Marvin Benard highlights 3 ways technology has changed the game of baseball
It’s a remarkable juxtaposition of classic tradition and advanced technology.
Perhaps the essential, defining, and most compelling feature of baseball is its paradoxical nature. For example, it’s both a team sport and yet a dramatic, one-on-one contest for supremacy. It’s also a long game with extended delays between plays as well as wins and losses that typically hinge on split-second blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments at the plate and on the field.
Perhaps more than anything else, it’s rooted in layers of history and tradition (the designated hitter still rankles many purists), and yet is arguably the most progressive and experimental of all major North American sports when it comes to using advanced technology.
With respect to this latter avenue, here are three ways that technology has changed the game of baseball according to Marvin Benard, a former major league outfielder who spent nine seasons with the San Francisco Giants from 1995-2003, and later became part of the broadcast crew for the Giants’ Spanish-language radio broadcasts.
Using Big Data Analytics to Get an Edge
While all sports are using data to improve performance both in the standings and in the front office, baseball has taken its love of big data analytics to a whole new level. For example, players are no longer evaluated — and indeed, compensated — primarily based on their individual ability and potential. Instead, they are assessed based on their projected contribution to a team’s win total, or their uncanny knack for coming through in specific situations (e.g. putting balls in play on the ground that advance runners on base).
At the same time, managers are increasingly making critical in-game decisions that are heavily influenced — and in some cases, essentially pre-determined — by what the numbers tell them versus what they see on the diamond or feel in their gut. The emergence of the infield shift (a defensive realignment from the standard positions to blanket one side of the field or another) is the most glaring manifestation of this technological application, but there are many others; everything from deciding which relievers should warm-up, to which pinch hitters should grab a helmet, and the list goes on.
Adds Marvin Benard, who wrapped up his impressive big league stint with a .271 career batting average, 260 RBIs, and 54 home runs, including the final dinger at San Francisco’s historic (and legendarily foggy and windy) Candlestick Park: The value of big data analytics cannot be ignored or denied — just ask Houston Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow, who credits big data analytics for helping his team win its first-ever World Series title in 2017. However, there is some belief that big data analytics has some potential drawbacks as well.
For example, many people feel that it is taking the art and creativity out of the game and making it too mechanical and methodical. Just think of all the legends of the game who might never have made it to the big leagues if they were put through the big analytics ringer while they were young. For example, consider Hall of Famer Rod Carew. He had one of the weirdest-looking swings of all time. Even his stance was painful to see.
You’d never teach a kid to swing or stand like that in the batter’s box. But he was allowed to develop as an individual and became one of the greatest hitters of all time. Could that have happened in a big data analytics world? Maybe not. What I’m saying is that we should use big data analytics up to a point, but we shouldn’t worship it. It’s helpful but by no means an exact science.
Using Wearables and Sensors to Improve Training
Another way that advanced technology has changed baseball is with wearables and sensors, which are being used to improve training and enhance performance. For example, in practice hitters are donning biofeedback vests to track the movement of their hands, arms, torso, and pelvis. Of course, pitchers — who are widely hailed as the most precious asset on a baseball roster and usually compensated accordingly — are part of the action and wearing lab-accurate sensors inside compression sleeves to capture key metrics such as peak valgus torque on their throwing arm.
Marvin Benard adds that in addition to improving on-the-field performance, advanced technology is also helping reduce the risk of injury. Thanks to technology, training is no longer just a matter of how frequently pitchers are throwing or hitters are heading to the plate, but instead, it’s a real-time look at what is happening to their body with each pitch and swing.
Live Streaming and Real-Time Data to Improve Fan Experience
For all of its legacy and glory, and its central role in the cultural fabric, baseball makes an easy target for critics; especially since its allegiance to convention and tradition can, at times, border on obsession (e.g. wildly out-of-shape managers forced to wear baseball uniforms, the ritualistic seventh-inning stretch that nobody really wants or needs, etc.). However, one area in which baseball has shined far brighter than all other sports is its live streaming options through MLB.TV and MLB.com.
Indeed, long before the NFL, NBA and NHL jumped on the streaming bus, old fashioned “buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks” baseball was offering its fans unprecedented tools and toys via MLB.TV and MLB.com; everything from more out-of-market games than they could possibly watch, to live in-game statistics that updated in real-time.
For example, fans could learn the statistical likelihood that a batter would put a ball in play or get out based on the count, the historical match-up between pitcher and batter, the time of day, the venue — and a host of other data points that bring tears of joy to analytics geeks.
Marvin Benard adds that given the fan disengagement challenges that baseball has had over the last few decades — which is largely a function of shifting demographics, and less about anything inherently changing in baseball — the positive impact that MLB.TV and MLB.com had and continues to have, cannot be underestimated.
It really has set the bar for what fans of all sports have come to expect, both in terms of access, and with respect to production values. In fact, many fans — especially coveted millennials — are watching games at home or at the park, while they track stats and chat with other fans on their smartphone. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition of classic tradition and advanced technology.
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