February 24, 2012

Fadde to present pitch recognition research at MIT

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Professional baseball coaches and executives are always searching for the next “five-tool” player -- the extraordinary talent who can hit for average, hit for power, run the basepaths with speed and skill, possess a strong throwing arm, and play solid defense.

In modern baseball, however, a batter’s “eye” and the ability to “control the strike zone” are also highly prized.  Pitch recognition has emerged as a sixth tool and a researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has developed a method to teach players to recognize pitches and probable hitting zone locations earlier, and also to help in projecting future talent of young minor league players and prospects.

Peter J. Fadde, an associate professor of learning systems and design technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will present his research next week to an audience including baseball front office personnel at the 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management Sports Analytics Conference.  The conference is March 2-3 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

Fadde will present, “The Sixth Tool: Training Baseball Pitch Recognition,” as part of the conference’s “Evolution of Sport” segment.  His presentation was one of 18 ideas chosen for the conference from among more than 80 submissions.

For the past decade Fadde has been conducting research and developing a training program on the baseball batting sub-skill of pitch recognition.  While many believe the ability to recognize a pitched ball in less than a quarter of a second is purely from talent, Fadde believes it is also a learned skill.

Fadde’s discussion will include a demonstration that allows video-occlusion pitch recognition tests to run on laptop computers.  That will allow teams to measure the pitch recognition ability of prospects, diagnose pitch recognition problems, and also develop greater pitch recognition skills in high-performance batters.

“We’ve got the tools.  It has proven science behind it,” he said.  “What this research does is it gives them a way to diagnose (pitch recognition) and ultimately improve it.”

Fadde’s designs are patent-pending through SIU Carbondale’s technology transfer program  and a company is currently developing the approach for a computer product to train pitch recognition in baseball and softball.

Fadde, who began his pitch recognition research program as a doctoral dissertation project with the Purdue University baseball team in 2003, is excited about the MIT/Sloan conference presentation. One hope is to use the interactive pitch recognition program with an entire major league organization’s system for large-scale research, he said.  Fadde believes the most interest is in using pitch recognition for identifying young talent -- measuring their pitch recognition profiles in comparison with established players.

“This is where the research can take a really big step and we have an opportunity for access to a whole major league organization,” he said.  “It’s an opportunity for us to really work with some of these high-performance athletes.”

Pitch recognition has become a highly prized and measurable skill with the emergence of analytics and sabermetrics, which uses statistics to measure a player’s performance. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and “Moneyball” fame, was among the first to heavily rely on statistical analysis of player performances, along with Theo Epstein, former general manager of the Boston Red Sox now with the Chicago Cubs.

The statistical analysis approach is now an accepted part of personnel decision-making and a major commitment for many major league baseball teams, he said. 

At the conference, one of the baseball panel’s major themes is the future of analysis, and what is missing in data analysis that will allow baseball executives to make better personnel decisions.  The panel includes Jeff Luhnow, general manager of the Houston Astros; baseball historian, statistician, and sabermetrics guru Bill James, who is a senior baseball operations adviser to the Boston Red Sox; Mark Shapiro, president of the Cleveland Indians; and attorney and agent Scott Boras.

“If you don’t have one of these stats guys on your staff you are losing ground now,” Fadde said.  “That’s a remarkable change in baseball culture. That’s what this conference is really coming from.  To me it’s neat that they want to see this research.”