The parent company of Sportvision, the group that created the pitch-tracking system Pitchf/x, is suing MLB Advanced Media over the use of their technology in the development of Statcast. The suit—filed in district court in New York last week—accuses MLBAM of breach of contract, patent infringement, and misappropriation of trade secrets.
Sportvision signed a contract to build Pitchf/x back in 2006, and the technology was soon developed and had been installed in every big-league park by 2008. The system uses cameras to track the movement, spin and velocity of every pitch; you’ve almost certainly seen it used on television if you’ve watched any baseball at all in the last decade. (To say nothing of the wealth of information that Pitchf/x has birthed online.) Sportvision’s original contract was renewed several times—with the company maintaining the pitch-tracking system in exchange for a portion of the revenue earned selling pitch data to broadcasters and other partners—and the most recent extension had an option that was set to run through 2019. Last season, however, MLBAM started using a new pitch-tracking system, one built in-house as part of the league’s larger player-tracking and data-gathering initiative, Statcast, which uses radar in addition to cameras.
The lawsuit accuses MLBAM of violating their contract and infringing on Sportvision’s patent—by developing a structure that partially copied the original, setting up new agreements with third parties to build system components similar to those first designed by Sportvision, and using inside information from a former Sportvision employee to do so. That employee is former executive vice president and general manager of baseball products Ryan Zander, who resigned in October 2016, less than two hours after Sportvision was bought by sports media tech company SMT, to take a position at MLBAM and brought valuable trade information with him, according to the suit.
This all gets dense very quickly; the complaint is embedded at the end of this post, if you’re interested in taking a look, and Sheryl Ring has a strong write-up of the case over at FanGraphs. But a little piece of this that might feel relevant (or, at least, marginally more so) to most fans is that you probably saw the switch from Pitchf/x to Statcast last season.
Remember early last April, when the majority of pitchers appeared to have suddenly experienced a tiny velocity bump with no real explanation? That explanation was, as it turned out, the fact that MLB had changed how they recorded velocity—from depending on Pitchf/x’s cameras, which calculates from a set point from 50 to 55 feet back from home plate, to Statcast’s camera-radar combo, which calculates right out of the pitcher’s hand and therefore should almost always provide a slightly higher velocity. That switch might seem like the sort of esoteric thing that only the hardest of hardcore nerds could ever care about, but it made a real difference, albeit a small one, in numbers that mean something to almost everyone who watches. It’s that difference—and the two systems that created it, and all of the corporate work behind them—that’s being called into question here.
Here’s the complaint: