions, of course don't mean that the Rays, A's and their ilk won't find another way to out-think and out-work the rest of the league, and maybe the new system will spark further innovation now that the vast majority of teams are extending their young players early, and more are exploiting platoon advantages and experimenting with aggressive defensive shifting. I'll be incredibly excited to see what that next innovation will be.
In the interim, however, I'm not excited to see that playing field leveled, and for important work to be done by the league on behalf of its less ambitious franchises. Rewarding them for their lack of intellectual curiosity and initiative, subsidizing their stupidity, and reducing any potential advantage enjoyed by the league's smarter teams seems to be counter to the spirit of competition itself. Baseball is better when a variety of teams are able to compete with one another in a variety of ways, and if clubs want to eschew knowledge and building their own systems to analyze defense, I say more power to them. Let them suffer those consequences, and continue to reward the most open-minded and interesting franchises who refuse to stop evolving and innovating.