March 1, 2013
Q&A With Graphics Editor on Data Visualization and Baseball
Remember the New York Times animation of every pitch Mariano Rivera threw? (It’s well worth clicking if you don’t.)
The designer behind that has a little experience watching pitches come at a hitter.
Joe Ward is the sports graphics editor at the Times, and he once worked as a hitting coach in independent ball, such as he could while holding down the job at the newspaper.
"I was working nights, so I'd go to the stadium during BP and I'd have to leave before the game started," Ward said of his time with the New Jersey Jackals. "On my days off, I got to stay for the game."
Ward, who was also an associate scout for the Cleveland Indians, spoke Friday on the Data Visualization panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. While largely not a baseball-focused presentation, he answered a few of our questions afterward about data visualization and how it related to his time in the game.
(As usual, Qs&As have been edited for rambling, pretty much exclusively on the part of the questioner.)
Q: Which of the visualizations from your newspaper job were you able to take with you to the ballpark?
A: I did a lot of video - slow-motion video. I didn't show any of it here today, but I've done a lot of biomechanics stuff, so I was able to break the swing down to some of its biomechanics and try to impart that a little bit. You don't want to tell him too much and make him think too much.
Then just some simple data for these guys just sort of brings things home. 'Look, you're hitting .275. If you get one more hit a week, you'll be hitting .310.'
Q: Do players appreciate things like heat maps?
A: I wasn't really showing them the heat maps, but the things I did show them, they were pretty receptive. The thing about the independent league is that most of those guys have been in organizations and have been released and are trying to get back in. So they've already failed. So what I liked about it was that they were willing to listen because whatever they were doing before didn't work. Being a hitting coach in the independent league is pretty good because you have a captive audience.
Q: What do you think the most important visualizations for coaches are even if they don't show them to their players?
A: I think it depends on the coach a little bit. Some are really from the gut, so maybe you can't give them too much but maybe you spoon-feed them a little bit of data. Other coaches, you can give them more of that kind of stuff. Pitching biomechanics, I've worked a lot with Glen Fleisig from ASMI - American Sports Medicine Institute - so I've learned a lot from him. Those kind of things, injury prevention - but even throwing the ball harder - those kind of things, if you can do it with a player and a coach sees that it works, he'll buy into it. They're all about results. If you can make a player better, then they're willing to listen.
Q: How much have scouts started to embrace things like biomechanics 20 years removed from when you did it?
A: I think the language that they speak now is much different than when I [was scouting]. It was all about five-tool players and what did the guy look like. It was all the before-'Moneyball' stuff. Since 'Moneyball,' these are smart guys and I've heard some scouts and players talk pretty well about biomechanics and statistics and things like that.
I think there's been a sea change. You still have some local bird-dogs who see a player and he looks good and he looks like a baseball player, but they can really get down to the nitty-gritty.