Don’t blame ESPN
Monday’s Home Run Derby was supposed to be the best in the event’s history. The lineup was stacked, the balls were juiced and the air was thin. It had all the ingredients to be legendary. And while it was a fun time, the broadcast made it hard to follow what was going on.
A lot of viewers thought that the issue was the split-screen view ESPN employed. Indeed, the constant action on both sides of the screen made it difficult to decide where your eyes should be focused. It was helpful to see each swing, but sometimes a hitter would appear to make less-than-stellar contact and, because they were at Coors Field, it would turn out to be a homer. That meant that you couldn’t ignore the majority of batted balls and had to keep darting your eyes back and forth from the batter to the flight of the ball.
The split screen isn’t new, though. ESPN has been using it since the 2017 derby, and for the first few years, it added to the viewing experience. Compare the '18 final round between Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper to the '16 final that pitted Todd Frazier against Giancarlo Stanton.
It’s far more satisfying to see every swing the batter takes, which the split screen allows. And you’re still able to follow the flight of the ball. The issue with Monday’s derby wasn’t with the split screen; it was with MLB's ignoring the rule applied in previous derbies that required the pitcher to wait for the previous ball to land before they could deliver another pitch. As a result, there would often be two balls in flight at once. The first one would land and ESPN’s cameras would cut to the second one so late in its flight that it was impossible to tell where it was going. That’s why the broadcast was lousy, not because the screen was split in half.
I understand why MLB would relax the application of that rule. If Pete Alonso had to wait for each one of his monster shots to come back to Earth before he could swing again, there’s no way he would have been able to hit 35 home runs in the time allotted to him in the first round. In a derby that had been hyped for weeks, it was in MLB’s best interest to tweak the conditions to allow the most homers possible.
But going forward, the umpires should be more strict about enforcing the rule. Not only would it make the derby easier to follow for the fans, it would also benefit the hitters. Shohei Ohtani, the presumptive derby favorite, looked absolutely gassed in his first-round loss to Juan Soto. If he had another fraction of a second to take a breath while waiting for the ball to land, he might not have been so winded. Just add a little more time to each round to compensate for the time lost waiting for the ball to land and hitters will still be able to put up big numbers. The other benefit of waiting for the ball to land is that it allows ESPN to put up a graphic saying how far the last home run went, which is the piece of information fans want to know the most.
MLB saved the derby by ending the outdated format based on “outs” that led to too many taken pitches, but there is still certainly room to improve. Making the derby a more viewer-friendly experience would go a long way toward solving the marketability problem that is discussed so much.
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