Pitch-f/x adds insight to watching games

Pitch-f/x adds insight to watching games

The pitch to right-handed hitter Troy Tulowitzki was 88 mph with a four-inch break and an 11-inch "Pitch-f/x" value, and it was hit to the gap in left-center for an RBI double.

The pitch to right-handed hitter Matt Holliday was 86 mph with a four-inch break and a 10-inch pf/x. It was hit off the wall in right for an RBI triple.

The pitch to right-handed hitter Jamey Carroll, after an intentional walk to Todd Helton, was 85 mph with a four-inch break and a 10-inch pf/x. It was lined to right field for the sacrifice fly that put Colorado into the 2007 postseason.

They were three pitches in the 13th inning at Coors Field from Padres right-handed closer emeritus Trevor Hoffman, each one just a little bit slower and just a little bit lower, each one very hittable if you were the Rockies and each one up for analysis along with that entire classic game thanks to MLB.com Gameday.

Pitch-f/x is one of the most popular features of the dream-data Flash application that lets millions of fans follow Major League Baseball games live and on-demand from a pitch-by-pitch level. It was an ideal way to analyze what kind of a night Padres starter Jake Peavy was having, and how Rockies reliever Jorge Julio grooved that heater (only a two-inch break) to Scott Hairston. It was a perfect accoutrement to a TBS debut broadcast of a tiebreaker game that will go down in history as one of the best in that genre, certainly right up there with the Bobby Thomson game of 1951 and the Bucky Dent game of 1978.

They didn't have this technology back then, that's for sure.

"Hopefully it means a better understanding of the game and more involvement for fans," said Justin Shaffer, senior vice president of new media for Major League Baseball Advanced Media. "The premise of the pitch-tracking system is that it's going to allow us to expose what our players have to deal with every night, which is just the brilliance of Major League pitching and how hard it is to hit. Fans will learn more about what it means when [batters] hit or miss a pitch, and we'll give fans the metrics between pitches."

The "Pitch-f/x" value is the measurement of the distance between the location of the actual pitch thrown over the plate, and the calculated location of a ball thrown by the pitcher in the same way, with no spin; this is the value MLB.com provided in Enhanced Gameday last season as "Break."

"Break" is now defined as the measurement of the greatest distance between the trajectory of the pitch at any point between the release point and the front of home plate, and the straight line path from the release point and the front of home plate. By this definition, for example, a Barry Zito curveball will have a much greater Break value than a Brad Penny fastball.

Want to have some real fun with pitch f/x?

Go back to Sept. 23, easily done from the MLB.com Scoreboard page. Blue Jays at Yankees. Rookie Joba Chamberlain recorded his first Major League save, and one can see just how nasty his stuff is when you look at how he came out of the bullpen to strike out Adam Lind to end the eighth and later how he struck out Reed Johnson to end the game.

The three pieces of data that you see on Gameday are: SPD, BRK, PFX. Consider:

Chamberlain vs. Lind
1: 87/5"/6"/Swinging strike
2: 86/7"/4"/Swinging strike (blocked)
3: 86/7"/4"/Ball
4: 86/8"/3"/Ball in dirt
5: 86/7"/4"/Swinging strike

Chamberlain vs. Johnson
1: 98/1"/12"/Called strike
2: 99/1"/11"/Foul
3: 99/1"/14"/Swinging strike

No chance. It is even better in person, but that is some pretty good supportive data to explain why Chamberlain has become a fan sensation for a Yankees team that will open the American League Division Series Thursday at Cleveland.

How did we know that data from Chamberlain? Well, for starters, it's not about radar guns anymore. They will become a thing of the past in baseball and are not used for this popular data. It's about video at 30 frames per second. It's about a tedious setup process that happens early in the day at a ballpark, very behind-the-scenes.

Before groundskeepers work on the mound and plate areas during the afternoon preceding a typical night game, a crew is on the field placing spiked and colored/numbered markers on the first- and third-base lines, as well as a marked eight-foot pole at home plate. That is called the "registration" process and is captured by three field cameras -- high home, high first base and center field -- so that the information is then stored into the truck computer software to create the "grid" that will allow the game's pitch-tracking to happen.

The center-field camera is used for two purposes, most important for "sizing" the batter. For the software to find the ball (or "blob" to the engineers who plot the application), there needs to be a different plane of location for Matt Holliday than for Kazuo Matsui, who is smaller in stature than Holliday. Then the crew in the truck sizes each player during batting practice, so that during the game each tracking plane is pre-set; it is remembered for each subsequent at-bat by that player.

According to Kurt Meyer, a broadcast engineer for SportVision, a technology partner with MLBAM, "a guy stands at home plate with the eight-foot pole and marker, and then the software takes about 20 minutes to snap the grid into place. That tells each of the computers where home plate is in relationship to the three cameras, so they're all on the same page. You're telling the computer to look for a certain object between parameters of speed ... a blob traveling between the mound and the plate."

The pitch-tracking system is set from 40 mph to 120 mph. That prevents the system from picking up, say, an empty popcorn bag floating past a camera. Manual intervention also comes into play in the occasional event that a third baseman will charge in on a batter who has squared around to bunt while a pitch is being thrown. The player is moving fast enough to enter that location plane, so the grid on the software must occasionally be dragged to the proper dimensions to adjust.

The 2006 postseason marked an experimental run with this technology, and it became virtually standard for all games in 2007. MLBAM ended up in 28 of 30 ballparks for this capability, and it expects to be in all 30 in 2008.

"What we're tracking is very accurate pitch trajectory and speed, and, of course, location as the ball crosses home plate," Shaffer said. "Radar guns do a couple things. Sometimes average speed, sometimes after it crosses the plate, sometimes as it leaves the hand. It's not just focused on the ball.

"We take a series of high-speed photographs, 30 frames per second, as [the ball] moves from mound to plate. At each frame, we can identify the location of the ball. So if we take the time of that frame, we can calculate speed. [Radar guns] are the old days. It doesn't get any more accurate than this."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.