Archive for Technology

Examining SMT’s Lawsuit Against MLBAM

On Thursday, a company called Sports Media Technology (“SMT”) sued MLB Advanced Media (“MLBAM”) over Statcast. The complaint in the lawsuit is 92 pages long, and I read it so you don’t have to. But if you did want to, here it is.

According to the lawsuit, in 2006, MLB and MLBAM entered into a contract with SMT to develop PITCHf/x. However, according to SMT’s lawsuit, MLBAM then breached that contract, poached at least one key engineer from SMT, then used SMT’s PITCHf/x technology to create Statcast.

According to SMT, Sportvision and MLBAM signed a contract before SMT purchased the company that gave Sportvision exclusive rights to provide use of their PITCHf/xpitch-tracking system for three full MLB seasons. However, SMT now alleges that MLBAM has not only failed to live up to that agreement but they’ve also been working with third parties to emulate that technology. Per SMT, that not only fails to fulfill the contractual obligations of their agreement but also is a misuse of their patented technology.

Now let’s make one thing clear at the outset: the Complaint represents only one side of the story. We don’t know if it’s true or not, and SMT’s case has real problems. We’ll get to those in a second.

Some reports have pegged this as a simple breach-of-contract suit, framing it as SMT suing MLBAM for prematurely terminating the deal in 2016 so as to proceed with developing Statcast. But that’s not really accurate.

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MLB Settles TV Lawsuit, Preserves Blackouts

Considering the potential ramifications of a victory by the plaintiffs in the Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball lawsuit, the odds always favored Major League Baseball eventually reaching a settlement in the case. Indeed, considering that the sport’s entire existing broadcast model was under attack – with the lawsuit alleging that MLB violates federal antitrust law by preventing its teams from competing in the local and national broadcast marketplaces – allowing the Garber case to proceed to trial would have been extremely risky for the league.

As a result, it was no great surprise to learn that MLB did in fact reach a tentative settlement agreement with the Garber plaintiffs on Tuesday morning, just minutes before a two-week trial was slated to begin in the lawsuit.

The terms of the deal will not be officially announced until after the attorneys have committed the tentative agreement to writing. Nevertheless, various media reports have revealed a number of details regarding the proposed settlement. In particular, it appears that by agreeing to create new viewing options for fans, and lowering the price for its MLB.TV package, the league has succeeded – at least for the time being – in preserving its oft-criticized blackout policy.

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The Impending Battle Over the Future of Televised Baseball

Next week, in a federal courtroom in New York City, the future of televised baseball will be at stake. On one side, attorneys representing baseball fans at-large will contend that MLB’s existing broadcast policies violate the Sherman Antitrust Act by illegally limiting competition and consumer choice, ultimately increasing the price we pay for televised baseball. On the other side, lawyers for Major League Baseball will seek to preserve the status quo by arguing that the league’s restrictions increase both the quantity and quality of games aired on television, to the benefit of fans.

The case — Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball — may not be the highest-profile lawsuit currently proceeding against MLB. But from the league’s perspective, it’s almost certainly the most important.

Long-time Fangraphs readers are probably already familiar with the Garber suit, as we’ve previously covered the case on a number of different occasions. By way of a brief recap, though, the lawsuit essentially alleges that MLB violates federal antitrust law by assigning its teams exclusive local broadcast territories (the same rules that also give rise to MLB’s infamous blackout policy).

Not only do the plaintiffs allege that the creation of these exclusive territories illegally prevents MLB teams from competing for television revenue in each others’ home markets, but they also contend the rules restrict teams from competing with the league itself in the national broadcast marketplace (preventing teams from signing their own national television contracts, for instance, or offering their own out-of-market pay-per-view services in competition with MLB Extra Innings and MLB.TV).

Thus, the Garber suit presents a direct challenge to MLB’s existing television business model, one that could revolutionize the way in which baseball is broadcast in the future.

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MLB & Fox Reportedly Agree on (Partial) In-Market Streaming

Major League Baseball’s arcane – and many would say horribly outdated – television blackout policy has long been a source of frustration for baseball fans. As most readers are by now well aware, under MLB’s existing rules, fans residing within each team’s designated “local” broadcasting territory are currently unable to view that team’s games over the Internet via the streaming service. Instead, fans must subscribe to whichever regional sports network (RSN) owns the rights to the team’s games in order to watch their local team play.

These restrictions impact fans in a variety of ways. For starters, the existing rules prevent fans from watching their local team play on mobile devices, instead only allowing fans to view their local team’s games on a traditional television set. So anyone hoping to watch their local team’s broadcast via cell phone, for instance, is out of luck under the league’s existing rules.

Perhaps more frustrating, though, is the impact that MLB’s blackout policy has on fans who are either currently unable – or simply unwilling – to subscribe to whichever RSN owns the rights to their designated local team’s games. Under MLB’s policy, even if these fans shell out $110-130 per year to subscribe to, they will still be blacked out from watching any game involving their local team, even if they cannot watch the game on their local cable system.

So when news broke on Monday that MLB and Fox are nearing a deal to allow in-market streaming for 15 teams’ games, some fans were undoubtedly excited to learn that baseball was apparently, at long last, fully embracing the new digital age.

Unfortunately, in reality, the MLB-Fox agreement will do little to solve the most frequent criticisms of MLB’s blackout policy, as the scope of the new deal appears to be much more modest than some initial headlines suggested.

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The Story of SABR101x

Professor Andy Andres remembers the first year that he and his colleagues, David Tybor and Morgan Melchiorre, taught the Sabermetrics 101 course at Tufts University. One of the more memorable lectures came on October 18, 2004, which was a pretty memorable night in New England. Though Game 5 of the American League Championship Series had started around 5 pm, Sabermetrics 101 — which met in the evenings — was still in session. At least for a time.

“We felt like we had to get through the lecture,” Andres recalls. “So Tybor and I, he’s got the radio, and every half inning we’d write the line score [on the blackboard].” But then in the eighth inning, David Ortiz belted a homer into the Monster seats. Andres and Tybor consulted, but determined that since Melchiorre had been lecturing about Derek Jeter’s defense at the time that they should let him preach, hoping the good karma would continue to rub off on the team. But they weren’t the only ones who had learned of Ortiz’s feats. “One of the girls in the back of the room, went ‘Wahooooooo, Ortiz just hit a home run!” Class dismissed. “We immediately shut it down, and switched to FOX,” Andres says.

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New Protective Hats Raise Questions Regarding Usefulness

Though it can sometimes occur, we do not watch baseball for the violence. That is reserved for football — the bone-crushing hits, the gruesome tackles, the cringe-worthy collisions. Baseball is supposed to transcend that. It’s a game of athleticism, certainly, but it’s about grace and fluidity and unencumbered effort. This is not to say that baseball is without contact of course. There are the double-play-breaking slides at second, the collisions at home. Major League Baseball has taken measures to combat the latter, and, very recently, to take on another injury concern — players getting hit by batted balls.

We remember Ray Chapman certainly, who was struck in the head with a  pitch and remains the only player to die on a major league field. The baseball itself underwent fundamental changes after that incident in 1920. There’s also Mike Coolbaugh, the minor-league first base coach that was killed after being hit in the head by a foul boul. Major League Baseball has reacted to this as well, making base coaches wear batting helmets while on the field. On Tuesday, it was announced that MLB has approved a new type of hat geared toward protecting the heads of pitchers from line drives. This, on the surface, is a good thing. It’s a good thing on any layer, but if the goal is really to protect pitchers on the mound, it still might not be enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Looking into the Crystal Ball: MLB’s Social Media Future

This is the last of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first three parts here, here and here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

Major League Baseball and its Internet arm — Major League Baseball Advanced Media — started slowly in social media, but the pair has made incremental progress. Technologically, things are running smoothly, and last season the league had lots of success with its Fan Cave, among other initiatives. But what’s in the league’s future?

Certainly the best way for MLB to push the online envelope is to offer good content. But as we’ve seen with countless reality TV shows, what seems fun and exciting one year can soon becomes stale. MLB understands this. “We want the Fan Cave to continue to evolve, so that it’s fresh and unique,” MLB spokesperson Matthew Bourne says. This season, instead of MLB picking Cave finalists on its own, the league is giving fans their say. The league recently concluded a voting period that saw the initial 50 finalists culled down to 30. So far, the results have been promising: MLB’s public relations team said they received more than 1.2 million votes in roughly one month.

All 30 finalists headed down to Spring Training in Arizona this past week, and the league now is deliberating on who will make the final cut heading into the regular season. Once the group — which MLB has promised will include at least one woman — is chosen, fans will once again have the chance to vote off contestants until only two remain in October. “This is an engagement with our fans through social media, and what they say is very important,” Bourne says.

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Social Media Expansion: Teams Get in the Game

This is the third of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first two stories here and here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

As the social-media revolution began, few major league franchises were fortunate enough to have a championship-caliber team. And perhaps only one was down the street from a company leading that charge. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants went on a historic World Series run while its neighbor was going on a run of its own. That company was called Twitter.

The close proximity between the baseball Giants and the social-media giant gave the team the online head start that perhaps no other team enjoyed — though several teams have now been able to replicate. And the rewards are still rolling in for those franchises.

Case in point: one of the first Tweetups organized by a club was one that the Giants hosted with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, “They have been instrumental in helping us understand how to use Twitter to communicate and engage with fans,” says Bryan Srabian, the Giants’ social media director. Twitter, too, most certainly understood the value of a live baseball game.

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MLB Expands Its Social Media Footprint

This is the second of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first story here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

While other leagues have seen attendance dips in the past few years, Major League Baseball has held strong. And though that success initially didn’t translate online quite as well — as the first part of this series indicated — baseball has begun pumping social media fastballs. Among its best decisions was allowing fans to share video.

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Socially Awkward to Socially Active: MLB Online

This is the first of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

The evening of Nov. 11, 2010, turned into a pretty frustrating one for Kyle Scott. On that night, Scott, who runs the popular Philadelphia sports blog Crossing Broad, got an email from YouTube telling him that several baseball videos he’d posted were being removed from the site. While the videos were short — none exceeded 30 seconds — and contained scant game footage, they’d apparently gotten the attention of Major League Baseball Advanced Media. It wasn’t the first time that Scott had run afoul of MLBAM, but he was frustrated enough by the situation to write about it the next day. “They were short clips that we used for a quick laugh,” Scott says now. The Internet site The Big Lead picked up Scott’s story, and Scott says most readers “sympathized with our frustrations.” That MLBAM put the kabosh on Scott’s videos seems counterintuitive for a sport that’s constantly trying to expand its brand — and 15 months after getting the YouTube email, Crossing Broad averages nearly 1 million page views a month.

So is MLB a big-league bully — or is it simply protecting itself? And how does the league stack up against its peers on the American sports landscape? To figure that out, you first have to take a look at Scott’s case — or more specifically, to YouTube, where the league’s social-media firestorm began. Not only did MLB not post their own videos on YouTube, they actively sought to remove videos that fans had posted — a decision that ran counter to other sports leagues, which never took such heavy handed measures. Sometimes, as in Scott’s case, the deletions left a very public trail — and that critical fallout can have a lasting effect. But while MLBAM could have been more diplomatic about its position, the league’s online media arm had a practical business reason for taking such a hard line: the moneymaker called

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The Nike Bat Kerfuffle: Much Ado About Nothing?

When Nike makes moves, the sporting world listens. They are, after all, the top sporting apparel company in the business.

So when they released contracted universities from any commitment to use Nike baseball bats during the upcoming season, it set off some waves. Presumably, it was a chink in the Nike armor, and an admission that their bats were suspect. But there’s more to this, even more than we can hope to uncover today.

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Baseball in 3D a Neat Novelty, but Not Quite There Yet

During every Yankees game for the past month or so the YES Network hyped the first ever Major League Baseball game broadcasted in HD. It happened last Saturday in Seattle, when the Yankees played the Mariners. The true 3D feed came two innings late thanks to a glitch in the production truck, but after that the experiment, by most accounts, was a success. The 3D era for baseball had officially begun.

On Tuesday night Panasonic, a forerunner in the 3D TV game, held an event at the Helen Mills Theater & Event Space in New York City. My colleagues from River Ave. Blues and I were invited, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get our first 3D baseball experience. After a round of hot dogs and beers, we strapped on our glasses and enjoyed a strikeout-fueled All-Star performance. Watching it in 3D certainly added a different feel to the game.

The goggles

This past winter several 3D movies hit theaters. The movies required special glasses, but unlike the red and blue glasses of 80’s 3D technology, these were more like sun glasses. They were cheap enough that no one really minded if you left the theater with them. None of this is true for the goggles required for 3D TV viewing. The new glasses are quite a deal heavier than the movie 3D glasses because they contain electronics that help render the 3D image. This means that they are more cumbersome. They’re also more expensive, running $150 to $200.

And here they are while on my face.

Ze googles! They do nothing!

The goggles were not comfortable at all, though that shouldn’t come as a shocker. They kept sliding down my nose, and neither one of the two size settings helped. Then again, I do not wear glasses. Both of my colleagues, Mike and Ben, do, and they reported no discomfort. It sounds, then, like they will take some time getting used to at best. I’m still not sure that I’d want to watch games every night while wearing these things.

One aspect I found strange was that the goggles could focus on only one display at a time. We had three TVs in the room, and at first I thought that the other two were too far away and thus the goggles could not render the image. After a few innings I ended up staring at one of the other TVs for a few seconds, and eventually a better view did render. When I turned my attention back to the TV in front of me it took anther few seconds to adjust back. Again, this probably doesn’t have any implications for home viewing.

A side-effect of wearing the goggles is the loss of peripheral vision. The theater had people coming around to collect empty plates and bottles, and I jumped each time someone leaned into view. That, too, will take some time getting used to, though I don’t imagine it being as big an issue in a household setting.

The image

In 3D movies it seems like the images pop off the screen and into the theater. On 3D TV it’s more like they’re playing inside the box — like a diorama. I’m not saying the experience is worse by any degree; I actually did enjoy the presentation. The 3D aspect added a level of depth that an HDTV just can’t capture. Cameras have advanced in technology, and we can in some cases judge depth while watching a 2D image, but in 3D the distinctions become clearer.

One aspect that struck all of us as strange was how only certain aspects popped in 3D. It almost looks like the background — in this case the outfield wall and scenery beyond — was a stage set. The field, too, carried a similar effect. The players did pop off the field, but it seemed like the field and the background were flat surfaces. This is at least partly because we’ve grown so used to 2D broadcasts. watching in 3D still felt like a stage play at times when the background was a prominent part of the picture.

For most of the game I sat at the end of a couch, putting me at a pretty extreme angle facing the TV. For 2D broadcasts this is usually fine. The image is flat, so it looks the same from all angles. At first I thought the same was true for 3D, and I enjoyed the early goings. But then around the third inning I turned my head to a TV that was to the right of me, but gave me a straight-on view. The difference was noticeable. Everything seemed like it was deeper and more defined. If you’re going to enjoy a game in 3D, I suggest you make sure to get a seat front and center.

The presentation

From the first pitch we could tell that not only would the 3D picture be something different, but the entire presentation would, too. When David Price wound up and dealt to Hanley Ramirez we were watching from behind the left-handed batter’s box. Like most other aspects of the 3D experience this seemed odd at first. By the second batter, however, I was loving it. You just see so much more from a behind the plate angle.

The most noticeable difference when viewing from behind home plate, and in 3D, is the level of detail you can see in the pitcher’s delivery. Every little nuance of Ubaldo Jimenez’s elaborate windup was clearly visible, and that added to the viewing experience. Normally only fans sitting up close can see him go through the motions, while the rest of us view from afar, or from our 2D televisions. The 3D view allows all fans to experience the finer details of the game.

It does take a little extra focus to watch the game in 3D, at least initially. It took me a few batters to pick up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, and then a few innings to pick up the ball off the bat. Again, this has to do with the differences in what we’ve become accustomed to and what 3D brings to the table. I imagine that it would take a few games to settle into the 3D viewing.

Part of the difficulty in picking up the ball came from the camera work. It seemed like the cameras and production crew were slow to pick up the ball, leaving us for a few seconds with little idea of where it went and who was fielding it, which was to be expected. Shooting a game in 3D is going to be different than shooting it normally, and it will take time for cameramen and production crews to figure it out. John Fillipelli, president of programming and production for the YES Network, made this point when talking about his station’s experiment.

Right now we are shooting a 3D game like we do a regular baseball game with the same basic camera positions. We have to find ways as we go along to accentuate the benefits of 3D in shooting baseball. These telecasts will allow us to start finding the best camera angles, determine how many cameras we need, things like that. To learn the nuances of shooting a game in 3D.”

Once the crews figure out what’s required for a 3D broadcast I imagine that they’ll pick up the flow of the game better. Considering I enjoyed the experience as presented on Tuesday night, any improvement in the presentation could make a big difference.

Additional observations

There were a few other aspects of the 3D experience that I noticed while watching the NL win its first All-Star game since I was in eighth grade.

  • The strike zone was difficult to judge because of the off-center angle — even more so than the off-angle center field cameras. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I’m sure it’s something they’ll look into as the technology develops.

  • At the outset the production crew used the behind-the-plate view for right-handed batters and the normal center field view for left-handed batters. I thought that was because of the camera sitting behind the left-handed batter’s box. But later in the game they switched to the rear camera exclusively. I was glad; I didn’t go to watch the All-Star game in 3D to see the same broadcast as I could on my own HD.

  • Repeated for emphasis: if 3D technology in this form is going to spread to homes around America, they’re going to have to do something about the glasses. Watching a special event, even a playoff series, with the glasses would be fine, but I can’t imagine watching 150 some-odd games a year while wearing them.

The bottom line

3D TV will not change the world. It will not make it feel like you’re at the game. But it does provide an interesting experience that allows you to view the game with nuance not available in 2D. I’m not sure how long it will take the technology to spread, but I hope that by the time it does they’ve worked out some of the kinks. They’re mostly minor, so I imagine it’s feasible if 3D takes as much time as HD did to progress into American homes.

From Yahoo to FanGraphs at the Touch of a Button

Another Edit: Some comments, like this one, have asked about the author of the script. The universally positive feedback for this goes to Justin Swift.

Edit: Commenter CJett pointed out that this script can be readily installed on Google’s Chrome browser as well as FireFox. I’ve edited the post slightly to reflect this addition.

Disclaimer 1: This has nothing to do with my previous post on the Yahoo Fantasy Sports API.

Disclaimer 2: You must be using FireFox or Chrome to enjoy the script described in this post.

Disclaimer 3: I didn’t write the script, so I won’t take credit or blame for it (though it deserves the former).

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get on with business.

Greasemonkey is a FireFox browser extension that allows users to manipulate web pages after loading them. Why is that cool? Because it lets you add a link to FanGraph’s beside each player’s name on Yahoo’s Fantasy Baseball page, like this:

Here’s how to give it a try:

0. If you’re on FireFox, proceed to step 1. If you’re using Chrome, skip ahead to step 2.

1. Install the Greasemonkey plug-in into FireFox. If you don’t have FireFox, I recommend checking it out; it’s a free, high-quality browser. Once you have FireFox, installing Greasemonkey is a one click process, but it does require a browser restart.

2. Install the FanGraphs link script. Before doing so, please be sure to read the disclaimer. If you’re cool with the disclaimer and terms of service, head over to the link script’s page. Click the “install” button and you’re all set. If you’re so inclined, you can check out the script’s source code.

3. Head over to Yahoo Fantasy Baseball, and try clicking the small FanGraphs icon that should now appear beside each player’s name. It should open a link to the player’s FanGraphs page in a new browser tab or window.

4. If you ever want to remove this script from your browser, perform the following steps: on your browsers menu bar, choose Tools > Greasemonkey > Manage User Scripts; highlight Yahoo Fantasy – FanGraphs Link in the list of scripts; and click the uninstall button.

Another disclaimer: I tried this script on two computers, one Windows and one Linux, and it seems to work fine and the source code looks safe to me. But as a rule of thumb, be careful with what you install on your browser. If you aren’t sure if something is safe to install or not, my recommendation is not to install it.

How’s it work?

In a nutshell, after you load a web page in your browser, you have a full html document loaded on your computer for the browser to display. Greasemonkey uses this premise to provide a means to customize the html in your browser. The script that we just installed works because of Yahoo’s good html design. Each player’s name is placed in a container called a <div> which is further defined as “name” (<div class=”name”>). So the script looks for the player names identified in the html, grabs the name from inside the <div> container, generates a link to FanGraphs, and appends it to the original <div> container.

The Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API

Today, I’m going to take a look at Yahoo’s Fantasy Sports API. If any of the details are unclear, just leave a comment and we’ll clear ’em up.

The Fantasy Sports API, announced on June 2, 2010, appears to be the only published and freely available API of its kind on the web. Currently baseball and football are included in the API, with basketball and hockey coming later in the year. From here we’ll take it FAQ-style.

What is an API?
In a general sense, an API (Application Programming Interface) is a piece of software that exposes functionality for other software to leverage or integrate. More specific to the web realm, APIs allow sites and applications to retrieve and post data from external services. APIs are the glue that holds Web 2.0 together: mashup sites that incorporate a live Twitter feed or Google Map, buttons that let you “like” a blog post on Facebook, and similar things are all taking advantage of APIs.

So what does the Yahoo Fantasy Sports API do then?
In a nutshell, this API fulfills requests for information with structured data responses. So, if your app wants to know what Barry Zito did in a specific game, or the draft results of a fantasy team, it makes a call out to Yahoo’s API, and gets the requested data back in either an xml or json response. The data in either response format is the same and structured the same way, but have different uses. Xml is a markup language and superset of html, while json is an object notation designed for use with Javascript, but that can be decoded by any popular programming language. The Fantasy Sports API is primarily a read-only tool at this point, but there is an API call post transactions to a team as well.

What data is available?
I’ll admit I haven’t fully sunk my teeth into this yet, but from reading the documentation, it’s mostly metadata associated with running fantasy leagues: draft results, team rosters, ownership status, etc. Individual player stats are available, but which ones specifically isn’t included in the documentation.

Can I set it in action?
Given that the API was only released less than a month ago, there don’t seem to be many live examples yet. The only one I’ve found of a site or app using the Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API is the Pickemfirst app, which I haven’t tried since I am not participating in any fantasy leagues this year. On top of that, usage of this API is limited to non-commercial tools and applications, which may act as a deterrent to potential developers. The hobbyist community is capable of producing great things, though, so it’ll be interesting to see what emerges from the release of this API.