Will Optical Tracking and Catcher Defense Revelations Change Scouting?
It’s been a while since we’ve had our last major, quantifiable or technological advancement in the public baseball sphere. It’s allowed us, certainly me, to become totally comfortable with just about everything presently on the statistical menu, knowing how everything is cooked and what other stats compliment it. I was comfortable, almost bored. Then, this week, two rather significant valuation bombs have been dropped on the baseball world.
First, Baseball Prospectus has brought this to the forefront, a new model for quantifying catcher receiving and blocking. If you haven’t already clicked on that link you should know that the article is free and mind-blowingly cool. For those of you too lazy to read it, I’ll do my best to summarize the model’s utility without delving into the intricacies of the statistical methodology involved, some of which is admittedly imperfect. Basically, previous research has shown that the way catchers receive a borderline pitch heavily influences whether or not that pitch is called a strike. It is a skill, like running fast or throwing hard, but one that we have no traditional (nor modern off-shoot or improved) way of measuring the way we can measure offensive output and are beginning to measure defensive output (more on that in a minute). The new model, put together by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis, attempts to do just that. The results: Catcher defense is really fucking important and valuable if the right guy is giving it to you. Based on the results of the study, the defense of elite receivers like Jose Molina and Johnathan Lucroy is worth approximately two wins, annually. That’s about the equivalent of an average, everyday player just on their defense alone. Conversely, heavy-handed butchers like Ryan Doumit and Everyone Who’s Caught for the Mariners for the Past Decade are doing severe harm to their team. Keep that paragraph in your back pocket.
The second very significant news this week came out of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, something I used to make a point to attend annually but can no longer stand because, bro, it has totally sold out and gone all mainstream. Please to enjoy this video:
This advancement is more technological. MLB Advance Media has begun a project that will place cameras behind home plate that will measure a variety of things, including pitch speed, RPMs on the baseball, exit velocity and trajectory off the bat and the movement speed and efficiency of every defender and runner on the field simultaneously. Nothing has ever been so dorky and so all-world bad ass at the same time. If you want more details about the system, which will be installed in three parks this year (NYM, MIN, MIL) and hopefully every park by opening day of next year, you can check out the things that have been written by the big time outlets here.
The dozens of ways these two advancements will impact personnel decision making in the future are sure to be dissected ad nauseum. But will these breakthroughs have any impact on the way minor league and amateur players are scouted?
According to one NL scout I reached out to yesterday, the answer is a somewhat open-minded, “no.”
“All the stats are another tool to aid in that process. Nothing beats the perspective of a scout who has been around the game for a long time. I can see these tools reinforcing what we already see.”
For myriad of reasons, this seems to be correct. Scouts are so immersed in their own world, a world which consists of driving, eating poorly, not seeing your family enough, driving, filing scouting reports, shitting in public restrooms, driving, filing expense reports and getting phone calls and texts from pests like me, that it’s difficult for them to even be aware of advancements like this, let alone become intimate enough with them that they’re comfortable altering the way they do their job.
Other hurdles are logistical. It obviously seems impossible for anything like this to be applied at the amateur level (though don’t be surprised if you hear the data from showcase events at MLB parks is being used as the sprinkles on the pre-draft evaluation sundae). Even at big-time college programs that have the facilities to support such an endeavor, there probably won’t be a steady enough stream of talent coming through to justify the cost, no matter who would be willing to pay for it. From a big market NL team’s Player Development guy:
“I know on our end (the developmental end) we’re still figuring out how to use this kind of stuff. Scouting wise maybe down the line, but I can’t imagine having a product like this at, say, a high school in rural Texas.”
But what about Minor League parks? With the right infrastructure in place, many modern-venue Minor League ballparks could be able to set up such cameras. I asked Lehigh Valley IronPigs Media Relations director, Matt Provence, to gauge the team’s viability for such an endeavor.
“I think we’d be able to handle it from a technological perspective. We broadcast all of our home games on TV and have the stadium set up to handle ten or twelve cameras right now. The Phillies have remote control cameras behind home plate and down the third base line here. They are remote controlled and it’s just for the Phillies to do video work. Obviously I’m not the authority on such matters, but from my estimation I think we could handle it.”
But park viability is undoubtedly an issue here. Very few minor league parks are as contemporary and sexy as Coca-Cola Park in Allentown. MLBAM has stated that they seek to distribute the data fairly among the 30 Major League clubs. As such, it seems unlikely that it would fund a project that would allow cameras in venues that could handle them while excluding them from venues that could not. While brand new minor league cribs could handle the technology, older parks like Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium may not have that capability. It would create a yawning chasm of data (“Okay, here’s 100 homes games worth of Cesar Hernandez data but only 35 from Mookie Betts”) that seems to deride the spirit what MLBAM seems to be looking to do with the project.
If anything were going to be implemented at the minor league level it would have to come from the clubs themselves who would pay for the system, or something similar, to be installed in their minor league ballparks and then hoard the data gleaned therefrom for themselves. But that, too, has obstacles. Minor League affiliations are constantly changing and it would probably cost a ton.
While the potential impacts of Optical Tracking cameras on scouting are as complicated as the device itself, the impact of the catcher’s receiving data is likely much simpler. I asked a scout, who played two decades worth of professional baseball, much of it as a catcher, if he’d change the way he scouted catchers based on the new valuation.
“As an ex-catcher, I’ve always viewed defensive skills as extremely important. If you can’t hit, you’d better be able to receive.”
Scouting a good catcher is still the same, instead, the way that player is valued by management is what is likely to change. For example, I’ve always been skeptical about whether Christian Bethancourt, a Braves catching prospect who is one of the best defensive catchers in the minors, was going to hit enough to profile as a no-doubt everyday backstop. Now that we have a better understanding of how valuable catcher defense is, the way I look at Bethancourt’s future value has changed. Maybe metrics like this will give guys like Brian Ward or Tuffy Gosewisch a better chance of reaching the Majors. It also might influence the way players are developed. Teams may ask, “What are the traits of a good receiving catcher and how can we nurture those traits in our young talent?” That ex-catching scout thinks such a thing can be done.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have a veteran pitching staff or a good coaching staff, you can learn a lot (about receiving). I’ve seen infielders make the conversion to catcher and become really excellent defenders. All pro ballplayers are gifted in some way.”
It makes sense that teams will begin to see if one of those natural gifts is an untapped ability to catch a baseball in a way that pleases the eye of a human umpire.