- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Greg Rybarczyk has watched every home run hit by a major league player this season. He will tell you how far each one traveled and how fast each hitter swung the bat.

And most of the time, he never has to leave his house.

Rybarczyk, who posts his long ball findings at the Web site Hittrackeronline.com, is part of a new array of baseball fans who are exploiting new technologies to analyze the game in ways that once were impossible or hugely time-consuming.

With more statistics quickly available online and databases that can dissect box scores and play-by-play data in seconds, finding obscure baseball data — like the distance of Jose Guillen’s home runs, for instance — is easier than ever. And perhaps most importantly, fans have video access to virtually every play, thanks to television packages and the Internet.

Rybarczyk started his home run research this year after realizing the league and teams had stopped publishing the official distance of balls hit out of the park. Using a high-definition television, he learned to pinpoint where in the stands a long ball lands, then created a special equation to calculate the distance based on the flight angle of the ball and data on the parks and weather. His research seeks to determine how the ball would have traveled if it landed unobstructed. (The longest home run this season was 491 feet, hit by the Phillies’ Ryan Howard on April 23.)

“The fact that people don’t know how far these home runs are traveling maybe offends me as someone who would like to see the truth out there,” said Rybarczyk, who makes a living as a chief product tester for a major corporation. “Fans want to know how far home runs go. They really, really want to know if that information is accurate.”

For Rybarczyk and others like him, the use of video has been crucial. When they can’t catch games on television, they use Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV service, which allows fans to see almost every game streamed live online (some “local” games are blacked out). The service offers a complete archive of every game, and videos can be paused, fast forwarded or rewound.

“MLB.TV has been the big thing for me,” said David Cameron, who publishes his own baseball analysis at USSMariner.com, a fan site devoted to the Seattle Mariners. “To be able to watch the games at your own pace and do analysis has been huge. I can watch a game at 3 in the morning if I want to. It’s a huge advancement.”

Last month, Cameron, who lives in North Carolina, wanted to find out why highly touted Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez was off to a poor start this season. Using the MLB.TV service, he charted every one of Hernandez’s pitches during a start against the Oakland A’s. Cameron determined that opponents were teeing off on Hernandez’s fastball because he threw too few breaking balls to keep batters off balance.

More statistics-focused researchers are taking advantage of new technologies, too. Organizations like Baseball Prospectus that seek to advance the field of baseball research known as “sabermetrics” have coupled new databases of play-by-play logs online with game video to get a fuller picture of what happened during a game.

“It kind of blurs the line in between scouts and what we do,” said Nate Silver, an editor with Baseball Prospectus. “It closes the gap a lot.”

Silver, for instance, recently used game video and play-by-play logs to analyze why Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has had an unusually high rate of success in throwing runners out. Silver determined that in nearly half of the instances in which a runner was caught stealing, it was the result of a botched hit and run or sacrifice attempt. It’s that kind of information that allows Baseball Prospectus writers to fine-tune the ever-growing list of statistical formulas they use to rate players.

The practice of individual fans examining baseball games and statistics and publishing their own analyses is not new. Kansas-based writer Bill James began publishing columns by extracting unique information out of box scores as early as the 1970s and is now known for inventing several new statistics used to evaluate players, including Runs Created and Win Shares. Others like Pete Palmer, John Thorn and former James assistant Rob Neyer have advanced the field.

Now, however, analysis once performed by James over the course of an entire offseason can be done almost instantly thanks to the quick availability of raw data and the use of spreadsheet and database programs like Microsoft Excel. It’s become so easy that some teams, including the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox, use the research in their day-to-day operations.

“Back then, it was a ton of work,” Silver said. “Stuff that might have taken [James] a week to do, we can do in just a minute by running a data query.”

The most recent advancement in baseball research has come in the field of defense. Baseball Info Solutions, a company based out of Bethlehem, Pa., that lists James as an advisor, recently evaluated every current player’s defense by charting where balls were hit on the field. By doing this, researchers can collect more information about a player’s fielding ability than from traditional numbers like errors and putouts.

Company president Steve Moyer said the collection and analysis of the data is decidedly low-tech but admits that easy access to game video has made their work easier.

“That’s huge,” Moyer said. “Years ago when I did this kind of work, we’d just have a network of people taping games and sending them in.”

As the field of baseball research becomes easier, it is also becoming more accepted by team scouts, who have relied more on observation and instinct than numbers. And researchers said their work allows them to understand the game and enhances their enjoyment. But some admit that there are times when a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark will suffice.

“I think there is a line,” Cameron admitted. “There are times when I just want to sit there and watch the game.”

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