MLB advanced data will track player's every step

Atlanta Braves left fielder Reed Johnson right, leaps Atlanta Braves left fielder Reed Johnson right, leaps in the air, celebrating Braves center fielder Jason Heyward's ninth inning catch of Justin Turner's flyout to seal the Braves' 2-1 victory over the Mets in a baseball game Monday, July 22, 2013. Photo Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

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Jim Baumbach Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach

Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working ...

If you've ever wondered which outfielder has the quickest first step, gets rid of the ball the fastest or runs the most efficient routes chasing after fly balls, the answers may be coming soon.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media unveiled its still-under-construction player tracking technological tool last weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, and the presentation had the sabermetric community abuzz.

Thanks to cameras set up at strategic spots around the ballpark, MLBAM foresees a day when video will capture every movement a player makes once a ball is in play.

The hope is that the data that comes from those plays will allow teams and fans to better evaluate players in certain situations statistically in ways that are not so easy right now.

To illustrate the potential of what this new technological system will be capable of, MLBAM showed a video of Atlanta's Jason Heyward making a diving catch to preserve a win over the Mets last season at Citi Field, where these cameras already have been set up.

The Braves led 2-1 with two outs in the ninth but the Mets were threatening, with runners on first and second. Justin Turner hit a drive to left-centerfield that looked like a sure gapper, but Heyward, playing centerfield, seemingly came out of nowhere and laid out to make a diving catch.

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The replay came chock-full of stats.

The ball left Turner's bat traveling 88.3 mph at a 24.1- degree angle, with a hang time of only four seconds. Amazingly, that was just enough time for Heyward to get there.

His first step took .02 seconds, his top speed was 18.5 mph and he traveled 80.9 feet to get to the ball, literally just in time.

Leftfielder Reed Johnson, meanwhile, started out 82.7 feet from the ball and had a top speed of 15.2 mph, which is why he came up several feet short.

"We think it's going to change the way we argue about the game, but we don't think it's going to settle any debates," MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman said during the presentation. "We hope it starts more."

When that's going to happen is another question.

The cameras will be set up in three parks this season -- Citi Field, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minnesota -- and MLBAM says its goal is to have the cameras ready to go in every stadium by the start of the 2015 season.

How the data will manifest itself also remains to be seen. When MLBAM unveiled its popular pitch tracking tool PITCHF/x, it did so in a few parks in 2006 and in every park in 2007, and the data was available to fans almost immediately.

But the challenges here are greater, given that they're not just tracking pitch speeds, location and type. With this new tool, they're aiming to quantify every movement a player makes once a ball is in play -- defensively and baserunning -- representing a much wider net of data.

The turnaround time on the data right now is a few hours, according to Matthew Gould, vice president for corporate communications. But he's hopeful that once they get the cameras in more parks and really dissect the data across the board, the turnaround time will be cut down.

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As for when we'll start seeing these new stats, no one's saying, but MLBAM knew that by giving such a presentation, they were putting themselves on the clock.

Asked when this data will be available for every play in every game, Gould said, "It's a little hypothetical at this point to try to project that, but that's the end goal. And the work will certainly be done. It's kind of a wait-and-see."

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