When Giancarlo Stanton, Major League Baseball’s home run leader, was diagnosed late last month with a broken bone in his hand and proclaimed out of action for at least six weeks, Miami Marlins fans didn’t need to be told they were screwed, but an objective way to convey a level of actual screwedness? Ah, this surely can be done.
It took less than a minute for Daren Willman to run the numbers and throw the exit velocity charts up on Twitter. On one side was Stanton, with a wide scattering of red and pink dots to show how fast the ball came off his bat – often at 110 mph or more – and track the many baseballs he’s murdered this season. On the other was his replacement, aging superstar Ichiro Suzuki, whose spray of exit velocity dots was much bluer, to not only show how much slower he’s hit the ball this season, but also to more accurately denote the general mood of Marlins fans these days. Stanton was ranked No. 1; Ichiro was 231. Even if you hate advanced stats, you could take one look at this tweet, with its two charts and Willman’s brief description, and understand right away what the data means. For anyone who has dabbled in advanced metrics, this is the endgame.
This is also a realization on the promise of advanced Sabermetrics that is built on the gobs of PITCHf/x data collected from MLB games. It’s a movement kick-started by sites like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, companies like Sportvision and Baseball Info Solutions, and people like Nate Silver and Dan Brooks, who is an experimental psychologist by day and proprietor of BrooksBaseball.net in his off-hours. There are Twitter bots that automatically track the pitches that screw your favorite team. And MLB can’t figure out how to fix its arcane blackout policy, but its Statcast technology, which tabulates exit velocity among other things, is giving us a deeper understanding of players’ talents and shortcomings.
Willman’s site, Baseball Savant, is a step above others. Fully operational since the start of the 2013 season, it started as a repository to search PITCHf/x data but also to look at spray charts, i.e. where batters hit the ball onto the field of play. Willman has always placed an emphasis on visual representation of stats, much in the same way Brooks Baseball shows strike zone maps. “I didn’t want to do exactly what other sites were doing,” he tells me. “There’s no point in that.”
Those early spray charts were proof of that philosophy, as was the feature that first got his site noticed. After toiling in relative obscurity for the 2013 season, Willman introduced a new feature during the following Spring Training that showed how many miles a team would be traveling during the 2014 season. Deadspin wrote it up and before long, concurrent visitors to Willman’s site had jumped from dozens to nearly 10,000. “Holy shit,” he thought. He was also just glad the site never crashed.