Pitch Count (Among Other Things)

This is going to be about sports. I'll understand if you'd rather look at stick figures. Last Friday, a friend of mine asked me to explain how scorekeeping works in baseball. It was one in the morning, and there were four of us left of the twenty or so who had taken over the top floor of the bar earlier that evening. The last few innings of a ballgame were playing out on TV, a Yankees loss at the hands of their inexplicable nemeses, the thrice-renamed California Angels.* He wanted to know how to decipher the letter/number diagrams that are shown when a batter comes to the plate. So I walked him through how the positions are numbered, and how the letters correspond with each type of out. Even after half a dozen beers, I could rattle them off no problem — and even after something like seventeen martinis, he picked it up right away. It's baseball. The numbers just work.

Numbers in baseball are like the stilts holding up Venice. Without them, the whole thing would sink off the map once and for all. Yeah yeah, there's a great deal about the game that can't be quantified, but I'm a nerd and the bandbox poets can pipe down for a second. Baseball is built on numbers, period. And with 30 rosters of 25 men playing 162 games per year, that's an awful damn lot of numbers. If you think there's a limit to how many ways they can be chewed up and swallowed, there's a thousand pound page book on my coffee table that says otherwise.

Sadly, there are only so many things for scorekeepers to observe. This creates a problem, because in order for the repertoire of stats to expand, we need a way to count things that cannot be counted. Not to worry, however. This is a problem that can be solved using science.

A bunch of weapons-grade dorks have developed a way to track every single thing happening on the field. Cameras mounted on the light towers isolate the players and the ball, recording their precise movements. The system's software then analyzes the images and spits out a mountain of information on speed, location, reaction time, fielding range — a wish list of stats that would have been unimaginable as recently as last week. Though still under testing, the system will reportedly generate two million data points per game. That sound you just heard was every fantasy baseball player in America clapping their hands like an eight-year-old girl who just woke up to find a pony sleeping at the foot of her bed.

The aforementioned bunch of dorks work at a company called Sportvision. This happens to be the company that developed the yellow first-down marker for football broadcasts, the third best thing to come out of the 1990s, trailing only Napster and Alyson Hannigan. Goodness only knows how they manage to produce such works, but I'm guessing it involves the use of "space-age polymers."

Now then. Let's get a look at some of the stats we can expect from this thing.

  • OPBS: On-base plus bat speed.
  • OPHF: On-base plus helmet flips.
  • OPC: On-base plus coughing.
  • OPSPTSPDFS: On-base plus slugging plus throwing speed plus distance from Stonehenge.
  • BRT: Bullpen run time, how long it takes a reliever to reach the mound.
  • DTMA: Distance traveled for manager argument, the total amount of ground covered from the moment the manager steps out of the dugout to the moment he stomps back.
  • VORMPL: Value over regulated median player latitude. No idea what it would mean, but I like saying the acronym. ("He doesn't hit for power, but he's a VORMPL guy.")
  • Trajectory calculation for the broken bat shards that will absolutely, definitely impale someone in the near future.
  • A breakdown of which peanut vendors have the best arms, based on velocity, distance, and accuracy. The best would be flown in to work the All-Star Game.
  • God willing and the creek don't rise, they'll be able to link the system with machine gun turrets, to deal with fans who wave at the camera while on their cell phones.

*Los Angeles Angels --> California Angels --> Anaheim Angels --> Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim. Four names without once having so much as changed a street address since they got their own park in 1966. That's some sort of record, right? Not even fugitives change their name that much.

For anyone who might be in a statistically-inclined mood, listen to ESPN's Bill Simmons talk to Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey about how stats are evolving in basketball, or check out Radiolab's examination of random chance, which includes the Sixers and Joe DiMaggio as examples. (But also listen to the follow-up where they correct some of their logic.)