As I sit here writing this, I currently have NFL RedZone on the tv. Besides that I find the product very entertaining, I also think that Scott Hanson does an excellent job as the host. He is articulate, smart, and does a great job of keeping up his enthusiasm for seven straight hours. It got me thinking about the state of baseball broadcasts in general, especially in light of the recent Statcast broadcast during the NL Wild Card game.
Last week, ESPN offered two options for its airing of the NL Wild Card game. They had the “normal” option on its main channel featuring the Sunday night crew of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodríguez, and Jessica Mendoza. On ESPN2, they had a special Statcast broadcast called by Jason Benetti, who usually calls White Sox games and is a big fan of analytics. He was joined by Statcast guru and baseball writer, Mike Petriello, and to offer some balance to the booth, Eduardo Pérez was there to offer the perspective of a former player.
I am sure that I am stating the obvious when I say that choosing the Statcast broadcast was an easy choice. It was not just because I like advanced stats. I am genuinely a fan of the three guys in the booth.
I found the broadcast to be a big success, and I say that as objectively as possible. They did a nice job of using advanced stats without shoving them down the viewers’ throats, using them only when necessary to provide real time analysis. I was afraid that since it was a Statcast broadcast, they would over emphasize the stats that have come from Statcast such as barrels, catch probability, and outs above average. There are fair critiques out there for some of those stats, but I do not believe the stats were used excessively.
My main critiques are really just nitpicking. I thought it was odd to show OPS instead of wOBA for each batter. Also, WAR can be misleading when displayed for the current hitter because it is not a purely offensive stat, and Petriello had to comment whenever a player’s poor defense was weighing down his WAR. Finally, this broadcast would have been a good opportunity to emphasize RA9 over ERA, or its park-adjusted equivalent. For a broadcast that even omitted batting average, it was strange to see a stat that is dependent on the Error.
Pérez might not be able to tell you much about the advanced stats that were shown throughout the broadcasts, but he did a great job of balancing out the stats with his perspective as a former player. To be blunt, usually that is done poorly by other former players in the booth. Pérez is adept at filling in the gaps that stats can’t fill without relying on pushing false narratives or easily disprovable commentary. Say what you will about three-person booths, but I thought it worked about as well as it ever had with this special broadcast.
Personally, I loved seeing the advanced stats on the screen, but that does not mean that all broadcasts should regularly be displaying a players’s wRC+. Sure, that would make me happy, and it would make many other fans happy, but broadcasts need to be designed to cater to the masses. The Statcast broadcast was not intended for the masses. It was intended for a specific audience, and it did a great job of meeting the expectations of that audience. That does not mean that standard broadcasts cannot improve by learning some lessons from the Statcast broadcast.
When hitters step up to the plate, it is fine to display RBI, but also show the triple slash line. That would do a lot to make everyone happy. Some playoff broadcasts have been doing that, and I think it is ideal. Showing AVG/OBP/SLG tells you plenty about a hitter, and the RBI are still there for those who still care about that sort of thing. You can show the occasional advanced stat to add something extra and educate viewers.
I don’t think there is really much to change with displaying pitcher stats. It is fine to show pitcher record or saves, though I would avoid showing pitcher record for relievers because it seems that literally nobody cares about that. Just be sure to show ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate. K% and BB% work best for that, but fans seem to be most familiar with K/9 and BB/9, and those stats are good enough. Again, the occasional advanced stat is fine.
I believe that the most important lesson that other broadcasts can learn from the Statcast broadcast has nothing to do with advanced stats. Others have mentioned this, and I will echo it here: where the Statcast broadcast succeeded most is by what it did not have.
The Statcast broadcast did not have clichés, anyone pushing false narratives, or being overly dramatic. Fans are getting smarter, even if they are not fans of sabermetrics. They are becoming more and more able to see through that campy narratives.
There were no anti-saber rants. I am sure there are a fair number of fans that appreciate them, but their numbers are dwindling, and they tend to be older. In other words, those rants probably do more to alienate younger fans, who are the kind of fans that MLB is afraid of losing. Those rants also do a disservice to the current state of the game. All front offices use analytics in their team building to some degree — the last two World Series winners use them a lot — and analytics are becoming more and more common in mainstream writing.
There were no complaints about how baseball is being played today. While the anti-saber rants are becoming less and less common, it seems that they are being replaced by former players complaining about how baseball used to be so much better. Earlier this season, social media was ablaze with people criticizing John Smoltz for seemingly spending an entire broadcast bashing the sport he is paid a lot of money to cover. It is clear that producers do not care about the quality of color commentary, and maybe prefer the flashy known name, but I am really surprised that they have not cracked down on this kind of behavior. For all the money being spent on broadcasting rights, you would think that the last thing a network wants is for their broadcasters to encourage viewers not to watch.
The last couple of paragraphs can be summed up simply: broadcast booths need more people who are excited about modern baseball and modern analysis, and fewer old men yelling at clouds.
It is fine to show RBI, pitcher record, and similar classic stats to appeal to a broader audience. I do not believe that doing that is worthy of criticism. What is worthy of criticism, however, is when broadcasters use those stats for analysis, or when conclusions are drawn from small sample sizes without a disclaimer. Broadcasts love to show stats from specific pitcher/hitter match-ups, or how a player does against specific teams, or how a player performs with RISP, even though those numbers have zero predictive value. When such facts are cited, broadcasters are misleading the viewers. My biggest concern with broadcasters today is not that they do not discuss analytics enough; it is the propagation of “analysis” that lessens the intelligence of baseball fans everywhere. One of the biggest successes of the Statcast broadcast is that they did not include any of that type of “analysis.”
As much as I enjoy advanced stats, I would have seen the Statcast broadcast as a success even if it did not include any of them, simply because of what the broadcast chose not to do. It did not succeed just because it was smart and the broadcasters were clearly having fun, but because it chose not to be dumb and cranky.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.