Sportvision’s Mark Perry follows every move of baseball players
Tall and lanky, Mark Perry (no link to this author) looks like the professional baseball pitcher he dreamed of becoming. But it was his coding, not his fastball, that got him into the big leagues.
Perry works for Sports Vision, in Mountain View, Calif., the company that creates and operates tracking and graphics systems for sporting events. If you’ve ever watched American football on TV, you’ve probably seen one of the company’s earliest innovations: a virtual frontline “painted” on the screen in bright yellow.
Perry is Sportvision’s chief baseball engineer, developing software to analyze the throws, strokes and soon, the movements of the players themselves. It’s the perfect job for a baseball fanatic turned engineer.
Perry didn’t work right after the pitcher’s mound in this line of work, but almost. Although he was good at math and science in high school, his main interest was baseball, which he intended to pursue as a career. But in his final year, a lower back injury knocked him out of the starting rotation and into the bullpen, forcing him to consider other possibilities.
When he entered California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 2001, he planned to continue playing while studying engineering. But then his classes got tough. It was time to make a decision. “I love baseball,” says Perry. “I’ll never stop loving the game. But I realized I couldn’t do both halfway, so I chose the safer route.”
During his junior year, this safer route included a wrong turn. Perry accepted a position as a cooperative engineer at Cisco Systems, where he performed hardware testing. “It just wasn’t for me,” he says.
Looking for more of a challenge, he started looking for an internship writing software. That’s when his mother stepped in. Earlier, she had had a chance meeting with Rob Amyx, Senior Director of Special Projects at Sportsvision. Although Amyx didn’t describe his work in detail, Perry’s mother got the impression he worked for a company that sometimes sent engineers to sporting events. She figured this sounded like a good fit for her baseball-crazed engineer son and insisted he send Amyx his resume.
Amyx forwarded the resume to the engineering team at Sportvision and Perry landed a three-month summer internship, where he found himself assigned to a golf project. Perry doesn’t play golf, but he knew Sportvision was always the right place for him. On the one hand, he said, it was great to be around people who cared about sports; in addition to golf and football, Sportvision offers products for motorsports, baseball and sailing. Plus, working at Sportvision was a lot like being a professional athlete, he says, as he went to sporting events as part of the event, not as a spectator.
That summer, Perry built an interface between a database of golfer statistics and a system that created display graphics for a TV show. It wasn’t a huge project, but it was all his.
As he neared college graduation, Perry applied for jobs at a number of large Silicon Valley companies, but without much enthusiasm. He really wanted to work for Sportvision. So he continued to email the company’s CTO, asking for a job. It worked: a week before graduation, he received an offer — a software development position for the. Indy Racing League, a series of races that culminates in the Indy 500. It started in January 2006.
As part of his new job, Perry traveled across the country to attend Indy’s events. It was an explosion. “I had just turned 22, had just graduated and got to see the nation and watch sports,” he says. For about eight months a year, he was on the road almost constantly. The graphics and tracking system for Indy races was new, so bugs had to be fixed and features added on the fly. Sometimes he would stand on the circuit all night coding and pull out the updated software in the morning, with no reasonable time for testing. “It’s not the best way to code,” admits Perry. “But it’s a stress that I was used to in sport – the pressure to deliver something when it’s needed. I thrive in these kinds of situations. The other third of the year he worked in the Sportvision office in Mountain View, doing further software development for the upcoming racing season.
It was in many manners his dream job — with a catch: auto racing wasn’t baseball. But in 2009, Perry became the senior engineer for the team behind Pasf / x, a software for tracking baseball fields and displaying their trajectories on television.
Major league stadiums were already using Pitchf / x. Perry’s mission was to help deploy him to minor league stadiums. While the major league pitchf / x was then mainly used only to improve TV shows, the minor league system would go one step further – it would collect and distribute data and video to teams in real time. And more than just the path to the land would be available. “We’ve always had the equation of motion that defined the pitch,” says Perry. “We use it to trace the ball and show where it crosses home plate. “
The equation has nine parameters, including initial position, speed, and acceleration. Coaches and scouts find some of these settings useful as they can reveal minute changes in a pitcher’s delivery.
Perry’s group also developed a system called Hitf / x, to track aspects of the shot, including the point of contact and the angle the ball takes as it comes off the bat. As with its pitch data, Sportvision has found this information to be invaluable to coaches and scouts. More recently, Perry began working on software that tracks the position, angle, and speed of different parts of a player’s body.
Perry isn’t at all embittered about giving up his youthful aspiration to be a pitcher. “I agree not to play professional sport, because I am really part of professional sport,” he says. “I see the games from the side, next to the athletes. And they treat you like you’re like them. You’re not there to harass them, you work together.”
The only downside to being a sports professional instead of an ordinary fan, explains Perry, is that he can no longer request autographs.
This article was originally published as “Baseball’s Most Useful Coder.”