New system tries to measure pitchers command
Figuring out which pitchers have the best control has been relatively easy. Look at the number of strikes and balls each one throws.
Command is a more elusive, yet equally important, measurement. That's because hitting the catcher's target can often be the difference between an effective waste pitch just outside the strike zone and a fastball that catches too much of the plate and becomes a home run.
Teams will now have data on how close a pitcher comes to hitting his target on each pitch.
''We're always asking teams, what's the one bit of data you wish you had,'' said Ryan Zandler, the general manager of baseball products at Sportvision - the company behind football's yellow first-down marker, hockey's glowing puck and baseball's Pitch F/X system. ''Consistently over the last year or so it has been to track the catcher's glove.''
So Sportvision is using the same three cameras that record the velocity, trajectory and location of every major league pitch to determine how closely each pitcher comes to hitting the catcher's target in the new Command F/X system.
The information is most useful on fastballs and can help measure command and show whether pitchers tend to lose it after a certain number of pitchers or in specific situations.
''It definitely gives you a better sense when evaluating your own players on whether they need to take their fastball command up a notch,'' Oakland assistant general manager David Forst said. ''If you look at a guy who doesn't grade out well on that, but is having a lot of success, it's always nice to project what he could do if the command and ability to hit the glove improves.''
Sportvision has crunched only the numbers from last June and they mostly reinforce perception. Control specialist Roy Halladay had the second best mark to former Philadelphia teammate Jamie Moyer, missing his target on fastballs by an average of 9.6 inches, compared with the league average of 12.9.
Current teammate Cliff Lee was slightly behind at an average of 11.2 inches, with Cole Hamels hitting exactly the league average and Roy Oswalt being slightly worse.
Some players are skeptical.
''None of the information they're going to be rendering is going to be applicable to my preparation nor (catcher) Kurt Suzuki's preparation,'' Oakland starter Dallas Braden said. ''While it might produce some numbers and some other form of sabermetrics, it will not be applied in our every day preparation to go compete.''
Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters said he thought it might be helpful in bullpen sessions but didn't see how it would work in games when he is sometimes trying to hide his target from potential sign stealers.
''Some catchers set up inside with no movement outside, or they set up so late it would just be hard to gauge,'' he said. ''And sometimes, you're giving a target in one place but you're trying to bounce it. So how you going to tell on those?''
San Francisco catcher Buster Posey also said his target varies depending on the pitcher so he doesn't know how reliable the numbers would be. Still, he's willing to give this a chance.
''It's always good to try different stuff out though,'' he said. ''You never know, you might get some good use out of it. I'm always open to trying different things.''
Pitch F/X has been in every major league ballpark since 2008 and Sportvision soon will be able to assemble the Command F/X data for the past three seasons.
The Pitch F/X numbers are widely used in broadcasts, on Internet sites and by teams for additional analysis that was unavailable only a few years ago.
Those same cameras are also used for Hit F/X, which tracks the speed and direction a ball comes off a bat each time a player makes contact. That can help determine whether a change in production can be attributed to a change in ability or a change in luck.
For example, Seattle star Ichiro Suzuki had one month last season stick out for being far below his usual standards. While Suzuki hit just .246 last July, his average in every other month ranged from .307 to .344.
So Sportvision looked to see if he was getting the same kind of contact in July as he was the rest of the season. The company found little change, with the average speed of the ball off the bat at 71 mph in July - right in the middle of his season range of 69 mph to 73 mph.
That could that he was just hitting more balls at fielders in July, lessening the concern that his skills could be deteriorating.
That kind of information could be invaluable to teams as they decide which players to acquire and how much to pay for them. It's just a matter of sifting through it all to find out what is relevant.
''With an increasing amount of information available compared to a few years ago, it is certainly a challenge for a club to pick which information to base decisions on and how to analyze mounds and mounds of raw data out there,'' Forst said. ''One of the biggest issues now is figuring out what is useful and how much we rely on it to make decisions.''
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Sarasota, Fla., and AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., contributed to this report.