With the pressure on, MLB Advanced Media released the latest version of its iPhone app, At Bat 2010, just moments before spring training games began last week. And although it is once again a hit, this new version is without a doubt an evolution, not a revolution. You'll get all of the key features from last year (Gameday Audio, MLB.tv (if you are a subscriber), pitch-by-pitch, box scores, etc.), plus a few new bells and whistles. But most of what you'll find are only slight upgrades to the previous edition.
MLBAM's press release screams this out; the top new "enhancement" is "Spring Training: up-to-the moment scoreboard, statistics and pitch accounts, video highlights of key plays and live audio without blackout restrictions, plus the unprecedented option of live video with MLB.TV beginning in mid-March." Well, OK, I guess that's something. Probably not what I would have led with, but I guess it's better to have than not have.
The real improvements are slight changes to existing features. For example, you used to have to press on the game you were interested in to see the base/out/count situation; now, it's right there in the main view for every game. You can also now "favorite" more than one team, so if you're a Yankees fan, you can place the Red Sox games at the top of your list as well (because you want to see the score, not because they're your "favorite").
The dashboard on the bottom of the screen has been overhauled as well, as it now contains news, standings, and videos, all of which had previously been relegated to the "More" section. This is a big improvement, as it used to be just as easy (if not easier) to go to MLB.com to get this information. Same goes for schedules, rosters, and stats, which are now available in the team sections.
Obviously, these parts are all pretty much standard fare, but there's one really cool new twist to the video section: it's searchable by player and team. You can't go very deep into BAM's archives — 25 results, it looks like — but if you want a video from at least the last couple weeks, you should be in luck. As an example, I searched for Andrew McCutchen and saw highlights going back to September 23rd.
The coolest new feature, in my opinion, involves what I've always thought was At Bat's killer app: Gameday Audio. It is, however, a bit of a workaround; since Apple doesn't allow third-party apps to run in the background, Gameday Audio only works when you have At Bat up and running on your phone. So in the past, if you wanted to check your e-mail or respond to a text message, you'd need to shut down the game feed, do whatever it was you needed to do, and then reopen At Bat and re-start the audio. A pain. Now, however, there's something of a solution; since Apple's official apps (iPod, Phone, Safari, etc.) canwork in the background, BAM has made it relatively simple to run Gameday Audio in Safari. (See the picture below.) Not the most elegant solution in the world, but I'll definitely be using it.
Now, let's get to what I don't like. First and foremost, the player cards are terrible. Embarrassingly so. For hitters, there are only five offensive categories — AB, AVG, HR, RBI, OPS — some basic bio data, today's line, and 1890's most advanced defensive stats. For pitchers, get this: AB, AVG, HR, BB, SO. That's a fascinatingly weird selection.
I'm not asking for BP- or FanGraphs-level stats; what I am asking for is a player's full traditional line — plate appearances, walks, strikeouts, OBP, SLG, and so on for hitters; innings pitched, batters faced, and maybe even ERA, if you're into that sort of thing, for pitchers. It's mind-boggling that Sportacular, among who knows how many other general sports apps, have better player cards than At Bat.
As for the rest, I have more suggestions than complaints. I'm not big on fantasy, but I do root for some players more than others, and I'd love to get a push notification when those players are on deck, or coming in from the bullpen. In an even more ideal world, the notification would take me right to the MLB.tv game feed, so I could be watching in seconds. I'd also like the option to get a notification after the at-bat or appearance is over, with the results.
I think fantasy players would love this, too, and it would be smart for MLBAM to make more use out of the iPhone's push capabilities. Right now, you can get notifications when your favorite teams' games start or end, and when their condensed games or highlights are ready to view. Those are definitely useful, but there's a lot of room for expansion.
Finally, there's the price, which caused a lot of grumbling when the app was released as $15 is a lot for an iPhone app, even if the producer does have a semi-monopolistic hold on much of the content. I personally think it's worth it, purely for Gameday Audio, and it seems like a decent amount of people seem to agree. But I still feel like it's a mistake. Let's say BAM sold two million of these, a pretty aggressive figure, considering that estimates had them at 1.2 million last year, when the price was $5 lower. That sales level would result in $21 million in revenue, after Apple takes its cut, hardly earth-shattering for a company doing at least half a billion in total revenue.
Let's say MLBAM made At Bat free; would the extra attention it receives be worth that $21 million? And even if it doesn't feel quite comfortable with the "attention economy" argument, wouldn't it be trivially easy to sell $21 million in media subscriptions from the app? In other words, if you put At Bat in the hands of 10 million people instead of two million, couldn't you get one in 50 or one in one 100 to buy MLB.tv or Gameday Audio? I'm pretty sure they could.
Anyway, I do think the app is worth the $15, and there are sure to be some features added during the season. One that's already been announced is something called "At The Ballpark," which BAM mentioned in its press release and already has a link to in the app, although they've yet to explain it. BAM also released At Bat for Android, which I'm sure is very similar, but I haven't had a chance to use it yet. (If anybody has, give us your review in the comments.)
And don't forget, we're less than a month away from having that other piece of equipment come out…