How will ball tracking analysis change the game?

One of my favorite baseball books is Pure Baseball by Keith Hernandez. It is an in-depth look at two games from the 1993 season, at-bat by at- bat, pitch by pitch, with Hernandez as the narrator and baseball teacher. It’s a great book on baseball strategy and the pitcher-hitter confrontation. While I was reading the book again last week, I wondered what it would have looked like if Hernandez had written that book today, with all the information available from the PITCHf/x system.

For those who haven’t encountered PITCHf/x yet, it is a system that tracks every pitch thrown in the major leagues and records detailed information about the trajectory of the pitch, such as speed, movement and location. This system was deployed in most major league ballparks throughout the 2007 season, and the data from that season have been a gold mine for analysts, researchers and even casual fans who want to learn more about the players on their favorite team. This year, the PITCHf/x system is installed in all 30 parks and is recording almost every pitch thrown in major league games.

Do you want to know what Johnny Cueto was throwing in his stellar major league debut? Is your team facing Jamie Moyer, and you want a scouting report? Would you like a post-game report on Jeremy Bonderman‘s start against the Royals on April 3? Who throws the best change-up in baseball? Who has the toughest curveball? These are just a few of the questions that PITCHf/x data is helping answer.

It is also helping to unravel some of the deeper questions and strategic problems of the game of baseball.

Voros McCracken rocked the baseball community when he proposed his Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS), arguing that a pitcher had much less control over the batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) against him than had previously been assumed, such that over the course of a single season, most of the variation in that statistic among major league pitchers could be ascribed to chance rather than the skill of the pitcher. His theory has since been refined in some ways but has mostly stood up to rigorous inspection.

However, PITCHf/x, and perhaps soon other ball tracking techniques like it, are helping us to investigate McCracken’s DIPS theory at a level we’ve never been able to approach before. DIPS would assign most of Brian Bannister‘s superior 2007 BABIP performance to random chance and suggest he was likely to regress toward a more average performance in the future. The first PITCHf/x analysis on the subject, by an analyst dear to my heart, gives us strong hints that there may be more to the picture that we have yet to uncover, that perhaps Bannister is onto something.

There are many more fundamental questions that are being tackled by analysts who are using the PITCHf/x data. What is the strike zone that is really called by major league umpires? Did you know that left-handed hitters defend a strike zone that extends to four to six inches off the outside edge of the plate? Did you know that fastballs are more likely to result in a fly ball than any other pitch?

Baseball research

It has been eight years since Keith Woolner outlined 23 baseball research problems for the future in Baseball Prospectus 2000. We’ve made significant progress on several of the problems he listed, particularly in fielding analysis, but also on other items on the list. Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin wrote a book that dealt in great detail with Problem No. 23. Others of Woolner’s list of baseball research problems remain largely in uncharted territory.

His article is well worth reading, and it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come in eight years and what areas yet remain untapped. You may not consider yourself a stat-head, and you may not have much interest in doing baseball research yourself. However, I argue that the game of baseball you know today is about to embark upon an era of fundamental change as ball tracking technologies revolutionize our understanding of every corner and facet of how the game is played. PITCHf/x is already here today, and new systems have been proposed and will inevitably follow for collecting detailed data on the speed and trajectory of the ball off the bat and the locations and movements of players on the field.

Ladies and gentlemen! The game as you know it is ceasing to exist. The answers to important questions from of old are about to be unveiled before your very eyes! Joe McCarthy…Branch Rickey…Earl Weaver…these men would have given their arm or even their leg to see the wonders which you are about to behold. Draw near my friends. Feast your
eyes, your ears, and your minds on….THE SECRETS OF THE GAME!

I would like to lay before the baseball community a new set of challenges. As new ball tracking technologies revolutionize baseball analysis, the questions we can attempt to answer are expanding more rapidly than we can imagine.

I feel supremely unqualified to make this list. I have been a baseball fan since the day I first heard Denny Matthews and Fred White on the radio, and I have been enthralled by baseball questions since I first cracked the yellow cover of the Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987. I am casual student of both the history of the game and the current research in baseball questions. I have studied the PITCHf/x data with the zeal of a new lover since I discovered it last summer. But I am no expert in what is best for the game or in what piques the interest of others. I enjoy reading the work of many other analysts and writers, but I can’t claim to speak for them, not even the rest of the crew here at The Hardball Times or the other PITCHf/x analysts.

I have solicited the opinion of many of my friends and colleagues in order to compile this list. I extend my sincere thanks to Sal Baxamusa, John Beamer, Matthew Carruth, Pizza Cutter, Dan Fox, Peter Jensen, Sky Kalkman, Matt Lentzner, Max Marchand, Rene’ Saggiadi, Eric Seidman, Joe P. Sheehan, SirKodiak, Dave Studenmund and Tom Tango for their contributions and suggestions for improvements. Since the topic is so broad, I have not been able to include all of their suggestions, nor am I able to address the topic to every audience. Nonetheless, their input has been invaluable and encouraging to me personally.

Is this list intended to excite the imagination of average baseball fans and introduce them to the possibilities to come? Yes. Is this list intended as a catalog of research topics for serious and detailed analysis? Yes. But in some ways it cannot be both. I mostly intend to start the ball rolling and hope that the rest of you contribute and refine my attempt to define the new landscape of baseball analysis, post PITCHf/x-earthquake. Now that Sportvision and Major League Baseball are gathering all these data and are considering gathering even more, what can we learn?

Here are a few basic ideas of what lies ahead in our knowledge of baseball. I’ll expand on them with some detailed questions and proposals for research in the References and Resources section at the end of the article.

Pitching

1. What makes a pitch effective?
This is a big question with enormous implications, but one that we can now began to tackle in detail.

2. How do pitching skills change with age?

3. What does each pitcher throw?

4. Can we detect or quantify pitcher fatigue or injury?

5. What is the cause of the left/right platoon differential? John Walsh made a great start on this question in the Hardball Times 2008 Annual.

6. What can we learn about hitter and pitcher performance on balls in play?

7. What are the differences between starting and relieving?

8. Do pitchers pitch differently in certain game situations?

Hitting

9. How do hitting skills change with age?

10. Do slumps and hot streaks correlate with speed-off-bat?

11. Can we detect or quantify hitter fatigue or injury?

12. How do hitters manage the strike zone?

13. Is hitting the ball hard the only way to succeed, or can some hitters control the placement of the ball off the bat?

14. What pitch types and locations are easiest to bunt successfully?

Fielding

15. Can we use batted ball trajectory information to more accurately measure the difficulty of fielding plays? Having public information of this nature could revolutionize our ability to quantify fielding skill.

16. Can we quantify the catcher’s various contributions to defense? Dan Turkenkopf has made a great start on these questions.

17. Can we optimize defensive positioning by pitch type or batter or pitcher profile?

Baserunning

18. How do pitch type, speed, and location affect stolen base success rates?

Umpiring

19. Do certain pitchers or pitch types get a different strike zone?

20. Can we quantify the performance and tendencies of umpires?

General

21. What is the source of the home field advantage?

22. Do different leagues, teams or pitching coaches have preferences for certain pitches?

I’m sure I haven’t covered all the possible questions. On the other hand, maybe in some cases my questions were too esoteric. What do you want to know about baseball that could be answered with this new data?

References & Resources
For those of you who are interested in the nitty-gritty details of this type of analysis, in this section I list many of the specific questions and potential areas of study associated with the general questions I listed above.

Pitching

1. What makes a pitch effective?
What effect do fastball speed, curveball break, and the difference in speed between fastball and change-up have on the effectiveness of those pitches? What effect does the sequence of pitch types and locations to a hitter or within a game have on the effectiveness of those pitches? Does a hard fastball really set up the effectiveness of off-speed pitches? What is the expected league performance for each pitch type and location? Who are the best and worst pitchers and hitters for each pitch type? Why do pitchers perform well in one game and poorly in another game? Are certain pitch types more effective in certain environments, e.g., day and night, thin or thick air, cold and hot temperatures, high and low humidity, etc.? Does a consistent release point improve control or the effectiveness of pitches? Can we quantify what a hanging breaking ball is and what happens to it? Can pitchers keep hitters off balance, and if so, how? Is there any evidence that pitchers use game theory in attacking hitters, and if so, who does it well and who doesn’t? Why do some pitchers with great stuff not perform well and other pitchers with mediocre stuff pitch better?

2. How do pitching skills change with age?
Do younger pitchers throw harder? Do they throw more fastballs? Do older pitchers throw better change-ups? Do they mix their pitches more effectively? Can we quantify the reason for sudden improvement or sudden loss of effectiveness in a pitcher’s career? Does a loss of fastball velocity inevitably spell trouble for a pitcher, or are there certain skills some pitchers can use to compensate? What are the most important pitching skills? What can we learn about how pitchers learn their craft?

3. What does each pitcher throw?
What is each pitcher’s repertoire of pitch types, including speed and movement? How often does he use each pitch against left-handed or right-handed batters? How does he locate and mix each of his pitches? Can we improve our ability to project the future performance of players using profiles of pitchers with similar repertoires and usage? What pitches are best thrown in combination with each other?

4. Can we detect or quantify pitcher fatigue or injury?
Does a drop in fastball speed or change in release point indicate fatigue? How do these indicators relate to pitch effectiveness? Are there signs a pitcher should be removed? Are there leading indicators for certain injuries? How does Tommy John surgery affect a pitcher’s performance?

5. What is the cause of the left/right platoon differential?
Do certain pitch types or locations have a large platoon differential? What makes an effective LOOGY (lefty one out guy) or ROOGY? Similarly, what is the cause of the groundball/flyball platoon differential?

6. What can we learn about hitter and pitcher performance on balls in play?
Do certain pitch types lead to certain types of batted balls? Do certain pitchers or pitches have the ability to induce weak contact? Do certain pitchers or pitches have the ability to reduce the percentage of fly balls that become home runs? Do certain pitch types tend to be pulled or hit to the opposite field?

7. What are the differences between starting and relieving?
Can relievers throw harder? Do starters need a third (or fourth) effective pitch type? What types of pitchers excel in each role? Can we tell if pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Jonathan Papelbon, or Joakim Soria could start effectively?

8. Do pitchers pitch differently in certain game situations?
What are the differences between pitching from the windup and the stretch? Do they throw harder when the game is on the line? Do they pitch over the middle of the plate more in a blowout? Do they throw different pitch types or to different locations to induce a ground ball double play or to avoid a sacrifice fly? Does a fast runner on first base affect the pitch type a batter sees? Does the protection of a good hitter on deck affect the pitch type or percentage of strikes that a batter sees? What pitch type results in the most hit batsmen?

Hitting

9. How do hitting skills change with age?
Is there a bat speed threshold for staying in the major leagues? Do old or young hitters manage the strike zone differently? Hit certain pitch types better?

10. Do slumps and hot streaks correlate with the speed of the ball off the bat? Or with chasing bad pitches? Fouling off pitches that a hitter usually crushes?

11. Can we detect or quantify hitter fatigue or injury?
Do hand and wrist injuries sap power by curtailing the speed of the ball off the bat? Do certain positions, (i.e., catcher) or particular hitters wear down over the season or after playing many consecutive days? Does fatigue affect the speed of the ball off the bat?

12. How do hitters manage the strike zone?

13. Is hitting the ball hard the only way to succeed, or can some hitters control the placement of the ball off the bat?
Can hitters really “hit ‘em where they ain’t?” Can we tell if Ichiro Suzuki really could hit for power if he wanted?

14. What pitch types and locations are easiest to bunt successfully?

Fielding

15. Can we use batted ball trajectory information to more accurately measure the difficulty of fielding plays?

16. Can we quantify the catcher’s various contributions to defense?
Which catchers are best at blocking pitches in the dirt? Which catchers are best at framing pitches for strikes? Which catchers are best at calling games?

17. Can we optimize defensive positioning by pitch type or batter or pitcher profile?

Baserunning

18. How do pitch type, speed, and location affect stolen base success rates? Do they affect the success of pitchouts?

Umpiring

19. Do certain pitchers or pitch types get a different strike zone?
Veterans, pitchers with good control, consistent pitchers, fastball pitchers, left-handed or right-handed pitchers, etc.?

20. Can we quantify the performance and tendencies of umpires?
What are the strike zones of the different umpires? How accurate and consistent are they? Does umpire performance change over time or with experience or age?

General

21. What is the source of the home field advantage?
Does the home team get more strike calls from the umpire? Do pitchers have more velocity at home? Do hitters have more bat speed at home?

22. Do different leagues, teams, or pitching coaches have preferences for certain pitches?
Is the National League a fastball league and the American League a breaking ball league? Where did pitchers learn their pitches? Can the most effective pitches be traced back to certain pitching coaches or other pitchers? Can we see the effect of team philosophies in pitch mixing, location, etc.?

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