What do you want out of a baseball broadcast? When most fans turn on their TV or fire up MLB.tv to watch their favorite teams and players, they want to watch the game first and foremost. The game, the athletes – they are the draw. The broadcasters? Little more than white noise, most of the time.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Good broadcasters add to the experience, enriching the game with their insights and anecdotes. Vin Scully is the gold standard to which all aspire.
But watching a game on TV is more than just the talking heads yammering away during breaks in the action. It is a visual medium so new bells and whistles are constantly introduced to keep viewers engaged and entertained.
Increasingly, this means the introduction of advanced stats over the more traditional airways. While the intentions are admirable, it might be a case of putting the cart before the horse.
Last night, the Astros kicked off their 2014 season with a convincing victory over the Yankees and CC Sabathia. The CSH Houston broadcast debuted some new toys, most notably an interesting stat package featured the batter’s name.
Astros broadcast showing PA, BABIP, and WAR. pic.twitter.com/oiEPovzHOV
— Matthew Kory (@mattymatty2000) April 2, 2014
The nerd inside me rejoices! WAR on the broadcast! Plate appearances! That’s an improvement, right? BABIP? Ummm, okay.
Let’s be frank: on screen graphics are meant to offer a snapshot of a player’s production for the home viewer. This explains the basic appeal of the average/home runs/RBI group that TV trucks dutifully offer up as they have for generations. Is the batter hitting well? Does he hit for power? Snapshot.
There are obviously better ways to express this than average and RBI. Obvious to you and me, the hopeless baseball lunatics that we are. But how can rights holders do a better job of expressing production/value to the average viewer?
Before we accuse teams and their broadcasters with catering to the lowest common denominator, remember there is a learning curve involved. For every new stat shown on screen, you can count on 30 seconds of explanation, often (forcibly) delivered by an ex-player who may or may not appreciate the vagaries of the statistical model in play.
Can a reasonably intelligent person be expected to understand Wins Above Replacement if it is explained clearly? Yes. Does it add to their enjoyment when watching a mid-week Astros and Yankees game? That’s debatable. As with any new concept introduced to a larger audience, there is an extended “on-boarding” period where Jason Castro‘s 4+ WAR year is put into context.
Yes, that’s above-average. No, he’s not a superstar. Yes, that’s still pretty good. No, the defensive component isn’t perfect. Yes, replacement level is an idea, not a direct reflection of the Astros backup catchers.
But seeing BABIP thrown into the mix there is a little strange. Again, it is a piece of information that has value but it just doesn’t seem like a valuable tool when splashed on screen for 10 to 15 seconds during a plate appearance. Unless there’s some b roll (background footage played over the game action) that explains BABIP and what it means for different guys.
If a broadcast wants to spend 25 seconds explaining why Joey Votto has one of the highest in-play averages in baseball history, I’m all ears. You could make a decent little package out of that, me thinks.
The Rays broadcast is, unsurprisingly, one of the more progressive baseball TV presentations right now. Last night, they ran this graphic as Ryan Hanigan made his first start for Tampa Bay.
hey cool pic.twitter.com/ZQ6Oy9VjlB
— Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav) April 2, 2014
To me, this is more valuable. It doesn’t throw esoteric numbers at the uninitiated and, in my mind, lends itself to a short discussion about the idea of pitch framing – one that is intuitive and something a casual viewer can more easily connect with. No need to bog the show down with weighting individual pitches and the WOWY factors Harry and the BP crew bake into their numbers after careful consideration and mathematical rigor, just let the home viewer know who is rated the best.
The conversation could go something like this: “Look, two guys from this team! This team likes guys who are good at this, it’s something that we can see with our own two eyes!” Then the ex-player analyst, who may or may not know what Baseball Prospectus is, can surely draw from their vast pool of experience for a story that brings this point home in a way that resonates with viewers.
There is plenty of opportunity to enlighten and entertain viewers with the glorious minutia of baseball – so long as the audience’s wants and needs are prized ahead of “gee whiz aren’t we clever?” and appealing to the lunatic fringe of demanding viewers (that’s us.) You catch more flies with honey and helping fans understand the way front offices view the game now is something every broadcast should hope to accomplish.