Eyes in the sky put high-tech information at 51s' fingertips

Statistics have been a key part of baseball since the sport was invented in the mid-1800s, but never before has so much information been available about the game.

“There’s a lot more information available today because there’s so much video,” 51s manager Wally Backman said.

The expanded use of video and innovative technology have combined with the advent of sabermetrics — the advanced statistical analysis of the sport — and the release of the book and movie “Moneyball” to create a veritable golden age of baseball stats.

The New York Mets, parent club of the 51s, feature several prominent proponents of sabermetrics in their front office — including general manager Sandy Alderson, who mentored Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, the main character in “Moneyball,” and Paul DePodesta, who was the basis for Jonah Hill’s character in the acclaimed film.

“A lot of people here have a lot of history with (sabermetrics),” said Dick Scott, the Mets minor league field coordinator. “We feel very strongly about it in this organization.”

The Mets utilize a PITCHf/x camera-based tracking system at Cashman Field and also employ a video coordinator in Las Vegas who shoots every home game and then uploads the footage, which is edited for each player, to an organizational database.

“The PITCHf/x data is used for sabermetrics. A lot of the stuff I’m doing is developmental,” said Kelly Lee Sutphin, the 51s’ video coordinator and player development assistant. “(Video) is just one more tool players have to develop themselves, and it’s becoming more and more popular.”

The PITCHf/x system tracks and digitally records the velocity, trajectory, location, movement and release point of every pitch to within 1 inch and 1 mph. Three tracking cameras — situated on the first-base line, third-base line and in center field — record the pitch from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it crosses the plate, and the information is then sent to a central pitch-tracking system.

The PITCHf/x system, which has been installed in all 30 big league ballparks since 2008, is the brainchild of Sportvision — the San Jose, Calif.-based company that created the iconic yellow first-down line for football broadcasts, the glowing hockey puck for Fox’s NHL broadcasts, the pointers and GPS tracking system for NASCAR broadcasts and the K-Zone for baseball broadcasts.

PITCHf/x is used at 39 minor league venues, ranging from rookie ball to Triple A, and the technology also is used to capture spring training data.

The Toronto Blue Jays contracted Sportvision to install the system at Cashman when they were affiliated with the 51s, and the Mets kept it when they partnered with Las Vegas this season.

“We like the information that it gives us,” Scott said. “We think it’s a real benefit to us to see what’s going on and break down what our pitchers and hitters are doing.”

The data produced by the PITCHf/x system — and HITf/x, which tracks batted balls, and FIELDf/x, which quantifies defense — is varied and voluminous and can be utilized in a wide range of ways.

Teams can track, throughout the course of a game, changes in a pitcher’s velocity, movement, release point, arm angle, pitching motion and more — though a seasoned scout or coach can sense when a pitcher is wearing down simply by watching him.

“Your eyes can tell you just as much as numbers can tell you at times,” Backman said. “That’s because you have a feel for the game.”

The PITCHf/x system is used to grade home plate umpires on the strike zone in the majors, and the 51s use the data to display the speed of each pitch on the scoreboard at Cashman.

PITCHf/x has been used on baseball broadcasts since its 2006 debut and also is featured online on MLB.com’s Gameday and on the MLB At Bat applications on iPads and iPhones.

The data also determines the type of each pitch, how often each pitch is thrown and which pitch is most likely to be thrown in each count by a particular pitcher. It also is used to establish hot and cold zones for batters and pitchers.

“So you know how to pitch a guy, basically,” Backman said.

Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman has the big league record for the fastest pitch, firing a fastball in 2010 that was clocked at 105.1 mph by PITCHf/x.

Sutphin said PITCHf/x data from last season determined that Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler, who started this season with the 51s, was the most effective pitcher in pro baseball.

“By not only how hard he throws, but the reach (release point) when the ball leaves his hand and the spin on his slider,” Sutphin said. “This is based on sabermetrics. It’s all about numbers, to see how effective someone is. They use it as a science. It’s groundbreaking.”

Along with tracking a ball’s movement, or break, Sutphin said the system tracks how many revolutions per second the ball spins.

Sportvision’s HITf/x system tracks the trajectory, velocity and contact point of each batted ball. The FIELDf/x system is still being tested in the big leagues, but is expected to revolutionize defensive stats when it’s ready.

The Mets have utilized PITCHf/x and HITf/x technology to put the performances of their prospects in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in perspective.

“The more information we can get, the better indication of what’s going on there and the better we can understand what kind of player he actually is and what skills they have and whether they translate onto another level,” said T.J. Barra, the Mets’ manager of minor league operations and baseball information. “It puts everything into perspective. Wilmer Flores hit (.321 in the PCL), but what does that mean? We want to see certain quality traits for a hitter in Las Vegas, just like we look for quality traits in big-park pitchers.”

While the PITCHf/x technology is provided to every team in the majors, not all of them utilize the data from it or other sabermetrics — which sabermetrics pioneer Bill James defined as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”

“That kind of stuff starts a civil war, that ‘Moneyball’ stuff where you’re trying to use numbers versus the old school approach,” said Sutphin, 24. “A lot of organizations are still using the old-school approach, where you use scouting to develop your farm system to get your guys to the big leagues to win games.”

Ian Levin, the Mets’ manager of baseball analytics, said sabermetrics complements scouting.

“It certainly doesn’t replace or change scouting in any way,” he said. “It helps make the picture clearer and fills holes we might have with scouting.”

Video is another tool teams and players can use on a daily basis.

Sutphin can provide slow-motion footage for each 51s player of every pitch and at-bat dating to 2008. He can call up every hit, strikeout, hard-hit ball and decision pitch through the Mets’ database, and often works with players to pinpoint problems and fix them.

A slumping Zach Lutz approached Sutphin for help this season, and they discovered he was taking too many first-pitch strikes.

Before one game, Sutphin challenged Lutz to swing at the first pitch. He did, and knocked it out of the park. Lutz has been hitting over .400 since and earned a call-up to the Mets along the way.

“Players that use video, it’s a direct correlation to their success,” said Sutphin, who estimates only 25 percent of players use it.

“A lot of guys stay away from video because they’re superstitious. It’s tough to see yourself fail.”

Sutphin said Wheeler often watched video of himself, one frame at a time, to ensure his mechanics were in order. He said many players in the majors will run into the clubhouse during a game after making an out to see what they did wrong.

“A lot of times it’s a quick answer: ‘I just missed it. I’m good,’ ” Sutphin said.

Sportvision’s motto is “Changing the Game,” but Backman — who played 14 years in the big leagues and helped the Mets win the 1986 World Series — said baseball hasn’t changed much since his playing days.

“There’s more information available, but running the game hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s matching guys up and trying to consistently put players in position to succeed.”

Backman might be an old-school ballplayer, but he appears to take a new-school approach as a manager, poring over a ton of stats in his game preparation.

“Numbers are huge. I’ve been using them forever — the lefty-righty matchups, on-base (percentage) — all that stuff,” he said. “I think all managers do.”

Backman didn’t mention sabermetric terms such as WAR (wins above replacement player), LIPS (late-inning pressure situation) or BABIP (batting average on balls in play), but 51s hitting coach George Greer said that’s just as well.

“Sometimes (sabermetrics) makes things too complicated,” Greer said. “You can keep track of a lot of things, but it’s going to come down to ‘Do you throw strikes?’ ‘Can you hit it?’ ‘Can you catch it?’ And ‘Can you throw it?’”

In this day and age, those answers are readily available.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.