Baseball’s most innovative franchise, the Houston Astros, triumphed over a Los Angeles Dodgers roster assembled by a front office with several Ph.D.’s in what was undoubtedly the most data-driven World Series to date.
Their sensibilities were an appropriate capstone to a 2017 Major League Baseball season full of advancements. Here are SportTechie’s starting lineup of top storylines for the year that was:
1. Launch Angle
Major league teams slugged a record 6,105 home runs this season — smashing the previous mark by more than 400 — as the term “launch angle” permeated the dugout’s daily discourse. The phrase, popularized by the radar-powered Statcast tracking tech, depicts the trajectory of the ball leaving the bat, with 24 degrees as the optimal launch angle for a home run.
Statcast didn’t stop there at defining the conversation around the DE Nokzeit game, adding metrics like catch probability and hit probability based on a batted ball’s speed, location and hang time compared with past data. Statcast also supplanted Pitch F/X in powering the umpire’s Zone Evaluation system (a tool for reviewing ball/strike calls) and in providing pitch velocities (causing some early season confusion when speeds spiked a bit).
2. Virtual Reality
VR seeped into every sector of the baseball experience this season: broadcast, game preparation, instruction and fan engagement.
Intel produced a weekly national game in VR on Samsung’s platform, while NESN became the first regional sports network to experiment with a few games produced by Intel’s crew.
While the Tampa Bay Rays were among the clubs already using VR to prepare their hitters to face certain pitchers, the Arizona Diamondbacks revealed that they were looking seriously into it as well. At least two new elite-performance vendors, Monsterful VR and Trinity VR (through is Diamond FX product) entered the scene. Major League Baseball and the World Umpires Association, meanwhile, began preliminary discussions about how VR could be used in umpire training. Youth baseball is an exciting sport combining team play and individual skills. There are great reviews on equipment like this website for youth baseball. Every child plays at least half of every game while making friends and learning new techniques.
The largest growth area was as an entertainment product. Monsterful installed its first fan experience VR batting cage at Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park; the Boston Red Sox had a VR Home Run Challenge on their Kids Concourse at Fenway Park; the San Francisco Giants enlisted Zeality to produce VR content accessible at AT&T Park; the Chicago White Sox created three catcher’s mask-looking Occulus headsets for behind-the-scenes footage; and MLB’s At Bat app added a game-tracking component in VR.
3. Augmented Reality
Apple’s new product Keynote showcase highlighted some potentially spectacular new baseball content, with the MLB At Bat app incorporating real-time statistical and biographical information about players via augmented reality for fans at the ballpark. A demo at San Francisco’s AT&T Park in September was a show-stopper with a larger rollout expected next season.
The New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies became pioneers in the use of AR for customized experiences for their fans using MLB’s Ballpark app. That same app featured Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa during Game 4 of the World Series, encouraging fans to rise as part of the league’s Mastercard-sponsored Stand Up To Cancer campaign.
4. Performance Tech
Details of MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement with its players reached the public this summer with explicit prohibitions on the use of data collected by wearable devices from being used in salary arbitration or for any commercial use. Two new devices, made by Catapult and Whoop, were added to the list of permitted tech used during games (although the data itself cannot be accessed until afterwards). Motus’ elbow sleeve has been used by medical researchers working to identify key risk factors for Tommy John surgery. The Colorado Rockies are among the most active users of MuscleSound, an ultrasound system that monitors muscle energy and nutrition as well as aid in the management of rehab from soft-tissue injuries.
Rapsodo infiltrated the advanced pitch tracking market with some high-profile use cases. Reliever Craig Breslow, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, returned to a major league roster after reinventing himself with data collected from Rapsodo’s portable device. Also, pitchers such as the Indians’ Trevor Bauer who trained at Driveline Baseball’s facility near Seattle used Rapsodo in conjunction with a high-speed Edgertronic camera to invent and refine new pitches.
5. Social streaming and conversation
Facebook joined Twitter as social media platforms streaming an out-of-market national game of the week to its users, while a Chicago Cubs partnership with ABC 7 Chicago and Facebook led to the first such regional broadcast. Demand for additional content, especially about the New York Yankees, was so great that the YES Network began using Facebook Live to broadcast its pregame production meetings. Twitter also created The Dugout, a three-hour weekly MLB program hosted by MLB.com’s Alexa Datt.
The Major League Baseball Players Association created its own social media platform with more than 1,000 registered players. The new app, called Infield Chatter, allows for more personal and direct interactions with fans and players. MLBAM’s At Bat app partnered with 15 Seconds of Fame to provide videos of fans who appear on a TV broadcast or stadium video board.
Disney announced it was exercising a clause to become primary stakeholder of MLB Advanced Media’s spinoff, BAMTech, which provides premium live streaming capacities. Disney was investing $1.58 billion (for a total outlay of $2.58 billion) to increase its stake from 33 percent to 75 percent. Each MLB owner reportedly received about $50 million from the sale. This signaled a major step forward for Disney-owned ESPN to enhance its streaming offerings. BAMTech provides the streaming infrastructure for leagues such as MLB, NHL and Major League Soccer already, as well as HBO, WWE, Fox Sports, PlayStation Vue and Hulu.
7. Hailey Dawson
The best feel-good story of the season was Hailey Dawson’s ceremonial first pitch before World Series Game 4. The seven-year-old, who was born with Poland Syndrome, uses a 3D-printed robotic hand. She had thrown first pitches at Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games earlier in the summer, and her family hopes she eventually can throw a pitch at all 30 MLB ballparks.
8. Robot umps
The idea of a fully automated strike zone persists as a conversation topic around Major League Baseball, especially any time an egregiously missed ball/strike call costs a team in a key moment. Some independent league demonstrations have indicated the potential for such a system, although MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said the technology isn’t good to replace human umpires yet, although he conceded that “someday” the sport would reach that point. To help illustrate the strike zone in as much precise detail to viewers as possible, ESPN unveiled a 3D K-Zone rendering during its American League wild card broadcast.
9. Smartwatch scandal
Wearables brought a little levity to a rule violation this summer when the Boston Red Sox were found to have used a smartwatch to communicate stolen signs. Use of electronics in the dugout is tightly restricted and prohibited for sign stealing. They received a fine (donated to hurricane relief) for their transgression while many found humor in the initial report that an Apple Watch was the incriminating device, although later reports indicated that a Fitbit was actually in use. Diamondbacks coach Ariel Prieto was spotted wearing one in the playoffs, although that was deemed a simple mistake. He still received a fine. (Apple did announce a rebranding of sorts for its watch, making the device more of a fitness product.)