What happens when baseball executives show up at a physics and computer science conference? I had the opportunity to find out this past Saturday at the Sportvision Pitchf/x conference in San Francisco. Sportvision might be the most recognizable small company in Silicon Valley, as they make the ubiquitous yellow first down lines on American football broadcasts. As a company with expertise in sensors and software, Sportvision has embarked on a new mission to making a digital record of every major league baseball game. This effort started with Pitchf/x, a technology that tracks the trajectory of pitches. The data for every pitch thrown in the majors in the last three season is available online. The baseball blog community has made a huge contribution in analyzing this data, and Sportvision highlights this work at their conferences. Many of the talks on Saturday focused on Fieldf/x, Sportvision’s new technology with the more ambitious goal of tracking every player and event on the baseball field.

It was a fascinating cast of people who attended the meeting. Greg Moore, an almost impossible combination of Southern California baseball jock and computer programmer, gratiously invited me. As part of the business team at Sportvision, he had the unenviable task of giving the last talk of the day. However, he managed to wake up the crowd after eight hours by promising a Mindf/x technology by 2015. One of the first people I met was Doc Rosenthals, who practiced neurosurgery for 29 years before quitting to pursue his passion for baseball. He and his collegue Fred Vint have started Scientific Baseball, a company that uses modern technology in youth baseball development. The man who organized the talks was Alan Nathan, the physics baseball guru. Alan retired from the Physics department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to spend more time on his physics of baseball research. In an excellent talk, carefully tuned to the non-physics audience, he explained his most recent results in ball bat collisions. Then there was Allison Binns, the young Harvard PhD in Sociology who left academic life to work in the Boston Red Sox’s front office. We met later that night when the entire conference attended the Giants game. In a quintessential San Francisco moment, she and her colleagues used the WiFi to agonize over every pitch of the Red Sox game playing on an iPad.

The conference also provided a great chance to tell people about the Power Rank. Let’s check in and see how the second half predictions have worked out. The Rays and Yankees are tied atop the AL East, with Boston 7 games behind. It would be nearly impossible for the second place team in this division to not get the Wild Card into the playoffs. In the AL Central, Minnesota has a comfortable 4 game lead over the Chicago White Sox. While the Power Rank forecast did well in these two divisions, it is failing miserably in the NL Central. Here, 15th ranked Cincinnati has a 6 game lead over 8th ranked St. Louis. Since sweeping the Reds three weeks ago, the Cardinals have lost 7 games to bottom four teams in the division, none of which are higher than 24th in the Power Rank. Six games is a big deficit to make up, even for a significantly better team.

1. Tampa Bay, 81-50, 1.23
2. New York Yankees, 81-50, 1.21
3. Atlanta, 76-55, 0.81
4. Minnesota, 75-56, 0.68
5. San Diego, 76-54, 0.66
6. Boston, 74-57, 0.62
7. Philadelphia, 73-58, 0.56
8. St. Louis, 69-60, 0.47
9. Texas, 74-57, 0.42
10. Chicago White Sox, 71-60, 0.41
11. Toronto, 68-63, 0.36
12. Colorado, 69-61, 0.32
13. San Francisco, 72-60, 0.31
14. Florida, 65-65, 0.28
15. Cincinnati, 76-55, 0.20
16. New York Mets, 65-66, 0.20
17. Oakland, 65-65, 0.13
18. Los Angeles Dodgers, 68-64, 0.09
19. Detroit, 65-66, -0.08
20. Los Angeles Angels, 64-68, -0.08
21. Washington, 57-75, -0.42
22. Cleveland, 53-78, -0.60
23. Arizona, 53-79, -0.62
24. Chicago Cubs, 56-76, -0.75
25. Milwaukee, 62-69, -0.78
26. Houston, 60-71, -0.79
27. Seattle, 51-80, -0.80
28. Kansas City, 55-76, -1.00
29. Baltimore, 48-83, -1.01
30. Pittsburgh, 43-88, -2.03

Click here for a visual display of these rankings.

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Pittsburgh Fans

August 12, 2010

I’ve only ever been to one NFL game.  In 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to the Bay area to play the Oakland Raiders.  In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are a religion, and the disciples follow the team plane wherever it travels.  My friend Jeremy Jones got 8 of his friends from Pittsburgh, including his dad, to fly out for a few nights of drinking and the game.  It might be my last Steelers game though, as they lost to a Raiders teams that ended up winning two games that year.  A win at Oakland would have put the Steelers in the playoffs that year.

While everyone in Pittsburgh is a Steelers fan, it takes another level of dedication to follow the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This major league baseball franchise hasn’t won more than half their games since 1992.  With the lowest payroll in baseball, they spend about one sixth the money of the top spenders.  But Jeremy Jones follows every move the team makes.  Recently, he told me he thinks the Pirates will break 500 next year, a claim he’s made before.  But for now, he’s stuck following the worst team in the Power Rank.  A month ago, he sent me a haiku:

I hate powerrank
biggest gap equals Pirates
as true as it is

Not much as changed since; it takes awhile to scroll down to the Pirates.  Jeremy Jones, you’re a true fan.  When the Pirates win the World Series, you have the right to celebrate in whatever manner you see fit.

This time of year, top European club soccer teams go abroad to prep for the upcoming season. Teams like Manchester United used to come to the United States and play exhibition games against other European club teams. This summer, they took on teams from Major League Soccer (MLS). After beating the Philadelphia Union, a first year expansion club, Manchester United lost to the Kansas City Wizards, the 12th ranked team in the Power Rank. “The progress is obvious,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, the silver haired dean of European club managers (think of him as the Dean Smith of European club football). “We realized that in the game against Philadelphia and just as much against Kansas City. There’s a massive improvement in the organization and standard of play. That would be the reason I think they’re ready to play the best teams in Europe now.”

The 2-1 result against Kansas City was clearly a statistical abberation, as Manchester United handily defeated a more talented MLS All-Star team a few days later. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the game to see how far MLS has come. Kansas City had a 1-0 lead until defender Jimmy Conrad got a red card for a tackle in the penalty area that led to a goal on a penalty shot. With a tie game and a one man advantage for the remaining 50 minutes, Manchester United clearly had the upper hand. However, Kansas City scored in the very next minute and held off their European competitors in the second half with their backup goal keeper. Not a bad result, especially since Manchester United would not even think about adding single one of Kansas City’s players to its roster.

It’s time to give MLS respect and properly evaluate the teams. The Power Rank shows clear domination from MLS teams in the Western Conference. Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake played for the MLS Cup a year ago and have a good chance of playing for it again. While the Columbus Crew are the only elite team from Eastern Conference, they have the talent to beat any team in MLS. The New York Red Bulls are the most interesting team in the Power Rank. While New York currently sits at second in the Eastern Conference table, the algorithm places them at 11th out of 16 teams and worse than the average MLS team. The Red Bulls recently added French goal scorer Thierry Henry and Mexican defender Rafa Marquez, two players that have recently helped Barcelona emerge as the best club team in the world. The media now consider New York a MLS Cup contender, but their ranking hasn’t budged after two ties against struggling Houston and Chicago. Follow the Power Rank to see how this story unfolds.

The Power Rank for MLS:

1. Los Angeles, 12-3-4, 0.72
2. Real Salt Lake, 10-4-5, 0.67
3. Columbus, 11-4-4, 0.44
4. FC Dallas, 7-2-9, 0.38
5. Colorado, 7-5-6, 0.11
6. Toronto FC, 7-6-5, 0.04
7. San Jose, 6-6-5, 0.02
8. Chicago, 5-5-6, -0.02
9. Seattle, 8-8-4, -0.07
10. Chivas USA, 5-10-3, -0.08
11. New York, 8-6-4, -0.11
12. Kansas City, 5-8-5, -0.19
13. New England, 5-9-3, -0.25
14. Houston, 5-9-5, -0.26
15. Philadelphia, 4-10-3, -0.52
16. DC United, 3-13-3, -0.87

Click here for a graphical view of the rankings, updated weekly.