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June 27, 2008: SABR Day Two (first half)

Began the day this morning with breakfast with my roomie at the hotel buffet, then to the Women in Baseball committee meeting. The meeting was lovely, as Justine Siegel was there to present a pilot qualitative study she has done on a current girl playing high school baseball who is trying to get a Division II scholarship. Justine is special to me because she was the one who pointed me at the Pawtucket Slaterettes when I was falling out of the revamped New England Women’s Baseball League. She’s now getting her PhD in Sports Psychology and still running a 12-and-under girls team for the annual Cooperstown tournaments (where they play against boys teams), coaching a men’s collegiate baseball team, and helping to organize international tournaments for women’s baseball programs. And probably more. And raising a daughter, too.

The first research presentation I attended at Alan Nathan’s presentation on Pitchf/x. This is Sportvision’s three-camera system that has been installed in all MLB stadiums and if you look at the live Gameday pitch by pitch window at MLB.com, these days you will see a graphic showing the trajectory of the pitch and data on the pitch speed, location, and the amount of break that it displays. It is the same technology that you see on ESPN as K-Zone, and on Fox as Fox Trak. The center field camera is used only to determine the height of the strike zone. The other two are a “high home” camera, and a “high first” camera, whose angles are calculated together with software to determine pixel locations in each plane, and which then makes a three-dimensional set of coordinates for each frame.

The system is accurate to within a half mile of pitch speed (both at release and as it crosses home–the usual pitch loses 10% of its speed as it travels), with a half inch for location, and within 2 inches for magnitude and direction of break. It also records the type of pitch (fastball, slider, curve, etc.), and because it records each pitch live, it is also recording what each batter does with each pitch. Not only that, all this data is available FREE online. (He gave URLs for Dan Turkenkopf, who has a tutorial online on how to mate Pitchf/x data with Retrosheet, but I didn’t get it written down so you’ll have to Goggle for it, and Dan Brooks’ site: brooksbaseball.net/pfx/, who also has info on how to use the data.

Among the things Nathan was able to show that Pitchf/x demonstrates are the fact that pitches really do move differently in Colorado than elsewhere. He combined the data from 3000-7000 pitches in Toronto versus Denver. In Toronto the average speed dropped by 10% after release and broke 12″. In Denver pitches broke only 8″ and lost only 7.5% of their velocity. He also showed some fascinating graphs of pitchers Jon Lester, Brandon Webb, and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, which I cannot really describe here. Also he showed how pitchf/x shows how the slider and the fastball really do look remarkably similar for the first 40 feet of their trajectory (with only a 4″ variation), and then drastically different for the final 20 feet, resulting in a 12″ difference in where they end up. Nathan’s own website about the topic is: http://webusrs.upl.uiuc.edu/~a-nathan/pob/pitchtracker.html

Then it was time for a little culture. Anthony Salazar presented a really fascinating look at the baseball art of Jacob Lawrence, a painter of the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in Atlantic City in 1917. He moved to Harlem when he was 13 and took classes in arts and crafts at Utopia House. There he met such figures as Langston Hughes and others, and by age 21 had his first painting exhibition. He was very influenced by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and mural painting, with much emphasis on triangular shapes, elongated hands, and primary colors “right from the jar.”

In 1949 he painted two paintings, both 20″ x 24″ in egg tempera, with baseball themes. “Strike” depicts a black catcher, catching a pitch, while a white batter strikes out, and a racially mixed audience is depicted. In “The Long Stretch,” a white first baseman is catching the ball, as a black player barely gets one spiky toe onto the bag, and a white umpire calls him safe.

The images are imbue with great energy, highly stylized, and capture the tenacity of the pioneers integrating baseball at that time. Salazar pointed out similarities between the catcher figure and Roy Campanella, and the runner with Jackie Robinson. It’s fascinating art and a fascinating way for art to capture the complex situation and that moment in history. Thanks to Power Point, Salazar was able to show the paintings to good effect.

Then came Zak Hudak’s talk on how many home runs Babe Ruth might have hit, had he been on steroids. Hudak is 14 years old, very poised for his age (and probably tired of hearing people tell him that), the youngest presenter ever at a SABR convention.

Hudak started with a study done by Professor Tobin at Tufts University that posited that the muscle development from steroid use would increase homer production by 50% to 100%. Looking at the careers of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Bary Bonds, and a couple of other sluggers who weer alleged to have used steroids, and found they tended to have a 4-5 year surge of about 50% above their usual production late in their careers.

Predicting that if Ruth had used enhancers, he would have also followed this pattern, Hudak calculated a 50% increase for Ruth’s 5 most consecutive productive years toward the end of his career, and came up with 842 home runs. By the same token, Aaron would have ended up with 856, and Ted Williams 608, among others.

Then it was off to the beautiful and wonderful Cleveland Public Library. There was an author roundtable, where Tom Swift, who just published a book on Chief Bender, Rob Neyer,

oops, just realized I am late for a presentation about the “Mitchell 89” — more later!

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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