On Friday, Dave Schoenfield over at ESPN.com wrote an article about recent advances in sabermetrics. This article isn't just about number-crunching however. Schoenfield discusses new baseball frontiers that go beyond the numbers, into fields such as neurology.
Jason Sherwin was a research professor of visual neuroscience at the State University of New York after holding appointments as a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia and at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. He's the co-founder of a company called deCervo, which has already worked with seven major league organizations. His objective: to see what the brain is doing when a batter is responding to a pitch.
He and co-founder Jordan Muraskin developed an EEG headset that monitors brain activity as players use an app on their phones or computer -- similar to a video game -- to simulate hitting a pitch. (The simulator uses actual PITCHf/x data, so you can, say, replicate the speed and movement of Clayton Kershaw's curveball). They then capture the player's neural and behavioral metrics of pitch and strike recognition.
But here's the key: In their study of college, minor league and major league players they've worked with, those with better response times performed better at the plate, producing higher on-base percentages. While Sherwin envisions his tool as a training device for hitters -- you're facing Kershaw tonight, instead of just reading a boring scouting report or watching video you'll be able to practice "hitting his pitches" -- it also presents a way to evaluate hitters. "It's got scouting potential, 100 percent. How well does he recognize the slider? This can measure that. ... That's something we're seeing teams want it for."
The implications of this and similar breakthroughs are obvious, but there's an additional impact to consider.
The sabermetric breakthrough of the last 30 years was driven, at least at first, by outsiders, people like Bill James and Craig Wright finding new ways to understand and analyze information that was, for the most part, publicly available. Eventually many of these outsiders became insiders as more and more teams adopted sabermetric concepts. Every team uses this type of research now, with some clubs having quite large research departments.
But it seems that the newest frontiers involve data that is not publicly available and likely never will be. Certainly nothing like a brainscan will ever show up in a boxscore or a TV broadcast. Baseball has certainly benefited from the insights of "informed outsiders." But I wonder if that era is coming to an end?
It's something to think about anyway.