In the seventh inning of a recent game between the Red Sox and the Braves, Atlanta's Peter Moylan fired a two-strike fastball to Kevin Youkilis. Although the home plate umpire called it a ball, Braves fans could've been forgiven for thinking the pitch nipped the outside corner. Viewers in Boston, however, knew the ump made the right call.
This difference of opinion wasn't the result of home-team favoritism. Rather, it stemmed from differences in the local television broadcasts. The Red Sox telecast on NESN is one of only three in Major League Baseball that places its main camera directly behind the pitcher in straightaway center field. The other 27 clubs, including the Braves, put the camera off-center, about 10 to 15 degrees toward left field. That offset angle means the vast majority of baseball fans get a skewed sense of the pitcher-hitter confrontation, the matchup at the very heart of baseball. For fans of the Braves and most other teams, judging balls and strikes is a matter of guesswork.
To understand the problem with baseball's canonical camera angle, consider the perspective of players sitting in the dugout. Aside from cues like the movement of the catcher's glove, coaches and benchwarmers lack the proper angle to judge a pitch's path. (Of course, that's never stopped managers from expressing their opinions.) Fans at home get a better look than the guys in the dugout, but it's a flawed one just the same. Since the offset angle positions our eyes 15 degrees off-center, you need to factor in that angle to figure out whether a pitch really crossed the plate. Unfortunately, most fans don't watch baseball with a protractor next to the remote.
For a demonstration of the superiority of the dead-center camera, take a look at these side-by-side videos of Peter Moylan's fastball. The Braves feed (offset camera) is on the left; the Red Sox feed (dead-center camera) is on the right. The offset angle gives a skewed sense of the pitch's true path. With the straight-on view, the real location—just off the outside edge of the plate—is obvious.
Along with distorting location, the classic, off-center camera also fouls up baseball watchers' sense of movement. Take a look at this slider thrown by New York Mets lefthander Pedro Feliciano. In the off-center Mets broadcast (seen on the left), Feliciano's breaking ball looks like it starts behind the batter and sweeps across several feet to reach the outside corner. Cardinals fans, who watched the pitch from the dead-center angle, saw the pitch's real arc—Feliciano has a good slider but not an otherworldly one.
Sports fans' view of the national pastime has been distorted for more than half a century. Though accounts vary, many trace the advent of the offset center-field camera to the 1950s, when legendary producer Harry Coyle used it on NBC's Game of the Week broadcasts. According to his New York Times obituary, Coyle got the idea for the center-field camera after seeing a game in which the umpire stood behind the pitcher's mound rather than over the catcher's shoulder.
Before Coyle's innovation, most baseball telecasts were shot from high above home plate, looking down at the infield. Upon its introduction, the center-field cam became the status quo. With few exceptions, it has always been offset into left field and only slightly elevated—around 10 to 30 feet—above field level. At this height, it's necessary to position the camera off-center to prevent the pitcher from blocking our view of the hitter and catcher. Fans at home see the pitcher on the left side of the screen and the batter on the right side.
Why wasn't the camera placed higher back in TV's early days so an offset angle wouldn't be necessary? The contemporary TV producers I spoke with guessed that it probably came down to the expense of building a platform tall enough to make a dead-center camera feasible. To prevent the pitcher and catcher from occupying the same space on screen, the camera needs to be at least 45 feet above the field. Consider the added physical labor and potential complications that come with rigging cameras and wiring at that height, and it's easy to see why baseball broadcasters of yore would prefer the low-rise setup.