Research often inspires more questions than it answers. That’s acceptable because asking the right questions is such an important part of doing the right research. Every presentation at SportVision’s 2011 Pitch F/x Summit either asked or answered a worthy question, making the summit a great way to spend an day talking about baseball.
That said, of course a couple presentations stepped to the fore.
In terms of pure surprise factor, there might not have been more surprising nuggets of information than those Alan Nathan included in his presentation about the College Softball World Series. For one, his calculations suggest that an elite fast-pitch softball pitch appears as fast to the hitter as a 90 MPH major league fastball. Because of the shorter distance from the mound to the plate, the pitches have similar hang times. Other factors make batting difficult at the highest levels of women’s softball. For one, the lower release point means that pitches are often actually rising. Also, some of the best pitchers in softball have pitches that look identical until about halfway to the plate. Respect level heightened. Maybe there’s even a chance that this sort of research can help major league submariners perfect their craft?
Max Marchi’s presentation about quantifying catcher defense as a whole was an inspired piece of research. By identifying the main components of catcher defense and then using Pitch F/x to lead the analysis, he came up with results that were both surprising and affirming. The main components were blocking pitches, framing pitches, controlling the run game, and fielding balls in play, and each featured about a six-to-seven run observed swing in each direction. That the results featured Russell Martin‘s 2008 as one of the best defensive seasons in the Pitch F/x period (+27.4 runs), and Ryan Doumit’s 2008 as one of the worst (-32.6 runs) served as an affirmation of what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Still, these would represent three-win changes to these catchers’ values as calculated to date. Are we comfortable with their defense being worth that much? How much more refining must be done if the highest year-to-year correlation on any of the components was .68 (for framing)?
Perhaps the most interesting catcher-related connections could be made between Marchi’s work and Graham Goldbeck’s summit-opening presentation. Goldbeck, in trying to analyze the axiom that pitchers can take something off in order to improve their control, worked with a concept called Command F/x. By identifying the catcher’s mitt as a target, and then finding distance of the final location of a pitch from that target, he came up with a ‘command’ number. This allowed him to compare the command on pitches of different speeds from the same pitcher. His results were inconclusive, but with the critique of the audience both live and on-line, it seems that Goldbeck could refine his study for more impressive results. Could a more refined Command F/x number be as useful for catcher evaluation as it is for evaluating pitchers?
When discussing the question of blocking and framing pitches, Max Marchi admitted that using more of Goldbeck’s ‘Command F/x’ type of analysis would help him lock down some of his own results for catcher defense. In other words, he felt that there was some use to using the catcher’s mitt to help analyze the ability of the pitcher to hit a target. One of his own findings was that the distance between the location of a pitch and the catcher’s set target was smaller for strikes than it was for balls. That seems to suggest that there is something to this method, even if it might be uncomfortable for some to use the catcher’s mitt as the pitcher’s target. But how do we deal with the individuality of catcher approaches with respect to target-setting?
The simplest presentation of the day offered an insightful new way to evaluate pitcher command from an entirely new angle. Instead of dealing with the catchers’ glove, Matt Lentzner created three zones to replace the strike/ball dichotomy of the past. These three zones are completely intuitive: True strikes, or the 20% of pitches that are ‘down the middle’ and are batters’ pitches; True balls, or the 30% of pitches that are definitely balls and are pitchers’ pitches; and Borderline pitches, which are comprised of the 50% of all pitches that ended up in a zone that could be called either way. By changing two zones into these three zones, Lentzner created a new way of evaluating both batters and pitchers. A sample finding from this analysis was that a contact-heavy player like Jason Bartlett had virtually no difference on his slugging percentage on balls in each zone (87, 86 and 85 SLGcon+ in each of the three zones), while sluggers like Adam Dunn showed very different splits based on where the pitch was (160 SLGcon+ on True Strikes, 128 on Borderline and 131 on True Balls). This line of reasoning has many implications and we are only now scratching the surface. For example, what’s the ideal hitting approach given these zones?
There was at least one time when the questions inspired by the presenter were slightly melancholy. When Alan Nathan showed us his best fits for batted ball trajectories, viewers couldn’t help but wonder about the black box that is Hit F/x. Later, when Greg Rybarcyk updated his excellent work on true defensive range, that same question popped up. What about Field F/x, too? Rybarczyk had access to the time stamp at the beginning of a play, flight time of the ball, impact point, world-x and world-y positions of the defenders at the beginning and end of the play, and the time stamp at the end of a play. How many more analysts will have access to similar information in the future? If SportVision wants to continually promote excellent work using their tools, they might want to find a way to give the public some of this information in an easily accessible and processable format.
The Korean contingent and their presentation on the laudable and difficult process of bringing Pitch F/x to a league with some parks of questionable quality was also excellent. In building from the ground up, they are aiming to link Pitch F/x data with video of each pitch, which is a lofty aim that we could do well to mimic ourselves (beyond, of course, the Bloomberg Sports pro tool, which does so now).
Other presentations and conversations were notable and enjoyable and cannot all be reproduced here. The post-summit baseball game may also have inspired some of the presentations of tomorrow. Overall, the SportVision Pitch F/x Summit is an event that does much to further the quality of baseball research around the world.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.