How big data can amp up fans’ experience of the big leagues

MLB baseball
MLB uses the Statcast system for analytics. It recently moved Statcast to the Google Cloud Platform.(slgckgc/Flickr)

Computers and cameras are now some of the most important members of Major League Baseball’s roster — even though some of their output may only appear on the screens of individual fans.

Baseball has long been a statistician’s delight, but advances in both video and computing technology can tell increasingly detailed stories from those numbers — not just as video clips extracted from game coverage, but as synthetic video providing a perspective no single fan or camera could have seen.

“It’s kind of like a dork’s dream,” MLB product-development Vice President Josh Frost told panel moderator Brian Ring, principal analyst at Ring Digital, at the start of the “Reimagining Innovative Audience Experiences" panel Wednesday at FierceVideo’s Stream TV Show.

Credit for this goes to the Statcast system that MLB has maintained for years, but which the New York-based league upgraded and moved to Google’s Cloud Platform (GCP) before the start of this year’s pandemic-disrupted season as part of a broader transition to cloud platforms across baseball and its 30 franchises and ballparks.

“This is the first time they’ve had all of their data in one place,” panelist Caleb Weinstein, director for sport, media and entertainment at Google Cloud, said. “Everything from basically fastballs to hot dogs to everything in between is on GCP.”

That means MLB can make better use of the profiles it has of individual users. “We know that Josh is a Cubs fan, we know that Josh is more likely to watch Cubs video,” Weinstein said. “And not only is he a Cubs fan, his favorite player is Anthony Rizzo.”

In terms of video, this system takes the output of 12 cameras in every ballpark and correlates it with in-game statistics to allow dynamic extraction of clips for such MLB products as Film Room — a feat that Ring noted in an October post at FierceVideo that could open up new business models.

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As evidence of the kind of granular results that this system can now generate for a fan, not just a team’s scout, Frost ticked off the following criteria that the system can handle in a query: curveball pitches by Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw against left-handed batters at night in a particular stadium with a 2-and-2 count.

This play-by-play capture even records the motions of individual players as measured at 18 skeletal points. And not just players: Saying “it’s really anybody that’s on the field,” Frost added that the first pitch recorded by this upgraded Statcast was the ceremonial throw by Dr. Anthony Fauci before the home opener of the Washington Nationals.

And by combining this motion-tracking data with the output of cameras, MLB can generate video clips impossible in real-time video.

Frost cited the Atlanta Braves’ Marcell Ozuna pausing a home-run trot to pretend to take a selfie at first base in a wild-card postseason game against the Cincinnati Reds.

“You, the fan, once we deliver this to you, you can see this from any angle,” he said, after which you can turn that into a GIF and share it at will. “It becomes great trash-talking material.”