The news of a saber-oriented broadcast option for Game One of the NLCS gave me some mixed feelings. While it is always promising when a major broadcaster embraces "advanced" metrics, it's a little disheartening for it to be a separate offering, rather than something integrated with the primary broadcast.
Host Kevin Burkhardt was joined by a solid panel, including some of our friends. Padres manager Bud Black had the least broadcast experience of the group but offered the perspective of how advanced metrics are actually applied or understood by the men in the uniforms. Well known saber-scribe Rob Neyer was there, a man well-versed in communicating the subject matter at hand, along with two former big leaguers with a strong curiosity and appreciation of sabermetrics, Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski. Kapler, the former position player, has managing experience in pro ball. Nitkowski was a well traveled pitcher whose career included time in Japan.
That's a lot of perspectives, which is also a lot of voices.
There was one situation in which Black was explaining something (I don't remember what) but the go-to-commercial music (you know, the song from Fox NFL) started and Bud was cut off. But they weren't ready to go to commercial. It was, as Burkhardt noted, awkward. Live TV is hard, and when Bumgarner is taking about seven pitches and 30 seconds per inning it gets really tricky.
So we had ourselves an intriguing idea, a group of qualified voices, and a challenging format.
One question going in would be how the broadcast would be presented. The first question raised when the broadcast started was, "Gee, are they not allowed to show the game full-screen on this alternative broadcast?" Turns out the answer was, "Sure they can!"
Just the same, the first few innings were a split-screen presentation. With the additional graphics referencing statistics, it was less than half the screen actually being used for the game.
There was also lots of talk by the sizeable panel – mostly without regard for the specific game action –and no sounds of the game. While the explanations of the metrics and concepts were expected, they seemed to dominate the broadcast.
After a few innings, I was tempted to go to the regular broadcast, but I resisted the urge (to our editor's future relief) despite my frustration with the overall experience – a disconnected-from-the-game feeling that was clearly shared by many others.
Considering the intensity and importance of every inning, at-bat, or pitch in a postseason game, this was a problem. No one really wanted to see the guys when they were just talking – save the screen for their demonstrations when the game is going on was the loud consensus on the Twitter machine.
And then things got better. That's what happens when the production team is actually listening to feedback. Suddenly we had more focus on the game along with full-screen views of the action. As the late innings moved on, the concepts like UZR or wOBA that had been introduced earlier could now be referenced more quickly without disrupting the attention paid to the game. This was both a natural extension of the time spent earlier, but seemed to also reflect the feedback to dial in on the action.
Some of the best moments of the night were the demonstrations and insights on certain skills. This was less sabermetrics and more scouting and analysis, which is natural and how these things tend to work best. Go figure. Ironically, these demonstrations take you away from the action. Mound visits and other mundane interruptions are when this is best suited, but it's next to impossible to make a salient point at the right time if you wait for the perfect time. But, hey, that's what the split-screen should be for.
One example was a discussion on framing. They showed a leaderboard and discussed who some of the best in the game are. There was a bit about the methodology, but it wasn't complete according to BIS's Ben Jedlovec. Which goes to show, even if you spend the time, it's hard to hit all the notes on some of the more complex metrics.
During this discussion, it became apparent that the action on the field and the players involved (despite Yadi's presence on the board and lineup card) were becoming secondary to the demonstration. Again, I had dissonance. Great to see this stuff, but, hey, the game.
The best parts of the framing discussion were when Kapler got into a squat and showed some of the technical aspects of receiving pitches. Associating the skills with the numbers helps understand both. And Bud Black reinforced the value of framing, specifically referencing how a key at-bat in a game can be swung by a good frame. The Padres give Black a nice set of receivers, and he specifically praised Rene Rivera, who is one of the best in the game.
A funny moment came when Kapler was standing at the 'plate' in the studio, right in front of their big screen. While showing the footwork involved in reacting to a pitch coming at the batter, Jon Jay exhibited the same technique in real-time on the big screen while being hit by a stray Madison Bumgarner offering. That was just about perfect timing.
I think these two segments illustrate an important point – timing is everything, and in-depth discussion and demonstration is not a natural fit with a live game broadcast. Even if you think baseball is too slow, there's not enough time without making some sacrifices on game coverage.
The broadcast was not a ratings winner. Not that it matters.
The broadcast was an experiment, and there was plenty to learn. The mid-game adjustment to use the full-screen as the primary view was helpful. In retrospect the early-inning attention on education and explanation was worthwhile and paid off later in the broadcast. There may have been too many people providing coverage at the same time – a smaller desk with breakouts featuring experts might be an idea to play around with.
Analysis of in-game decisions would be a fun addition – the shift in run expectancy after a bunt, the pros and cons of a pitching change or pinch-hitter going unused. There are some 'canned' numbers you can use as starting points for the experts to discuss the present situation. That's something the broadcast lacked that is easily corrected.
If they do it again, I'll watch. And nitpick. And encourage.