Latest technology enhances playoffs
New Gameday features, pitch tracking a boon to fans
ST. LOUIS -- When Tom Glavine threw a pitch to Albert Pujols in the fourth inning on Tuesday night in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, it was hit over the wall in left and caused pandemonium at Busch Stadium.
But there's more to the story than that.
Thanks to the latest in technology, millions of television viewers on FOX, and millions more following the Enhanced Gameday program on MLB.com, were able to break the play down and know almost everything that actually happened in the blink of an eye.
It was a slider from the Mets' left-hander that was traveling 76.7 mph at the point of release and then broke 11 1/2 inches inward toward the Cardinals' right-handed slugger at a velocity of 69.7 mph just before the point of impact.
FOX viewers were able to see the FOX TRAK replay featuring the "red comet" that showed the precise trajectory of the ball, and MLB.com users were able to instantly compare it to the previous paths/speeds of each previous Glavine pitch.
"When you get into the postseason, you want to enhance and step up your broadcast," Bill Brown, the executive vice president of remote production and field operations for FOX Sports, was telling MLB.com just as Pujols was coming to the plate. "FOX TRAK is dialed into our center-field camera, and we actually bring a special camera in just for that. It lets viewers see the arc of the ball with the 'red comet' and exactly where it crossed the imaginary strike zone. It just takes the broadcast up just another notch, letting the viewer see the game even more clearly than in a regular season game.
"We're all traditional historic baseball fans here in this operation. One other thing you can do is overuse a toy, so they're watching it very concisely. It's an aid to the viewer. It lets them see where the ball crossed the plate. If we overused it on the air, then we'd have a real problem. We would be taking a toy and treating it like a toy. So we're trying to find a balance where it enhances the broadcast and lets the viewer see the skill of the pitch."
The enhanced broadcast is also a demonstration of the value in following the game both on TV and with Enhanced Gameday -- total immersion for the fan, being able to see it happen live and then analyzing how Glavine had worked the count on Pujols in previous pitches. These advances will become even more apparent during the 2007 season, as Major League Baseball Advanced Media provides the data and works jointly with partners such as FOX, the many regional sports networks, and the 30 baseball clubs that soon will have similar capability to show video of pitch tracking immediately on their scoreboards.
"Hopefully it means a better understanding of the game and more involvement for fans," said Justin Shaffer, senior vice president of new media for MLBAM. "The premise of the pitch tracking system is that it's going to allow us to expose what our players have to deal with every night, which is just the brilliance of Major League pitching and how hard it is to hit. Fans will learn more about what it means when they hit or miss a pitch, and we'll give fans the metrics between pitches.
"For example, if a Glavine breaking ball is moving 10 inches in the second inning after 20 pitches and then five inches in the sixth after 100 pitches because of less action on the ball, that's pretty significant for a batter. This will allow us to quantify that type of information."
One thing all fans should know is that the speed represented by this pitch tracking system has no reliance on radar guns. They are likely to gradually become a thing of the past in baseball. Remember when Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya was hitting 103 mph during that pivotal Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium? Many people in the media were qualifying it as the possible result of a "slow gun," the term itself a dying relic of baseball conversation.
Zumaya's final three strikes thrown to Alex Rodriguez in the eighth inning of that game, according to the Enhanced Gameday showing speed at release and then speed crossing home plate, were as follows:
How did we know that? How did we know the speeds of Glavine's momentous pitch to Pujols here on Tuesday night? It's not about radar guns. It's about video at 30 frames per second, triangulation involving three ballpark cameras, and software on three computers in the corner of a TV truck outside the stadium's loading docks.
"What we're tracking is very accurate pitch trajectory and speed, and of course location in the strike zone," Shaffer said. "Radar guns do a couple things. Sometimes average speed, sometimes after it crosses the plate, sometimes as it leaves the hand. It's not just focused on the ball.
"We take a series of high-speed photographs, 30 frames per second, as it moves from mound to plate. At each frame, we can identify the location of the ball. So if we take the time of that frame, we can calculate speed. [Radar guns] are the old days. It doesn't get any more accurate than this."
One day the system may become portable and an important new asset for scouts who typically are holding those radar guns. For now, it is front and center in this postseason as a cutting-edge tool for fans who are immersed in the game as viewers and computer users.
"When the system is installed in all 30 ballparks, it will provide unprecedented accuracy, consistency and depth of data to the measurement of speed and trajectory of each pitch," Schwartz said. "Ultimately we'll be able to use this data to determine the pitch type in real time and with greater accuracy than ever before. By recording all of this data in real time, we can provide it to broadcasters such as FOX, in-stadium scoreboards, fans via Enhanced Gameday, clubs and other business partners."
For FOX, the ability to show those 'red comets' during at-bats is the culmination of a setup process that happens very much behind-the-scenes early in the day at the ballpark. Before groundskeepers work on the mound and plate areas during the afternoon, a crew is on the field placing spiked and colored/numbered markers on the first- and third-base lines, as well as a marked eight-foot pole at home plate. That is called the "registration" process and is captured by three field cameras -- high home, high first base and center field -- so that the information is then stored into the truck computer software to create the "grid" that will allow the game's pitch-tracking to happen.
The center-field camera is used for two purposes, most importantly for "sizing" the batter. For the software to find the ball (or "blob" to the engineers who plot the application), there needs to be a different plane of location for a David Eckstein than for a Chris Duncan. Then the crew in the truck is sizing each player during batting practice, so that during the game each tracking plane is pre-set; it is remembered for each subsequent at-bat by that player.
According to Kurt Meyer, a broadcast engineer for SportVision, a technology partner with MLBAM, "a guy stands at home plate with the eight-foot pole and marker, and then the software takes about 20 minutes to snap the grid into place. That tells each of the computers where home plate is in relationship to the three cameras, so they're all on the same page. You're telling the computer to look for a certain object between parameters of speed ... a blob traveling between the mound and the plate."
The pitch tracking system is set from 40 mph to 120 mph. That prevents the system from picking up, say, an empty popcorn bag floating past a camera during the game. Manual intervention also comes into play in the occasional event that a third baseman will charge in on a batter who has squared around to bunt while a pitch is being thrown. The player is moving fast enough to enter that location plane, so the grid on the software must occasionally be dragged to the proper dimensions to adjust.
Then come the actual at-bats, like Glavine vs. Pujols. It was an at-bat that could be very influential in this series and certainly will be remembered for a long time in St. Louis. Now a single pitch like that can be comprehended and experienced in more detail than ever, long after it was thrown and hit.
In the future, this technology could lead to such advances as camera-mapping of the entire field, so that the complete movement of every player in every inning can be captured and then depicted in ways that benefit coaching of defense, baserunning, umpiring, pitching mechanics, self-analysis by players and more.
Welcome to the future of baseball, on display again Wednesday night and throughout the rest of the postseason.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.