Strasburg’s Curveball, Fenway’s Camera Angle, and Reality Distortion
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg struggled during his first two starts of 2015, giving up 19 hits in 10 2/3 innings, including 4 hits on curveballs. Lots of folks noticed that Strasburg’s curveball appeared lifeless. The Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg wrote a Fancy Stats column on it on April 16, complete with a chart showing that Strasburg’s curveballs haven’t been close to the knee-bucklers we’ve seen in the past.
MASN color guy F.P. Santangelo apparently doesn’t read Fancy Stats. He does, however, talk to Strasburg.
“I asked Stephen about his curveball in Boston and how we were talking about it on the air and it had not a lot of break to it? He was telling me that the cameras are in a different place in Boston and the crew was telling me as well that the cameras are more right behind home plate and higher so we really couldn’t see the depth of the curveball on TV. But he said he felt it was great in Boston. It just looked funny to us because it didn’t have a whole lot of break to it, and that was based on where the cameras are placed in center field in Boston. Who knew?
“We’re gonna show you where the camera was in Boston his last start… [Video from Boston game starts.] Look at where the camera is: right behind him. So you’re not really seeing a whole lot of break on that curveball. [Video switches to a curveball during Strasburg’s third start against Philadelphia at home.] This one a little off-center, look at the difference. You can see ALL the break on that curveball. So you just get off to the side a little bit, and I think it gives you a better perspective of what the pitch is really doing.”
Certainly sounds like F.P. accepted what Strasburg told him, that the curveball wasn’t much different between his 2nd start in Boston and his 3rd in Washington. But here’s the reality of the two pitches shown:
There’s no optical illusion at work here. Those are not equivalent pitches.
The pitch MASN showed from the Red Sox game was Strasburg’s worst curveball of the year to date. It had the least spin, the least break, and was thrown harder than every other curveball in his first two games. The second, by contrast, had much more spin and break. MASN showed that Strasburg’s curveball was flat in Boston, but its commentator tried to explain it with hand-waving instead of data.
In the first two games, batters swung at Strasburg curves nine times, only missed once (11%), and had four hits of six balls in play. This is compared to a 38% swing-and-miss rate and a BABIP of .333 against Strasburg curves historically. In his third start, Phillies batters swung at four Strasburg curves, missing two and grounding out on the other two.
Both the statistical and video evidence show Strasburg’s curveballs during the first two games were un-Strasburg-like; only the announcer was distorting reality.