Baseball's Particle Accelerator
The new technology that will change statistical analysis forever.
We live in the golden age of baseball statistics. The tubes of the Internet are nearly clogged with stats-based analysis. Dozens of sites function as a sort of ad hoc peer-review system that churns out answers to what were previously baseball's imponderables. Would Barry Bonds outhomer Ruth and Aaron if they played in the same era, you ask? Well, if they all suited up in the same era against the same competition and they all happened to play every game in Montreal's Stade Olympique, then, no. No sir, he wouldn't. Baseball Prospectus has done the math.
But even with all the analytical innovations that this era has wrought, baseball is still filled with blind spots. Sure, you can tell me that Sandy Koufax allowed fewer runs per nine innings than Pedro Martinez. But whose fastball had more movement? Nobody's yet come up with an algorithm for "nastiness."
That could change soon. This season, Major League Baseball rolled out a new feature, "Pitch f/x," that's like the stathead equivalent of a particle accelerator—a technical marvel that might just yield answers to the fundamental questions of the baseball universe.
Pitch f/x is part of Gameday, an MLB.com widget that lets you follow games when you don't want to pony up for the video feed. Until this season, Gameday was little more than a crudely animated, pop-up information dump. In one corner, you can follow the progress of runners on the base paths; in the other, you've got the score line. A little map of the field plots where the ball lands. As pure entertainment, the Gameday experience leaves a lot to be desired. The scrolling text, play-by-play accounts—"Garrett Atkins doubles (28) on a line drive to right fielder Corey Hart. Kazuo Matsui scores. Todd Helton to 3rd. Two out"—is about as far as you can get from "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" But for the baseball addict, it fills a need.
Enhanced Gameday is a whole new (yet still poorly animated) ballgame. MLB.com has installed cameras in 22 of the league's 30 parks that provide data for Gameday's pitch-location chart. Previously, some guy in the press box had to guess, Hmm, that looked like a curveball, maybe four inches inside and a couple of inches above the knees. Now the computer generates all of this automatically—how high the pitcher's throwing hand was off the ground when he released the ball, how fast the ball was traveling both when it left his hand and when it crossed the plate, to what degree and in what direction the ball diverted from a straight path on its way to the plate, and finally, if the pitch really was four inches inside and a couple of inches above the knees.
For the casual fan toggling between Gameday and a report she's half-assing at the office, all that new information is pretty useless. But this data has many baseball researchers positively giddy. Perform some simple spreadsheet shenanigans and you can see that Cla Meredith's sinker sinks more than that of any other pitcher. A pitch from Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez left his hand at 104.3 mph but crossed the plate at only 82. And the ball leaves submariner Chad Bradford's hand a full 2 feet closer to the ground than the guy with the next-lowest release point (incidentally, Pitch f/x sinker king Cla Meredith).
Baseball Prospectus' Dan Fox, who is incidentally one of those soon-to-be-obsolete guys who estimates pitch locations for Gameday, issued a challenge to the vast community of baseball researchers this May: