Grow Your Tool Box: Pitch Tracking

When I started envisioning Growcasting’s purpose  and how it could help broadcasters improve, I was most excited about sharing all of the broadcast “life hacks” I’ve picked up over the years.  These are the tips and tricks that can instantaneously enhance the value of your broadcast, but the ones you won’t necessarily learn in a broadcasting or communications course.  In fact, the tool I’m about to share is something I learned from a friend who isn’t even an avid baseball fan.

There are countless ways you can keep score during a game.  I’ve yet to come across two styles that are exactly alike.  The method with which you keep track of each play doesn’t really matter as long as you can easily go back and interpret what you wrote down.

Here is a photo of a scorecard from my freshman year of college in 2004.

2004-scorecard

In the second inning, you can see that (A.J.) Scheidt singled with one out and then stole second base.  Looking at this scorecard 13 years later, how would I be able to tell who was at the plate when Scheidt stole second base?  You can logically deduce that the steal came during (Jeff) Kunkel’s at bat.  It would have been physically impossible for Scheidt to steal second base “after” Kunkel singled.  But what if Kunkel had struck out?  You would have no way of knowing if Scheidt stole second during Kunkel’s at bat or (Leif) Mahler’s.

The following spring, a group of friends and I attended a Detroit Tigers game.  I don’t remember anything about the game itself, but I did learn something at Comerica Park that afternoon that revolutionized how I approach every broadcast.  A friend of mine by the name of Jeff Monahan, who is now an attorney and far more successful than I am, was keeping score.  His scoring system wasn’t all that different from the one I use, but I observed that he was notating the result of every pitch leading up to the at bat’s final outcome.  I’m not talking about tick marks or dots just to keep a pitch count, I mean he was writing down “B” for every ball and “K” for every strike, essentially telling the full story of every at bat as it unfolded.

This shocked me for two reasons.  One, I thought to myself, “this is freaking awesome.  I need to be doing this.”  And two, while Jeff knows more about the sport of hockey than anyone I know, he was/is a self-described casual baseball fan.  Given that I consider myself a die-hard baseball fan, I felt so embarrassed that I had never thought of doing this before that I vowed to incorporate pitch tracking into all of my broadcasts from that day forward.

There are some scoresheets that come with pre-existing “count boxes” where you can fill in the balls and strikes.  The problem is that these scoresheets only provide room for a full count (three balls and two strikes), which severely limits their ability to tell the true story of each at bat.

Here is one example:

scorecard-three-player-rows

Here is a similar example from a scoring app for smart phones:

scoring-app-example

And here is an example with filled in results:

scorecard-cape-cod-league

In the third example, take a look at what I’ve circled in red.  The batter singles on a 1-2 count.  That’s valuable information, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.  Was it a three-pitch at bat, or did he foul off several two-strike pitches before coming up with the base hit?  In the scoring app example, look at the number three hitter’s at bat in the third inning.  He flies out on a full count, but was it a five-pitch full count, or were there extra foul balls along the way?

Compare the following at bats where “B” represents a ball, “K” represents a strike, and “F” represents a foul ball/strike.

At Bat #1: BBBKK – Strikeout
At Bat #2: KKFFFFFFF – Strikeout

The outcome is the same for both, but who had the more productive at bat?  Using a scoresheet with “count boxes,” you would be more inclined to say #1.  Even though both at bats resulted in strikeouts, #1 would show a 3-2 count before the final result, while #2 would show an 0-2 count.

However, if you examine how the at bats played out in real time, the better at bat is clearly #2.  Simply working a full count has value, but at bat #1 was unable to reach base despite starting out 3-0.  On the other hand, while at bat #2 fell into an 0-2 hole, he forced the opposing pitcher to throw seven additional pitches before he was put away.

Here is a scorecard from a game in 2011:

2011-scorecard

First, take a look at the red circle in the eighth inning for the number three hitter, Derek Schermerhorn.  This is a great example of how tracking each pitch tells the full story of the at bat.  Sure, Schermerhorn eventually struck out, but after falling behind 0-2, he wasted away two pitches before the final outcome.  Could those two foul balls have played a role in the next batter hitting a double?  Maybe, maybe not.  But this provides a much better idea of what Schermerhorn contributed than a simple notation that the strikeout came on an 0-2 count.

Pitch tracking eliminates the need for having to “remember” how long an at bat was, both in real time, and in future at bats by that same player.  In other words, pitch tracking puts the exact information right in front of you all on one scorecard.  Which of the following statements is more powerful for the listener: “He fouls off another, what a long at bat,” or “He fouls off another, and this at bat will now see a ninth pitch?”  Both are accurate, but the latter is clearly more specific.  Additionally, pitch tracking eliminates the risk of trying to guess how many pitches have been fouled off, which will help sharpen your accuracy tool.

Let’s return to the A.J. Scheidt stolen base from 2004.  Pitch tracking answers the question, “in which subsequent at bat did Scheidt steal second?”

Here’s another example from a New York Mets souvenir program’s “how to score” page:

how-to-score-diamond-crop

If you haven’t already figured it out, this is a re-creation of the “Bill Buckner” game from the 1986 World Series.  For now, just focus on the yellow circle around (Darryl) Strawberry’s at bat in the second inning.  Strawberry walks with one out and then steals second, but you can’t tell from this scorecard whether he stole the base during (Ray) Knight’s at bat or (Mookie) Wilson’s at bat.  It’s somewhat of a moot point, because Strawberry never came around to score, but knowing when the steal took place would provide better context for the reader/listener.

Take another look at the 2011 scorecard:

2011-scorecard

In the third inning, Ray Serrano singles with two outs and then steals second.  The circle around “ball two” to Brett Flowers indicates that Serrano’s steal took place on the 1-1 pitch during Flowers’ at bat.  Using this method, I can look back on any broadcast since 2005 and identify the exact pitch in which a stolen base took place.  This has provided valuable insight on the specific counts different players are likely to steal in, and I have been able to pass this information on to the listener.

Now look at the red circle around the bottom row beneath the fourth and fifth innings.  Pitch tracking also provides you with accurate pitch counts without having to rely on a third party.  In the Major Leagues, gametrackers are usually accurate, and a number of Major League ballparks even display the current pitch count on their auxiliary scoreboards.  Such resources aren’t always available at the minor league level, though, and they still don’t tell the whole story.  The red circle around Ryan Priddy’s at bat in the fifth inning shows a darkened, horizontal line.  This indicates a pitching change, so the “22/22” pitch count at the bottom of the inning represents the count of the reliever currently in the game.

I’ve also seen broadcasters utilize a hand counter to track pitches, but this method has its drawbacks.  Hand counters misfire very easily, and it’s something physical you have to hold in your hand at all times.  If you miss just one pitch, your count is now inaccurate.  And even if your clicks are accurate, a hand counter only provides the total number of pitches, not their sequencing.

Pitch tracking provides you with strike-to-ball ratios, first pitch strike percentages, pitches by individual inning, and general trends when a pitcher is ahead or behind in the count.  This is the type of specific and relevant information listeners appreciate.  Once again, I’ll ask you to evaluate which of the following statements is more powerful: “He’s at 95 pitches here in the sixth inning” or “He’s at 95 pitches here in the sixth inning, but hasn’t thrown more than 12 pitches in an inning since his 35-pitch first?”  95 pitches in the sixth generally means a manager is going to warm someone up in the bullpen, but the second statement shows that may not be the case in that particular game, because the starting pitcher has settled in.

Pitch tracking might seem complicated at first, but remember that I learned this from someone who is a self-described casual baseball fan.  It’s easy to learn with practice, so if you’d like to add pitch tracking to your tool box, start out by keeping score for some spring training games this March.  You’ll familiarize yourself with the process, and eventually reach a point where you’re conveying valuable information to the listener that only pitching tracking can provide.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Grow Your Tool Box: Invest in a Stopwatch | GROWCASTING
  2. Pingback: Keeping Score Part 2 – Ball Locations, Baserunners, and Pitches | GROWCASTING

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