Today’s MLB Network Game to Feature Advanced Metrics

Advanced stats have had a huge influence on baseball over the last generation. Every front office makes use of statistics, metrics, and methods that would fall under the umbrella of sabermetrics. Websites and blogs like this one, meanwhile, have created a niche for interested fans to absorb the game through a sabermetric prism. While the clubs have embraced sabermetrics in the name of remaining competitive, and online media have formed around a collection of die-hards, getting modern statistics onto broadcasts has been a more challenging endeavor.

We’ve seen many broadcasts make an effort to adapt to the changing climate, but there remains a delicate balance between providing sabermetric information and appealing to the widest possible audience. Given that there is only a single radio and television broadcast experience for each club, networks have been cautious about radical changes to the way they present games given that a large portion of their audience does not a regularly visit sites like FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Beyond the Box Score.

On Wednesday afternoon (3:30pm Eastern), MLB Network will roll out a new format for calling live games that diverges from standard broadcast paradigm. Brian Kenny will be joined by Kevin Millar, Jim Duquette, and Rob Neyer to provide play-by-play and analysis for the Astros-Giants game based around the network’s sabermetric-friendly talk show, MLB Now.

As the FanGraphs Site Educator, part of my role is to help make sabermetrics accessible for fans who aren’t as well-versed in the language of stat-heads, but I also have a general desire to see broadcasts enhance the experience of the already stat-friendly fan by integrating more analytical information. Any attempt to augment the typical broadcast paradigm in a way that will allow higher quality information into the discussion has my interest, including last year’s Just a Bit Outside broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and this week’s MLB Network event. On Monday, I spoke with Kenny about his plan for the game and his views on the future of the medium.

There are essentially two hurdles to clear in order to work advanced stats into mainstream broadcasts. The first is a matter of format and the second is a matter of specifics. On the question of format, Kenny believes the network’s flagship program, MLB Tonight, provides a guide for breaking from the traditional play-by-play model. Instead of having a broadcaster call each pitch with color commentary from a single analyst, Kenny thinks giving the reins to a panel will allow for a fuller discussion of topics like manager strategy, player quality, and roster construction.

He stresses that the focus has to remain on the game, however, and admitted the panel won’t get as “wonky” as certain die-hard fans might like. The goal, Kenny told me, was to speak the language of the mainstream fan while bringing “our way of thinking” (i.e. sabermetrics) into the broadcast. On several occasions, he used the word “organically” in reference to his plan to use the game action to jump into discussions about broader topics like defensive shifts, bullpen strategy, etc. In preparing for the game and studying what others have tried to do, Kenny says he’s learned the key is not to stray too far from the on-field action and to remember most people are tuning in to watch a ballgame on a Wednesday afternoon.

Hearing Kenny describe his vision for the game, it sounds like the viewer will feel like they’re watching an episode of MLB Tonight that’s focused on a single game. The panel will talk about the game play as it’s happening, but won’t be afraid to break off into an extended discussion about an appropriate, related topic.

While the MLB Tonight format has several years of success on which to lean, the integration of advanced stats specifically isn’t as well defined. One of the most noticeable differences you’ll see on Wednesday will be when a hitter walks to the plate. The ribbon will include OBP and SLG instead of RBI. It’s a small step for the regular FanGraphs reader who might prefer something like wOBA or wRC+, but Kenny suggested WAR might also find its way onto the main package as well.

Additionally, more sophisticated numbers will certainly come up during the panel’s discussions, and MLB Network is prepared to flash graphics on the screen explaining the various metrics to help keep the viewers on the same page. It also won’t be a broadcast about Statcast, but Kenny suggested that they will draw on the technology when it fits organically into the discussion and can add something to the conversation.

I asked if they planned to integrate anything like run expectancy, win probability, or leverage index into the basic graphics package, and while it sounds like that isn’t going to happen, Kenny was excited about the idea and said he’d like to bring those numbers into the discussion with a focus on what the numbers are saying rather than reporting the precise values at any one time.

For now, that appears to be the overall approach for MLB Network’s first go-around. Instead of saying a hitter has a 140 wRC+ and letting the viewer interpret the meaning of that number like a normal broadcast might do when mentioning a .289 batting average, Kenny wants to say things like, “this is the fifth-best hitter in the league using park-adjusted stats.” The idea is to bring a different approach to the broadcast while talking about the game in a language that’s accessible to a wide audience.

Ultimately, they’re trying out this format to see if it’s something fans would enjoy, and while Kenny doesn’t necessarily think it will replace the standard model for the full 162-game slate, he hopes offering a different approach to calling a game can shake up a medium that doesn’t have a lot of variety in the basic mechanics of a broadcast.

In discussing the upcoming broadcast with other sabermetric-enthusiasts, the biggest question Kenny et al. had was how much of a conversation ought to be dedicated to explaining the statistics (generally) compared to discussing numbers that are relevant to the day’s contest (specifically). It sounds very much like Kenny and the rest of the production team at MLB Network want the broadcast to focus on the latter. It doesn’t appear as if this will be a game designed to walk through the tenants of wOBA, but will instead try to utilize a new format that is more conducive to a sabermetric conversation.

The reviews of last year’s JABO broadcast were generally positive, with the main complaints being about the nature of the split screen (easily fixable) and how it took several innings for the broadcast to really lock in on the action on the field (likely a simple growing pain). As far as integrating better numbers and more useful graphics, I thought it was an excellent effort. MLB Network has much more experience managing a studio show during live games, so hopefully some of the minor production hiccups won’t occur this time around.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect sabermetrics will take over the airwaves in the near future, but with traditional broadcasters becoming more willing to utilize advanced stats and occasional efforts to generate a broadcast aimed at a slightly more stat-friendly audience, things are certainly improving in that respect. When it comes to the written word, fans have their pick of a wide range of options to fit their particular interest in the game. Given that the broadcast market is highly regulated, reaching everyone in a single broadcast is a difficult task and any effort to move the needle toward more sabermetric-friendly thinking would likely be a welcome move for many.





Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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HVC
Member
Member
HVC

will be joined by Kevin Millar, Jim Duquette

*shudders*

Still a cool idea & will tune in after work but, damn, Millar & Duquette are beyond terrible.

guest
Guest
guest

at least Harold Reynolds won’t be there

Alexander Ryan
Member
Alexander Ryan

whats wrong with Herold Reynolds

Dave
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Dave

I guess I’m in the minority around here, but I think Millar is great. Granted, he’s not the world’s biggest stat geek, but he’s fun and down to earth. He has a ballplayer’s perspective, and he brings it in a positive way. I think that has value. Plus, he just seems like a really likeable guy!

Spicerello
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Spicerello

Yeah, his segment “What’s in Sean Casey’s teeth?”, a few weeks ago really did it for me

cs3
Member
Member
cs3

I agree. Millar is a fun guy to watch. He doesnt take himself too seriously, and while he often plays his intelligence down for the sake of his role on “Intentional Talk”, he offers some great insight into how players think.