MLB Outlaws Amateur TrackMan Data Exclusivity

Sources indicate to FanGraphs that major league teams have voted to institute new amateur data sharing rules that will, among other things, discontinue the practice of clubs enjoying proprietary amateur player data generated from games played at club facilities and some junior colleges; we’re told the vote was 29-to-1 in favor of data sharing. The vote came after the matter was initially discussed at last Monday’s annual scouting directors summit at the Winter Meetings.

While some distribution rules regarding data collected at NCAA games were already in place, there had previously been no such rules for the data collected at junior colleges, nor for various other methods of collection or for other settings for collection, including internationally. It’s unclear when mandatory data sharing will begin, and many team personnel still think there’s a grey area regarding what kind of data needs to be shared. In addition to TrackMan and other radar-based tech or optical tracking systems that capture the Statcast-ish data readers are likely familiar with, teams also use various other forms of technology to learn about players, such as Rapsodo in bullpens, KinaTrax, Blast Motion, and more. Given the wide range of technologies currently available, it seems likely some will exist outside the scope and definition put forth in this initial policy, creating loopholes for teams similar to the one some had used to install TrackMan units at junior colleges in order to have sole data access; the previous data sharing rules only covered NCAA baseball. The current, agreed-upon language described to FanGraphs mandates that teams share “data collected normally,” but our sources aren’t sure how “normally” will be defined.

As Eric wrote in February, teams have been purchasing TrackMan units for junior colleges in order to enjoy exclusive access to the data collected by those units, a clear competitive advantage. The Yankees and Cubs were the most proactive in securing partnerships with junior colleges, paying for the installation (at a cost of about $30,000) and upkeep of TrackMan units (another five figure amount per unit annually) at top JuCos in exchange for exclusive access to the data. The junior colleges could use the unit for their own purposes in non-game settings and also got to keep the game data. This practice also gave clubs another site in a different part of the country to hold private pre-draft workouts and collect the data from draft prospects for themselves.

MLB Clubs with TrackMan Exclusivity
Chicago Cubs College of Southern Nevada
Chicago Cubs San Jacinto North (TX)
Chicago Cubs State College of Florida Manatee
New York Yankees Cypress College (CA)
New York Yankees Chipola Junior College (FL)
New York Yankees Hill Junior College (TX)
Atlanta Braves Central Arizona College
*According to team sources

Team sources described the mood of the amateur directors’ meeting at which the subject was broached as “temperate,” and said many club executives were willing to “tip our caps to the teams who got out in front of the rest of us on this issue”; most were generally in favor of maintaining the status quo. But a few dissenting teams expressed dissatisfaction with the current lack of governance from MLB. A minority of scouting departments argued that it’s unfair their rivals can essentially buy exclusive data from the small group of top-tier junior colleges, complaining either that some clubs (e.g. theirs) are not given the budgetary space by ownership needed to keep pace by doing the same thing, or that the proactive teams had already sealed others off from the market because the best partner junior colleges — the better programs, or ones in high-traffic areas for talent, or those with facilities that can handle the hardware — are already spoken for. A formal vote of the scouting directors was never taken, but once the matter was escalated to ownership, they voted nearly unanimously for sharing. It is unknown which team was the lone no-vote.

Our front office sources think MLB and the owners’ primary motivation for implementing data sharing was to prevent future spending. A tech-driven talent evaluation arms race would be expensive, especially if it were to extend internationally. Rather than have 30 teams pay to install and maintain TrackMan units at various junior colleges, or find some other means of collecting data (such as having a tournament at their spring training or minor league facilities, an expensive undertaking in its own right), teams can now just share data collected by the current units and spread the cost of maintaining those units among all 30 clubs. Essentially, the owners voted to tordpedo an edge for some clubs (the early movers in the JuCo and tournament/showcase space) so most of the league could gain data access for no additional cost.

Under older rules, if a national summer showcase event was held at a spring training or minor league park with a TrackMan unit, the club that owned the unit had exclusive rights to the data. The Yankees, for instance, hosted the 2015 East Coast Pro Showcase at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, subsidizing some of the costs of the event and collecting exclusive data on many top prep prospects in the process. Teams also used to be allowed to install tracking units at major universities and collect proprietary data. Vanderbilt’s TrackMan data was owned by the Astros for years and we’re told the Rays also paid for a unit, which we believe was at UCLA. Once clubs noticed units behind the plate at these schools and realized they weren’t getting the data, they complained to MLB and TrackMan; those exclusivity agreements with four-year colleges expired a few years ago.

More recently, teams have paid for access to a common pool of NCAA data collected by TrackMan. Since MLB owns the TrackMan units at major league parks — which gather much of the data used for StatCast– any data collected at amateur events held at those facilities is shared among the 30 teams. This includes high school state championships, midweek college games, early-season college tournaments, and any of the major high school All-American games held each summer at the Diamondbacks’, Rays’, Padres’, and Cubs’ stadiums. But until last week, if a club organized an event at their spring training ballpark (such as one of several early-season college baseball tournaments) or at a minor league ballpark owned by the team, it wasn’t required to share data, resulting in a competitive edge for the host club. After all, if a small-school pitcher throws during a February tournament at your spring training stadium in Florida, it may be the only time all year he throws in front of a TrackMan unit, meaning your team might be the only one with pitch data on the player. This is no longer possible under the new sharing rules.

Under the old rules, there was still a way for rival clubs to get their hands on the exclusive data collected at other teams’ facilities, though: data trades. Often, teams would swap data from games at their facilities for data at others. The Cubs offered other teams TrackMan data generated by 2019 first rounder Jackson Rutledge in trade, for example. This is how several teams figured out which team had installed the unit at San Jac. Very high profile events, like Nate Pearson throwing at the Florida Junior College playoffs at the Tigers’ facility in Lakeland just weeks before his draft, were sometimes untouchable in data trade negotiations. Now this sort of data, if recorded (clubs still have to pay someone to operate the unit during the game), would go to all 30 teams. “A lot of nuance has been stripped away,” one director told us.

The wake of implementing a sharing program may impact two things we’ve touched on so far. First, clubs will have less incentive to incur the operational costs associated with running college tournaments and other amateur events at their facilities. Teams were largely willing to host such events because they knew they’d have a mountain of exclusive amateur data to sift through, and possibly trade, from the event. The new rules may have a chilling effect, with clubs far less likely to subsidize a college tournament at their spring facility or minor league park, or to try to host a summer high school event when the 29 other teams will get the data, too. Some number of these events may still occur in some form, but they might take place at different facilities where data won’t be collected.

This new sharing rule also disincentivizes teams from collecting clean data. If a team knows the data from an event at their stadium is going to be given to the other teams, they may purposefully mislabel players, or muddle the data output in a way that makes it unusable, or at least requires their opponents to put time and resources into fixing it. Sources tell us that clubs believe this kind of disinformation — gamesmanship, if you’re feeling generous — already goes on, but the opportunity for it is now omnipresent.

Going forward, we’re told that the only data clubs can collect and have exclusive rights to will be from private workouts that occur at their major league stadium or one of their minor league affiliates. One way around this would be to hold a private workout and bring mobile tech, like Rapsodo or BlastMotion. But once there are representatives from two clubs watching the amateur event, the data must be shared, and clubs will have to register their events with MLB.

This also raises the issue of players’ data rights, which is likely to be a significant topic in the new CBA negotiations. Many players, both amateur and pro, have trouble even getting their own data from their clubs to use for offseason training or to keep track of their progress, because clubs are so fearful that some competitive advantage could leaked to a rival club. This data has become more important in recent years, as it is increasingly used to dictate players’ careers, but players, their agents, and some club personnel don’t completely understand it or have full access to it. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), bars the collection of “personally identifiable information” on a “routine, non-emergency basis” and it defines a student’s “biometric record” as a piece of personally identifiable information. But according to a source, because TrackMan is technically a ball-tracking technology, that data exists outside the scope of FERPA. Wearable tech likely does not.

If, as expected, there is an international draft in the next few years, a similar dynamic could play out in that market. There would likely be a number of MLB-run events leading up to such a draft, likely with various kinds of tech measuring play on the field, which would then be sent to all 30 clubs. (In an international draft with the ability to trade picks, one key difference is present in evaluation: every team has a chance at every player, so comprehensive data is more valuable.) The status quo in both markets — the ability to hustle for exclusive data, and thus create an information asymmetry — gave clubs an edge if they strategized properly or paid for it, with the outlay on a scale every team has the resources for. MLB’s efforts to lower costs and standardize data for all 30 clubs will make it a little bit easier to succeed in amateur markets by spending less money. It will also make it easier to tell how good players are without watching them live, creating reason for teams to shift more from scouts to analysts.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Investopedia: “The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource.”

Property rights and profits are a good thing, though since the costs of Trackman are so low, I think MLB could set up a Trackman office and just drop the system in every Dominican ball-field and at the top n American JuCo’s and Japanese and Korean professional leagues at low cost. They could just buy the Trackman company, though maybe it’s better to remain outside of MLB.

Congrats on the “land-grant” pioneering work to the Cubs, Yankees, and Braves, but can we let the dumber MLB teams in on this? Thank you from a fan of one of the dumber teams!