FoxTrax vs. TBS’ PitchTrax vs. ESPN’s K-zone, and why the network covering the World Series won’t be confusing viewers with a live fake strike zone graphic

REVISED:

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Enough of those triangular graphic boxes plotting white dots off to the right of the screen during live baseball games.

Fox won’t do it during the World Series when it begins its coverage tonight between the Rangers and Cardinals in St. Louis. And for a good reason.

They don’t think it’s accurate.

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TBS might have had its PitchTrax monitor every pitch as it was delivered during its ALDS, NLDS and NLCS coverage the last few weeks.

ESPN might have had its yellow K-Zone box right next to the batters during the regular-season game coverage.

Heck, even a handful of Fox’s regional networks — including Fox Sports Midwest, covering the Cardinals, and Fox Sports Southwest, covering the Rangers — did the live graphic off to the right side of the action during the season.

But Fox’s network coverage will stick to its FoxTrax graphic only during pitch sequence replays, to illustrate to the best of its ability where balls landed in the somewhat nebulous strike zone. Knowing that nothing’s perfect, and it’s not about to ignite a controversy.

“The question is: What serves the viewer best?” asked Joe Buck, the network’s lead play-by-play man. “That’s the task. I’ve told our people during seminars that it drags us into an area where now all we’re doing is basically grading the umpire. I think the game is really between a pitcher and a batter, and now we’re taking viewers’ eyes away from that matchup and looking to the bottom right after every pitch. It’s just kind of superfluous in a way.”

Ed Goren, Fox Sports’ vice chairman and an executive producer on the network’s World Series, made note that when Buck is calling an NFL game, he’ll always remark that the “1st-And-Ten” yellow graphic is never 100 percent accurate either.

“It could be an inch or two off. Same thing with FoxTrax. Some may want to see it as a constant (on-air graphic). But my concern has always been: If the box shows the count of 3-and-1, and it’s actually 2-and-2, it puts us in a position to constantly explain that it’s just a guide. I don’t think it helps to have it up there constantly. It creates more questions than benefits.”

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As a viewer, all you want is something that’s not distracting, and is accurate.

TBS and ESPN don’t satisfy either requirement. Fox, at least nationally, won’t go there when going there only causes unnecessary controversy.

TBS may, in fact, have fueled a side story during its coverage of the ALDS Game 3 earlier this month when its on-air graphic seemed to show many of the pitches delivered by the Yankees’ CC Sabathia hitting the strike zone despite the opinion of home plate umpire Gerry Davis.

“I actually thought he made a lot of good pitches tonight,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said at his post-game press conference after Sabathia lasted just six innings after 106 pitches in the Yankees’ loss to the Tigers, “and I thought the zone was a small zone tonight. … You throw some borderline pitches and you don’t get them, it makes the innings tougher.”

Buck said he had people calling him during that particular game “saying, ‘that looked like a strike.’ … I don’t know if it’s right. The camera isn’t dead-on. I don’t know about you, or if I’m nuts, but there are times when I’m watching it, and the pitch looks inside, but the box shows that it’s in the middle. It’s just skewed in the way it’s set. I think it’s too confusing.

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“It forces the broadcaster almost to comment on every pitch. It almost begs more time than not for a comment, when there are so many other things to talk about than whether a pitch was a ball or a strike. I don’t understand the point of it. It’s only to grade the umpires’ consistency, but no one knows if it’s Tom Hallion or Jeff Nelson behind the plate. You’re tuning into listen to Tim and me, or to see who the home plate umpire is.

“There are inexact things in this game. There should be replay to determine if a guy is out or safe, if a ball is fair or foul. Those are concrete things. This, I’m not so sure. It’s not exact. It’s a guide. The more you treat is as if it’s totally dead-on perfect and therefore mistakes are being made, then you’re going down the wrong path.”

Added Eric Karros, Fox’s studio analyst: “Maybe it would be valuable if it could measure a home plate umpire’s consistency. That gets to be a cliche, but all the batter really wants is someone who’s consistent, even if it’s a few inches off the plate. Can you measure consistency with technology? Can you map it out and show that, or would that take away from the telecast?”

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When Fox regional network Sun Sports added the constant FoxTrax graphic to its Tampa Bay Rays games, Ned Tate, the game’s executive producer, defended the move to the St. Petersburg Times in 2010.

“Fans love the bells and whistles you can put on a broadcast,” said Tate. “That’s how we see FoxTrax – it’s a tool to add to the broadcast. It’s not meant to be a measuring device on the umpire’s ability to call balls and strikes. It actually has many applications that we can use to give the viewer more information.”

Fox claims the location of its live strike zone graphic is accurate to within one inch, but there’s no real way to confirm that.

“Even if FoxTrax says the pitch is outside the strike zone, it usually shows that it was close enough to swing at,” Rays television analyst Kevin Kennedy said at the time to the newspaper. “My theory is don’t leave it up to the umpire. If it’s close, you need to swing at it, and FoxTrax usually shows that it’s too close to take. But, sure, there are times when a batter is rung up on a pitch that should have been called a ball, and I think it’s important to let the viewers know that. It’s not meant to attack the ump, but to defend the player a bit.”

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ESPN officially debuted its K Zone on Sunday Night Baseball back in 2001, but only recently was showing the standing yellow box over the plate during games this past season.

For that matter, ESPN’s toy department has been peddling a “K Zone” gadget that kids can use to play catch with on their front lawn. It sells for $59.99 on Amazon.com (linked here). But it only has one and a half stars out of five in the customer reviews.

Said one buyer: “This might be good for a younger ball player, say 4 or 5, but the calls are not accurate, says strike most of the time, even when hitting the other zones. Sometimes says strike even when you haven’t done anything. Very poor product, espn should be ashamed.”

ESPN, after all, started this whole fake strike zone graphic on TV in the first place. Maybe it really should be ashamed for starting all this.

And by the way, what was so wrong about the old “Pitch Back” nets with the metal pipes back in the day? The ones where you thread the ribbon through the netting to create your own strike zone to aim for?

== For a more anal analytical discussion, go to this link to see Colin Wyers’ piece from 2010 in the Baseball Prospectus about why off-calibrated graphics don’t mean a heck of a lot. Another BP story by Mike Fast, written earlier this year and linked here, revisits the idea that the PitchTrax isn’t all that accurate.

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  • frank

    Hate kzone pitchtrax or whatever you want to call it.

  • jsd

    The explanations given for not showing the strike zone graphic is hogwash. Many of the umps’ strikezones are terribly inconsistent or just terrible in general and MLB doesn’t want to admit that.