Like most in his profession, Jim Summers goes largely unnoticed. That doesn’t mean he and his brethren aren’t invaluable to the teams that employ them. When it comes to day-to-day preparation, they are the rock stars of baseball’s video age.
Summers is the video coordinator for the Houston Astros. If a player or coach needs a frame-by-frame breakdown of a pitching delivery or a swing, he’s the go-to guy. Need to know how much a slider is breaking or which pitch an opposing slugger is hammering? He has the answer.
Summers is — in his own words — “a traveling video library.”
Summers on the responsibilities of a video coordinator: “What I do is track every pitch thrown by us and against us. I track the pitch type, pitch speed, pitch location, where the ball was hit and how hard it was hit. Everything is categorized, marked and data-based. We track between 45,000 and 60,000 pitches each year. I then help the advance scouts by loading the games from the rest of the league. Basically, I’m a traveling video library.
“We get our video from TVTI. The data comes from Inside Edge, which sends us their comma-separated vector files, or CSV files. Those are integrated into a program called BATS, which is made by Sydex Sports and owned by Mike Phillips. I think 28 of the 30 teams use it.
“Here, with the Houston Astros, we have our own group of people doing statistics. I believe we will eventually do all of our own statistical inputs and outputs. We have one of the best decision science departments around. Sig Mejdal and the guys can really break things down, and because it’s a science it’s not subject to human prejudice.”
On how the data is used:
“Our coaches will take data, both from Inside Edge and our in-house sources, and then they’ll watch video to make sure it matches what they’re seeing. That’s the biggest part. We need to match the video to the statistics.
“Coaches are looking for what has been going on. Where is a hitter not seeing the ball right now? What spots isn’t a pitcher able to hit right now? What are his times to first, on pickoffs, right now? It’s about presenting statistics and video to the coaches so they can present it to the players in a way that they’ll understand it.
“When we came here to play the Red Sox, we had video on them. We can see what they’re doing and from there it’s a cat-and-mouse game. We do one thing and they’re trying to do another. They’re looking at data and video just like we are.
“For tonight’s pitcher — Felix Doubront — we have every start of his for the last two years. The batters will sit down and look at the video. The right-handed batters will say, ‘OK, let me see this period of time against right-handed batters.’ The left-handers will do the same. Coaches will look at things they want to know — how they want to approach the game. If the pitcher has been throwing strikes early, maybe we want to be a little more aggressive. If he hasn’t been throwing strikes, maybe we’ll be a little less aggressive.”
On the right sample sizes: “Statistical pools can carry a large period of data. It might be two or three years, or even a whole career. We’re mostly looking at a player from the last couple of games — the last 12 to 20 at bats — to know where he is at this point in time. If you give me, say, David Ortiz’s statistics, he may have 20 home runs. But what is he doing right now? Is he seeing the slider?
“Players get hot and cold. Over an extended period of time they’ll fall within the vicinity of where they always are. Whether it’s Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton or whomever, at the end of the season they’re usually where they should be. But throughout the season, they’ll have highs and lows. Albert might go 0-for-the-beginning and then make up for it by the end.
“Sabermetricians tend to call that noise. They call hot streaks and cold streaks noise, because they’re looking at the big picture, not a specific period of time. To them, someone going eight for his last 10 isn’t that meaningful, because it doesn’t predict anything.
“Sometimes players see the ball real well, and sometimes they don’t. Hot streaks and cold streaks matter. That’s a video coordinator’s No. 1 concern. Is there a period of time where we can say a guy is hot? If he is hot, what are the balls he is hitting and how can we get around that?”
On in-game video: “We have in-game processes. I’m logging it. It’s going into the computer and the coaches and players come in to see it. You can go from home plate or the pitcher’s mound to the locker room — where I’m at — and watch your last series of pitches. It’s instantaneous. Once the at bat or series of pitches is logged, they’re ready for viewing.
“A hitting coach may come in to see how an umpire is calling pitches, or a pitching coach may come in to see if his pitcher is being squeezed. Then there are the adjustments — the fine adjustments — during the game.”
On using video to make adjustments; “We can go frame by frame by frame. That really behooves our hitters and pitchers if they’re trying to make adjustments. If one of our hitters isn’t right where he wants to be, and needs to make a small adjustment, we can see it. We can break it down to 30 frames a second. Frame by frame by frame.
“Basically, we’re comparing video. ‘This is what you’re doing when you’re doing well, and this is what you’re doing now.’ Are there any differences? It’s kind of like playing one of those bar games, like Hocus Focus. You look at two pictures and try to tell the difference. We do a lot of that.
“A pitcher will come to me and ask, ‘What do you see different?’ I’m not a coach — I do computerized work — but I can still tell someone what he’s doing differently. I’ll take that to the pitching coach and he’ll use that information to help the player make changes if they’re needed.
“I’m seeing a multitude of factors, from arm slot to movement to velocity. I’m dissecting those factors. ‘Why was this pitch effective in the last start and, five days later, it isn’t?’ Is it his arm slot or something else? A pitcher will look at his video and then come to me and say ’let’s break this down.’ I’ll call up a comparison and we’ll mark differences if we see any. The one thing we have to be very careful about is seeing something that isn’t there. As humans, we sometimes have a tendency to want to see something, so we see it. But I can go back, using the tools within Sydex, and see that something isn’t different.”
On misclassified PITCHf/x data: “This is my 13th year with the Astros and we have a lot more statistical output than we used to. All of that minutia can be broken down — the movement of the ball, the speeds, the different arm slots. It can all be brought together within PITCHf/x. But sometimes their algorithms may be a little off.
“Sometimes the algorithm used encompasses more than one subset of what they’re looking for. For instance, Rhiner Cruz, because of how he throws his slider, will have some of them classified as curveballs. But it’s not a curveball, it’s a slider. Until the algorithms are set correctly — knowing what this individual pitcher throws — we can’t get a proper result.
“What you have is a basic algorithm for all pitchers. OK, it’s this type of break, at this speed, so it’s automatically a curveball, or it’s automatically a slider. But the variances from pitcher to pitcher can be great. Andy Pettitte always told me he didn’t throw a slider, it was a cutter. One man’s cutter could be another man’s slider.
“You have to look at the break. Is it a deep break? Is it a break to depth or is more of a lateral break? Most cutters are lateral and most sliders have depth. The algorithm can get a little askew, especially with the terminology the pitcher uses for what he throws.”
On the video age: “It used to be ‘see the ball, hit the ball.’ We’ve gone far beyond that. Now we’re going on proper preparation to see the ball. We know what’s coming. We know that on a 2-1 count, 37 percent of the time a pitcher is going to throw a fastball in a certain area. We can prepare for that. The statistics and video have broken it down.
“Today’s players were brought up in the video age. All of our players are very comfortable sitting down and looking at video. Their whole lives have been videotaped. Their whole lives they’ve been sitting down with their coaches and looking at video. This is just an extension of their age and time in baseball.
“Tony Gwynn is the one who started all this. He’d be shoving tapes in and taking tapes out. He’d carry them around with him. Things have simply progressed to where all they know is video, whether it‘s video games on their Xboxes or implementing the same type of technology to their day-to-day routines within their batting and their pitching. It’s my job to provide them — and the coaches — with the resources they need.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.