Already Plagued by Analytics, MLB Is Playing a Dangerous Game With AI

Baseball is messing around with AI analysis of top prospects ahead of this year’s draft

A baseball player standing with a bat.
AI is starting to become a player in MLB
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Though Major League Baseball’s rule changes, particularly the elimination of the shift, have helped undo some of the damage that MLB’s embrace of analytics has wrought, the league still has a long way to go to make its on-field product competitive with what professional football, basketball, hockey and maybe even soccer currently offer. Batting average across the league is at .248, nearly 20 points lower than it was 20 years ago in 2003 (.264), and strikeouts are up substantially in 2023 (8.59 per team per game) compared to where they were two decades ago (6.34). The rise of analytics has led to a lack of balls being put into play, and there’s been a major decrease in action on the baseball diamond because of it. The game may have become more efficient, but a game that values a walk just as much as a slapped single to left field or an-field bunt that’s beaten out at first for a hit is just less fun.

There’s no way to know exactly what it will lead to, but MLB reportedly enlisted the help of a biomechanics company — that employs artificial intelligence — ahead of the upcoming draft, and it could have similar unintended consequences.

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Instead of using actual human beings to serve as scouts, who understand the game of baseball and all of the characteristics — including intangible ones — it takes to play it at a high level, Uplift Labs uses a pair of iPhone cameras to document a prospect’s specific movement patterns. The images captured by the cameras are then turned into metrics via artificial intelligence analysis. Uplift alleges the metrics the AI generates can be used to identify potential flaws and even raise red flags for future injuries, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“We have metrics on things like kinematic sequence, stride length, ball contact timing,” Uplift founder Sukemasa Kabayama told WSJ. “At the same time, we also have this new kind of very early injury warning detection. Let’s say if you have too much of an arm flare, you know there may be potential overload on the elbow, which can unfortunately lead to Tommy John surgery. I liken it to the radar gun, a tracking technology that is quite ubiquitous in baseball now. It’s a tool that assists people in the player performance or evaluation process.” 

With a radar gun, scouts use the information obtained by the technology to inform their overall personal feelings about a particular prospect. They use the technology to get the data, analyze it, and then make the final evaluation. With Uplift’s system, AI, not a human, analyzes the images of players captured by cameras to come up with data that informs the human’s final decision.

Human general managers will still make the draft picks next month, but it feels as if we’re a stone’s throw away from an AI GM getting control of a particularly forward-thinking MLB team’s draft board. That’d be a bad thing.

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