The Rays' Carl Crawford is batting when Boston's Jon Lester throws a fastball that appears to be outside. Umpire Bob Davidson calls it a strike, and Crawford, obviously upset with the call, says something to Davidson. Noticing the exchange, Rays television announcer Dewayne Staats says, "Let's see what FoxTrax says." Instantly, a replay from a centerfield camera appears on television with a graphic box in the bottom right-hand corner. A white light in the shape of a baseball glows on the graphic, showing the pitch was well outside the strike zone. FoxTrax has confirmed that Crawford was right to complain.
Welcome to baseball on television in the 21st century. And welcome to Rays baseball on television.
Regular viewers of Rays games on TV are accustomed to seeing FoxTrax, a state-of-the-art system that shows practically everything about a pitch — how fast it moves, how much it breaks, how many times it rotates and, especially, where it crosses the plate. On a typical Rays broadcast, FoxTrax is dialed up at least a dozen times for a variety of reasons, usually to answer the question: Was that pitch a strike?
"Fans love the bells and whistles you can put on a broadcast," said Ned Tate, executive producer for Sun Sports. "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."
Here's how it works: three cameras have been set up in every ballpark — in centerfield, and above first and third base. The cameras track the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand, and the information picked up is sent to a computer processor, which instantly spits back the results, including speed, trajectory and location when it crosses the front of home plate. The system adjusts the strike zone for each batter based on Major League Baseball strike zone guidelines. Fox claims the location is accurate to within 1 inch, although there is no way to confirm if Fox's claims are true.
FoxTrax is similar to, although not exactly the same as, ESPN's K-Zone and Zone Evaluation, the system used by Major League Baseball to grade umpires. How the information of FoxTrax is used is left to the onsite broadcast producer, and different producers have different theories.
Rays telecasts on Sun Sports are usually produced by either Kevin Patterson or Mike Griffin. Both like all the functions of FoxTrax, but each has his preference. Patterson likes how FoxTrax can show a sequence of pitches. For example, he likes to whip out FoxTrax to show how, say, Rays pitcher James Shields attacked Boston's David Ortiz low and away during a six-pitch at-bat.
Meantime, Griffin said: "I like to use it most on pitches that just miss or just catch the edge of the strike zone. Or, I like how it shows how badly a pitcher is missing the zone or maybe how fat a pitch is. A guy hits a ball hard, and we can go back and show on FoxTrax that the pitch was right in the middle of the zone, and that's why it got hit.''
But the most common use, it seems, is to show if a pitch was a ball or a strike. Everyone with Sun Sports, however, insists the technology is not used to attack umpires. In fact, Tate says FoxTrax more often than not shows the umpire was right.
"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. "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."
FoxTrax is a fun toy for producers, but it's a fine line between enhancing the broadcast and ruining it by using FoxTrax too much. Tate said there is no mandate on how to use FoxTrax. Patterson guesses he calls it up 15 to 20 times a game.
"You're not going to call it up on a 2-0 pitch of a scoreless game in the second inning," Griffin said. "But if it's the seventh inning of a tied game and it's a close 3-2 pitch, that's when fans want to see it."
Kennedy recently called a Fox national game when FoxTrax was used only a handful of times.
"I think there is a danger in using it too much, and I think we're always reminding ourselves to not use it just because it's there,'' Kennedy said. "Let's save it for when we have something to really say."
Starting Friday, Fox will unveil what Tate calls a "snappier'' look to the graphics on FoxTrax. In addition, expect to see more alternate uses, especially the technology that shows exactly how many inches, for example, Jeff Niemann's slow curve or David Price's hard slider moves vertically or horizontally.
"We don't want to exploit the technology, but we will step it up in the second half," Tate said. "The feedback from fans has been positive. We don't want to overhype it. We don't want to overuse it. When used correctly, it's a great tool to enhance the broadcast, and that's our goal every game."