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Monday, May 05, 2014

Amazin’ Avenue: The Myth of the Robotic Strike Zone

With a guest appearance by former BPros/now Astros’ front office expert Mike Fast:

One of his (Fast’s) conclusions has far reaching ramifications:

The utility and accuracy of a Zone Evaluation system that is used to grade major-league umpires based upon the unreliable PITCHf/x sz_top and sz_bot measurements is also called into question.

And he closes the piece with:

Short of having a more reliable method for measuring the actual stance of batters from video, it seems to make the most sense to set the top and bottom boundaries based upon the height of the batter and the average height of the pitches that the batter sees, as scaled to the average umpire zone. That is probably not a workable solution for the robotic home-plate umpires that many fans desire. Such a system would be slow to capture changes in batter stances and could be subject to manipulation. However, given the current data, it seems to be the best approach for analysis of strike zone data, and it is much more accurate than using the boundaries supplied in the PITCHf/x data.

Mike Emeigh Posted: May 05, 2014 at 09:09 AM | 27 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: pitchfx, sabermetrics, umpires

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   1. Sunday silence Posted: May 05, 2014 at 10:05 AM (#4700230)
I havent read the article yet, but here's a crazy idea:

Is there any argument about where the horizontal borders of the strike zone are? And given that the biggest errors in ball/strike calls seem to be the balls that are outside or inside why not use a robotic guide for the horizontal control? Let the umps still call ball/strikes but you an override for balls that are too far outside or inside.

Can we assume from the article that no one is arguing about the horizontal control of the pitch f/x system?
   2. Ulysses S. Fairsmith Posted: May 05, 2014 at 10:09 AM (#4700232)
". . . the robotic home-plate umpires that many fans desire."


I don't think there are many fans who desire this.
   3. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: May 05, 2014 at 10:17 AM (#4700238)
It'd be a lot better than the current replay system, but somehow baseball managed to survive for nearly a century and a half without either of those gimmicks.
   4. with Glavinesque control and Madduxian poise Posted: May 05, 2014 at 10:31 AM (#4700248)
Baseball managed to survive for a long time without racial integration, too.
   5. Lassus Posted: May 05, 2014 at 10:52 AM (#4700269)
I don't think there are many fans who desire this.

You must be new here.
   6. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: May 05, 2014 at 11:05 AM (#4700279)
Baseball managed to survive for a long time without racial integration, too.

Is that supposed to be an argument in favor of replays or robo-umps or both?
   7. Crispix reaches boiling point with lackluster play Posted: May 05, 2014 at 11:27 AM (#4700300)
People who want sports robots to replace puny and irrational humans are everywhere on the internet, compared to their minuscule numbers in the general population. I think it's correlated with being a libertarian.
   8. Brian C Posted: May 05, 2014 at 11:53 AM (#4700328)
Is that supposed to be an argument in favor of replays or robo-umps or both?

I'm guessing that it's merely meant to point out the inanity of your "baseball survived a long time" argument.
   9. Sunday silence Posted: May 05, 2014 at 11:58 AM (#4700336)

Is that supposed to be an argument in favor of replays or robo-umps or both?


I think its a reductio ad absurdum demonstration, that your reasoning is faulty. Its' not an argument for anything, its showing the absurd reasoning you are using that is all.

   10. ursus arctos Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:01 PM (#4700339)
The first Mike Fast article linked in the Amazin' Avenue piece does indeed demonstrate that there have been issues with horizontal calibration in the past.

Just over half of the stadium-seasons have a measurement error below half an inch in each dimension. When both dimensions are combined, 29 percent of the stadium seasons are below half an inch of measurement error, 67 percent have less than one inch of error on average, and 98 percent are less than two inches. The worst PITCHf/x systems for persistent plate location errors were the 2007 Metrodome (2.7 in.), 2007 Dolphin Stadium (2.4 in.), 2009 Dodger Stadium (1.9 in.), 2007 Fenway Park (1.7 in.), and 2010 Miller Park (1.7 in.).

. . .

Based upon the level of accuracy in PITCHf/x plate locations and our ability to apply corrections to the errors in these locations, what can we conclude? Most of the errors are less than an inch or two and thus probably of little effect on most batter and pitcher measurements. Errors in plate location measurements have a corresponding effect on the spin deflection measurements for pitchers, but again, errors of less than an inch or two are fairly small when most pitch clusters are five inches or more apart in the spin deflection space. One arena where the implications of PITCHf/x plate location accuracy are larger is in umpire evaluation. Errors of an inch or two are sizable when grading umpire performance, and corrected location data would be useful in that application.


There's much more detail in the Fast article, which is very interesting.
   11. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:14 PM (#4700358)
Is that supposed to be an argument in favor of replays or robo-umps or both?

I think its a reductio ad absurdum demonstration, that your reasoning is faulty. Its' not an argument for anything, its showing the absurd reasoning you are using that is all.


If there's any logic to replays, using them only to correct a miniscule percentage of the bad calls made every day isn't a very good example of it. And obviously the point about baseball's having got along without replays is a subjective rhetorical point, just as is the implicit argument that some bad calls (on the bases) are worse than others (missed calls due to subjective strike zones).
   12. Adam G Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:22 PM (#4700370)
I haven't read the full article either, but I feel like #1 would work well with Bill James' system where the ump wears an ear piece and hears a beep if it is over the plate. So it's more of an assist. He can hear the beep if it is over the plate, determine the upper/lower bound, then decide if he wants to call it a strike or not. Decision is ultimately his, so he can "override" the beep if he disagrees or wants to expand or contract the zone based upon the count.

I'm a huge fan of this and think it would make the umps job easier (and more accurate)... not sure how an ump would feel about having "assistance", but the decisions are still ultimately his to make.
   13. Greg Pope thinks the Cubs are reeking havoc Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:36 PM (#4700384)
Such a system would be slow to capture changes in batter stances


Why should the strike zone change based on the batter's stance anyway? I mean from an automated system perspective. For humans, they clearly need a reference point, but for the robot, just program it with the batter's height, as measured in sprint training. Strikes are anything between 20% and 60% of the batter's standing height*. Then Ricky Henderson can crouch away as much as he wants, but it doesn't mean he gets more balls called.

To take it further, why should Frank Thomas be punished by having a larger strike zone than Phil Rizzuto? Maybe the strike zone should just be pre-determined for the robot ump to be from 1.5 feet to 3 feet off the ground* and the width of the plate.

Actual numbers to be determined, I have zero idea what numbers would be appropriate.
   14. Brian C Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:36 PM (#4700388)
And obviously the point about baseball's having got along without replays is a subjective rhetorical point,

Well, it's a useless point, and something of a strawman to boot, since no one is arguing that somehow baseball will fail to survive without various replay schemes. Of course baseball got along fine without it and will continue to do so, just as it has survived countless other and worse injustices. But that's no reason not to make it better if and when the chance arises. Pointing out that baseball survived without it is nothing more than an empty reactionary response.
   15. Sunday silence Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:44 PM (#4700400)
And obviously the point about baseball's having got along without replays is a subjective rhetorical point



It was not at all obvious to me that your pt was subjective. It seemed to me a perfectly objective observation: "Baseball has existed..." Clearly that is objective criterion, its existence.

Confusing the issue further you fall back on the "miniscule percentage" theory. No it isnt a good example of logic either. Do you need to give us more examples of bad logic before we get to yours?

And yes whether some bad calls are worse than others is somewhat subjective. Again I am not sure what it has to do with flaws in your existential argument.

Will we ever get a clear statement of your position on the issue? or is it contingent upon some other criterion of yours that has to be met first? I confess I have no idea where you stand at this pt.

Is there any other issues you need to bring into this before we get your position?
   16. Sunday silence Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:49 PM (#4700404)

Why should the strike zone change based on the batter's stance anyway?


I tend to agree with you on this, but there's also some sort of tradition in baseball that the zone is measured based upon the stance. So it is possible the author is making acknowledgement of this issue without saying whether its right or wrong... I dunno.
   17. esseff Posted: May 05, 2014 at 12:59 PM (#4700426)
Why should the strike zone change based on the batter's stance anyway?


I tend to agree with you on this, but there's also some sort of tradition in baseball that the zone is measured based upon the stance.


More than tradition, it's in the rule book, in the rule 2.00 definition of a strike: "The Strike Zone shall
be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."
   18. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: May 05, 2014 at 01:08 PM (#4700436)
Joe Sheehan wrote a longish article for SI this week in which he notes, rightly, that the 2014 version of the sport is an aesthetic disaster.(*) He attributes one factor in that conclusion -- the higher K rates -- in part, to the widened and shortened strike zone.

The idea that balls and strikes are improperly called horizontally is really intolerable at this point, without any counter-justification. It should be robo'd tomorrow.

(*) Without even noting the absurdity of instant replay or the uber-fanboy idea that players should jog around the bases so they don't pull a hamstring. Or the geekcult of the Houston Astros.
   19. Swedish Chef Posted: May 05, 2014 at 01:55 PM (#4700485)
I'd keep the ump but give him more data about the ball's trajectory on a HUD. In chess, a machine + human team is superior to human or machine. The same applies here.
   20. Moeball Posted: May 05, 2014 at 02:11 PM (#4700498)
Over the years, we have seen the strike zone change from a more traditional, closer to the rulebook version (pre-1990s?) to the version that became popular in the mid/late '90s where nothing above the batter's belt was ever called a strike but pitches a foot off the plate were called strikes.

I think now there are more umps willing to call higher strikes than before but I still see a lot of pitches off the plate getting called strikes.

What I wonder is a couple of things:

1)Are there players throughout history who unusually benefitted or were abnormally hurt by the way the strike zone was being interpreted (for better or worse)? We know that pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer lived off the high strike which wouldn't get called a generation later. Could they have been successful pitchers in the 1990s? On the other hand, pitchers like Maddux specialized in how to throw pitches off the plate that get called for strikes, while still keeping the ball down. Would he have been a successful pitcher back in the 1960s?

Umpire Ron Luciano publicly admitted BITD that it was really tough to call the strike zone when Nolan Ryan was pitching because on the days he really had the heat working (the 101 mph variety), it was almost impossible to quickly judge just where the location of that pitch was and much of the umpire's judgement on these calls was by observing what the catcher did. But unless the catcher did something really obvious - reach way up for a high pitch, dig one out of the dirt, or reach way to his right or left, the umpire couldn't really tell if the pitch was a strike or not. Did that fastball catch the corner or not? Luciano claimed that he couldn't really tell you for sure and that neither could any other MLB umpires.

Well, from one observer who saw many of Ryan's games with the Angels back in the 1970s - he had a zillion pitches that were "around" the plate. A lot of those got called balls; some were called strikes. They were so dang fast it was really hard to tell whether they caught the plate or not. Some of these iffy pitch calls resulted in walks and others in strikeouts. So was Nolan really wild? I'm not so sure. I think it is entirely possible that he may not have actually walked as many batters as he was charged with. It is also entirely possible that he didn't get charged with enough walks. I'm curious as to others here who may have seen him pitch a lot in his days with the Astros or the Rangers - did it seem that he had a lot of pitches around the corners, and did it seem that an unusually high percentage of those pitches were getting called balls?

2)If it is so difficult for umpires to call really fast pitches, and there are more hard throwing pitchers today who can really crank up the speed more than ever before in history, might this be why umpires are having so much difficulty calling balls and strikes? Although I might point out it isn't just balls and strikes they are having problems with. I'm seeing a lot of calls on the base paths being overturned because umpires are also struggling with the ability to call runners out or safe. The Padres got a couple of key calls overturned yesterday that made a big impact on winning the game against Arizona.
   21. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: May 05, 2014 at 02:34 PM (#4700513)

It was not at all obvious to me that your pt was subjective. It seemed to me a perfectly objective observation: "Baseball has existed..." Clearly that is objective criterion, its existence.

Confusing the issue further you fall back on the "miniscule percentage" theory. No it isnt a good example of logic either. Do you need to give us more examples of bad logic before we get to yours?

And yes whether some bad calls are worse than others is somewhat subjective. Again I am not sure what it has to do with flaws in your existential argument.

Will we ever get a clear statement of your position on the issue? or is it contingent upon some other criterion of yours that has to be met first? I confess I have no idea where you stand at this pt.

Is there any other issues you need to bring into this before we get your position?


My position on this hasn't changed. In order of subjective preference:

1. No replay and no robo umps. I hate the personalized strike zone, but I can live with it.

2. Robo umps and no replay

3. Both replay and robo umps

4. The current state of replay but no robo umps
   22. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq. Posted: May 05, 2014 at 04:35 PM (#4700590)
Would it be possible to add something tiny to a player's uniform that allowed a computer to automatically detect:

1) Where the leg bends, determining the knee
2) Where the top of a player's shoulders are
3) Where the top of a player's pants are

If this could be done, this would allow a computer to determine a strike zone in real time.
   23. Swedish Chef Posted: May 05, 2014 at 04:46 PM (#4700595)
Would it be possible to add something tiny to a player's uniform that allowed a computer to automatically detect:

1) Where the leg bends, determining the knee
2) Where the top of a player's shoulders are
3) Where the top of a player's pants are

If this could be done, this would allow a computer to determine a strike zone in real time.


It would be very tempting to tamper with such devices. I would prefer a scheme that didn't involve such temptation.
   24. Greg Pope thinks the Cubs are reeking havoc Posted: May 05, 2014 at 05:40 PM (#4700646)
More than tradition, it's in the rule book, in the rule 2.00 definition of a strike: "The Strike Zone shall
be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."


Yes, of course, I know that. But my point is that it is that way because we need a definition that a human can reasonably call. Not because it's the ideal strike zone.

Using a roboump and coming up with a reasonable strike zone shouldn't cause a problem. There's no reason to bend over backwards to get the roboump to call the current rule book defined strike zone. Just come up with something fair and re-write the book.
   25. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: May 05, 2014 at 05:52 PM (#4700657)
Using a roboump and coming up with a reasonable strike zone shouldn't cause a problem. There's no reason to bend over backwards to get the roboump to call the current rule book defined strike zone. Just come up with something fair and re-write the book.


Yep. The ultimate goal is to have hitters swing at strikes and put the ball in play -- not take a bunch of pitches and get called out on strikes on a pitch six inches off the plate or, even worse, flail oafishly at a ball even further off the plate because they're worried about the ump's wide strike zone.

Sheehan mentioned the Braves/Marlins game last week where 61 hitters came up, and 28 struck out. No one wants to watch that garbage. They want to hear the crack of the bat and watch Andrelton Simmons glide and make plays.
   26. Sunday silence Posted: May 06, 2014 at 02:36 AM (#4700945)
...the 2014 version of the sport is an aesthetic disaster.(*)


An apt summary of the season so far.
   27. Walt Davis Posted: May 06, 2014 at 06:46 PM (#4701591)
I'd keep the ump but give him more data about the ball's trajectory on a HUD. In chess, a machine + human team is superior to human or machine. The same applies here.

Well ... I'm sure that a computer and ... whoever's world chess champ at the moment ... is better than just the computer but a computer and me is going to be exactly as good as the computer unless I'm dumb enough to ignore its advice.

I'm not sure MLB umps are the equivalent of Kasparov.

Nice idea on the sensors or whatever. This can be done with lasers -- most bike shops have such a set-up to do fittings (angle of back, knee, foot, etc. to determine seat post, distance to bars, etc). But where do you put these lasers on the field?

They do use such technology in cricket to determine whether a ball into the body would have hit the wicket. There is a reasonable delay but that might just be done for effect -- an out in cricket is a HUGE deal. Anyway, if cricket can accept a machine determining whether a spinning, bouncing ball would have hit a target a few inches wide that the camera can't see because there's a guy standing in front of it, accepting something like pitch/fx seems reasonably likely to me. (Same with line calls in tennis)

Truth is I don't think the fans care and most people trust machines, maybe especially ones that spit out numbers. You don't see anybody clamoring to have lotto balls selected by a human.

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