Sports Nut

You Call That a Strike?!

Why does Major League Baseball use an outdated, misleading camera angle to show the batter and pitcher?

In the seventh inning of a recent game between the Red Sox and the Braves, Atlanta’s Peter Moylan fired a two-strike fastball to Kevin Youkilis. Although the home plate umpire called it a ball, Braves fans could’ve been forgiven for thinking the pitch nipped the outside corner. Viewers in Boston, however, knew the ump made the right call.

This difference of opinion wasn’t the result of home-team favoritism. Rather, it stemmed from differences in the local television broadcasts. The Red Sox telecast on NESN is one of only three in Major League Baseball that places its main camera directly behind the pitcher in straightaway center field. The other 27 clubs, including the Braves, put the camera off-center, about 10 to 15 degrees toward left field. That offset angle means the vast majority of baseball fans get a skewed sense of the pitcher-hitter confrontation, the matchup at the very heart of baseball. For fans of the Braves and most other teams, judging balls and strikes is a matter of guesswork.

To understand the problem with baseball’s canonical camera angle, consider the perspective of players sitting in the dugout. Aside from cues like the movement of the catcher’s glove, coaches and benchwarmers lack the proper angle to judge a pitch’s path. (Of course, that’s never stopped managers from expressing their opinions.) Fans at home get a better look than the guys in the dugout, but it’s a flawed one just the same. Since the offset angle positions our eyes 15 degrees off-center, you need to factor in that angle to figure out whether a pitch really crossed the plate. Unfortunately, most fans don’t watch baseball with a protractor next to the remote.

For a demonstration of the superiority of the dead-center camera, take a look at these side-by-side videos of Peter Moylan’s fastball. The Braves feed (offset camera) is on the left; the Red Sox feed (dead-center camera) is on the right. The offset angle gives a skewed sense of the pitch’s true path. With the straight-on view, the real location—just off the outside edge of the plate—is obvious.

Along with distorting location, the classic, off-center camera also fouls up baseball watchers’ sense of movement. Take a look at this slider thrown by New York Mets lefthander Pedro Feliciano. In the off-center Mets broadcast (seen on the left), Feliciano’s breaking ball looks like it starts behind the batter and sweeps across several feet to reach the outside corner. Cardinals fans, who watched the pitch from the dead-center angle, saw the pitch’s real arc—Feliciano has a good slider but not an otherworldly one.

Sports fans’ view of the national pastime has been distorted for more than half a century. Though accounts vary, many trace the advent of the offset center-field camera to the 1950s, when legendary producer Harry Coyle used it on NBC’s Game of the Week broadcasts. According to his New York Times obituary, Coyle got the idea for the center-field camera after seeing a game in which the umpire stood behind the pitcher’s mound rather than over the catcher’s shoulder.

Before Coyle’s innovation, most baseball telecasts were shot from high above home plate, looking down at the infield. Upon its introduction, the center-field cam became the status quo. With few exceptions, it has always been offset into left field and only slightly elevated—around 10 to 30 feet—above field level. At this height, it’s necessary to position the camera off-center to prevent the pitcher from blocking our view of the hitter and catcher. Fans at home see the pitcher on the left side of the screen and the batter on the right side.

Why wasn’t the camera placed higher back in TV’s early days so an offset angle wouldn’t be necessary? The contemporary TV producers I spoke with guessed that it probably came down to the expense of building a platform tall enough to make a dead-center camera feasible. To prevent the pitcher and catcher from occupying the same space on screen, the camera needs to be at least 45 feet above the field. Consider the added physical labor and potential complications that come with rigging cameras and wiring at that height, and it’s easy to see why baseball broadcasters of yore would prefer the low-rise setup.

In recent years, at least three broadcasters have decided that the dead-center camera is worth the trouble. Tom Mee, who directs Cardinals telecasts for Fox Sports Midwest, says he decided to ditch the offset view in 2006 when the team’s video coach showed him the difference between the two angles. The Red Sox went dead-center midway through last year at the behest of team owner John Henry. The Twins also switched last summer on an experimental basis and have since decided to keep the setup when they move into a new stadium next year. Minnesota color analyst Bert Blyleven is a fan of the new view, saying the camera makes it easier for him to convey the game’s subtleties, like the tail of a fastball or a pitcher’s positioning on the rubber. “As an analyst, you’re an educator,” he says. “Having the camera directly over the pitcher gives the fan at home a better perspective of what pitching is and the game within the game.”

If the dead-center view is so much better, why hasn’t it become the game’s new standard? For one, it isn’t infallible. Although it gives a much better sense of where a pitch lands horizontally, it makes it harder to judge height—a pitch that appears to be belt high might actually be above the letters.

According to baseball’s TV gurus, the bigger impediment is a lack of stadium infrastructure. In 2001, ESPN introduced the angle for its Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. The network had to take some extraordinary measures to install the needed equipment. At Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, producers had to bring in a temporary scissors lift to get the shot. At the old Yankee Stadium, they used the roof of a building across the street. The result: vastly different elevations in different stadiums, all at a considerable expense.

ESPN scrapped the dead-center cam after slightly more than a year. (Fox has used the dead-center shot on national broadcasts of Cardinals games this season, but its Red Sox broadcasts—and those for every other team—have used the offset angle. TBS, the sport’s other national broadcaster, has never used a dead-center camera.) Matt Sandulli, who produces baseball telecasts for ESPN, says that despite the extra cost and extra effort, the network probably would’ve kept the camera “if there was a way to get the angle uniform” in every major league ballpark. As of right now, that’s not possible. In Oakland, Calif., a wall of luxury boxes precludes placing a dead-center camera. The Crown Vision center field scoreboard provides a similar obstruction in Kansas City. In Denver, the “Rock Pile” bleacher seats make installing a dead-center camera a “seat-kill,” in producer parlance. Other stadiums have advertising signage where a camera would be placed.

There are also television folk who believe that the offset shot is simply better. Tom Adza, who directs Oakland A’s telecasts for Fox Sports Bay Area, says the old-fashioned viewpoint offers a more intimate view of the game. “When ESPN started doing [the dead-center shot], the distance from the top of the pitcher’s head to the plate was fairly great sometimes,” he says. “It was a really wide shot with a lot of dead space. As a viewer, you’re kind of looking at it going, I feel the need to be closer. The offset shot is more compact and fits the screen beautifully.”

Adza does concede that “for a fan who wants to see live whether it’s a ball or a strike, there’s no question the dead-center is better. It’s kind of a strange thing. In sports TV, we’ve spent so much money to get better looks at what’s happening in a game. But here we show thousands of baseball games on TV every year, and we’re not showing the angle that gives the most exact information.”

Some clubs’ telecasts, such as those for the New York Mets and Tampa Bay Rays, use the offset camera for live action and the dead-center look for close replays—a compromise that bows to baseball tradition yet acknowledges that the new-school angle offers the best view of balls and strikes. Other producers told me that the introduction of pitch-tracking technology, in which pitch location is charted using an on-screen strike zone, obviates the need for the dead-center angle.

That argument doesn’t really wash: Seeing a dot’s location within a rectangle isn’t the same as seeing the real thing. More than anything else, the continued prevalence of the offset angle reflects baseball’s reigning philosophy: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “People don’t like change, it’s as simple as that,” says Marc Garda, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ director of broadcasting. But contrary to Garda’s assertion, teams that have switched to the dead-center angle say reviews have been positive. Joel Feld, executive producer for Red Sox games at NESN, says the team has “had really great feedback.”

Since the 1950s, baseball fans have seen the sport change in countless ways. Even as artificial turf, the designated hitter, and interleague play arrived on the scene, the manner in which we see the game has remained pretty much the same. The omnipresent center-field camera lends baseball a comforting familiarity. It also gives viewers a false sense of how the game works. Red Sox, Cardinals, and Twins fans shouldn’t be the only ones who have the privilege of telling a strike from a ball. Come on, baseball pooh-bahs: Get rid of all those stadium obstructions and make the dead-center camera universal. After all, isn’t it time the sport embraced reality?