With an audience more captive than ever because of COVID-19, Major League Baseball unveiled an array of technological enhancements Monday meant to entertain, inform, and enhance the broadcast experience for fans relegated to watching exclusively on their TVs and computers.
Some of the highlights:
⋅ Television broadcasts will feature Statcast 3D, which can generate high-resolution, data-based visuals that go beyond recent, well-received innovations such as ball and player tracking. For example, curiosity about whether a fly ball to deep right field at Fenway Park would be a home run at Yankee Stadium can be satisfied by overlaying the Yankee Stadium footprint on top of Fenway. Cameras can in essence become virtual, offering a recreation of a sharply hit ground ball from the perspective of the third baseman fielding it, the ball, or plenty more.
“Statcast really brings up interesting story lines that you often can’t tell through a way a broadcast is traditionally shot because you’re sort of limited to how production shoots the show. You’re limited to where cameras are and what cameras are looking at,” said Ryan Zander, MLB Vice President, Broadcast Products & Services. “Statcast 3D is a platform that is going to allow us to tell some of these stories and visually show some of these stories.”
⋅ MLB is not planning to let the empty seats go entirely to waste. Unless the home team decides to stretch advertising-emblazoned tarps over seat sections, virtual advertising signage can be used. The ads can also be seen on the field: MLB showed “Dunkin’” in foul territory, and a Gatorade “G” on the back of the pitcher’s mound.
Each team will use crowd noise, from a routine murmur up to play-specific reactions, that uses actual game audio from the “MLB The Show” video game.
⋅ In a concession to both COVID-19 and the fallout from the Red Sox and Astros video cheating escapades, players and coaches will have a personal iPad at their disposal, pre-loaded with video content — say, that game’s starting pitcher, a batter’s previous encounters with a pitcher, advanced scouting reports, and spray charts. MLB controls and dispenses the devices (around 15 per team), which can not connect online in any way during a game. If it happens to get stolen or misplaced, MLB has the capability to wipe its memory. After each game, the iPads are collected, sanitized, then re-loaded for the next game.
⋅ Instant replay will get its first major technological refresh since it began in 2014. The Replay Operations Center will be able to view up to 24 isolated camera angles, some with high-frame capability, compared with a dozen last year.
Another welcome development: Managers will have only 20 seconds, not 30, to challenge a call.
⋅ To track the rich, almost unending supply of granular data that’s generated in a baseball game, MLB is moving from Statcast 1.0 — also in use since 2014 — to Statcast 2.0. Instead of Doppler-based tracking of pitch velocity, exit velocity, launch angles, and spin rates, and defensive tracking of players, the new Hawk-Eye version in each ballpark employs a 12-camera array: Five tracking pitches, seven trained on players, and each operating at 100 frames per second. The system will even enable the use of some biomechanical imaging and skeletal models that can help pitchers with delivery issues or batters with swing path quandaries.
The enhanced cameras will mean no more blind spots, no more blind corners, and no more ceilings — previous technology could not “see” some high pop-ups. The accuracy of the player-tracking in the new system has improved from plus or minus 3 feet to inches, while the hit-tracking has improved from 15 feet to 1.
“This type of telemetry within the game of baseball has become kind of fundamental to the game — we view tracking and baseball analytics as sort of a utility-grade function,” said Jason Gaedtke, MLB chief technology officer. “We have to provide very high reliability, very high accuracy in order to support the game, and we’re trying to set a foundation here with this new deployment that is a foundation that we can innovate on for the next five years as the technology continues to progress.”
⋅ In an effort to at least reach, if not grow, a younger fan base, MLB will focus on video engagement, gaming, and augmented reality on Snapchat. Fans can create and share personalized videos using the MLB FilmRoom — if you’ve always wanted to see all of J.D. Martinez’s home runs in day games off four-seam fastballs with a runner on first, that desire can now be sated at mlb.com/video — and there will be gaming opportunities with cash prizes for 21-plus fans using MLB Rally products.
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.