LINK: Did pitchFX Destroy Baseball?

marcummoveDerek Thompson surveys the scientific literature of the strike zone today to demonstrate that fewer homers hit is bad for baseball, and that fewer homers are being hit today for two primary reasons:

1) Starting in 2006 stringent drug testing reduced the use of PEDs in the game.

2) Starting in 2006, the introduction of the pitchFX system increased the size of the strike zone, most notably by expanding the low part downward. Follow the link for more about pitchFX, a video and computer sensor system that tracks the speed and trajectory of every major league pitch.

It’s an interesting piece, especially the chart that shows how much better the umpires have gotten since their work could be not only reviewed, but reviewed against real objective data (not that it is always perfect).

As someone who, perhaps naively, argued in the early days of the homer boom that it looked to me like the real cause was a flattening strike zone, which meant hitters could look inside or outside and not so much up and down, the data strongly suggests this is at least partially true. One researcher says that the decline in homers since 2006 is 40 percent due to changes in the strike zone.

That’s a lot, and could be true, but I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this.

At the end of his piece Thompson lists other causes for a drop in offensive power, including defense (though this shouldn’t have much of an impact on homer rates) and changes in the baseball, but when he tries to remind us all of the shadow of PEDs use on this issue, he falters.

He writes:

Perhaps most importantly, the harsh 2006 rules against performance-enhancing drugs offer a compelling explanation for baseball’s dearth of power—although it’s odd that baseball’s minor leagues haven’t seen a similar decline in offensive performance since their own steroid policy was implemented.

The minor league drug policy is in many ways more stringent than the major league program. What the minor leagues don’t have is pitchFX and the absolutely best umpires.

Baseball_umpire_2004Oh, and to answer the question in the headline: pitchFX didn’t destroy baseball, it simply made the administration of the game more accurate and fair.

But if the low run environment proves to be persistent and unpopular, MLB can raise the bottom of the strike zone back to 2006 levels. That’s what they do. (It perhaps pertains that it was part of my argument about the power of the strike zone to change other outcomes, that umpires would be inclined to make this adjustment in an ad hoc way if the pitchers became too dominant, in order to help sustain the game’s equilibrium, which wavers but never cracks.)

The Future of Sabremetrics

I’m sure the SABR Analytics conference would be great fun.

For one, Phoenix in March is baseball heaven, if you can get tickets.

Plus, as this story by Christina Kahrl makes clear, there are lots of smart baseball analysts in one place talking about the game and the analysis of its numbers. But two things struck me about the answers Christina got about sabrementrics, evolution or revolution?

First, that this year’s big story was pitch framing. I don’t know what was presented at the conference, but what I like about much of the pitch framing work I’ve seen is just how teased out it is. Like a detective story or  a bit of counterhistory, the idea has existed for a long time. The PitchF/X numbers don’t obviously lead to framing data, but when churned and cleaned, new information emerges. That’s neat.

The other is more important. A few of the respondents talk about the importance of the PitchF/X data and some mention the BIS fielding data, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. To the extent that data is available and more eyes see it and are inspired to work with it, the more real information is developed.

Which is why MLB’s VP of Stats Cory Schwartz’s statement seems like the most significant in the piece: “I think once we are able to roll out the complete field-tracking system and start to introduce some of that data into public space to whatever extent it might be, I think that will further increase the pace of evolution and perhaps bring about what we would consider revolutionary turning points.”

Emphasis mine. Some of that data, to whatever extent it might be, these qualifiers are going to make a huge difference to the future of the analytic community in the coming years. MLBAM surely recognizes the incredible dynamic force they unleashed by making the PitchF/X data available, something we should not fail to remind them every chance we get.

Matrix TV: Coming to your baseball game soon

The tennis tour is adding an array of super high definition cameras to its arenas to enable a replay technology that is something out of the Matrix. Time stops, the player and ball freezes, and we can fly through the scene, inspecting all the pieces in mind-blowing stillness. Like a scene out of Nicholson Baker’s novel, Fermata.

The story ran at Slate, where a video shows FreeD, as they call it, in action. Consider that this is clearly just the beginning of the implementation of such technology, the baby steps as it were. The possibilities are mindboggling.

Screenshot 2014-03-14 14.11.49