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Baseball (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

This week the All Star game marks mid-season for baseball. So, today I look at "America's Pastime" with my enigneer's eye.

With the touch of a button they track an entire game in real time. These computers compile statistics too. Not the simple ones of years ago, but more arcane measures like "scorability", which measures a team's efficiency at scoring runs; or a player's "seasonal notation," a measure that takes all of a player's stats, and creates a virtual season that represents a year's worth of their "average" stats over a career.

And for these new players being in the big leagues isn't as simple as just swinging a bat. The San Francisco Giants have a "video coaching system" to help players hit the ball. It features six DVD drives to archive over 4,000 hours, that is, an entire season's worth of pitcher-batter match-ups. Coaches search the database on any computer in the Giant's internal web and view an at-bat from four camera angles.

Of course, even that bat isn't a low tech thing nowadays. Engineers study the collusion between a pitch and the aluminum bats used by college teams. They've isolated a "trampoline effect." That is, the thin wall compresses during the collusion with the ball and springs back. So, manufacturers now make aluminum bats with walls of just the right thickness to give that extra oomph. The Major Leagues don't allow aluminum bats, but their wooden bats are also heavily researched. And once the player's swing the technology isn't over. Boston's Fenway Park has an Umpire Information System. It uses pairs of cameras to track pitches. One set in the rafters above the first base line, and one above the third base line. Two addtional cameras in the dugouts take a snapshot of the batter just after the pitch. A computer uses these images to determine, within half an inch, the path of the ball.

The system doesn't replace umpires or even second-guess them, it's used to help them refine their calls. After the game, it even generates a CD, which a ref can study in private. If you're a baseball purists I'm sure all this sounds like too much. Take heart, though, Major League Baseball still prohibits computers in the dugouts. Manager's instincts and hunches still control the game, although they do allow managers to consult pages of statics generated by computers.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises