|For the Love of the Technology, the Bay Area Is Reinventing Baseball (Again) |
By PETER H. LEWIS
New York Times
April 26, 2012
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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Adams said.
Keeping a video eye on the ball during just one game generates as much as 2 terabytes of data, Mr. 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.
“We started as a sports training company and became a software company,” said Phil Wagner, a physician who started Sparta with a former IBM executive and Silicon Valley investor. By placing the training facility in Silicon Valley, Dr. Wagner said, “we get smarter by osmosis.”
Using force plate sensors rigged to computers, Dr. Wagner and other trainers capture “fingerprints” of an athlete’s nervous system that are then used to custom-tailor a training regimen. Because athletes come to the facility from all over and from all sports — from Oakland (A’s pitcher Tyson Ross) to New York (Knicks guard Jeremy Lin) — all athletes are issued iPads to record and communicate back to Sparta their sleeping and eating habits, stretching and workouts.
The A’s this year are experimenting with dynamic ticket pricing, a technology first deployed by the Giants three years ago. Old way: The club sets ticket prices before the start of the season. A prime seat costs $50. New way: Ticket prices fluctuate constantly, depending on supply and demand, based on factors including the opponent, the starting pitchers, the weather, the day of the week, the current standings, even the going price for comparables on the online ticket brokerage StubHub, a San Francisco tech company where many baseball fans go to snare hard-to-get seats.
“We’re seeing a 30 percent uptick on individual ticket revenues,” said Barry Kahn, chief executive of Qcue, which developed the dynamic pricing system. “It’s definitely a good revenue boost to both clubs.”
Mr. Kahn said that the algorithms were now being tweaked to add promotional codes to tickets. Dynamic pricing is also used by the A’s to redistribute fans when the Coliseum does not sell out (that is, for most games). Using dynamic pricing, the team entices fans to upgrade from the cheapest nosebleed seats to better seating closer to the field.
“What I don’t like is people sitting in the upper deck when there are empty seats below,” Mr. Kahn said. “If we can put fans in better seats, it’s good for the club, which generates more revenue, and good for the fan, who gets more value.”
One of the advantages of having the nation’s third-largest wireless communications company as the principal sponsor of AT&T Park is that Giants fans have access to news, analysis, audio, video and social media right from their seats, using the ubiquitous smartphones, iPods, iPads and other mobile devices that every fan seems to carry.
The average age of Giants players is 28.8, meaning they have never known a world without computers. They wander through the locker room listening to MP3 players, playing video games and watching videos of every at-bat or pitch by themselves or opponents, delivered to iPads. And of course they follow other teams and scores by tapping into a vast online store of sports information. One of the leading purveyors of that news is Bleacher Report, a new media company in San Francisco that uses hundreds of writers to cover seemingly every aspect of baseball and other sports.
Some fans prefer to use social media for unfiltered insights into the game and players. When fans glance up from their display screens at the giant, high-definition scoreboard above center field — keen-eyed observers will notice the solar panels that provide some of the power — they often see the Twitter handles of the players, courtesy of San Francisco-based Twitter, along with their basic statistics.
Brian Wilson, the injured relief pitcher, has more than 500,000 followers, who receive direct communiqués from him like this one following his “Tommy John” surgery last week, in which his damaged elbow ligament was replaced: “Surgery was perfect. Borrowed ligament from my ol’ pal Sasquatch. Only side effects: hairy arm and I talk like a wookie.”
Mr. Wilson’s trademark beard even has its own Twitter account, @beardofbrian, which has 15,000 followers.
Twitter has become so popular among players that the league had to crack down. No tweeting in the clubhouse or dugout during or within an hour of the game, the rules say.