@melbourneaces #marketing #viralvideo #awesome #mathsnotsogood

[Update: the 2014-15 Melbourne Aces blog is here]

After a century of competitive leagues and a national title that dates back to 1934, why is baseball still not popular in Aust? Advertising spruikers Little Black Book (LLB) think it’s due to the lack of videos like this, developed by ad agency Ogilvy Melbourne, showing Melbourne Aces players performing seemingly impossible feats of skill with baseballs (making a 7-10 at a bowling alley), bat (hitting a hole in one on a golf course) and glove (blindfold catches of speeding hockey balls). And lots of people are lapping it up.

As an LLB spokes-BS-er said, or was quoted as saying, or probably never said but someone just wrote it down and he approved it as sounding like something he’d say (and I’m paraphrasing here, even though it’s a shame to lose a single word):

“…  it was important to create a campaign that showed how strong, skilled and amazing this sport really is, and how entertaining the Melbourne Aces really are… [as this is] also suitable for social media, we’ve captured the attention of sporting fans and generated plenty of discussion around whether these feats are even possible – we’d say come along to an Aces game to find out!”

(Small aside, re “how entertaining the Melbourne Aces reeally are”: would a tiny smidge of honesty hurt so much? Baseball is a slow, and at times dull game. Even Americans think so. But cricket is also a slow and at times dull game.  Even Australians think so. They are summer sports, made for lazing in the sun, sometimes clapping and occasionally calling out things at the players on the field, which is amusing because they can’t answer* and they have to work while you don’t. A close game can be very exciting. Watching someone hit a ball a long way is fun – as is a great fielding stop or catch. Each sport has its appeal and its drawbacks, and our decision to follow one or the other is most likely cultural, rather than based on its inherent, objective superiority.

*A Brisbane Bandits player once “answered” my brother and got thrown out of the game. Somehow he wasn’t even mentioned in the box score.)

The New Statsman is a long-time baseball follower and Melbourne Aces fan. If anyone attends an Aces game because of the ad campaign, I’d be interested to hear if, leaving aside the absence of bowling pins and golf greens, they think a universe exists in which the gameday experience in any way reflects the ads.

Are these feats possible? One game of baseball should be enough to tell you that a hundred games of baseball won’t answer that question. But, if you see a hitter smack a line-drive down the right field line for a triple, you might well think they’ve placed it perfectly enough to hit a golf green. If you see a pitcher strike out a batter with a curve ball over the outside corner of the plate, bowling pins may come to mind.

In both cases, you’d be subtly wrong – and in a way that maths can help prove.

LLB Hypothesis: baseball batters can place their hits with incredible accuracy

Baseball reality: baseball hitters have limited control of where on the field their batted balls land

Firstly, it might be pertinent to point out that batters have some trouble hitting the ball at all. The Australian Baseball League’s 2012 batting champion (player with the highest average), Adam Buschini, struck out over 14% of the time; league-wide it was over 19%. But that only tells part of the story.

In recent years, baseball maths nerds have invented a new metric: BABIP (batting average on balls in play). It’s calculated by dividing a player’s safe hits by the number of times at bat, ignoring their home runs, strikeouts and sacrifice outs. Basically, it’s about how often a player gets to first base when they hit a ball into the field of play. No active player in MLB has a BABIP higher than .368 (36.8% success) or lower than .244 – the league is clustered around an average somewhere between .290 and .310. But the critical observation is that there is little consistency in the BABIP of individual players from season to season. If baseballers can place a hit with golfer-like precision, it does seem to be a skill that comes and goes mysteriously.

This is not at all to say that hitting itself is random. An analysis of over 80,000 at-bats reveals evidence that players can hit to one side of the field when it there’s an incentive to – they hit to the right side 14% more often when there are no outs and team-mates on second or third base. And the best hitters maximise their batting average by hitting home runs, putting more balls into play and maximising line drives and ground balls over fly balls. But, like a soccer striker, the best you can do is make opportunities – good hitters will have hitless games and good strikers goalless games.

So, to conclude – neither baseball hitters nor soccer strikers can be relied up to make holes in one (unless they’re also very good golfers).

LLB Hypothesis: baseball pitchers can make throws with incredible accuracy

Baseball reality: accuracy of baseball pitchers is only partially rewarded

Pitchers can, I’m sure, throw very accurately. Sadly, unlike a bowling pin (or a set of cricket stumps), a baseball umpire behind home plate just doesn’t have the acuity to reward them for their accuracy.

Brooksbaseball.net is dedicated to nothing else but showing a pitch-by-pitch analysis of whether or not an umpire calls strikes correctly, comparing it to computer-generated calls (see images below – correctly called, the strikes, marked in red should be inside the black square and the balls, in green, outside). Mostly, the umpires get it right. But a growing body of research shows that umpires show bias towards home teams (a subtle effect that grows late in close games) and towards not calling a third strike or a fourth ball (ie – avoiding making a decision).

lhh rhh

The “Pitch f/x” technology for making ball / strike calls is now so fast that there are even advocates for the replacement of behind the plate umpires (calling the post “kill the umpires” seems excessive; simply replacing them is surely enough?). Predictable responses to this include the one at bottom of the referenced post: “… but good pitchers factor the ump into location choices and good hitters instantly figure the umpire’s tendencies to calculate whether a 0-0 outside curve ball will or won’t get called a first-pitch strike”. So, it’s up to the pitcher to self-correct for umpire error (if he misses, did he miss the real strike zone, or the implied strike zone?), not the league to correct the umpiring error? I wonder how the commenter would describe the advantages of retaining the human error element in other areas – like, say, brain surgery, or aircraft control? But I digress.

Are baseball pitchers so skilful with the ball that they can make 7-10 splits at a bowling alley? I have no reason to doubt it. But faced with the pins skittling away in either direction, at least some of the time the ump will look away and mutter “Ball one, outside.”

LLB Hypothesis: baseball catchers wield the Force like Yoda

Baseball reality: if they could, they’d probably be playing (ice) hockey

No further discussion required.

Now, I doubt that any of this will do much more than send a few additional clicks to LLB and their entertaining clips. But you’ll all have the smug knowledge that you’re experiencing a much more nuanced, informed sort of enjoyment than the average internet junkie caught in a youtube loop.

Meanwhile, it’s only forty-seven more sleeps until opening night at Melbourne Ballpark, Altona. They’ll be mowing the golf green into centre field and putting the parquetry floor into the bullpen as I type. Go Aces!

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