A Whole New Era in Baseball

Many of us casual fans were introduced to the culture war in baseball (i.e. Bill James / data-driven analysis vs. grizzled old scouts looking for five-tool players) by the book Moneyball.

Well, with the recent news that the St. Louis Cardinals may have been caught hacking the Houston Astros data base, it is pretty clear which side won.  This article explains why the until-recently hapless Astros were the target of hacking by one of the last decade's most successful teams.

If you remember the scene in the movie Moneyball where there were a bunch of traditional old scouts sitting around the table debating players, compare that image to this:

When the Astros plucked Colorado's Collin McHugh off the waiver wire after the 2013 season despite his career 8.94 ERA, the move might've surprised some folks. But today's major league stadiums are wired with systems such as PitchF/X and TrackMan that use Doppler radar to track the ball in three dimensions. For every pitch thrown in every game, teams now know the location, acceleration, movement, velocity and the axis of rotation of the ball. The Astros grabbed McHugh because they saw that while his sinker didn't play well at Coors Field, he had a superior curveball that rotated about 2,000 times a minute, or 500 times more than an average curve spins.

It was the baseball equivalent of noticing a needle in the data haystack.

Once he was in Houston, the coaches told McHugh to change his arsenal by throwing that terrific curve more and replacing the sinker with a high fastball.

The result? His ERA nosedived to 2.73 in his first season with the Astros.

By the way, given the technology described here, and the tech I see deployed on the typical baseball TV broadcast, why do we still have human beings calling balls and strikes?


  1. HenryBowman419:

    why do we still have human beings calling balls and strikes?

    I'll offer up two reasons:

    1. The umpires' union.
    2. The width of the plate would have to be increased, as machines calling balls and strikes would decrease averages terribly.

  2. HenryBowman419:

    Sorry, #(2) above is exactly backwards from what I meant to say.

  3. Not Sure:

    I love baseball, but the umpiring is by far the worst of any of the other sports I follow. All you need to know to confirm this is the well-known and discussed fact that home plate umpires have their own personal strike zones. Where in the rule book is this permitted?

    And another thing... nothing drives me crazier than hearing the announcer note that, on a pitch that's just off the plate, a pitcher either gets the call or doesn't merely by proving that he can hit that spot consistently. I can't wait for computers to take over this job.

  4. Secret Unaccountable Money:


  5. edkless:

    Because humanity is part of the game. I feel even replay is a travesty for baseball. We measure error percentages for players to the third decimal point, I.e., fielding percentage.

    The same should be done with umpires. Put in the equipment but instead of using it during the game, just evaluate umpires on their ability to get it he calls right. Let's even track and report their percentages in a stat available to all and displayed on scoreboards.

  6. FelineCannonball:

    It is tracked and its how umpires are chosen for the playoffs.

    I imagine it is about continuity with the past and probably fan preferences. Most fans are traditionalist. Personally, I'd have basketball players where sensor suits to detect force of contact and shock them when they flop.

  7. davesmith001:

    "he had a superior curveball that rotated about 2,000 times a minute, or 500 times more than an average curve spins." This sentence makes no sense. You would not measure something like this in minutes. And I don't think the average curve ball only spins 4 times a minute.

  8. Tim:

    RPM is a standard unit for spin. The 45s of the old format jukebox singles? 45 RPM. The tachometer in your car? RPM.

    The phrasing's a bit clunky; but I think the implication is that the average curve is only 1500 RPM; hence McHugh's rotates 500 more times than average. In other words, the times is number of additional rotations; not the scaling factor. I'd prefer something like "...that rotated about 2000 times a minute, or 500 more rotations than an average curve ball."

  9. edkless:

    True it is tracked, but I would prefer to eliminate the use of replay (I know, won't happen at this point) and instead make the umpires accuracy ratings public.