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Camera Day at the Ballpark

When the final out of Tuesday's Royals/Indians tilt was recorded, the 2004 season went from horrifying to, well, even more horrifying. The loss gave the Blue Wave their 100th L of the year, ensuring that the "Together We Can" Royals will set a new team record for losses if they don't win out the rest of the way.

There's no question that anything that could've gone wrong did go horribly wrong. Because Zack Greinke and Jimmy Gobble don't have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Darrell May officially leads the starting pitching staff with a 5.61 ERA. Joe Randa leads the qualified hitters with a .763 OPS, and Ken Harvey's a close second at .759. The only component of this train wreck that's seen some success is the bullpen; KC's relievers have been the 16th-best relief corp in baseball by Adjusted Runs Prevented (8.3).

If a terrible starting rotation (sans Greinke), a terrible offense (sans three months of Carlos Beltran), and a decent bullpen isn't enough to lose 100 games, having a terrible defense will put the final nail in the coffin. And have a terrible defense the Royals do by almost every run-prevention metric known to man. According to an article in the Kansas City Star, however, the Royals are taking a pro-active action to prevent another season full of mental mistakes and positioning errors in the field. What they're going to do is another feather in Allard Baird's cap, further cementing him as one of the best and innovative general managers in baseball:

The Royals plan to steal a page from football teams next spring by installing cameras above their practice fields in Surprise, Ariz., to monitor efforts to reverse this season's deterioration of defensive fundamentals.

Club officials are already promising a revised practice program that places heightened emphasis on improving defensive skills and field awareness.

“We're talking about players being in the right spot at the right time,” general manager Allard Baird said, “and reacting to the game situation. We've done a poor job of that.”

The emerging plan is to tape practices and, like football teams, use the tapes to point out flaws to players, most likely in group meetings.

The "revised practice program" is a nice change, especially considering the 2004 practice program was about as difficult as walking Barry Bonds. The part I find particularly interesting, though, is the installment of cameras above the fields at the team's spring training complex in Surprise. It's important to note that the use of cameras to evaluate defense isn't entirely Baird's idea. To better evaluate each player's defensive ability, Major League Baseball will begin installing its own cameras at each of the 30 parks sometime in the near future. The project should provide fans and executives with irrefutable evidence of who the best defenders are, because every batted ball will be recorded. Continuing on, I'd venture to say no team uses their own video to quantify run prevention and point out mistakes like NFL and college football teams do.

But I don't want the Royals to stop at the practice fields. What the players do in drills only provides a very small sample size which, in my opinion, won't provide enough data to make this an ongoing project. No, I think Allard can leave a long-lasting footprint on the game of baseball by not only installing six or seven cameras in Arizona, but also by installing them at Kauffman Stadium right away. The intent here wouldn't be to evaluate the talent of individuals, but to find mental errors. These could include throwing to the wrong base, being out of position to make a relay throw, or even finding a mechanical flaw in, say, Angel Berroa's throwing motion if he goes into another defensive slump. Fielding percentage, zone rating, and range factor can't fix these things. It's all about isolating these problems and correcting them before they snowball into a team weakness again in 2005. The article continues with a key thought from Baird:

“This is a matter of impressing on people that this is a very important component to winning baseball games, and that this is a very important component to a player being a part of this club.”
Moneyball is one of the most influential books of any genre. But although it's filled with good ideas, the story's emphasis on on-base percentage and other run-scoring metrics cast defense to the side. If a reader wasn't really paying attention, assuming that sabermetrically-inclined teams don't believe that defense is important would be a forgivable offense. But by trading Nomar Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, Theo Epstein certainly believes in it. The A's have turned into a team built around pitching and defense, as opposed to fat guys who slug opposing pitchers to death. But even with these advancements, defense remains a foreign topic to almost every team in the league due to a lack of information. But not to Allard Baird and the Royals. Not anymore. They have one foot in the door towards forever changing the way teams squelch their problems in the field before they ruin a season. This idea -- viewing defensive miscues like football teams do -- is an idea that's going to catch on.
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