Everything in baseball is always about the pitcher. When the batter gets a hit, it's the pitcher's fault. When he makes an out, it's to the pitcher's credit. For most baseball fans, it's as if the hitter has nothing to do with the outcome of an at bat.
But batters clearly lash doubles and even homers on knee high pitches just off the outside corner. And sometimes they pop up on big, fat meatballs right down Broadway. If you doubt the latter, watch the Home Run Derby next year and see for yourself how often the game's top sluggers miss batting practice fastballs thrown exactly where they want them.
The Pitch-f/x technology that's already collecting data at 23 Major League parks is our best chance ever for finding out what generally constitutes ideal velocity, change-up differential, curveball break and location. Or, more simply, whether a pitch is good or bad irrespective of whether the batter hit or missed it.
"This technology is a combination of high-speed cameras and proprietary software that measures speed, trajectory and location from any point after a pitch is released," says Cory Schwartz, director of stats for MLB.com. "It's fan-oriented, designed so we all can ultimately learn more about the all-important batter vs. pitcher matchup."
Once the technology is up in running in all parks by Opening Day 2008, Schwartz says we're in for some big surprises.
"I'm finding much of what I thought I knew about major league baseball is wrong because I learned it from TV. That standard centerfield camera shot over the pitchers right shoulder, 400 feet from home plate, is very deceptive. Pitches we thought were missing by two inches really are 16 inches outside (the plate is only 17 inches wide). Each pitcher uses the same tools: speed, deception, location, movement. But now we're really going to see where the thresholds are."
This technology finally will do away with debate over fast and slow radar guns. With all the cameras calibrated exactly the same way in every park, "a 95 mph fastball in Chicago will be a 95 mph fastball in New York," according to Schwartz.
One of the early big controversies was deciding at what point every camera at every park would measure pitch velocity. After varying between 40 and 50 feet from the front edge of home plate, 50 feet became the standard because the resulting data most closely matched historical radar gun readings. Schwartz already has learned every fastball loses about 10 percent of its velocity by the time it reaches home plate. So that 96 mph radar gun fastball is traveling about 85 mph when it reaches the batter.
Big-league clubs will use the data, too. "Applying the data will be where the real innovation will come in."
Very soon, Pitch-f/x data might help us better understand and thus better project oddball pitchers such as these:
Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees: The K-rate has gone up dramatically but still stinks at below five per nine innings. Yet, he often dominates with that 94-MPH sinker. How much does it move and why don't batters swing through it more?
Chris Capuano, Brewers: His near league-worst rate of baserunners stranded has earned him a demotion to the pen. Pitch-f/x can tell us whether he's really made bad pitches when ducks are on the pond or if, as I suspect, he's being punished for bad luck.
Tim Wakefield, Red Sox: Has a decision in all 25 starts this year (15-10). Again, he is much better than average in generating outs on balls in play. Pitch-f/x can tell us if there is a discernable pattern to knuckleball movement.
Jon Garland, White Sox: No starter has allowed a higher percentage of line drives (23 percent). Generally, over 70 percent of those are hits. But if his pitches are so fat, why the below average rate of the percentage of flyballs that become homers (8.8 percent)?
Felix Hernandez, Mariners: Baseball's mystery man with those 100-mph fastballs and other seemingly deadly pitches that get turned into hits with alarming frequency. Is it location or is he just the unluckiest pitcher ever?
Chris Young, Padres: How does one go from allowing homers on 14 percent of flyballs one year to 3 percent the next? Are the same hitters missing the same pitches from Young they smoked in '06?