By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) In previous work as a baseball play-by-play broadcaster and reporter, I adopted the common practice of marking my scorecard with a star for what looked like an outstanding defensive play. It was a way of noting it at the time in the story of a game and differentiating it from the routine – a diving catch, off-balance throw or bare-handed scoop that might end up mattering in the outcome.
Some stars would be writ larger than others, if deserved, due to apparent degree of difficulty or the significance of the moment in the game, a way of making sure the card could be better relied upon to remember what happened. And now MLB is doing it for real, using the Statcast system to create “Catch Probability” for outfielders and a star system of their own that catalogs and rewards the best plays.
Simply, cameras now measure the exit velocity and launch angle of the ball and the distance that needs to be covered at a certain speed to make the play, what they call “opportunity time.” Any ball with a 0-to-25 percent Catch Probability is considered a five-star play, and the next quadrants four-star and three-star. A 76-to-90 percent chance merits two stars, and 91-95 earns one.
Not only does this give us an objective measurement and inarguable evidence of the spectacular, it changes the very definition by also heightening our awareness of the mundane – the fielding so good as to make the difficult look easy.
What this now does is take away what many would call the Jim Edmonds catch, remembering the center fielder who would lag behind a ball only to dive headlong for it at the very end, choosing to over-dramatize the play and his abilities. Sammy Sosa would do it to, waiting to break on one hit in front of him just so he could sprawl to the grass and bathe in the ensuing applause. And then there was Moises Alou, whose bad reads and late jumps meant he consistently had to lay out for more noticeable catches that others could have made much more quietly.
When Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier glides into the gap to snag a 21 percenter, we now know exactly how impressive it was for him to never leave his feet. He’s just that good, a predator chasing down prey.
It was one of the pieces of video used by writers at MLB.com to illustrate what the new feature does. As explained by Mike Petriello, Catch Probability can show us routine plays that look great, great plays that look routine and, best of all, the amazing play that also looks amazing. No more guesswork.
Not to mention having the number of rangy and athletic fielders currently patrolling their territory, soon to be populating our social media feeds with specifically identified feats. Minnesota’s Byron Buxton gave us the first five-star catch of 2017 on Monday, and there will be many more to come from the likes of Kiermaier, the Cubs’ Albert Almora and Jason Heyward, the Red Sox’s Jackie Bradley Jr., the Angels’ Mike Trout and more.
It will all be chronicled electronically instead of with a pen on a scorecard, but outfield stars will be getting all the stars their defense deserves, in what promises to be just the beginning of using hard evidence to change the way we understand and appreciate defense in baseball.