Bernstein: Cameras Changing MLB Evaluations

We're well past the individual observations of an experienced eye.

Dan Bernstein
February 21, 2019 - 2:43 pm

(670 The Score) It was a little thing, but it was noticeable. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit the feeling was curiosity tinged by melancholy.

It came while reading a routine report in the Tribune about the return of Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish after his elbow procedure and what manager Joe Maddon was seeing as the team's free-agency prize of a year ago returned to the mound. 

"He was really free and let it go," Maddon said. "His ball had a good finish at the end. When I saw him good for so many years, I really thought he had great low carry/finish off the end. And off that comes the breaking stuff. So he looked good, and I'm very happy."

There was a time when we would all just accept that as true because the baseball guy said it, because that kind of assessment was his job. And while we have no reason to believe that Maddon is incorrect in his observation of Darvish in any way, I'm now compelled to wonder what the actual data show and how they show it.

This is life with high-speed cameras recording every possible movement of players, bat and ball down to the spin of the seams themselves, a technological evolution during which the Cubs have been on the leading edge and remain there. Video tracking systems from companies like Rapsodo and Edgertronic are now used ubiquitously across the game and for teams like the Cubs at every field on every level of the organization, every mound and batter's box at every complex. The biggest change in the game isn't metrics or algorithmic player evaluation -- it's being able to know every vector of the action for certain.

If Darvish indeed has his low carry and good finish once again, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has recorded exactly to what extent and how it compares to previous performance. Such things are measured completely and objectively in a way that obviates the romance of scout-speak.

I've spent countless hours around batting cages and back fields from A-ball backwaters to spring training facilities to the big leagues, just listening to the baseball people talk and soaking up knowledge from experienced scouts and coaches. "Arm-side run," "late life on the fastball," heavy sinker," "makes a different kind of sound off the bat" and such all having a real meaning that was understood. But now it can all be fact-checked.

Truth be told, there's no need for any of it anymore except explaining what the measurements show after the fact, each one a function of velocity, spin rate, arm angle, spin axis, bat angle, bat speed and more. Smart people who know the game have to interpret all of it in meaningful and applicable ways, but we're well past the individual observations of an experienced eye.

This is no cheesy lament over fired longtime scouts or the robots taking over and ruining the human element, because the game getting smarter and sharper is a good development. I do admit, though, that part of me will miss some of the old sorcery, the fascination of finding or seeing something that couldn't then be quickly confirmed or debunked.

Perhaps we're shifting the usefulness of human beings to the psychological side, the next frontier in performance maximization. The human brain remains largely a mystery even to neuroscience itself, and baseball is in the head in deeper and different ways than the other major sports. When Maddon and other older baseball coaches and managers work on relating to the new generation, it may not be due to age difference as much as it is the very subject of the conversations.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in middays. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.​​​​