Archive for June, 2015

Who Are These Golf Tracking Devices For?

There are basically two types of sports tracking technology, when you boil it all down. There’s the Big Data sector, which consists of things like StatCast, SportVu, and the like. These technologies grab gigabytes and gigabytes of data which can be then queried, filtered, paired with video, and massaged into useful points that can be digested by both players and team-employed statisticians.

But the other sector, while perhaps getting a little less press, is growing at a great pace. This is, of course, the private, small-data, consumer space. These are the things we strap to both our sports equipment and ourselves. Fitness bands have been around for some time (in the context of this technology, at least), but lately there has been a big push into the realm of stuff we clip on to our stuff — our skateboards, our tennis rackets, and our golf clubs.

Companies that make golf tracking devices have an upper hand in that people fricking love spending money on golf. It’s an expensive game by itself, but it also has the inherent advantage of being incredibly difficult to play. Ergo, people spend hundreds of dollars on swing trainers, books, videos, new clubs, and any other gizmo or gadget that they think will help their game. I am no different. Is this money better spent on good old fashioned lessons? Most certainly, but that’s for another article. The truth is, most people don’t improve their handicaps. They reach a certain level and stay the same, or even get worse. This makes these golf tracking technologies somewhat perplexing. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that they purport to help you better your game. It has to do with the methods involved.

Some of these devices help more in the general sense. The Microsoft Band’s new updates for golf a fairly straight forward. It helps you keep track of your shots (replacing that archaic pencil and paper method, I guess) and tells you how far you walked on the course and how many calories you burned golfing. It also gives you notes on how much time you spent in the fairway and how you did on the greens. The best part is, after loading the course on your Band, the technology is hands off. No need to grab the smartphone or tag clubs. It’s a passive golf aid. While I don’t have experience with it yet, I plan to sometime this season.

Many other golf aids/trackers offer more features, but many features aren’t always a good thing for everyone. Take trackers like Game Golf or Arccos. Both feature the same type of technology. Sensors are attached to the end of your clubs, and are paired either with a device worn on the belt (Game) or your smartphone (Arccos). Course GPS data is loaded into the respective devices and the club sensors track where on the course you are when you hit your shots and what clubs you swung. Some simple math is done and when the data is all uploaded, the software tells you how far you hit your clubs, how many greens you reached in regulation, and what your sand save percentage was, among other things.

The company PIQ offers the same thing, but in a sensor that clips to your golf glove. PIQ takes it one step further, allowing wearers to see more advanced metrics like swing speed, tempo, and clubhead path. One of their bigger advantages is showing golfers distances to the front, middle, and backs of greens. Game and Arccos don’t offer this feature (though Microsoft Band does).

All of these things are well and good, assuming the average golfer knows what to do with them. Frankly, they don’t. Say you’re a high or even mid-handicapper. You are on a longer par 4 and need a six-iron to reach the green. You fan it into the woods and the ball ends up going 120 yards total. If you tracked the shot, that goes against your average six-iron distance when you upload your round. Shank your long irons? That’s getting added to the distance average, too. Now, what was supposed to be a point of knowledge has become a point of confusion. If you muff a chip, that shot counts. But all the data is telling you is that you muffed the chip, it doesn’t tell you why.

(Note: I’ve used Game Golf in the past, and the putt tracking technology is actually helpful. When I see my putts-per-round spike, I know it’s time to hit the practice green again, because putting is one of the things I can work on and actually get better at.)

Knowing your swing speed and clubhead path can be beneficial, as long as you know what your ideal swing speed and clubhead path should be. Should you be swinging 85 or 90 miles per hour? Should you be concentrating on more of an inside takeaway or an outside takeaway? Only those with specific instructions or an intimate knowledge of their swing will be able to answer this.

Anyone looking to gain an advantage from these kinds of technologies would either be a good golfer in their own right, or taking instruction from one. That doesn’t mean that this kind of tech is useless — far from it. But in the hands of the uninitiated, it’s no better than a butt-load of SportsVu data being dumped on a GM’s desk without anyone there to help him parse through it.

All these companies have some really cool tech — tech that could help a good or coached golfer improve. They are capturing metrics that are important to understand if one wants to lower scores. But on their own, they’re a key without a lock. Golfers need to know the puzzle before they try solving it. Once they understand the important keystones of their improvement, these kinds of technologies can help be the coach away from the lessons.

(Image via PIQ)

 


All England Club Dot Net: Wimbledon in the Royal Age of Technology

Generally regarded as the most formal of tennis’ Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon– pardon, The Championships, Wimbledon– famously features players tarnishing the courts’ grass surfaces in mandated all-white apparel and an only recently lifted requirement that the participants bow or curtsy in deferential acknowledgment of attending members of British royalty.

The 2015 tournament is underway, and so too is the eldest Slam’s grappling with technological developments. Perhaps most visible is the tournament’s improved website. The homepage, Wimbledon.com links to a live blog, which consists of a stream of updates including summarized match results, video and images from social media, and player comments. Live video and radio streams are available directly through the site, as is a video archive, and current weather, time, and ticket queue information appear on the face of the landing page. (Live video streaming also is available to cable subscribers from ESPN3/WatchESPN.)

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Behind the scenes, longtime tournament partner IBM has driven these updates to Wimbledon.com and informational mobile apps (for iOS and Android users), which will have an offline mode to permit ongoing operation where wireless service is unavailable. IBM also is leveraging its Watson computing technology in an effort to deliver analytical information to fans with greater speed.

While official digital coverage of Wimbledon appears to be at an all-time high, fan-generated content is a different matter. Wimbledon’s tournament directors, including Alexandra Willis, Head of Digital and Content, have taken a more actively-hostile stance toward the use of mobile streaming services like Periscope, although Willis admitted that her team would be experimenting with the technology. Willis’ focus is less on the technology’s ability to sidestep conventional broadcast channels– like others, she does not view it as a viable threat in that regard– and more on protecting the live experience for attending fans and players. The prohibition on video streaming is a natural extension of the preexisting rule against mobile telephone use during matches, which, in case anyone thought this somehow would fly, includes selfie sticks too. And speaking of flying, drones aren’t allowed either. Police already have seized one and released a statement explaining the legal basis for their action.

What effect will these mobile technology restrictions have on spectators? Automotive manufacturer Jaguar may be able to deliver at least a partial answer. By equipping some fans with wearable biometric monitors (focused on heart-rate variability), installing atmospheric sensors around the courts, and tracking social media activity, their hope is to be able to measure emotion, excitement, mood, and energy. The results are charted in real time to an interactive graph on Wimbledon.com. What value, if any, this meta-analysis provides remains unknown, of course, but it is nice to see one of sports’ most buttoned-up events stride into the digital realm without infringing upon the simple elegance that makes Wimbledon a perennial classic.

(Header image via scohoust)

All the Things You Wanted to Know About Conditional Formatting in Excel

What are conditional formats? Simply put: They make a wall of data more readable. Tell me which dataset can you more quickly identify the best player:

Not only do the conditional formats catch the reader's attention, they also help us see the outlier data more easily.

Not only do the conditional formats catch the reader’s attention, they also help us see the outlier data more easily.

Here’s a great example of a time where conditional formating helps a lot. We’re looking at the 2005 NFL Draft. It makes sense to organize it by the order the players were picked, but our emphasis is on Career Average Value (CarAV) and Drafted Team Average Value (DrAV) — two simple, but useful stats that Pro-Reference-Football.com provides to estiamte a player’s total worth.

The conditional formatting immediately draws our attention to DeMarcus Ware, Aaron Rodgers, and Logan Mankins — the three most valuable players from the first round. And the conditional formatting draws our attention to these players while also helping us notice — immediately — that neither Rodgers nor Mankins were top picks.

The NFL Draft is a great example of when conditional formatting helps most. If I just wanted to compare the Career AV numbers of all the players who entered the league in 2005, irrespective of draft location, then I’d probably make a simple list and sort it large to small. But when we want to preserve a specific order of the data — or want to represent multiple components at once — conditional formatting does a stalwart job.

Here’s another instance, this one unrelated to sports — my spreadsheet for looking for a second car on Craigslist:

Conditional formatting can also stay within a boundary, so to speak, so unlike denominations can be compared side-by-side.

Conditional formatting can also stay within a boundary, so to speak, so unlike denominations can be compared side-by-side.

Here, I care mostly about the Kelley Blue Book value of the vehicle (“KBB Value”), but I also want to know about gas mileage and the other facts of the car. I’ve set up the color coding, though, so that I don’t have to worry about 28 MPG throwing off a $4,000 asking price. Also, the higher the value of the car the more green it is, but the more expensive the asking price, the more red it is.

In other words, I just look for as much green as possible, and that’s my best bet.

So let’s talk about setting up our own table with conditional formatting. First, we need data pertinent for conditional formatting. Let’s go with 2014 NFL Team Efficiency stats from Football Outsiders.

First, I scrape the data with a little copy/paste action. Just highlight the table area in the middle and paste it into your Excel document. I recommend pasting without formatting. To do this, just right click on the spreadsheet and choose the special paste icon:

Pasting without formatting keeps the spreadsheet simple and readable.

Pasting without formatting keeps the spreadsheet simple and readable.

Now, after a little cleaning up — deleting those extra headers in the middle of the data, combining the two-line headers into a single line, and moving those headers above the appropriate column — we have something like this:

Now our data is neater, but it's still too much to digest in one glance.

Now our data is neater, but it’s still too much to digest in one glance.

This is another ordinal setup — except we’re not looking at draft positions, but DVOA* rankings.

*DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. It’s Football Outsider’s total value measurement, much like WAR is for Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

But one of the big problems with an ordinal ranking is that the space between No. 1 and No. 2 may not be the same as between No. 2 and No. 3. So conditional formatting helps us see tiers and groupings much more easily.

In order to add a conditional format to this data, we just need to highlight the C column and choose Conditional Formatting > Color Scales > the appropriate color scale.

Color scales are the most typical conditional format -- and they tend to be the most useful.

Color scales are the most typical conditional format — and they tend to be the most useful.

Even though we highlighted the entire column, only the rows with data in them show the conditional format.

So that’s how you set up a basic conditional format! You can play around with the different format types and see which ones you like. There’s no harm in slapping a conditional format on top of another conditional format — as long as you have the same cells selected, it will just delete the old format and apply the new one.

But let’s say you have an issue like we have in Column I:

A negative DVOA on defense is actually a good thing. So I'd rather have those bars appear green.

A negative DVOA on defense is actually a good thing. So I’d rather have those bars appear green.

If you ever have a format that’s not working quite right, just click wherever the format is looking weird, and choose “Manage Rules…” from the Conditional Formatting drop down:

If a format is giving you guff, head to the "Manage Rules..." area.

If a format is giving you guff, head to the “Manage Rules…” area.

If you have the delinquent cells selected (and your Conditional Formatting Rules Manager is set to show “Current Selection” rules), you should see the formatting rules in the window:

This is kind of the go-to place for adjusting conditional formats and making really fun and unique formats.

This is kind of the go-to place for adjusting conditional formats and making really fun and unique formats.

If you double-click on the format name (“Data Bar” in this instance), you will open the “Edit Formatting Rule” window. This window (and the windows nested inside it) allow us to do a lot of fun stuff.

I’m presently happy with most of what’s going on in Column I, so I really only want to change two things: The positive color and the negative color. So in the Edit Formatting Rule window, I will change the bar color to red:

This allows me to change the default bar color. I want red because a positive defensive DVOA is a bad thing.

This allows me to change the default bar color. I want red because a positive defensive DVOA is a bad thing.

And then, right beneath that, I’m going to click the “Negative Value and Axis…” in order to change the red bars to green:

After you apply these changes on the Conditional Formatting Rules Manager window, the column should update.

After you apply these changes on the Conditional Formatting Rules Manager window, the column should update.

But let’s say I want to do something even more complicated. Let’s say I want to highlight the teams with bad special teams — and I don’t want to just highlight the special teams column. I want the whole row to broadcast the shame of their punters and kickers.

So I’m going to create a special conditional format. First, I’ll highlight the entire table other than the titles (from A2 to L33). Then, I’ll click Conditional Formatting > “New Rule…” to open the New Formatting Rule window.

More complicated conditional formatting will often require formulas.

More complicated conditional formatting will often require formulas.

So, because we want everything to look at the K column and change its format based on what’s in the K column, I’m going to write a formula that says:

=IF($K<0,1,0)

All this formula says is:

  • =IF: This creates an IF formula. The syntax asks for (1) a formula that can be proved true or false, (2) a value for if the formula proves true, and (3) a value for if the formula proves false.
  • $K2<0: I’m telling Excel to stay in Column K — that’s what the $ in front of $K means. So if the K columns is negative (<0), then the formula is true. The conditional formatting is going to start with the highest row in the selected area, so since our selection begins with A2, we’ll reference $K2 because that’s on the same row. (If we put $K3, it would look at the row beneath the current row.)
  • 1,0: If the formula is true, then 1. If false, then 0. This tells Excel to apply the conditional format (1) if the formula is true (if Column K is negative), and to not format (0) if the formula is false.

After I enter the desired formula, I will set the formatting. Do whatever you want here. Change the fill. Change the font color. Make it bold. The pop up in the “Format…” window is just a typical Excel formatting window, so it should be easy to navigate.

I went ahead and set the format to a dark red fill and a bold white font. This will make the formatted rows very obvious, but also make the the table really busy visually — but I’m doing this for the learning, not for the beauty.

Anyway, we get this:

NOTE: You will need to hit "OK" and then "Apply Changes" or "OK" before the new format appears.

NOTE: You will need to hit “OK” and then “Apply Changes” or “OK” before the new format appears.

Let’s do one final this: Change format priorities. Notice how our conditional formatting in Column C is getting smushed by our new special teams formatting? Well, that’s no good.

So let’s open the “Manage Rules…” dialogue. then, look at the formatting rules for “This Worksheet”:

Regardless of what cells you have selected, looking at "This Worksheet" will show all the conditional formats on the present tab.

Regardless of what cells you have selected, looking at “This Worksheet” will show all the conditional formats on the present tab.

Then, with the special teams format select, let’s press the down button (note the second red arrow above) until it’s at the bottom of the list. Hit Apply or OK and you should get something like this:

Uh oh! The special teams format changed the fonts in Column C too!

Uh oh! The special teams format changed the fonts in Column C too!

This is a good cautionary tale about changing font colors and formats. Since we’re using a simple conditional format for Column C (as in, not a formula-based format), we can’t edit the fonts in that column. So the only real solution is to change the special teams font — or to selectively apply that format.

The second option is simple enough. Just open the “Manage Rules…” window and change the selection area for the format:

We can type in the selected areas and separate the selections with a comma, or we can click and drag to select the first area, then -- hold CTRL -- click and drag to select the second area.

We can type in the selected areas and separate the selections with a comma, or we can click and drag to select the first area, then — hold CTRL — click and drag to select the second area.

All we need to do is change the “Applies to” textbox. Once we select the A2 to B33 area and the D2 to L33 area, the weird formatting disappears from Column C.

The final step to using conditional formatting is presenting that data. Microsoft has done a good job catching up with Google Drive and the sort, allowing us to post table and the sort online. Using File > “Save & Send” should direct you to the SkyDrive services that will enable you to post the spreadsheet online. If there’s enough interest, I can walk through the process for this as well.

Anyway, I hope this has been interesting and useful. Happy Exceling!


TechGraphs News Roundup: 6/26/2015

Here comes the News Roundup, back with a fresh batch of sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

The Women’s World Cup is well-underway across Canada, where the quarterfinals begin today. While Americans generally haven’t been on fire for their successful team to this point, in contrast to their comparatively middling men’s squad, the playing surface sure feels like it has. The widely panned artificial turf distributes rubber pellets to the players faster than the referees can issue yellow cards, and there is some limited evidence suggesting that these pellets, which might remain embedded in the players’ clothing and bodies for longer than some teams’ tournament runs, present health risks to the players. When still a part of the turf, the pellets’ capacity for heat-absorption can render the playing surface extremely hot. (Female footballers’ male counterparts, meanwhile, play on natural grass.)

Lexus claims to be making substantial progress toward a “real, rideable” hoverboard. Prototype testing remains ongoing, which is okay for now; the automobile manufacturer still has a few months to prepare the world for Marty McFly’s arrival.

With the Sprint Cup series in Sonoma, California this week, Microsoft announced a multi-level partnership with NASCAR. One of the most immediately visible aspects of this partnership will be Microsoft’s primary sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride at this Sunday’s race. The timing is coordinated with the release of Windows 10, which will become the official operating system of both NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports, the race team for which Earnhardt drives. Last year, Microsoft developed a mobile inspection app for NASCAR officials, the use of which led to significant decreases in time spent inspecting vehicles prior to races.

Before NBA arenas were outfitted with arrays of motion-tracking cameras and smart analysts spoke in terms of player efficiency ratings and usage rates, there was Harvey Pollack. Pollack, who died this week at the age of ninety-three, began working in the NBA in 1946, the league’s inaugural year. As the director of statistical information for the Philadelphia 76ers, he played a leading role in developing the sport’s statistical foundation on a granular level, eventually providing the basis for today’s tech-driven approach to player evaluation. Along the way, he reportedly coined the term “triple-double,” and he employed a rudimentary piece of technology to help create one of the sport’s most memorable images.

Daily fantasy sports site DraftKings had an up-and-down week. While the site scored a victory in striking an exclusive agreement with ESPN to become the official daily fantasy sports provider for all of the Worldwide Leader’s platforms, it missed out on a potential $250 million investment from Disney, the sports network’s parent company. Daily fantasy rival FanDuel, meanwhile, has been busy snapping up exclusive partnerships with NBA franchises.

The week is almost done, and so is this News Roundup. Enjoy the weekend, and, in the readily typeable words of our Managing Editor, David G. Temple, be excellent to each other.


Review: Motus Global’s mThrow

When Motus Global’s sleeve was announced last spring, it was supposed to save baseball, stemming the flood of Tommy John surgeries plaguing the majors. Now, the device that teams have been using to study their pitchers’ mechanics since last fall is available to the public. The mThrow has been on sale through the Motus website since March, and began shipping in early May. Eager to see what the device had to offer, I plunked down the $150 (plus $20 for an additional compression sleeve) and waited anxiously.

The box that the mThrow comes in is taken up mostly by the compression sleeve. The actual IMU — the sensor that actually tracks the arm’s motion — is a tiny blue thing, about the size and shape of a circus peanut*. The IMU charges by induction, so all the user has to do is plug in the charging station, place the sensor on top of the station, and wait about an hour.

* – But slightly better-tasting.

Pairing the sensor is simple, too, taking just a few taps of the smartphone app. The hardest part of setting the thing up is probably wedging the sensor into its little pocket in the compression sleeve, and then pulling the sleeve on so that the sensor rests over the infamous ulnar collateral ligament. In fact, the design might be overly simplified. In an effort to make the sensor more water-resistant, there are no lights on the sensor to tell the user of the charge level. The only way to check is to pair the sensor with the smartphone app; if the app doesn’t recognize the sensor, it probably needs to be re-charged.

The app is currently available only for the iPhone; an updated version was approved this week. The software now computes five metrics from the sensor data: pitch count; maximum arm speed, a rotational velocity measured in revolutions per minute; arm slot at release; maximum shoulder rotation relative to initial position; and, of course, torque on the UCL. These are then combined into three headline numbers: performance, a measure of mechanical consistency; workload, currently an additive function of elbow torque; and a “throw meter,” an energy bar that drains from blue to orange as the workload increases and consistency decreases.

I ran some preliminary testing of the mThrow, connecting it to an iPhone 4S and throwing 17 fastballs, 17 changeups, and 17 curveballs to the best of my extremely limited ability; all but six throws were recorded. Even if there’s no difference between their speeds and movement, you can still see a difference between my initial warmup tosses (the first dozen, with much lower arm speeds), fastballs (about 13-25), curveballs (26-43, with much lower torque values), and changeups (44 onward, with decreased arm speeds).

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This simple relationship was confirmed with a second test using a HitTrax system, which can track speed and late break of pitches as they cross the plate. My subject was a 45-year-old with some collegiate pitching experience who threw ten fastballs and ten curveballs. By comparing the HitTrax velocity report (right) to the mThrow statistics (left), we can see the correlation between the decrease in arm speed and the decrease in velocity as the subject switched from fastball to curves.

donfrancesco
Lastly, I brought the sleeve to a local high school (Blackstone Valley Tech, Upton, MA) to get some insights from active players. Assistant coach John Burke, pitcher Nick Laren, shortstop Joe Corsi, and catcher Jack Lynch took turns throwing an assortment of pitches from a number of release points, seeing how their throwing motions stacked up. The session supported some beliefs — for instance, that the quick motion Lynch uses to throw out would-be base stealers puts more torque on the elbow than a standard pitching delivery. But others were surprisingly contradicted: despite everyone’s belief that sidearm throws put less stress on the elbow than an over-the-top delivery, the app didn’t seem to report a relationship between arm slot and torque.

Chief technology officer Ben Hansen says the mThrow is still in its infancy, and says that the device’s official consumer launch is not scheduled until later this summer. The app currently relies on data compiled from Motus Global’s work with MLB prospects at last fall’s instructional league to generate its workload number, but Hansen and his team are working to produce more meaningful metrics from a more complete data set.

“We’re just capturing as much data as we can to see what’s normal,” Hansen said. “We also have controlled studies going on at every level. We have [NCAA] D1, D3, high school, and Little League players wearing it religiously.”

At this early stage, the app seems to be designed more for Motus’s professional clients than for public users. Maybe the best example of this is the tagging feature, which allows users to tag individual throws as belonging to bullpen sessions, long toss, or game action, and to further break throws down by pitch type. But at the moment, the tags are unavailable to the user after selection, getting passed on to Motus Global with the sensor data but not visible on any of the trend screens. Hansen confirmed that the tags were being used in the company’s research for their MLB clients, however.

“Every week we send reports broken down by tags where we compared each pitcher to the league averages for that pitch type,” Hansen said. “The teams love using the tags and breaking things down into the different pitch types.”

It’s a tantalizing view of an exciting feature that could still be a couple years away. And it’s not just super dorks like me who would find those analytics useful. The key to a good changeup is matching the same arm speed used to throw a fastball, so it’s easy to see coaches like Burke using the arm speed metric to give feedback to young pitchers just learning to throw the pitch. But without any way to divide pitches into different categories, this sort of feedback isn’t possible yet.

“We are looking into a web portal to give users more in-depth analytics,” Hansen said. “But right now we’re focused on getting the analytics right before we move on to other platforms.”

It’s probably still too early to judge the mThrow fairly, and I’m almost definitely not the right person to do it (sabermetrically-inclined tech geeks who can’t pitch are not Motus’s target market). And it’s true that more research could produce findings that actually help young pitchers stay on the field and off the operating table. But as currently constructed, the mThrow raises more questions than it answers, and left me wanting more. Like a top pitching prospect, the technology needs some time to mature before it can make a meaningful contribution.


A La Carte Sports Watching Is En Route

The NBA Finals have been wrapped up for just one week, but already the association is looking to the 2015-16 season. Even before the Golden State Warriors were crowned champions, the NBA announced a major change to their streaming League Pass service. Beginning next season, you’ll be given the option to purchase individual games or team packages, provided you’re out of the team’s local market.

As presently designed, the new League Pass will be compatible with computers — Windows and Mac — as well as Android and iOS devices. For those with Fire, Windows, Blackberry or other operating systems, you may be on the outside looking in. The NBA Game Time app (which is required to view League Pass on mobile devices) does support Amazon Fire devices, but support for Game Time was dropped for Windows devices in July of last year.

The importance of the NBA deciding to offer a more a la carte style cannot be understated, as now more light is cast on other sports leagues, particularly the NFL. As Engadget notes, the NFL is currently fighting a lawsuit from a fan regarding the limits of their Sunday Ticket service, specifically being forced to pay hundreds of dollars to see their favorite team 16 games per year even though they live thousands of miles away from the team’s location.

The murky waters of territorial or cable blackouts has been explored before, just ask a local Dodgers fan, and as Time Warner continues to lose money, it seems possible the 25-year and $8.3 billion dollar deal could get reworked. With sports fans and non-sports fans alike clamoring for an a la carte service, the answer could come not from a cable provider, but rather a group who knows a few things about entertainment in Sony.

During the Electronic Entertainment Expo this year, Sony announced an option purchase specific channels on their Playstation Vue services. It is an ambitious undertaking and perhaps Sony is simply dipping their toes in the water rather than diving right in the streaming market. Right now their Vue service is available in just five cities in the United States: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Playstation 3 and 4 owners in those cities who are tired of the paying a cable bill can pick up a number of individual channels — or a more traditional package — including Fox Soccer, Showtime and Machinima for prices ranging from $3.99 to $14.99.

Given the push for a la carte services, a recent poll conducted by DigitalSmiths and posted via DSLReports shows an interesting trend. If sports fans are the driving force of streaming or pay-as-you-go streaming options, the survey had an interesting way of showing it.

alacarte

ESPN ranked 20th among preferred channels, behind non-sports channels such as Animal Planet, Food Network and the History Channel. ABC and CBS ranked first and third respectively, however it would be a stretch to call those sports channels given their diverse programming. The same could be said for NBC (4th), Fox (7th), TBS (15th) and TNT (17th). Where ESPN was the first sports exclusive channel, both Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports, NFL Network, MLB Network plus the Golf Channel and Tennis Channel managed to make the list.

Kudos to the NBA for seizing an opportunity to gain new fans after a strong ratings performance in the finals. Perhaps more professional leagues or streaming service options will follow suit and offer a more personalized option.

(Header image via Wikipedia)

TechGraphs News Roundup: 6/19/2015

The News Roundup is back to try to fill you up and never let you down with the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

As we near the end of bracket play in the College World Series, two of the biggest winners of the first week in Omaha have been the Vanderbilt Commodores and UmpCam. This video from the SEC Network reviews the history of umpire-mounted cameras, discusses the process of incorporating the new technology into the umpires’ equipment and the television broadcast, and gauges fan and player reactions. If nothing else, it’s nice to see the continuing influence of the XFL across the sporting landscape.

The U.S. Open golf tournament, which began yesterday in Tacoma, Washington, also is seeking to enhance the fan experience, and we aren’t even talking about the legal marijuana. Fox Sports has installed microphones inside each of the tournament’s eighteen holes with the goal of capturing “the atmosphere around the green.” Golf Hole Mic’s manufacturer estimates a useful pickup range of approximately 100 feet, which should be sufficient to allow us to hear what Jordan Spieth is telling his ball while putting.

Epson, “a brand best known for its ink cartridges computer printers,” is entering the retail sports technology market with a line of sports watches and an endorsement from distance runner Meb Keflezighi. Geared toward runners and golfers, the watches dispense with the need for often-cumbersome chest straps by using an optical light sensor to monitor heart rate, and they sync biometric data with Epson’s own app and popular third-party apps. Meanwhile, Microsoft and TaylorMade have collaborated on a golf app for the Microsoft Band, a wrist-borne device that promises to be slightly more helpful than a magnetic ion bracelet and a real threat to caddies everywhere.

From technology created for athletes to athletes using technology to create things, TechCrunch reports that Derek Jeter’s athlete-voiced website, The Players’ Tribune, recently received $9.5 million from a group of outside investors led by NEA, one of the earliest investors in BuzzFeed. Regardless of who’s actually creating the content at The Players’ Tribune, the site’s demonstrated ability to draw large-scale investments means it’s unlikely to fade away anytime soon.

Finally, while Major League Baseball is a proving ground for some of the most advanced sports technology available (and the management responsibility that comes along with access to that technology), it is nice to be reminded from time to time that the entire endeavor fundamentally relies upon a simple network of land line telephones.

That’s all of our time for this week. Enjoy the weekend, and, in the readily endorsable words of our Managing Editor, David G. Temple, be excellent to each other.


KinaTrax Gives Rays In-Game Markerless Motion Capture Data

In an effort to keep their pitchers healthy, the Tampa Bay Rays have enlisted the services of markerless motion capture company KinaTrax. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported Monday, the Rays are the first team to partner with the Philadelphia-based company.

When asked about the technology Tuesday, KinaTrax founder Michael Eckstein was reluctant to reveal much of the technology that drove his company’s system. Images from “multiple cameras” positioned throughout the ballpark (an earlier test used eight) are stitched together to create an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the pitcher. Eckstein compared his system to the commercially-available Microsoft Kinect, which uses infrared and sonar tracking to capture a user’s position for video gaming or other applications.

“The Kinect has a focal length of 8 to 14 feet, and captures 30 frames per second,” Eckstein said. “The challenge is, how do you scale that up to an MLB stadium, where you have to capture 275 to 300 frames per second from 350 feet away?”

Once the data is collected and uploaded to cloud storage, “proprietary algorithms” are then used to identify the position of body landmarks like joints and calculate the distances, angles, velocities, and accelerations between the various body segments. In an earlier talk at the 2013 SABR Conference in Philadelphia, Eckstein claimed that the positions measured by the system were accurate to within 1.5 centimeters.

It is probably no surprise that capturing such detailed visual information hundreds of times per second is a costly process. Eckstein estimates that a typical game could produce up to 1.4 terabytes of data. The data is owned by the teams — since it identifies each pitcher and is thus considered medical information, even KinaTrax can’t access it without permission once it’s collected. For teams unable to work with the raw data, KinaTrax can also develop reports on key metrics; Eckstein said in his 2013 presentation his system was capable of generating these reports overnight.

“Some teams have the ability and the staff to say, ‘We want these kinds of reports, and these kinds of analytics,’ and then we can go out and produce them,” Eckstein said. “And then if teams have very qualified staff, they’ll get the raw data to work with themselves.”

Although KinaTrax worked with the Mets in 2013 to develop their system, Tampa Bay is the first major-league team to install the system and collect game data. And while it’s too early to draw any conclusions from the data collected by the system, Eckstein is happy with KinaTrax’s early performance.

“We’ve successfully recorded thousands of pitches, and the system is working as expected,” he said.

According to Eckstein, KinaTrax had discussed possible arrangements with 17 MLB teams between the Winter Meetings, Cactus League, and Grapefruit League before finally coming to an agreement with the Rays. Eckstein was excited about working with the Rays, praising their front office acumen and even the symmetrical shape of Tropicana Field (which made camera installation easier).

“The Rays are among those top major-league teams that understand what we’re doing and have an understanding of big data,” Eckstein said. “We couldn’t ask for a better team for our pilot.”

Teams have already proposed a number of different uses for the system. For major league pitchers, teams could use the system to demonstrate “best practices,” and highlight the subtle changes in mechanics that could separate a great outing from a poor one. But Eckstein also discussed the possibility of installing the cameras in minor-league parks, allowing teams to better teach proper mechanics to young arms while also developing “longitudinal patient records” of changes to a pitcher’s kinematics over time.

“All of the teams we’re speaking to want them in their major league stadiums,” Eckstein said. “But the really innovative teams tell me, ‘Where we will get the most benefit out of this is with our Single-A or Double-A teams.'”

Once installed, the system can also be adjusted to capture mechanics in bullpen sessions, and could be modified to track hitters’ swing mechanics. For now, though, KinaTrax is primarily focused on the action on the pitcher’s mound.

“There’s a consensus among teams about this anecdotal evidence of pitchers who are great in their bullpens but then lose it on the mound,” Eckstein said. “But truth be told, it’s the in-game information that managers, coaches, and scouts are after.”

Before founding KinaTrax, Eckstein worked in the technology sector for 25 years, helping companies figure out how to use technology to develop competitive advantages. A baseball fan, Eckstein found himself at a lunch with a Phillies senior executive in 2012, and the conversation turned to Roy Halladay’s early-season struggles.

“He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a way to measure his mechanics and see what he’s doing wrong?'” Eckstein said. “And I said, ‘Oh, this will be easy. We’ll go to Microsoft and they’ll come up with something.'”

It wasn’t that easy, of course. The leap from the existing technology to in-game motion capture from hundreds of feet away required the development of an entirely new technology platform, which became the basis for KinaTrax.

Before Monday, KinaTrax first announced itself at the 2013 SABR Conference in Philadelphia, where Eckstein gave a talk and brief demonstration on his system. At the time, KinaTrax had persuaded the Mets to let them test their camera system in Citi Field. The eight-camera test was successful, but no actual game data were recorded.

Now that the word is out on KinaTrax, Eckstein plans to return to the Winter Meetings and put his newly-tested product before the decision-makers in MLB front offices.

“We’re going to have serious discussions with teams about agreements for the 2016 season,” he said.

But go on the company’s website and you’re greeted not by a picture of a Major Leaguer or of Tropicana Field but by a youth baseball pitcher. This is not just a nice image: Eckstein said KinaTrax is planning to scale its system down for college, high school, and even youth-level teams.

“Clearly the arm motion is very different for an eight or 12-year-old versus a major league pitcher,” Eckstein said. “But we feel that with the nuggets we’ve learned, and with cameras that don’t have to capture 275 to 300 frames per second and don’t have to be 350 feet away, we can bring the price of the system down to that level.”


Presenting Three or More Dimensions Using Tableau

Whoa! What’s a Tableau, you ask? Well, I have an even more basic Tableau Public tutorial for the likes of questioning minds such as yours. Although, this article is pretty basic too, so either should be decent starting places.

Tableau is a powerful, unique visualization tool. The fact it’s also free is a little unbelieveable. One of the reasons I love Tableau so much is that it allows me to present multiple dimensions of data in a single chart — and do so without ungodly 3D charts.

What do I mean? Well, there’s a great example in the newest addition to the FanGraphs suite of data — the contact rate (Soft%, Medium%, and Hard%) numbers. So let’s say I want to present this data* for the Rays hitters. I’m mostly interested in the contact rates, so I could put together a scatterplot of Hard% versus Medium%.

*If you want to play around with the exact same data that I’m using, download this CSV. Otherwise, you data will be different than mine because you, sir or madame, live in the future.

What’s neat about this chart is that, since Soft%, Medium%, and Hard% are mutually exclusive (a batted ball can’t be both hard and medium) and they are collectively exhaustive (there’s no other hit type, only these three; combined, we called this data MECE, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive), we can essentially present the three dimensions in a single scatterplot:

With Excel, we can kind of represent three data dimensions (Soft%, Medium% and Hard%), but that's only a happenstance of MECE data.

With Excel, we can kind of represent three data dimensions (Soft%, Medium% and Hard%), but that’s only a happenstance of MECE data.

So let’s say we wanted to add another component of information to this graph. Let’s say I want you to know which dot is which player. Or, perhaps, the amount of plate appearances corresponding to each of these players. In Excel, we could add a data label, but we would need to go through, by hand, and add each player’s name to the corresponding dot. Excel only inherently gives three label options: X labels, Y labels, or Series labels — and none of those are really useful here.

Let’s try this same chart in Tableau. First, though, we’ll need to work on the CSV a little. I’ll show you what I mean.

Open Tableau Public (preferably the latest version; I think that’s version 9), and you’ll be prompted to open your data source. Choose “Text File” and then navigate to your CSV file.

If you have a CSV or TXT file, this is the option you want.

If you have a CSV or TXT file, this is the option you want.

I should mention at some point that, in Tableau Public, we rarely create data. It’s more about manipulating and presenting what’s already made. So there’s no option for “Blank Spreadsheet” like there is Excel.

Anyway, after connecting to our CSV, Tableau is going to confirm our data has the right settings. And thank goodness for that, because something’s awry:

A space between the number and the percent sign caused Tableau to think this was a string (that is, like a word or something). So we need to fix that.

A space between the number and the percent sign caused Tableau to think this was a string (that is, like a word or something). So we need to fix that.

The system sees the space between “33.3” and “%” and thinks it’s a word (because spaces can’t fit into data). That’s what the blue “ABC” icon means.

This problem is easily fixed a variety of ways. One way: You could open the CSV in Excel and save it as an Excel file. That’s a pretty simple fix. Another alternative is just to scrape all those pesky spaces out of there. I prefer to do this with Notepad (or any similar stripped down word processor).

For that method (which is handy if you’re on a computer without Excel), all we need to do is open the file with notepad, hit CTRL+H (to open the “Replace” dialogue) and then choose to replace a space with nothing.

Open Notepad, then open a file and set the file types too "All Files."

Open Notepad, then open a file and set the file types too “All Files.”

Then I type space (" ") then percent sign ("%") and choose to replace all.

Then I type space (” “) then percent sign (“%”) and choose to replace all.

Save it, then bing, bang, bongo, the file is ready to do work. Head back into Tableau, and then ensure the data is showing up correctly. Once again, our data is not defaulting to decimal, so we’ll quickly change these items to decimal numbers (just click the blue “ABC” and choose “Decimal” from the drop down menu).

You will still need to go through and make sure the pertinent columns are being treated as decimal numbers.

You will still need to go through and make sure the pertinent columns are being treated as decimal numbers.

After you’ve got your data looking correct, head on over to Sheet 1 (the automatically generated tab in the lower left of the screen). You will now be in the basic worksheet interface.

For our purposes, go ahead and drag Med% to the Columns section and Hard% to the Rows. Then, pull the Names dimension onto the Detail section.

From here out, it's pretty much click and drag.

From here out, it’s pretty much click and drag.

NOTE: You may need to click on the “Show Me” button on the top right to change to a scatter plot.

The resulting scatter plot looks pretty similar to — and essentially has the same pieces as — the previous Excel chart we made:

It takes only a few actions to recreate the basic scatter plot we made in Excel.

It takes only a few actions to recreate the basic scatter plot we made in Excel.

But now let’s expand it with more information. For one, I want the users to know the sample size of each of these dots. I’m looking at all position players on the Rays roster, but that includes even Curt Casali who — at the time of pulling this data — had only 2 PA. To express these differences, we need merely drag the “PA” measure to the “Size” button.

Likewise, I can present how well each of these players is hitting by dropping the “wRC+” measure into the color section. And for even more clarity, I can name each dot with the corresponding player it represents:

Adding different visual manifestations of the data is a simple process in Tableau Public.

Adding different visual manifestations of the data is a simple process in Tableau Public.

None of these dimensions are feasible with an Excel plot, chart, or graph. We would need to make these size, color, and label changes by hand in Excel. But in Tableau, it’s a flick of the wrist.

What’s more, we can clean up this data with the addition of a filter — and a quick filter to allow users to manipulate the filter too:

Adding a filter allows not only the Tableau creator, but also the end product user to adjust the featured data.

Adding a filter allows not only the Tableau creator, but also the end product user to adjust the featured data.

When we get the chart to basically where we want it, we can then throw it into a dashboard. A dashboard is the final shape the worksheet will take. Sometimes I combine multiple worksheets into a single dashboard to present a single idea. Other times I use a single worksheet for a single dashboard. We’ll do the latter in this instance:

Putting the chart into a dashboard will ultimately give us something to embed into a blog post or website. It also gives us keys for the sizes and colors.

Putting the chart into a dashboard will ultimately give us something to embed into a blog post or website. It also gives us keys for the sizes and colors.

The most beautiful thing about using Tableau, of course, is that the end product doesn’t have to be a static image. This allows us to embed even more information into the system — for instance, anything we add to the Detail section will appear in the popup when users hover their mouse over given data points.

After a little spicing up with the formats (such as fixing the dimensions for the X and Y axes, adding a linear regression line, and adding a few text boxes to indicate the general Soft% areas), we get a final version like this:

When we combine all these data points together, we can see interesting oddities in the data. For instance: Rookie Joey Butler is having a great year, hitting a 156 wRC+. But looking at his placement on the graph, we see he has a lot of non-hard contact for a guy with such a high wRC+. Likewise, Tim Beckham — the light blue dot in the top right — has crushed the ball this season, but is not showing a strong wRC+.

I should note the limited forecast value of this kind of data. While fascinating (and a great sample for Tableau to flex some muscles), this data does a much worse job predicting future results than a simple glance at these player’s ZiPS or Steamer projections.

That said: How fun is this chart? I think it’s a blast, and I hope it inspires you to present more dimensions of data — in a neat and understandable way — in your next visualization.

Happy Tableauing!


An “Unsophisticated” Breach is Still Bad News for the Cardinals

(Editor’s note: After this article was published, Jeff Luhnow told Sports Illustrated that he does not believe this issue happened due to the re-use of passwords. As no official report has been presented, we will leave this article up until further evidence is provided.)

Baseball met espionage without the help of Moe Berg on Monday, as news broke that the FBI was investigating the St. Louis Cardinals under allegations that they unlawfully accessed the internal database of the Houston Astros, known as Ground Control. Nathanial Grow did an excellent job going over the legal implications over at the mothersite, so make sure to check that out to get a sense of how badly this could end up breaking for St. Louis. But since we’re cover the tech stuff, I want to talk about how something like this could have happened.

In the New York Times article, specific mention is made that the “intrusion did not appear to be sophisticated” and that law enforcement believes that it was perpetrated by Cardinals front-office employees. This seemed to soften the initial blow a bit, making it clear that St. Louis wasn’t employing black hat hackers to crack Houston’s system. Instead, those responsible seemed to have gained access to passwords used by Jeff Luhnow and those he took with him when he left for St. Louis for the Houston GM job. And while this isn’t a malicious as someone trying to forcefully access Ground Control, it still casts the Cardinals in bad light. Low-level or not, the Houston data breach represents some serious security holes found in the IT practices of the Cardinals.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Using someone’s old password isn’t really “hacking.” For one:

And secondly (language warning):

No, nothing really got hacked. It just got accessed. If Cardinals officials had passwords, all they needed was the user name of Luhnow or the person in his stable (it’s not clear whose actual account was used). But that doesn’t mean this should have occurred. Actions of some kind were still taken. So, how was it done? Well, there are a few possibilities.

Some Dummy Wrote Their Password Down

The Silicon Valley clip above is jokey, but it’s based on a lot of truth. I’ve worked in IT for over a decade. I’ve seem passwords written on Post-Its — sometimes hidden under keyboards, sometimes attached right to computer monitors. Most companies install policies that users need to change their password every three months or so. This … confuses people. They have trouble remembering. They write passwords down. Those tend to get left around. It’s dumb and a little sad, but it’s very possible that this whole scandal comes down to something like this.

Some Dummmy Shared Their Password

This is also all too common. Passwords get sent to assistants all the time. I’ve talked to executives who didn’t know their passwords at all. Their assistants updated their phones and laptops when the time came to change passwords. People in the same departments share login credentials all the time. “Crap, I can’t login. Jerry, give me your password. I need this spreadsheet.” They’re not looking to cause data breaches, they are just unaware of their actions. If some IT people wanted to get access to Ground Control, it would be very easy to search email logs and dig up some passwords.

The Cardinals Stored User Passwords as Plain Text

During Luhnow’s tenure in the front office, the Cardinals apparently used a system similar to Ground Control called Redbird. This most likely utilized some kind of content management system, which is built on top of a database. These databases have user tables that include things like names, contact info, usernames, and passwords. Ideally, the passwords would be hashed. Simply put, hashing passwords means changing plain passwords like “mypassword” into a bunch of numbers and letters — “mypassword” becomes “ajd923if902rnasdf09992on”. This gibberish is actually what’s stored on the database, and the server never sees the actual password. It keeps the hash translations elsewhere and just uses the hash to authenticate when a user logs in.

But that’s in a perfect world. It doesn’t always happen. This happened to the Sony Playstation Network a while back. It happens lots of places. It’s very feasible that Cardinals officials — whoever they were — simply pulled up a user that left and was able to see their password clear as day.

Whatever happened, I would bet it lies somewhere within these three options. Anything above that — attacks on properly-encrypted passwords through dictionary or rainbow table attacks– not only would infer serious maliciousness, it would mean the passwords were obtained by someone with a great deal of computer savvy.

Remember, the FBI was able to associate the Cardinals with this because the unauthorized access was traced to a home where known Cardinals people lived or hung out or whatever. Anyone with the smarts to properly reverse engineer and encrypted password probably would know that pretty much any time anyone accesses a server (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter), their public IP address is logged. A password hacker would know to go to a library or use Tor or some other IP-masking tool. But this does not absolve the Cardinals in the least, and it probably makes it worse.

If a former Cardinal employee cracked the Redbird database to obtain passwords to use on Ground Control, the Cardinals could easily say that they are sorry and have taken measures to upgrade the security in their corporate offices. But if this all happened due to some low-level password-finding mission, it means that whoever is in charge of IT over there is lazy at best, or just plain unqualified. Or perhaps Redbird fell out of the realm of regular IT functions. Either way, it’s not good.

If a couple of interns could get access to user passwords this easily, imagine what could happen if someone who knew what they were doing gave it a go. Emails, text messages, photo backups, contracts, salary information, social security numbers — all of it could be at risk. You think we got some tasty stuff when the Ground Control documents were leaked? Imagine the field day Deadspin would have if someone managed to get a hold of John Mozeliak’s emails. People would be poised for ridicule, embarrassment, even identity theft, all because a company that operates in a field ripe for corporate espionage wouldn’t take steps to properly protect people’s passwords.

It’s a sign of the times. Database teams within baseball clubs are a fairly new thing. There are still bugs to be worked out — no pun intended. However, if this whole boondoggle doesn’t open the eyes of the other 28 MLB teams (and probably some NFL, NBA, and NHL teams as well), then I don’t know what will. I imagine some memos have been sent out this morning outlining new security policies. Or at least they should. Because while cracking passwords has become harder, simply copying them down never will.

(Header image via Pablo BD)

PSA: MLB.tv is Half Off This Week

If we had an InstaTechGraphs section, this news would go there. However, it is worth noting that MLB.tv is having quite a sale to commemorate Father’s Day. This week, one can purchase MLB.tv for $39.99 or MLB.tv Premium for $49.99. That one-time purchase will give you access for the rest of the season. Yes, the platform has its issues and blackout rules still apply, but this is a pretty tremendous deal for baseball fans. The sale ends this week, so get your finances in order.


Blast Motion Sensor Augments Metrics with Adaptive Video

The first thing to keep in mind about Blast Motion’s sensor is that it’s not just designed for baseball. Yes, like the Diamond Kinetics SwingTracker, you can attach the sensor to the end of a bat to track swing speed and direction. And like the Zepp sensor, the Blast sensor can also be used to track a golf swing. But Blast’s approach revolved around designing a high-quality, general purpose sensor, and then building specific applications for baseball, basketball, golf, action sports, and athletic performance around it.

“We didn’t approach this as trying to design a swing sensor or a specific sport product,” senior director of marketing Donovan Prostrollo said. “What we designed it to do was to be a natural motion capture product, and then we applied that to different sports, so it doesn’t pigeonhole our product.”

At the heart of the Blast sensor are inertial measurement units (IMUs), the combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers that have become ubiquitous in devices like smartphones and tablets. But Blast has made two improvements to make the device more accurate. First, Blast Motion uses multiple IMU chips (although they wouldn’t disclose how many) to capture a wider range of movements. Second, the Blast sensor was also designed to use what founder Mike Bentley referred to as “tactical-grade” technology, a combination of more precise sensors, more processing power, and on-the-fly calibration that improves the device’s accuracy and consistency from one movement to the next.

But despite the intense technological focus, both Bentley and Prostrollo stressed the importance of keeping their outputs simple for the end user.

“You’ll find other solutions out there really overwhelm users with numbers, which is both good and bad, because if users don’t know which number to focus on, you’re not really helping them, you’re actually potentially making it worse,” Prostrollo said.

“At the end of the day, [the athletes] would love the technology to just completely disappear,” Bentley added. “And that’s one of the goals of Blast is how do we make the device disappear.”

When compared to other bat sensor apps, Blast lacks the three-dimensional rendering of the swing. Instead, the Blast app revolves around video, typically captured by setting the device on a tripod and automatically clipped so that only the events of interest are included. Prostrollo argued that the focus on video gave Blast an edge in capturing the entire movement, not just key metrics.

“We decided from the beginning to capture video and do it natively as part of the app so it’s really integrated into our DNA,” Prostrollo said. “And the cool thing about that is when you pair video and you compare the level of consistency out of our product it really does an amazing job.”

And Blast recently announced an adaptive slow-motion feature that adjusts the playback speed around the event.

“Basically, we know exactly when the impact occurred, when the swing started, and when the swing ended, and based on that we can speed up and slow down the video,” Prostrollo said. “We can also take the metrics and overlay them on top to get this dynamic fill, so it’s not just a metric in isolation.”

Blast verified the accuracy of its metrics using motion capture systems. As an example, Prostrollo said the system was within 1 mph of the motion capture system “85 percent of the time” and Bentley claimed that the Blast system “outperforms our optical system when you talk about rotational velocity” as verified by higher-end devices more commonly used to test aeronautical and military-grade IMUs.

Bentley and Prostrollo stressed not only the device’s accuracy but also the device’s consistency, so that identical swings or jumps would produce identical sensor readings. They attributed this consistency to improvements in their manufacturing process, and claimed it made a big difference to the professional athletes they collaborated with.

“The challenge is pro athletes absolutely can recognize that day one, the amateur athletes won’t necessarily realize that a product’s not as accurate as they want until it’s too late: they’ve purchased it, they’ve gone out, they’ve tried it, and they wonder why their swing speed varies by 6 mph when it’s all the same,” Prostrollo said.

Despite being a relatively new company, the founders of Blast Motion have been in the inertial sensor business for a quarter of a century. Before entering the sports world, their focus included military and medical products.

“This is not the first sensor we’ve ever manufactured,” Bentley said. “When we originally designed the sensors, it wasn’t for a single application. We wanted to be able to use the sensor and cross-pollinate across all applications.”

As Blast Motion began adapting its offerings for new markets, it worked with coaches, professionals, and other subject matter experts to design useful applications. But Bentley said there was a lot of overlap between the biomechanical elements underlying the different sports. Even more surprising, he said, was the overlap between social circles across different sports.

“What’s pretty unique about when you do get into the inertial world of working with different professional teams, how many baseball players work with professional golfers, and how many golfers play with hockey players,” Bentley said. “So the world is pretty small, and when you get a pretty exciting product, the word travels pretty fast in those worlds.”

The company currently works with a number of action sports ambassadors including Mike “Hucker” Clark and Greg Lutzka, as well as some NBA and MLB players they declined to name, citing confidentiality. And Blast Motion is working closely with bat manufacturer Easton as it gears up to release the Easton Power Sensor this summer. Little information is currently available about the project, but judging from the screenshots in the iTunes App Store, the interface at least will be very similar to Blast’s Baseball Replay app.

Looking to the future, Prostrollo said the biggest change would be not on the technological side but rather on the adoption side, as wearable sensors like Blast become more and more ubiquitous among both amateurs and pros.

“We’re at the point now where the average consumer has access to this technology, it’s no longer the pro athlete,” Prostrollo said. “What you’re going to see is a whole new generation of athletes leveraging the data and the technology, having a history to go back on, and really be able to do something very meaningful and different with that.”


EA Games Announces Updates to Its Sports Franchises

E3 – the gaming industry’s biggest yearly conference, kicked off today, and as usual, a lot of big announcements were made. While sports games weren’t at the forefront of the biggest proclamations today, they are most certainly being worked on and updated. EA was kind enough to spill the beans on how the [INSERT SPORTS LEAGUE] 16 games would look and feel.

EA’s biggest franchise, Madden, gets updates every year — some more impressive than others. For Madden 16, elements of fantasy football have been brought into the fold. Gamers will have an option to tweak their chosen team using rounds of fantasy-based drafts. These super teams can then be used to compete against each other or an AI opponent.

As senior EA producer Sean Graddy told Polygon:

“We limit the number of picks that you have so that those decisions are hard […] You’re not going to fill every position on your team. How do we create this draft experience, but take it one step further? With fantasy football you pick a team and you passively watch it. In our game you pick a team and you can play with it on the field. It makes it a bit more special.”

Changes to passing and receiving are also coming, with quarterbacks getting options regarding speed and height of passes, and receivers will be given options to attempt fancy, stylish catches or more traditional ones. These should be nice updates to a game that everyone is going to buy anyway. It comes out August 25th.

Making the logical segue from football to golf, the return of an EA golf video game is imminent. Due to a mixture of personal issues and general ineffectiveness on the course, Tiger Woods has become a persona non grata at EA. Rory McIlroy is the new face of the series, and with him come some other major changes. EA didn’t release a golf game last year, as they worked on revamping the series.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is EA’s first sports game that will utilize its Frostbite engine — the same engine that powers games like Battlefield and Dragon Inquisition. The inclusion of the engine allows the game to load an entire course at startup, rather than just one hole at a time. This should drastically cut down on total game time, a welcome addition. I mean, do they really expect us to take a whole hour to play a round of golf?!

Tour will include three different modes of play — Arcade, Classic, and Tour — which each offer their own set of advantages. A new course map feature seems pretty slick, as it gives the player multiple distances to different spots of the course, much like those little booklets you see caddies carrying around. The game drops July 14th.

NHL 16  is not only bringing back many of the online features it cut from this year’s version, but is also making a small change that could make a huge difference. In the past, any time a player wanted to accept a pass, the skater glided until he had possession of the puck. This isn’t how hockey works however. Players take passes while skating the other way, in a complete stop, or in a full sprint. NHL 16 is reportedly adding the ability to accept passes this way. This should enhance the gameplay, which is already very smooth.

Updates to the Be a Pro and Be a GM features are also coming, with wannabe GMs having to deal with things like player morale and clubhouse chemistry. If you play the Be a Pro mode, expect to get more and better feedback from coaches as you sweat and bleed your way to Lord Stanley’s Cup. Look for this game in September.

Soccer is also a sport and FIFA 16 is also a video game. One of the more important updates — the addition of women’s soccer — was already announced. But EA is also mentioning smarter AI defense, more realistic slide tackling, and some more dribbling fanciness.

Passing is also getting an overhaul. Per Polygon:

Perhaps of even more significance is that players are given more control over the pace of their passes. Previously, long passes (hold down the button) were a matter of telling the game to move the ball a long way. Now, they simply say, “kick it hard.” This means that players can ping short, hard passes to one another, a useful antidote to the defense’s greater alertness. Or they can drift long passes across the park with a greater degree of control.

For a long time, sports games have relied on graphics to try and make them seem more realistic. Now, with more advanced hardware and software at their disposal, developers are working to make the games look and play more like the real thing. This is a welcome change and will ensure the line between real and digital will become more imperceptible each year. Where some sports series seem to be a little stagnate (cough, MLB the Show, cough), EA is making strides keep their offerings fresh. Whether it pans out or not remains to be seen. We’ll have to hang our hope on promises for now.

(Header image via Pop Culture Geek)

TechGraphs News Roundup: 6/12/2015

It’s the return of the News Roundup. Here are some of the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

ESPN is issuing its first magazine cover featuring eSports. In fairness, it also features running back Marshawn Lynch, as he’s had his likeness added to the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops III. We’re not quite to the point where League of Legends players are gracing the front cover, but it’s a start.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating look into how the people of Cuba are watching their favorite American television. Basketball, baseball, even HBO — it’s all broadcast not by satellite, but by sneaker.

As a dedicated lazy person and as a golfer that spends a lot of his time criss-crossing the fairways, the GolfBoard might be right in my wheelhouse.

You know all that cool 3D/interactive/holographic stuff that teams and facilities are installing? Soon, all that tech might come from part incubator, part tax write-off known as the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology. Say what you will about the man, but sports and technology seem to be two of his stronger suits.

This is technically from last week, but if you didn’t get a chance to see American Pharoah race Secretariat, you should. It’s amazing what a little archival footage and some video syncing can do.

For some reason, people think it’s fun to mock pitcher Alex Torres for wanting to protect his melon. Strides are being taken to maintain protection while making hats look a little less puffy, and perhaps a similar product being adopted by a prominent soccer player will help people wanting to avoid head injuries seem a little more commonplace.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend. Be excellent to each other.


OOTP Experiment — International All-Stars, Pt. 3: The Rest-of-the-World Series

It’s been a long road leading to this—if a prefatory article on Monday and the regular season on Wednesday can be said to qualify as long. The showdown has come: Venezuela and the Dominican Republic facing off, best of nine, for the championship of (non-American) all-time national baseball teams.

After Wednesday’s results, one could be forgiven for thinking this series a formality. The Dominican Saints ran rings around their seven opponents in the regular season to the tune of a 112-42 record. The Venezuela Oilers earned a wild-card berth, but finished 22 games back in doing so. What hopes did they have?

I spent a little time rummaging through the internals of the two teams, looking for some vulnerability in the Dominicans that Venezuela might be able to exploit. One brief hope was a fine Venezuelan record, 20-10, against southpaw starters. Too bad the entire Dominican pitching staff, starters and relievers, is right-handed.

This suggested the alternative of packing the Oilers’ lineup with lefties, but that doesn’t quite work either. Carlos Gonzalez was their only starter who bats left-handed, with main catcher Victor Martinez a switch-hitter. Backups Pablo Sandoval at third base (switch) and Bobby Abreu in right field (left) would help, but there could be no full-bore platoon assault on the Dominican arms.

Worse, Venezuela’s pitchers might be mismatched. The Oilers carried two southpaw starters in Johan Santana and Wilson Alvarez. They would face a Dominican lineup with just one left-handed regular, Robinson Cano.

The one weakness Venezuela could attack might be one they would scarcely see. Dominican starting pitchers led the league in ERA, but their bullpen came in last. Keep it close and get into the pen, and Venezuela could steal a few games. But with the Dominican starting five averaging almost 7 2/3 innings a start while posting 40 complete games, a bullpen strategy could be futile.

Anything can happen in a short series: that’s sabermetric gospel by now. Regardless, it felt like Venezuela would need something special on their side if they were to overcome a monster Dominican squad. I considered quitting my policy of computer control and managing the Venezuela Oilers myself.

Then I decided they had the odds stacked against them badly enough, and left it with the AI.

Thus began the Rest-of-the-World Series.

Game One

Alejandro Pena took the mound for the Dominicans, while the Venezuelans sent out Felix Hernandez. This looks like a mismatch to contemporary fans. It was, but the other way.

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Yes, that’s a young Albert Pujols on defense. Thanks for noticing.

I watched this opening game using the broadcast option. Play-by-play was given for each pitch; offensive and defensive ratings were shown for each player on the field; ambient ballpark sounds provided atmosphere, including “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” after six and a half. (It was admittedly incongruous to hear fans chattering in recognizable English during a game theoretically being held in the Dominican Republic, but you can’t fault OOTP for playing the percentages.)

The Saints touched up Felix for two runs in the second, then let Cesar Cedeno finish the work. He homered off Hernandez in the third, and tripled in the fifth, coming home on Vladimir Guerrero’s sacrifice fly. Felix would leave after five, down 4-0.

Pena made that score hold up. He faced just one over the minimum for the first seven frames, and completed his shutout in a crisp 96 pitches. Anyone anticipating a Dominican rout got no contrary evidence from this 4-0 blanking.

Game Two

I went with the webcast option for this game. Anyone who has followed a game on the MLB At Bat app will be on familiar ground, the story coming in pitch by pitch. There’s a pitch-tracking box, showing locations. (I must report the harsh realism of OOTP: the tracker will show umpires missing balls-and-strikes calls.) For pure nerdish pleasure, there is even a rolling win probability measure for the teams.

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Cueto really has his game face on. You can’t read him at all. (Actually, I just didn’t bother adding faces to players.)

Johnny Cueto got the ball for the DR, while Johan Santana started for Venezuela. The Oilers broke their drought early, scoring three in the first on two triples, an error, and two productive outs. Manny Ramirez brought Tony Fernandez home in the Saints’ first, but Venezuela immediately got that tally back on Luis Aparicio’s RBI single. A Carlos Gonzalez homer opened a two-run fifth that salted away the game, 6-1 to the visiting Venezuelans.

Santana went eight, giving up just three hits and the lone run. He was pulled for Wilson Alvarez to pitch a garbage ninth despite having thrown just 84 pitches. Cueto took the loss, the first time all year he lost consecutive decisions. The Dominican bullpen belied its seeming weakness to pitch four scoreless innings. Oddly, Pedro Martinez was among the relievers, retiring a lone batter in the ninth. Didn’t they have other uses for him?

Regardless, Venezuela had managed to split the opening games held at the Dominican Republic. Their task was down to winning four of seven rather than five of nine, and they now had the home field advantage, for whatever that might be worth.

Game Three

I had to stop dallying with the snazzier methods of game-watching and strip down my viewing experience, lest I be running this replay well into the weekend. A pity for me, as this was the first game of the series that cried out to be savored.

Juan Marichal of the Saints and Kelvim Escobar of the Oilers got the call, and pitched a close-fought duel. Escobar got help from three double plays in the first four innings to keep posting zeroes, while Vladimir Guerrero’s muff of Richard Hidalgo’s fly ball hung Marichal with an unearned run in the second. Both pitchers held the line until the seventh, when Vladdy atoned with a RBI single to tie it, and Edgardo Alfonzo took Marichal deep to untie it.

Ugueth Urbina pitched a perfect eighth to set up the save for Francisco Rodriguez. Miguel Tejada greeted him with an infield hit, and one pop-out later, pinch-hitter Felipe Alou singled him to third. Cesar Cedeno tied the game 2-2 with a base hit, before K-Rod buckled down to strike out Guerrero and Manny Ramirez.

Venezuela weathered the disappointment of the blown save. Victor Martinez jumped on Rafael Soriano’s first pitch for a single. Bobby Abreu grounded out, but Edgardo Alfonzo worked a walk. Pinch-hitter Melvin Mora laced a single to right, so fast to Guerrero that Martinez was held up at third. This proved the sound play, as Luis Aparicio lined the walk-off hit over short to give Venezuela the 3-2 win.

Game Four

The starters for this game were close to a shock: Felix Hernandez and Alejandro Pena again. Three-man rotations for a playoff series being held in the 1980 era certainly weren’t strange, but the pitcher being excluded was. Would Pedro Martinez not take the mound to defend his 20-game winning streak? Would the Dominicans really try to win it all without starting him?

By purely analytical standards, this was no outrage. I observed myself that, by FIP, Pedro was the fourth-best starter on his team that season. yet it felt so wrong that I almost intervened with the AI.

Almost. But the game went on.

The Saints broke up a scoreless contest in the fourth, Carlos Santana driving Albert Pujols home. Venezuela tried to limit the damage with a two-out intentional walk to Tony Fernandez, bringing up the pitcher. Pena made them pay with a bases-clearing double.

That was effectively the ballgame. Both teams scored in the seventh and eighth without really altering the balance of power, and the Dominicans cruised to a 6-3 win to pull the series back even. Pena got his second straight win against King Felix, while Rafael Soriano pitched the ninth for the courtesy three-run save.

Despite the downbeat end, it was another split. The challenge was down to three out of five, as the series went back to Dominican turf for the next two.

Game Five

Cueto and Santana on the mound again. The three-man postulate seemed confirmed. I could only trust that the AI knew what it was doing in holding out Pedro.

This one got away from the Oilers quickly. Pujols rang up a three-run dinger in the first, and added a solo shot in the third that put the Dominican Republic ahead 5-0. Johnny Cueto recovered from his Game Two struggles to register a four-hit shutout, his sinker producing 19 ground-outs on the day. The 6-0 whitewashing gave the 3-2 series lead to the Saints.

Game Six

There is something about Game Six that, even more so than Game Seven, produces memorable baseball. Think back on the World Series of 1975, 1986, 1991, and 2011. Now this Game Six can, in its modest way, join that group.

(Yes, I know those were seven-game series and this one is nine. Leave me alone: I’m being poetic.)

This wonderfully crazy game was defined by its pitchers, but not the way you would expect. Marichal and Escobar both gave up first-inning homers, Miguel Cabrera with a two-run shot and Manny Ramirez with a three-run dinger. Bats cooled off for a couple innings, including a half-hour rain delay in the second, and then the fourth inning turned things upside-down.

Venezuela scored two in its half, capped by pitcher Kelvim Escobar’s RBI single. In the home half, Juan Marichal got his own run-scoring hit with two outs. He then advanced on an Escobar balk, and came home on Cesar Cedeno’s single that knocked Escobar out of the game. Both starters had driven in runs, and there was more to come.

The Oilers tied the game at five the next inning on a two-out rally, but lost a chance to go ahead the next inning when Dave Concepcion made the final out trying to go first-to-third on Cabrera’s single. The bottom of the sixth saw Marichal contribute again with the bat, another two-out RBI single that made it 6-5 Dominican.

Marichal got lifted in the seventh for Bartolo Colon, who promptly balked Carlos Gonzalez home to level things at 6-6. After the stretch, Oilers reliever Rafael Betancourt fought through a jam left to him by Anibal Sanchez, but with second and third and two gone, intentionally walked Carlos Santana to get to Adrian Beltre. The Dominicans countered by pinch-hitting David Ortiz, but he could only roll one over to third to snuff the threat.

Here the madness, or at least the scoring, subsided for a long while. The bullpens locked up the game in the eighth and ninth, and on, and on. Closers Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano came and went, and the deadlock remained. By the 11th inning, both teams had exhausted all their position players, meaning the long-relief pitchers now in the game—Carlos Zambrano for Venezuela and Ramon Martinez for the DR—had to bat for themselves.

Those who know something of Zambrano can guess how this ended. With two gone in the top of the 15th, Zambrano grounded a ball past Robinson Cano, bringing Carlos Gonzalez home from second. Then, in his sixth inning of relief work, he tottered from hits by Cano and Miguel Tejada, but hung on to secure the 7-6 victory.

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Only thing missing was the threat of Mike Scott pitching the next day.

 

Having secured another split, this one very hard earned, the Venezuelans returned home. The five-of-nine mountain was down to a two-of-three crag, and as hosts of the next two games, they had a chance to win it all at home.

Game Seven

The sequel, as usual, could not top its predecessor. Robinson Cano’s two-run homer in the second gave Alejandro Pena an early lead, and a tack-on run plated on Dave Concepcion’s second error of the day seemed ample insurance for the Saints. But Pena began cracking in the ninth, surrendering his fourth and fifth hits of the day and bringing the tying run to the plate. Rafael Soriano came on to retire Magglio Ordonez for the final out. The Dominicans had their third shutout win, 3-0, and were now within one game of the title.

Game Eight

For the third time, Johan Santana faced Johnny Cueto. It looked like the bad Cueto of Game Two had arrived, with a pair of bases-loaded jams in the first two innings. He got double plays each time to emerge unscathed, and settled down to allow just one more Venezuelan baserunner the rest of his day.

Support came from Felipe Alou. He homered in the fourth to give the Saints the 1-0 lead, then in the sixth singled Manny Ramirez home as part of a two-run frame. It was still 3-0 when Cueto was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh. He had retired 11 straight Oilers at that point, but his pitch count was over 100 and the manager wanted a fresh bat to go for the kill. Julio Franco would strike out looking in Cueto’s place, on the way to a goose-egg seventh.

Venezuela would not capitalize on the opportunity offered. They would manager baserunners each inning against Bartolo Colon and Armando Benitez, but the closest they came to converting was getting Magglio Ordonez up in the eighth with two on and two outs. He would fly out to center, and an inning later pinch-hitter Andres Galarraga would fan at Benitez’s full-count heater to end the game and the series.

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Champagne and instant-merchandising caps are not a DLC.

This series turned on pitching. The Dominicans hurled four shutouts, half the games played, without even using Pedro Martinez to start a game. Their bullpen beat expectations by yielding only two runs in 17 innings, though both runs were the decisive tallies in the pair of one-run games the Venezuelans pulled out. Alejandro Pena was the no-brainer series MVP, with three wins, a 1.05 ERA, and more strikeouts (15) than hits allowed (14). Among batters, Albert Pujols was the standout, going 12-for-31 with four walks. His three home runs and five runs batted in led all players for the series. For Venezuela, Miguel Cabrera with two homers and Edgardo Alfonso with a .407 on-base percentage were offensive achievers.

For the whole season, Carlos Gonzalez won the MVP Award, with Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez 2-3 in the voting. The Cy Young went to Felix Hernandez, a bittersweet award given his nightmare 0-3 postseason pitching against Pena. (Cueto and Pedro were second and third.) Willie Hernandez of the Puerto Rico Sharks got the nod as the league’s top reliever.

There isn’t really much arguing with the result of the Rest-of-the-World Series. The Dominican Republic dominated the regular season in historic fashion, and brought superb pitching to bear to grind out the final triumph. But the Venezuelans need not hang their heads: they made the Dominicans play their best to earn that glory.

My thanks to David Temple, Grand Poobah of TechGraphs, for the opportunity to do something a little out of the usual TG wheelhouse. Signing out.

(Full disclosure: In order to conduct the simulation, I was given a complimentary copy of Out Of The Park 16. I gratefully acknowledge OOTP’s generosity. I even more gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Brad Cook, along with Lukas Berger and Chuck Hauser from OOTP for leading me through the nuances of some unusual roster creation. Had I been less boneheaded, you might have seen this series sooner, and I thank them for pulling me through.)


MLB Network Announces New Streaming Option

Major League Baseball gets a lot things right. Their Advanced Media department, the group in control of MLB.com and MLB.TV, have now updated their At-Bat app. In addition to watching games — which are still subject to local blackouts — the app now allows for constant viewing of the MLB Network’s round the clock channel. Unfortunately unlike Pinocchio, there remain strings attached to this deal.

A qualifying cable subscription is required to view the MLB Network live stream. The stream is available on iOS and Android phones or tablets as well as Mac and PCs. As noted by the crew over at Awful Announcing, the initial group of cable providers who have agreed to support the stream does not include Comcast. In addition to missing what Wikipedia calls the number one (by subscriber count) provider in the United States, those who use Charter Communications — number six by subscriber count — such as myself, are also left out.

After logging into my app, I was sad to see I was one of the million of baseball fans left out of the ability to stream the show.

mlbapp

The upshot is this means people on the go (or at work) have the option to view MLB Network shows, interviews and even out-of-market games while away from their televisions. Perhaps even more importantly is the inclusion of playoff and preseason games. Being able to catch a spring training game after a long winter or watching a potential series-defining game when not at home and without paying for any extra add-ons is a great move for baseball.

Last season MLB Network claimed two playoff games, Game 2 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and the Cardinals and Game 3 of the NLDS with the Nationals and Giants. In 2013 there were also two DS games shown, one from the NL and another from the AL. The same format of MLB Network getting two DS games stretches back to 2012. Given that MLB, ESPN, Fox and TBS came to an eight-year, $12.4 billion broadcast agreement that runs through 201, count on continuing to be able to see at least two playoff games per year via MLB Network’s online stream.

Even with the blackouts and the restrictions due to cable companies, this 24/7 streaming of a major sport offering represents a first in the world of sports. Yes, the NBA, NHL and NFL all have their own channels however none are simulcast in the same way MLB Network is. This move seems like a way to meet the old crowd and the new generation in the middle. More traditional TV subscribers may not find a ton of use for it and dedicated cord cutters will likely wish MLB Network didn’t require a cable package. Of course, with such a lukewarm offering, it’s hard to imagine this move generating a lasting effect. Perhaps as the NFL embraces the online streaming realm and as more and more people cut the cord, eventually a non-subscription version may arrive at some point.


REVIEW: Baseball Mogul, Still Pretty Dang Addictive

Game: Baseball Mogul: Diamond Edition (website)
Platform: PC, Linux (via Wine)
Release Date: 2015
Metascore: n/a
TechGraphs score: 4.0 or 80 B-

General Reaction
A man, presumably speaking to his copy of Baseball Mogul, once wisely asked, “Why can’t I quit you?”

That question is as pertinent today as it was in seasons past. The Sport Moguls crew has dropped the annual naming convention (so no more Baseball Mogul 2014 or Baseball Mogul 2016 stuff). In its place, we have Baseball Mogul: Diamond Edition.

What’s different with the Diamond Edition? Well, not much, actually. I partly expected the name change would come with perhaps a major graphics or interface overhaul. Maybe they were going to simplify the game a little, or maybe add some complexities. Nope, not really. I spotted a few changes here and there from the previous version I played (that would be Baseball Mogul ’13, 96 A+)

This game is still, like, dumb levels of adddicting. If you like baseball simulation video games with large rosters and realistic aging curves, then Baseball Mogul is one great option in a field of just two choices.

Ratings

Graphics: 2.5 stars
I dinged the most recent version of OOTP on account of it’s graphics issues. That problem is more pronounced in Baseball Mogul. While neither this game nor OOTP try to entice users on graphics, it still matters that the interface looks very 1990s and the color scheme is pretty close to Eye Tuberculosis levels.

I guess the green is supposed to evoke thoughts of the Green Monster and other more classic ballparks, but it just feels like a Window 95 theme.

I guess the green is supposed to evoke thoughts of the Green Monster and other more classic ballparks, but it just feels like a Window 95 theme.

The in-game view is also a little weirder now. The picture of the field (at the top of the screen) is still like a photo of the field with a little computer-animated ball acting out each pitch.

But now the hitter in the middle of the screen is animated, as opposed to that ancient-looking GIF of a guy swinging a bat. The animated hitter doesn’t look bad or anything, it’s just one more example, though, of inconsistent aesthetics.

Concept & Game Modes: 4.5 stars
I’m addicted to this game without the need of online or multiplayer functionality. That said, these features seem like they should be standard in most modern games. Maybe there is a way to play online with Baseball Mogul? But it’s not very self-evident if there is.

I typically simulate my seasons a week at a time, checking my rosters each week to redistribute playing time, tweak the lineup order, check for injuries or healed players, and so on. But for users who want to see every game (which is occasionally me), you can play out every game as the manager or the player or the GM. And each of these modes is pretty fun.

Gameplay & Interface: 4.5 stars
The gameplay is really fun. It’s what makes the franchise not just viable, but delightful. One of the reasons I play it as much or more than OOTP is that I can get through seasons quickly and easily. Everything is just a few steps simplified, so I don’t have slog through a 30-round amateur draft (or feel guilty for changing it to a 10-round draft), or offer contracts to a dozen international amateur free agents every few days, or hire eight new pitching and hitting coaches for the minor leagues.

No, instead, I can build a strong farm system and sign a few major leaguers to relatively uncomplicated contracts and then simulate a whole season in under 30 minutes. Because, just as with real baseball, all I really care about is the stories of my players. Will this part-time scrub blossom into a starter this year? Will this prospect finally turn a corner and become an ace? Can this aging veteran make good for one more season?

In OOTP, we get less of this macro feel because the game offers so many micro elements to work on. In Baseball Mogul, we’re able to step back and look at the current/potential graphs of a 36-year-old Mike Trout and kind of bask in the story of his career.

The gameplay is pretty much 5 stars. The problem is that the interface is not 5 stars. I can customize my free agents screen, my draft screen, my sortable statistics screen (which I use frequently), but I still can’t tweak my lineup or pitching screens — the two screens I need more than any other. If I want to see wOBA, SB, and PA in the same screen as I set my lineup, tough beans. If I want to see IP, ERA, and DICE (which I guess is like the Walmart brand of FIP) on the same screen, tough beans.

There are some nifty new features, like being able to export a player’s stats as a CSV or tab-delimited file, but I’d trade that for a customizeable lineup/rotation screen any day.

Glitches: 4.0 stars
Does the game freeze or scramble your lineup or give the opponent four outs in an inning? No*. Not that I’ve seen. The game, from a debilitating-crash perspective, is bug free.

But there does appear to be a systematic problem with the latest version:

What good is a strong arm if it apparently has no correlation to stopping runners?

What good is a strong arm if it apparently has no correlation to stopping runners?

Not only does the catcher arm rating seem to be over inflated for most catchers, the arm ratings don’t seem to do a whole lot to defend against baserunners. And speaking of baserunners, why the heck are there so many fast guys now?

My first baseman stole 60+ bags in just 400 PA. I found a scrub third baseman, gave him 600 PA and he stole 116 bags.

My first baseman stole 60+ bags in just 400 PA. I found a scrub third baseman, gave him 600 PA and he stole 116 bags.

Those are just the speed ratings within my own organization. I only specifically targeted two of those guys for acquisition based on their speed. The rest just kind of appeared in my system after just pursuing the best players available.

And looking at the whole league, we can see speed is in abundance in the majors. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they felt previous speed distributions were too pessimistic about the speed of MLB players; or perhaps guys like Billy Hamilton, when given a 90 speed, were disproportionately fast.

All I know is that it’s been a long time since my franchise had a catcher that could climb above the 20% caught stealing rate.

Another minor glitch: Sometimes, for whatever reason, the popups for arbitration offers show 80 current / 75 potential — which is like 99% not the case. Baseball Mogul rarely, if ever, gives a potential rating lower than a current rating.

Here’s an 82/82, late-career Neil Walker showing up as an 80/75:

Yeah, there's something wrong when all of my arb-eligible guys are showing up as 80/75.

Yeah, there’s something wrong when all of my arb-eligible guys are showing up as 80/75.

When I open his player card, the numbers look as expected. But in the arb popup, something is wrong. Not really a big deal though.

*A word to Linux users: Don’t try to build a new stadium. It’s a one-way ticket to Crashville. Unfortunately, running the game through Wine means some things just won’t work. 🙁

Rosters: 4.5 stars
On the spectrum of realistic rosters, it goes: Crappy Facebook games or whatever, MLB the Show-type games, Baseball Mogul, then OOTP. Nothing beats OOTP’s super, ultra complete rosters — which even include actual players for the next-soonest MLB draft. But Baseball Mogul is close. The 2015 opening day rosters have a robust, though not complete, minor league system rich with actual prospects and Quad-A fodder.

Also, the historical rosters — which stretch back pretty much to the time of Moses — give this game enormous replay value.

See Also:

98 A+ Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) 2015 (PC)
98 A+ Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) 2014 (PC)
97 A+ Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) 2013 (PC)
96 A+ Baseball Mogul ’13 (PC)
96 A+ MLB ’12 The Show (PS3)
86 B Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) 2016 (PC)
82 B- MVP Baseball 2003 (PC)
79 C+ MLB 2K12 (PS3, XBOX 360, Wii, PC, etc.)
74 C MLB Ballpark Empire (Facebook)


OOTP Experiment — International All-Stars, Pt. 2: Regular Season

Monday, I introduced the International All-Star tournament, an OOTP 16 simulation involving national teams of the best major league players not born in the United States. Today, we get to the games themselves.

I gave the computer manager free rein to decide starting lineups, pitching rotations, and bullpen assignments. I did actually set up rotations for each team, but the AI, left to its devices, overruled my decisions. This did produce a few problems, such as with Panama, which the computer gave a five-man rotation despite having only four pitchers rated as starters.

This follows from my method of choosing representative seasons for the players. I did not cherry-pick years convenient for pigeon-holing them at particular positions. That means, for instance, Ramiro Mendoza ended up the reliever he was in 2001, rather than the part-time starter he might have been had I selected an earlier year for him.

This produced a few surprises in the field, too. I anticipated that Dave Concepcion would have to play second base for Venezuela, pushed off shortstop by Luis Aparicio. The computer, though, slid Aparicio over, despite his never having played a single game at that position in real life. It also chose some different starters than I did, such as Edgardo Alfonso over Pablo Sandoval at third for Venezuela and Pete Ward over Corey Koskie at third for Canada.

That’s okay. I’m not quite convinced enough of my expertise to insist on my decisions across the board. Besides which, I might unconsciously bias the simulation with my subjective selections. The OOTP AI does not have this problem. Or if it does, someone’s made a way bigger breakthrough than we realized.

Enough explanations. Time for baseball.

The 154-game season opened on April 1, running through to September 15. After the first month, there was the promise of a tight race, with some surprises popping up.

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Enjoy it now. This is the last time there’ll be competition for the top spot.

A stumbling Cuba was an early surprise, and a strong-running Canada maybe a bigger one. Having done a couple of dry-run sims, though, I knew these weren’t flukes. The Mariners were likely to remain a disappointment, while the Beavers might have the stuff to hang in the playoff chase.

Venezuela’s early lead was driven by a truly awesome April from Carlos Gonzalez. His batting line for the month was an insane .466/.530/.932, with a .596 wOBA and 3.0 WAR. He led the league in runs, RBI, homers, and triples. He would not maintain the supernova heat of his streak, though, a 0.3 WAR May pulling him back to the pack (though he still led the league in batting, slugging, homers, and runs scored at month’s end.)

The race took its true shape in May. The Dominican Republic compiled a 21-8 month (with just eight home games in that span) to take a 6 1/2-game lead. Venezuela and Canada were tied for second, with Puerto Rico half a game behind them. The rest of the league was effectively eliminated with 100 games to go: it was a four-horse race.

One result during that month I will note. On May 13, Pedro Martinez of the Dominican Saints lost a 3-2 decision to the Mexico Eagles when a ninth-inning rally fell short. This dropped Martinez’s record to 5-2. You will learn later why this is meaningful.

Truth be told, the league was still a horse race only in the sense that Secretariat at the Belmont was a horse race. A 22-4 June, including the last 16 wins of an 18-game winning streak, put the Dominicans 13 games clear of the field. The only race remaining was for the wild card postseason entry—but that was still very much a race.

Venezuela had the “lead” at the end of June, two games ahead of Canada and Puerto Rico. By the close of July, they had fallen to fourth, a game behind the again-tied Beavers and Sharks. Then it was the Oilers’ turn to hit the gas, a 21-8 August driving them three games clear for the wild card, with Puerto Rico third and Canada one more back in fourth.

By this time, the “Pennant Chase” function had kicked in, letting you preview at a glance upcoming games for playoff contenders. There I saw that Puerto Rico and Canada had an upcoming series together, starting the third of September. When it began, Venezuela was four games ahead of both. Whoever lost the series was all but sunk in the wild-card race.

The Sharks struck early, with a 10-7 win at Canada. Joey Votto’s perfect day—a homer, double, single, and three walks—won him the league’s Performance of the Day honors. It still wasn’t enough to overcome a seven-run PR sixth, sparked by a pair of errors.

But Canada stormed back. Rheal Cormier’s four-hit shutout and Ryan Dempster’s eight innings of one-run, three-hit ball led the Beavers to 4-0 and 2-1 victories. They won the battle—but lost the war.

While those two were battering each other, Venezuela swept seventh-place Japan, adding a game to its wild-card lead. Worse, Canada’s next series was against the juggernaut Dominican Saints, while Venezuela drew last-place Panama. Venezuela would clinch the wild card with five games to play, though Canada ended the year on a six-game winning streak to make the final gap a respectable two games.

OOTP-Final-600by300

How it ended. Poor Panama: two months out of first.

The gap between second and first wasn’t nearly as respectable. The Dominicans clinched first place on August 24, with 21 games to play. They finished the season an awesome 112-42, 22 games up on Venezuela. For historical perspective, the Dominicans’ record was two games better than the 1927 Yankees, one better than the 1954 Indians, and trailed only the 116-36 campaign of the 1906 Chicago Cubs. But remember: those last two teams lost the World Series.

The Saints excelled on offense and defense, their 883-572 runs margin leading the league in both categories. Albert Pujols’s .308/.403/.569 with 35 homers paced the team, producing 6.7 WAR; five other batters produced at least 4.5 WAR. Of the 14 position players, all but two had an OPS+ of at least 106. The lineup had effectively no weakness.

Starting pitchers were, if anything, better. Against a league ERA of 3.89, the top four starters in the Dominican rotation all had ERAs below three. The bullpen was surprisingly weak, with five ERAs over five and closer Rafael Soriano at 3.86. The fault is probably disuse: the starters were such workhorses that four of them had more inning pitched than the 226.2 of the entire bullpen! Three of those starters won at least 20 games, including Juan Marichal at 20-7, 2.64 and Johnny Cueto at 21-6, 2.92.

And then there’s Pedro Martinez. We last saw him in mid-May, dropping to 5-2 on the year. He finished at 25-2. For the last four months of the season, Martinez started 22 games. Two were no-decisions; the rest constituted a 20-game winning streak, active at season’s end.

Twenty. Games. Straight.

OOTP-PedroStreak-600by400

There are no words. Not at a “safe for work” site, anyway.

Okay, so it wasn’t pure skill. So he had the fourth-best FIP in the rotation; so he had the fourth-best WAR in the rotation. (Cueto led in both.) It’s still a 20-game winning streak. And counting.

Brian Kenny, we have just discovered the bitterest foe to your “Kill the Win” campaign.

Venezuela (90-64) had its own potent offense, aside from Luis Aparicio (51 OPS+) never getting comfortable shifted over to second. Carlos Gonzalez finished the year cold, but still piled up a .320/.395/.624 line, with his 35 homers tying Pujols for the league lead. He led outright in slugging, OPS, wOBA, and position player WAR at 7.1. (Cueto’s 7.7 led the league.) His batting average of .320 was good only for third on his team, behind Miguel Cabrera and league champ Victor Martinez.

Pitching was likewise a step behind the Dominicans, though not a long one. None of the starters managed 20 wins, but the 19-7 Felix Hernandez did take the ERA crown, his 2.42 besting Marichal’s 2.64. Johan Santana was right behind, with an 18-9 record and 2.66 ERA. Closer Francisco Rodriguez had a rough time (4.92 ERA), but setup men Ugueth Urbina and Rafael Betancourt picked him up with good work.

The also-rans in the league I will cover somewhat more briefly.

Canada (88-66) got offensive help from expected sources. Joey Votto led everyone in walks and on-base percentage, while Larry Walker and Russell Martin slugged very well. Martin posted the best catcher’s WAR in the tournament at 6.1. There was also an unexpected source in Pete Ward, selected as a utility infielder. Getting the starter’s role at third base, he hit an even .300 with 24 homers, just behind Walker and Martin.

Canada’s pitching was a bit peculiar. All five starters beat the league ERA average, but in a narrow 3.29 to 3.76 range. All five had winning records, but nothing overwhelming, led by Ryan Dempster’s 17-10 and Ferguson Jenkins’s 17-11. Likewise, Eric Gagne was an effective but not outstanding closer leading an effective but not outstanding pen. One real breakout performance among the pitchers might have driven the Beavers to the wild card, but they did not get it.

Puerto Rico (85-69) likewise had a strong team, just not quite strong enough. Four regulars batted over .300: Alomar, Clemente, Cepeda, and Ivan Rodriguez, though Clemente’s was an empty .310. (Bernie Williams batted .315, but Carlos Beltran was given center field ahead of him, so he got just 173 PAs.) Carlos Delgado put 30 over the wall, with Beltran adding 25.

Front-end pitching was very good. Juan Pizarro yielded a league-low .222 batting average against while posting a 17-11, 2.67 record. Even better by FIP were Javier Vazquez and Joel Piniero, though Piniero posted a lackluster 12-15 record. But the back-end starters were sketchy and the bullpen past Willie Hernandez’s 2.06 ERA was middling, and the Sharks came up short.

Cuba (67-87) wound up mediocre across the board. The only leader in a major category was hurler Camilo Pascual, who threw 263 innings while notching five shutouts, tying him with Juan Marichal. Best in the field were catcher Yasmani Grandal, knocking 24 homers, and Tony Oliva, more solid than spectacular while starting nearly every day. Constant play did much worse for Yoenis Cespedes, who started all but three games and staggered, exhausted, to a -1.3 WAR.

Mexico (66-88) was as punchless as predicted. No player hit double-digit home runs, and the top position player WAR was the 2.1 of Carlos Lopez. Any strength the team had came from its closer, Joakim Soria with a 2.12 ERA and 33 saves, and its starting pitchers, though none of them managed even a .500 record. Fernando Valenzuela scrabbled to a sub-three ERA and a fourth-best 166 whiffs, but it was no repeat of 1981 for him. The team was saved from a worse fate by massive overachievement, beating its Pythagorean projection by nine games.

Japan (59-95) had the weak offense I foresaw from lack of position players in MLB: Hideki Matsui was the only regular whose OPS+ beat the average. The lone offensive highlight was the league-leading 67 stolen bases by Dave Roberts (he was born on Okinawa: he counts), though his 64 percent success rate made it a hollow honor.

Starting pitching wasn’t the strength I anticipated, though Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma held up well. Yu Darvish went a horrid 4-21, despite leading everyone in strikeouts (186) and K rate (7.9/9 IP). The bullpen was the tournament’s best, led by Takashi Saito’s 1.70 ERA, but it was too little, too late.

Panama (49-105) suffered the pitching “death spiral” I feared for them. Bruce Chen, at 12-17 and 4.24, was the “ace”. Juan Berenguer was hopeless at 1-13, 7.20, while Ed Acosta was the staff punching bag, absorbing a horrific 24 losses. Even Mariano Rivera suffered, with a 4.34 ERA and 24 saves, league worst for a closer. Presumptive batting superstar Rod Carew could only scrape together a .276 average and 90 OPS+, making Carlos Lee and Ben Oglivie the lone batters above league average.

Overall, the league had a notable tilt toward starting pitchers, with seven of the top 10 WAR scores going to hurlers. This is likely due to the managing AI playing to the “home era” of 1980, a time when 250 innings was a solid year’s work and complete games weren’t the rarity of today. It also severely curtailed relief innings, but since I generally gave the teams six-man bullpens rather than a modern seven or eight, this was somewhat mitigated.

So the regular season is over. History has been made—112 wins; Pedro’s 20 in a row—but there is more to come. See you back here Friday, for the Rest-of-the-World Series.

(Full disclosure: In order to conduct the simulation, I was given a complimentary copy of Out Of The Park 16. I gratefully acknowledge OOTP’s generosity. I even more gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Brad Cook, along with Lukas Berger and Chuck Hauser from OOTP for leading me through the nuances of some unusual roster creation. Had I been less boneheaded, you might have seen this series sooner, and I thank them for pulling me through.)


The One New iOS Feature That Sports Fans Will Care About

At yesterday’s WWDC Keynote, Apple — per usual — announced changes coming to their products. WWDC is, after all, a developers conference, so the usual announcements have more to do with software then announcing a new physical product. Like many recent renditions of the yearly keynote, changes and updates to the OS X and iOS operating systems were featured. Unlike iOS 8 or OS X Mavericks, these updates focus more on usability and less on a new aesthetic. OS X is getting some minor updates, most notably to the way users see and interact with their screens. With iOS 9, iPhone and iPad users will notice changes to built-in apps including a revamped Notes app, a new News app, as well as overhauls and additions to apps like Maps and Passbook (now Wallet). But beyond that, iPad users will probably see the biggest changes as Apple is finally attempting to tackle true multitasking on the tablet. And if one feature ends up being what it’s said to be, it could be a huge boon for sports fans.

While insanely popular, the iPad has always occupied its own space. It’s bigger and (in some cases) handier than a smartphone, but not as versatile as a laptop. In its infancy, it was purely a content-consumption device. It was made for looking at pictures and watching movies and reading articles, books, and emails. One could create on it, but beyond writing a basic message or drawing with a finger, creation was always a frustrating task. This is because while the actual creative act can be done in one app, the act of creation almost always needs multiple inputs. Writing on the iPad usually requires switching back to an article, photo, or notes. Drawing often needs some sort of source material for reference. Creating music could require downloading a sample or looking to other songs for inspiration. Real work can’t be done on one app alone.

And when people decided that they did want to create and not just consume on their devices, Apple was left scrambling for ways to make that easier. The earliest iterations of iOS had no multitasking capabilities. To use another app, one had to go back to the home screen and open another. Often times, you couldn’t even play audio in the background. Luckily, those days are over, but the process still isn’t totally ironed out. A double-click of the home button will present you with an app switcher, but it’s more cumbersome than a simple Alt/Command+Tab keystroke on a computer. And there was no way to view apps side by side. Now, with iOS 9, Apple has finally come up with a solution.

Apple announced a bevy of improvements with iOS 9 for iPad — a smarter Siri, a Notes app that actually seems robust, and a way to turn the virtual keyboard into a virtual trackpad with just two fingers. But the new multitasking features stole the show, and for good reason. For the first time, iPad users will be able to view (and use) two apps at once.

There are three iterations of multitasking in iOS9. Slide Over allows users to use the right third of their screen to check in on other apps. Apple showcased how this could work with Twitter and Calendar. Suddenly remember an appointment you need to add while reading an article? Slide calendar onto your screen, add the appointment, and slide it back. Apple is providing an API for this feature, so that third-party apps can utilize it as well.

Split View offers the ability to have two simultaneous apps running. The split of the screen can be adjusted (a la a Windows 8 tablet) and essentially any app can run side by side with another.

The iPad's new Split View feature. (Apple.com)

The iPad’s new Split View feature. (Apple.com)

This helps bridge the gap between consumption and creation by allowing the user to do either or both within one view. The catch is that Split View only works on the iPad Air 2, presumably due to the higher processing capabilities needed. But even for those with an iPad Mini or older iPad Air, Slide Over still offers a big upgrade to usability. And luckily, Apple wasn’t so strict as far as supported devices when it comes to the very best feature for sports fans — Picture in Picture.

(via Apple keynote. Muted by default)

This is a pretty big deal. I use my iPad quite a bit for MLB.tv, watchESPN, and NBC/Golf Live Extra. But while using my iPad for those purposes, I was pretty much locked in to that one task. If I wanted to send a Tweet or chat with someone or reply to an email, I either had to quit the app or use another device. When iOS 9 is released this fall, I’ll be able to type to my heart’s content while still watching my event in the floating video window.

This would require MLB, the NBA, DirecTV (for NFL Sunday Ticket) and all the other sports video providers to update their apps to support this function, but I can’t imagine any company worth its salt not having this ready when iOS 9 is released. And, unlike Split View, it will work on all relatively-new iPads.

ipadpipsupport

Proponents of Android and Windows tablets have long used multitasking as a bullet point when lauding the superiority of their favorite ecosystems. And while they still offer some advantages, Apple just cut one of their biggest arguments down at the knees. We’ll have to wait and see how well the feature actually works outside of a meticulously-staged demo, but if I can Tweet about a baseball game I’m watching all within the same screen as well as Apple is saying I can, it will be, for me, the most important feature update by far.

(Header image via John Karakatsanis.)

OOTP Experiment — International All-Stars, Pt. 1: The Concept

Early this year, I had a well-received article at The Hardball Times, a member of TechGraphs’ family of sports websites*. In it, I put together all-star teams of major league baseball players born in different countries from the United States, with speculation on which would be the strongest clubs if they faced each other.

(* If TechGraphs is a daughter site to FanGraphs, and FanGraphs is a sister site to The Hardball Times, it thus follows that TechGraphs is THT’s niece. So enjoy this visit from your Auntie Hardball.)

I wasn’t the only person who liked that speculation. I was contacted a while later by Brad Cook with Out of the Park Developments, the sports-sim folks. He suggested that I could use OOTP 16 (recently reviewed here by Bradley Woodrum) to pit those all-star teams against each other, and produce something more concrete than informed guesswork as to who would be best.

No spoiler tags necessary: I took him up on his idea. David Temple was himself kind enough to greenlight the idea of writing up the simulated season for TechGraphs, and here I am.

My series will be in three parts. Today I’m laying out the concept, the participating nations and players, and my handicapping of their chances. Later, I’ll play out a full season with the contending teams, seeing who totally confounds my predictions, and which players do best in this higher league. The final part will be the Rest-of-the-World Series, the top two finishers playing best-of-nine for the title.

For this project, I’ve chosen the eight countries I consider the best of the internationals to square off against each other. You may refer to my original article for how I chose them as the best. You’ll also need to refer to it for the team rosters, as space considerations don’t allow me to re-list all 200 players here.

OOTP-DRRoster-Sized
But here’s a tiny peek at the Dominicans. Ignore the ampersands. There are a few corrections I must make to those rosters. For Mexico’s team, I listed closer Joakim Soria twice; the second pitcher should instead be Luis Ayala. I also listed Tony Gonzalez twice for the Cubans; my substitution for the clone is Yoenis Cespedes. Also for Cuba, I managed to misspell Pedro Ramos’s name as “Predo.”

Yes, sometimes I can’t tell the players apart even with a scorecard.

Now for the teams themselves. I’ll give the countries, my personally chosen nicknames for the teams, plus the number of major-league players each nation has produced through 2014. (Only players who have played in MLB were eligible for my teams. Stinks if you’re Sadaharu Oh or Martin Dihigo, but I needed to compare apples-to-apples performance when making my selections.) I’ll also give capsule estimates of their strengths and failings.

In increasing order of my estimate of their team strength, here are the Elite Eight.

Panama Engineers (53):
For a small player pool, Panama has a solid front line of position players led by Rod Carew, and when they get a lead, Mariano Rivera’s there to slam the door. But the rest of their pitching is thin at best. If their rotation gets overwhelmed, they could go into a death spiral fast.

Japan Suns (61):
Japan is the reverse of Panama. Impressive starting pitching is their key strength, with capable pieces backing in the pen. However, few of their position players have crossed the Pacific, and this leaves them quite vulnerable on the infield and at catcher.

Mexico Eagles (114):
Mexico has pitching, though not with Japan’s depth, and a stronger infield. They are very lacking in power, though — their outfield being particularly punchless.

Canada Beavers (244):
An ace starter in Fergie Jenkins and ace relievers in Eric Gagne and John Axford anchor Canada’s pitching. The position players have real strengths in Joey Votto, Larry Walker, and Russell Martin, plus some holes, including a double-play combo out of the 19th century.

Cuba Mariners (186):
A deep rotation matches Japan’s, with Aroldis Chapman putting the bullpen ahead. Position players range from good to somewhere short of all-time great, with catcher maybe the only true weakness. This is the first team that feels like it could be dominant if dropped into today’s majors.

Puerto Rico Sharks (246):
The rotation is a step behind Cuba’s, the bullpen half a step back. The left half of the infield is not the strongest, but the other positions compensate amply with three Hall of Famers in Cepeda, Alomar, and Clemente. The Ivan Rodriguez/Jorge Posada duo behind the dish is easily the best in the tournament.

Venezuela Oilers (321):
Johan Santana and Felix Hernandez are a superb one-two punch, with a good back of the rotation and K-Rod closing. The infield is outstanding: Cabrera, Concepcion (moved over to second), Aparicio (which is why), and Sandoval. Outfield and catcher settle for being sneaky-good rather than shock-and-awe, but it’s still a great team.

Dominican Saints (618):
The rotation is stacked, from Pedro Martinez and Juan Marichal down to fifth starter Bartolo Colon, while the bullpen has so many good arms there is no clear closer. Three members of the infield (Pujols, Cano, and Beltre) could be going to Cooperstown, and the outfield is so stacked that Vladimir Guerrero is a sub. Leveraging its deep talent pool well, The Dominican Republic looks like the team to beat.

The tournament’s season structure will follow the style of the pre-expansion majors: eight teams in a single league, playing 154 games. I also chose to set the tournament in the year 1980, with the statistical underpinnings of that era. That year was reasonably balanced between offense and defense, without, for example, the smothered batting of the 1960s, the inflated home run figures of the turn of the millennium, or the extreme strikeout totals of today.

This means we shouldn’t expect any records from our players, with the tendencies of the league not biased toward producing 70 homers or 400 strikeouts in a year. Of course, we also shouldn’t expect such outlying numbers because this is effectively a higher league, a level of competition above what most or all of these players ever faced in real life.

The rosters are frozen with the 25 players for each team: no promotions from non-existent minors, and obviously no trades. I turned off injuries, along with suspensions and PED discipline. (Several players wipe their virtual foreheads in relief.) I want this tournament decided as much as possible by the players, not by chance.

As for the players … which versions of them will be playing? Do I go by career totals? Or do I select a specific season for each one, and which one? Will my tournament be populated by 200 guys all having their career years?

I chose a moderate course. I ordered each player’s seasons by WAR, then tallied their plate appearances (for hitters) or innings pitched (for pitchers), best-WAR season on down. The year in which he reached one-third of his career total is what I selected as his representative season. This was intended to produce a good season for each player, without overly rewarding anyone who had one freak breakout year towering over a lower baseline. As I tried to choose players for career achievement rather than lone standout years, it fits with the roster construction.

Of course, there’s always some loophole to mess with your intentions. For me it was the strike year of 1981, artificially reducing WAR by the one-third of games not played. This pulled Fernando Valenzuela’s WAR for his tremendous rookie season down below that of other seasons, enough so that ’81 got chosen as his year.

I could have omnisciently chosen some other year for him, along with similar adjustments for the smaller anomalies along those lines. However, intervening consciously against the algorithm felt like more of a distortion than letting it stand*. So Mexico will gain the full benefit of Fernando-mania for its national squad.

*Besides which, what the heck? It’s just a game.

So that’s your International All-Star league. Join us tomorrow, when they play ball.

(Full disclosure: In order to conduct the simulation, I was given a complimentary copy of Out Of The Park 16. I gratefully acknowledge OOTP’s generosity. I even more gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Brad Cook, along with Lukas Berger and Chuck Hauser from OOTP for leading me through the nuances of some unusual roster creation. Had I been less boneheaded, you might have seen this series sooner, and I thank them for pulling me through.)