I was driving to a coaching session today and overheard a sports commenter stating that he was watching one of the playoff baseball games going on and he was observing umpires calling pitches as strikes that were six inches off of the plate. It took a bit but I soon realized that he was using as a reference for his judgment regarding the quality of the officiating a piece of visual tech called “PitchTrax.” This appears as a illustrated strike zone in a box in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Now, for an umpire to call a pitch a strike, some part of the ball must travel over some part of home plate at a height between halfway from the batter’s shoulders to his belt and down to the bottom of his knees. This is according to the rule book but, of course, no umpire calls it that way. The effective strike zone is from the player’s waist (his “belt” down to the bottom of the knees. This “zone” is shown in PitchTrax as a 3×3 grid. Since the plate is 17˝ wide and the distance from the bottom of the knees to a player’s belt is approximately 20˝ you end up with a rectangular grid, slightly taller than it is wide. (Plus umpires also have personal quirks to their strike zones., but that is for another article.)
When a pitch is thrown PitchTrax throws up a numbered dot in the location of the pitch, the dot being the scale size of a baseball, so if any part of the dot touches any part of the grid, it should be called a strike. Unfortunately and by my estimate only one quarter to one third of the pitches called by PitchTrax are anywhere near being accurate. My best estimate of the technology used is an intern with a mouse clicking on the spot they thought the ball passed the plate. Check that, make it a drunken intern.
Realize that the most common camera angle used to show pitchers and batters is from center field, roughly 10-15 degrees to the right of the pitcher and angled slightly downward, so we can see the pitcher and catcher and a batter in either batter’s box. The pitcher, average height of about six feet, is standing on a mound of earth 15˝ higher than the level of the playing field. They stride toward the plate, lowering their body somewhat, before throwing the ball from just above shoulder height, so the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand (called the pitcher’s “release point”) about six feet off of the ground. The batter’s strike zone begins at about three feet off of the ground (the belt) and goes down to about a foot and a half off of the ground, so a straight line from the pitcher’s hand to the level of the strike zone is dropping at least three feet and maybe as much as four and a half feet. In other words it is coming down hill. Not only that but the ball spends almost all of its time in flight above that straight line. This is due to gravity; the ball always travels in an arc. Consequently the angle the ball is making at the plate is steeper than the angle of that downward sloping line. This is basic physics.
The reason I bring this up is that it looks like the dot on PitchTrax shows up where the ball hits the catcher’s mitt about one third of the time. But the strike call is made based on where the ball was when it passed the front part of home plate. And since the ball was actually angling down and, more importantly, because the ball is coming in at an angle to the line of view of the camera, it is physically impossible for the spot the ball travels across the plate to match up with the position of the ball in the catcher’s mitt four feet behind the plate. This is especially true with a left-handed pitcher because the angle between the ball’s flight and camera angle is even greater.
On very rare occasions that center field camera lines up with the release point of a right-handed pitcher and we end up looking right down the path the ball makes and when that happens you can really see how poorly PitchTrax’s drunken intern is at spotting pitches.
Any idiot can see this is the case, so why was that sports commenter trusting PitchTrax above the judgment of a very good plate umpire?
I think that as time goes on and we become less science literate as a culture, technology is something we don’t understand, but something we have faith in, faith that it works.
If this is true, we are not putting our plutocratic masters through their paces. The least we can do is expect real bread and real circuses, and not fake ones. Because if they realize we will accept fake technology, you can expect a steady diet of it. (Did to see the movie “Wag the Dog?”)