Analysing cricket through a baseball lens

The arrival of the India squad in Florida this weekend brought in huge throng of supporters hoping to spur a new age for neutral-venue cricket possibilities in the USA. But their presence also drew attention from an unlikely source, with a series of Major League Baseball data miners camping out in Lauderhill for the weekend to see how to bring their analytics to another sport.

Eleven members of MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), who help curate data for the online services known as MLB Statcast and MLB At Bat, set up a trailer at the Central Broward Regional Park to collect as much player and ball-tracking data as possible in an effort to bring their new-age stats approach to cricket from baseball.

"We're doing some research on how can we apply our Statcast data acquisition technologies to other sports, i.e. cricket, because baseball and cricket are very similar to each other," says Kevin Prince, a broadcast analyst with MLBAM who is originally from Kent, England, but has been working in the USA for more than 30 years. "We're here to gather all the player-tracking and ball-tracking data, hopefully to provide a system that can provide the Statcast type of analysis that we've perfected for baseball, and hopefully provide that for cricket."

As part of their technical set-up at the stadium in Lauderhill, the crew set up six cameras mounted to the floodlight towers on the west side of the ground, as well as a radar above the sightscreen on the north side. The cameras track player movement while the radar tracks ball movement. The crew visited Lauderhill last month for the Caribbean Premier League and their interest was sufficiently piqued for them to make a return for the India-West Indies T20s to see what they could apply from baseball principles.

"It's the fourth-generation stats, more performance-driven on the field," says Per Von Rosen, a technical manager with Statcast, originally from Stockholm, Sweden, who came to the USA last year but has previously done cricket analysis in England. "So, how hard did you pitch, how hard did you hit, exit velocity of the ball coming off the bat. In fielding, the route efficiency taken to catch the ball.

"We know where a fielder was when the play started, we know where he caught the ball, and therefore we can know which path he took. Was it a straight line, did he deviate from that straight path, and how fast did he react to the ball off the bat - all of these things. It's basically putting together his athletic capabilities. Some guys always happen to be in the right place to make the catch, and now we're putting numbers on that."

One of the most popular data points in terms of fan traffic for Statcast online is exit velocity. Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, the 2016 All-Star Game home-run derby champion, has nine of the 15 highest exit velocity measurements of the season, with a highest of 123.9mph speed of the ball coming off the bat. However, six of the nine connections only went for singles and none for home runs.

"The hardest you can hit a ball has to be a trajectory that's a little more flat," says Rob Engel, a senior software engineer with MLBAM. "Any time you hit a home run, you have to put a little more launch angle on the ball, and you're not actually hitting it as square as you would hit a line drive. So the farthest home runs are technically hit a little softer than a hard line drive straight back to the pitcher, because the bat maintains contact with the ball longer, so you hit it harder."

In cricket, the use of these metrics could demonstrate that players who hit sixes aren't necessarily swinging or connecting harder, especially compared to a drive straight back down the pitch or a cut straight to point. Little nuggets like this are what Engel says draw fans in. "Big numbers are sexy."

Where the Statcast appears to be having a significant impact in terms of media scrutiny for players is in terms of the fielding aspects, which have long been neglected. Engel, who is originally from San Francisco, was at his first ever cricket match on Saturday, but says he has immediately identified areas where cricket data could be improved for fielders based on what he has done with baseball.

"Things are really registering well with fans, as well as smaller things like arm strength, route efficiency and distance covered, they're easy to comprehend," says Engel. Arm strength measures the speed of the ball out of the arm from an outfield throw, route efficiency tracks the distance and time it takes to field a ball from the moment it leaves the bat and is cross-analysed against raw distance covered.

Another area is base-running speed, including acceleration time it takes to reach top speed as well as top overall speed from home to first, first to third base and so on. But even subtler things are tracked, such as how big a lead a base runner gets off the base before attempting to steal. They are learning the slim margins that allow for a slower runner to gain a bigger advantage and get to the next base quicker than a runner with a higher speed rating.

For cricket, it can be taken to measure fastest runners between the wickets and the impact of acceleration and deceleration while converting one run into two or two into three. Not only are the measures of interest to fans, but teams are able to utilise them for scouting purposes to gauge whose arm they can't or can take on for a second run from the boundary.

"There's an outfielder for the Yankees who threw a ball 105mph with a crow hop earlier this year - Aaron Hicks," Engel says. "That sparked a Twitter controversy - how can an outfielder throw harder than Aroldis Chapman? But if you look at the physics of the throw, with a running start and a crow hop, it makes sense you can throw the ball harder than from a [pitcher's] mound without a running start. So those things are really registering well with fans, as well as smaller things like route efficiency and distance covered, they're easy to comprehend.

"Traditional fielding stats only credit you negatively, and it's basically who screwed up the least rather than who gave us the best performance. So now we have a forward-thinking model on what fielders can give us the most out of their physicality as opposed to who screws up the least."

Prince says they are currently in discussions with the ECB, IPL teams, and Big Bash franchises. who are all keen to gain access to the Statcast capabilities. "Baseball has the leading digital asset creation and development tools out there," says Prince. "The whole Statcast aspect has been recognised by all the other sports as being a groundbreaking structure, so there's a lot of people interested in these aspects of the game. A lot of people are interested in seeing how we're going to go here."

Von Rosen says in his time watching cricket in England, he noticed how fielders were underappreciated, with only catches and run-outs marked in traditional stats. The Statcast technology can track fielders at point, for example, who may be cutting off singles with their speed to the ball off the bat, but have not got the recognition they deserve. In that way, MLBAM's data could transform how cricket analyses player performance.

"You go online and you start reading your cricket news or baseball news, what we want to do is put material on there that you'll never stop looking for news," says Von Rosen. "You'll be watching video after video, play after play with all of this information you can see, so you never really want to stop."