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Steve Springer / ON THE MEDIA

Pitching graphics point to a gray area

October 17, 2008|Steve Springer

So who are you going to believe, the umpire or your lying eyes?

This baseball postseason has been a real eye-opener for television viewers who, time and again, have seen a home-plate umpire make a call on a pitch only to be contradicted by a computer-generated graphic.

Balls are strikes and strikes are balls. Do we need an optometrist to stand behind the ump?

It's called Fox Trax on Fox broadcasts and Pitchtrax on TBS games, but the look is the same. On selective pitches, a black box representing the strike zone is shown with a simulated baseball either inside or outside that area depending on where a computer determines the pitch entered the zone.

The graphic is often accompanied by a replay of the pitcher delivering his pitch with a blue tail indicating the trajectory of the ball.

A two-pitch sequence in Game 4 of the Angels-Boston Red Sox series illustrated either a serious flaw in the system or a serious flaw in the umpire's vision.

With a 1-2 count on the Angels' Mark Teixeira in the fifth inning, Boston left-hander Jon Lester delivered a pitch and then started to leave the mound, convinced he had a called third strike.

Not so fast, said umpire Ed Rapuano. Ball two. The graphic backed him up, showing the pitch way outside.

Back came Lester with the next pitch and, this time, Rapuano whipped his right hand out. Called third strike indeed.

Pitchtrax? It showed the ball in almost the exact same spot, way outside.

After Jeff Kent argued vehemently following a called third strike in a crucial situation in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NL Championship Series on Wednesday night -- the game that eliminated the Dodgers from the postseason -- Fox Trax showed the pitch was low.

Producer Andrew Lorenz of Sportvision, designers of the Emmy-winning system also used by ESPN, called it "very, very accurate." Sportvision cameras mounted above both first base and home plate work in conjunction with a broadcast camera located in center field.

To further guarantee the accuracy of the operation, electronic markers are employed much like landing lights on a runway.

Admittedly, one size doesn't fit all in this system. Strike zones vary with the height of the hitter. Sportvision technicians take that into consideration, designing a specific strike zone for each hitter.

Still, the system is basically flawed, according to Lloyd Pierson, speaking for the World Umpires Assn.

Pierson used Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners as an example: "He has five different strike zones. Sometimes, he moves up on the plate. Sometimes, he moves back. The strike zones of players change when they get into position to bunt.

"Also, the results can be affected by a pitch that has a lot of movement. A curve back may be outside when it reaches the front of the plate, but then may curve back and hit the back part. Or the pitch may start high but drop six inches."

The other factor is the human element. As much as major league officials want uniformity behind the plate, different umpires have different interpretations of the strike zone.

The WUA, said Pierson, is working with Sportvision to design a system that more accurately grades the performance of the men in blue, nudging them closer to a common standard. But that would be separate from what the TV viewer sees.

So don't bother ranting and raving when what you see on the screen doesn't match what you hear from the umpire. As Kent would tell you, save your breath. The umps are not impressed.

Debate? What debate?

Game 5 of the NLCS between the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies got a 5.1 rating, attracting 8 million viewers despite going up against the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Although the game lost 13% of its viewership when it went head-to-head with the debate, it still edged out Monday night's Game 4, which got a 5.0 rating.

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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-- Steve Springer

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