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August 17, 2009

Changing Speeds

Behind the Screen at Fox

by Ken Funck

For many baseball fans, especially those like me who don't reside in a major league city, broadcast television is the most common way to enjoy a game. Don't weep for us-watching a game at home in high definition, with player close-ups and Super Slo-Mo shots of Tim Wakefield's knuckleball to enrapture us, is in many ways better than attending the game in person. But as I've written before in this space, the statistics displayed and discussed during a baseball broadcast haven't evolved along with the technology used to display them-even straightforward measures like OBP and SLG have not yet found their way into standard use. To me, this seems like a waste of an immense opportunity to improve the casual baseball fan's understanding of the game, which in turn would create more devoted fans and better ratings.

One man who shares my enthusiasm for watching a ballgame on TV is Pete Macheska, the Emmy Award-winning lead producer for Fox Sports' MLB coverage. "I'm of the opinion-and I always have fights with my friends about this-but I love sports on television," Macheska says. "Because I've got everything at my disposal. You've got the best pictures, you've got the replays, you've got the statistics; you've got everything."

As the producer for the most important Fox baseball telecasts-the playoffs, the World Series, the All-Star Game, and the lead national broadcast each Saturday-Macheska's opinion matters. It's his job to set the template for how a Fox baseball broadcast is run, how a game looks and feels on the air, how it entertains as well as how it informs. That's why I was glad to be able to speak with him recently about his broadcast philosophy, and more specifically his views on the use of statistics during Fox broadcasts.

Macheska began his career as a broadcast associate working on stats and graphics, and makes no bones about being an old-school guy who runs an old-school broadcast, particularly with regard to statistics. As an example of his philosophy, one of his big concerns is that sports broadcasts in general have started to use too many stats, and that these stats are not being appropriately integrated. "My feeling nowadays is there's so many stats, and the people that are most important-the announcers and the producer and the director-are not in control of those stats." Macheska explains that many broadcasts, especially football, transfer control of the Lower Third stats (displayed near the bottom of the screen) to someone other than the director, who then adds statistics to the broadcast without necessarily coordinating them with what's being shown on the screen, leading to a disjointed production.

"It used to be Randy Moss would catch a pass, and you took a shot of Randy Moss and you'd say it's his third catch for 35 yards and a touchdown. The director had to put that stat in. Now, you could be showing a shot of Steve Spagnuolo [head coach of the Rams], and the [Randy Moss] stat goes in because Moss just caught a pass. The front of the truck is no longer in control of this, and I think [they] should be. And they give that person free rein to put up whatever they want. It's not my philosophy to just shove as much information as you possibly can down your throat, because I don't think that's doing what's best for the viewer."

With Macheska in charge, it's clear that Fox baseball producers and directors retain a lot of control over what statistics are displayed during a game, and how they're integrated into the broadcast. To their credit, I can happily report that I never feel overwhelmed by the volume of statistics they feed me during a Fox telecast-on the contrary, I usually feel like I'd rather see more. So I asked Macheska about OBP, a fairly straightforward stat that's starting to show up on the broadcast templates of other networks, but not on Fox. His response points to another factor that has an impact on the stats viewers get to see.

"Yeah, we've talked about stuff like that. But I think if you listen to Tim McCarver's philosophy, on-base percentage is different for Albert Pujols compared to a guy who can run. I think what's pertinent is that a .429 on-base percentage for Albert Pujols, someone who's not as speedy as, say, Jose Reyes-it matters differently. That's Tim's philosophy, and we just sort of follow that."

Obviously the on-air talent, especially the lead analysts, have a say in what stats will be displayed and discussed. Does the production staff make different decisions as to which statistics to show depending on who's calling the game? "To a point, absolutely," Macheska says. "Eric Karros may have a different opinion than Tim McCarver or Mark Grace, so you may see [differences]. But basically we go by Tim more or less when we set the template, and on something like on-base percentage we just decided not to. I'm not saying we shouldn't revisit that, but I think Tim is the one that's not... he wouldn't be against it, but I don't think he's as thrilled with that as others are. If you put on-base percentage on there, you're making the graphic longer, and sometimes less is more. Each spring you go through these types of decisions and you ask, what's the risk/reward? If you feel it's not adding a lot, then you leave it off. And the other thing is, sometimes you can put up a statistic and the announcer doesn't believe in it, or if it needs explaining they don't explain it properly. Then what have we really accomplished except confusing people?"

Yet it seems to me that OBP is pretty straightforward-we're not talking about WARP or WXRL here, but a metric that can be roughly described as the percentage of time the hitter gets on base. I would think that the growth of fantasy baseball has improved the statistical awareness of many casual fans, and increased their acceptance of metrics beyond the basics. Has Fox noticed this as well?

"I think there is more acceptance to statistics, absolutely," Macheska says. "And again, I'm not against it, but our philosophy is this: I don't want them reading it. I don't want you reading television. We want to inform you, and believe me, our goal is that we don't want any broadcast to be left where you read something in the paper that we didn't say or show graphically in our game. But that said, we don't want to load you up with so many graphics that you're just reading television."

Macheska is especially concerned about making sure the Fox broadcast isn't too busy for a casual viewer. "People are used to Bloomberg Television, where there's all kinds of stats over there. I'm just of the opinion-and I think many of our announcers are of the opinion-that we try to put up the pertinent stats and we're not just throwing stuff up to throw stuff up. If you want that, go on a computer. We're trying to put on a good broadcast, and again this is just solely our opinion; that doesn't mean I'm right or I'm wrong. I just think there's so much stuff, and every little bit of it is going to block your screen, and the most important thing is you want to see what's happening on the field."

Personally, I think that's a very valid point: there's little value in just showing statistics unless they're enlightening to the viewer and can be discussed by the announcers. Bad statistics (say, those based on tiny sample sizes) are probably worse than no statistics at all. Why clutter up that beautiful high-definition shot of Carlos Zambrano stomping angrily around the mound after not getting a strike call with some random pitching statistic that nobody will understand? So, I take the point... and yet, I still think there's vast room for improvement in the quality of information shown during a broadcast. For me, though, the problem lies in coming to a common understanding of which statistics are both enlightening and understandable. And it's here that the proudly defiant old-school beliefs held by, say, Tim McCarver and Pete Macheska make me wonder how possible that is.

"Everybody's got opinions," Macheska says, "so that doesn't mean I'm right or I'm wrong. But I think we can get so carried away with stats sometimes. Take Joba Chamberlain, for instance; he can only pitch 160 innings. Well, I know the game has changed, I understand that, but to me... I'm a little bit old-school on that. Hey, if I were a pitcher I wouldn't want to come out of a game if I'm pitching a shutout. And I think if he throws 100 pitches... I know it's the philosophy now, but I'm still of the old school, let him finish the game. I think sometimes you fall in love with things like on-base percentage. Okay, so the guy walks, but he can't get to second base! So what good is he? The reason you want to get on base is to score-the ultimate goal is winning, you want to win, and we fall so in love with all these statistics. And GMs... how about the heart of a guy? You can't measure that. It's GMs, it's just the way the game is played now. But we have [on our broadcast team] one of the catchers that caught Bob Gibson. I mean, the guy just never came out. What's wrong with that? Are we gonna ruin Joba if he goes 180 [pitches]? I don't know."

Well, I don't know either, but I have my suspicions. And it's interesting to me to see that general managers as a group, whose jobs depend upon the on-field success of their team in the here and now, may have started to embrace philosophies that broadcast professionals, whose success isn't tied to wins and losses, are just plain uncomfortable with. To a fan like me, it's hard to imagine a downside to displaying OBP or SLG-but clearly others disagree. As Macheska says, fans that want more information can always go online. But that only ensures that casual fans aren't introduced to anything more insightful during a normal broadcast. Am I crazy to say that exposure to better information will lead to greater understanding of the game, and thus a greater devotion to it, as it has for me?

Macheska doesn't think that's crazy. "I wouldn't disagree with that. And that's why I said, if it's a graphic or a statistic that means something that the average fan or even the really guru stats guys like-we're not opposed to using it. If you guys have a good stat that you think is important, I'm all ears. Don't feel like I'm totally just set in my ways. If you guys can explain something to me and say 'hey,' I'm all for it."

Even though no one is likely to confuse me for a stats guru, with such an opening I couldn't resist putting in one last plug for OBP (and a few other things). So now my dearest dream is to tune into Game One of the 2009 World Series on Fox, and watch Ryan Theriot lead off against Mark Buehrle with Theriot's .360 OBP proudly displayed below him. Anything's possible, right?

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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