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Can sabermetrics thrive on television broadcasts?

On Saturday night, Just A Bit Outside and Fox Sports 1 tried a different kind of broadcast. How did they do and will it catch on?

Jamie Squire

Those who watched the advanced metrics themed broadcast on Fox Sports 1 during Game One of the NLCS universally agreed that they would have preferred less of the split screen, but otherwise the reviews of the material they covered and how they did it were pretty positive. There were obviously some growing pains and kinks to work out, but it was a different kind of broadcast that seemed to get everything mostly right except for the size of the picture.

Before considering the broader implications, let's get you caught up on exactly how it happened. Fox carried the game normally on their standard broadcast channel with a simulcast on Fox Sports 1 featuring a studio of Kevin Burkhardt, Gabe Kapler, C.J. Nitkowski, Rob Neyer, and Bud Black. The hosts did demos, talked about advanced stats, and basically toyed around with conversations you couldn't normally have if you were trying to do standard play by play.

The screen was busy. On the left side you had a shot of the studio, on the right you had the game. At the bottom they had a bank of stats or explanations of stats that went far beyond what you would see on a normal broadcast, and they had handy graphics to show you how to interpret each stat. People complained that the game was too small relative to the other information.

The stats they used were excellent because they were informative and relevant, and they made it easy to understand the information without talking down to anyone. As far as stat integration, it was a smashing success.

So while the on screen direction upset most and the stat usage was a big winner, a good number of people debated the degree to which the panelists should have talked about each moment of the game rather than simply discussing somewhat relevant information. As the game went on, they locked into each pitch more and focused the conversations more on the specific at bat rather than more global issues.

Additionally, there were some simple mistakes and awkwardness that you would expect on day one of any broadcast arrangement. Rob Neyer's obviously never called a baseball game and Bud Black doesn't have TV experience, but those are basic growing pains.

Two things jumped out at me about the broadcast. The first was how easy it was for them to bring advanced metrics into the conversation. Gabe Kapler is especially gifted at quick explanations at proper moments, and took about 20 seconds to explain FIP immediately after a defensive miscue. They talked wOBA, wRC+, and WAR without any trouble, and it was exactly the kind of stat integration that should happen on every broadcast.

But it was more than drawing on advanced stats; it was how they showed relevant data on the screen rather than the mostly useless AVG/HR/RBI line you see on most broadcasts. They showed splits, they showed BB% and K%, and they showed batted ball velocity. Perhaps most importantly, they didn't use cliches and stats that meant nothing. It was a no-narrative broadcast.

The other thing that stood out was the lack of play-by-play. In talking with many viewers on Twitter, this was a point of contention. They believed it made it difficult to stayed cued into the game and missed the rise and fall of the announcers voice during big moments.

Alternatively, I really like the no play-by-play format. It makes it feel like you're watching a game with some very informed fans. I don't need someone explaining each pitch, I want someone making a keen observation, but that's a matter of taste.

If their goal was to show how easy it would be to improve the quality of the statistical discussion during a game, it was a perfect success. Obviously, there were some issues with the team being in a studio rather than a booth, and five voices was probably a few too many. This particular broadcast, for my money, was an excellent trial balloon that could open the door for higher quality discussion during games.

On the other hand, a lot of people took off on the concern that this would further separate stat-guys from traditional fans and that the future isn't JABO versus Harold Reynolds, but simply more advanced metrics on regular broadcasts. I'm not sure I agree, but that's for you to decide.

I would love to see JABO do this more often next season with an eye on using it as a model to reform the way we broadcast baseball more generally. We saw what worked and didn't on Saturday and more tinkering should set them up to have a really good model for 2016, if they want it.

They need to go full screen more often, they probably need three people instead of five, and there should be a little more connection to the on field action to keep you from losing focus at times. But I would also push back against the critics. We've been using the exact same broadcast model for decades, and personally I think it's time for a change.

When did we decide that someone with broadcasting chops should sit next to an ex-player and do the same thing every day? Why haven't we seen more broadcast innovation?

There are some great broadcast teams who know how to blend in very useful information and play on the emotion of the moment, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try new things. I love the idea of a broadcast that works differently and more networks should try it.

I would like to see more JABO-style telecasts, but if nothing else, they showed how easy it is for quality baseball minds to blend in advanced stats. We probably won't wind up losing play-by-play or including mid-game demonstrations, but any broadcast that isn't teaching their viewers a little bit about sabermetrics throughout the season is simply failing to do its job. It's easy to do and provides a much better experience.

You don't need to explain how we calculate linear weights to drop wOBA into the conversation and it's about time someone showed how easy it is on a national stage.


Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, the Site Educator at FanGraphs, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D