While data and advanced stats are changing the way MLB teams and players operate, they've also upended the baseball conversation on broadcasts. 

By Jacob Feldman
March 28, 2019

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.


To celebrate Opening Day, I’m proposing a new stat for baseball’s bookkeepers.

Numbers, if you haven’t heard, now dominate the game. Some add context and/or normalization to older stats (OPS+, FIP, etc.). Others, like WAR, combine stats to create a new way of comparing players. Then there are the tools that put digits on previously subjective topics—exit velocity, for example.

These stats are altering team rosters, batting orders, defensive alignments and ultimately league standings. They’ve upended baseball conversation, too. Or so we think, but no one is truly keeping track, which is why we need wASPB: weighted advanced stats per broadcast.

Measured year to year, wASPB would show how baseball broadcasts have gotten newer, even as the average viewer has gotten older. In many ways, the sport now boasts the most modern presentations for the most traditional audience.

Comparing networks’ wASPBs, meanwhile, would offer a different story. Certain announcers have bought into data, becoming responsible for educating fans and translating the reality of today’s ball clubs. Others have opted to focus on entertainment, to create a compelling show, to bypass the mind and appeal to the soul. Isn’t that why we watch sports—to be moved? Or is that the reason why we used to?

Of course, most have struck some balance. The stat would show that, too. That said, the likely wASPB champ—if someone more dedicated took the time to actually calculate such a thing—is also our preseason World Series pick (remember that correlation does not equal causation).

Astros broadcasters Todd Kalas and Geoff Blum began experimenting with analytically-minded broadcasts in 2013 and ‘14 as the Astros underwent a math-based rebuild—and, frankly, when not many people were watching. They were able to go overboard and figure out what was worth the trouble of explaining. OPS+ stuck around, as did weighted runs created, while WAR fell by the wayside. BABIP and FIP are increasingly included on graphics.

This year, the group is adding deserved run average and command+ to its repertoire as seeks stats that make Houston players look better. "Broadcasters tend to go with the culture of the club, and for the Houston Astros, you'd be remiss if you weren't talking the language that they speak," MLB Network host Brian Kenny explained in 2017. But announcer taste matters too.

In Los Angeles, viewers grew used to Vin Scully’s narrative style. In fact, it was pretty much all they knew as he called Dodgers games dating back to 1950, before the team’s westward relocation. Since 2017, Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser have attempted to follow the legend while modernizing their telecasts.

“Dodger fans had been spoiled by the greatest storyteller who has ever done this job,” Davis said. “We had an appreciation for the new stats and analytics and their importance in the game…. Right from the start we had a conscious balance hopefully between telling stories and incorporating new stats that are kind of governing the game now. It’s our responsibility to translate that to the fans at home.”

With a jewelry case worth of credibility, Hershiser would sometimes be skeptical about the way Davis—29 years Orel’s junior—used stats. No longer. “Now we’re at a point where the conversation is, How you do prioritize the new information, not, The new information is garbage,” Hershiser said. So the former pitcher is now also sending requests to researcher Rick Krajewski, who can spend “12 hours a day with my nose in the computer,” combing through baseball’s various stat sites. Davis and Hershiser don’t use every number Krajewski sends back, but they still rely on them. Calling games these days, you have to be smart, even if you aren’t nerdy. Because the nerds are watching.

Davis is even more cautious to start math class, as he sometimes calls it, when doing national games on FOX. “The national fan base is tuning in to see home runs and stuff,” Krajewski said. “They don’t care as much about getting so granular on each player.” Both local and national audience research backs that up.

Certain regional broadcasts are staying old-school, too, even as the teams they cover evolve. In November, the Giants took a step into the future, naming 41-year-old former Dodgers GM and economics Ph.D. graduate Farhan Zaidi president of baseball operations. But longtime team broadcasters (and former players) Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow won’t be heading back to school.

Asked how the front office changes will impact how he calls games, Kuiper didn’t hesitate. “Not one bit,” he said. “I don’t think [fans] want us to deviate too much from who we are.” The duo still studies the stats and gets numbers handed to them by the production team, but they’ve decided to filter out most of them from their game-long conversations.

At STATS in Chicago, research manager Aaron Charlton knows exactly what kind of numbers each of the company’s broadcast clients want. He can tell whoever is putting together Giants game notes, for instance, to not waste their time coming up with elaborate research. “If we’re writing notes for the Astros, we might be more exploratory with advanced statistics,” he said. “Kuiper and Krakow, they are my friends, but they are old-school dudes that don’t want any part of that.”

On a lauded Orioles broadcast, Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer would land near the Giants in wASPB, but face a similar challenge this year. Baltimore lured a portion of the Astros brain trust this offseason. For now, MASN declined to comment on how that might affect the telecast. If only a stat could capture any changes.

ADNAN VIRK AND SCOTT ROGOWSKY HEADLINE NEW NIGHTLY BASEBALL SHOW

Sports streaming newcomer DAZN will move beyond fight sports in the U.S. for the first time Thursday when it debuts its daily whiparound baseball show, ChangeUp. Former ESPN host Adnan Virk and HQ Trivia celebrity Scott Rogowsky will anchor during primetime on weeknights, with Lauren Gardner and Tony Luftman handling the late shift while Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman appear on weekends. ESPN’s Alfredo Lomelí has also been brought on to host the show, based out of MLB Network’s New Jersey studios.

While the duos will be broadcasting from behind a desk meant to provide ChangeUp with legitimacy, the hope is that they also add youthful energy to the night’s games. “I want to bring some action,” Rogowsky said Tuesday. “I don’t want to be sitting there. I don’t want this to be a staged show sitting behind the anchor desk.” Between live look-ins for stars’ at-bats and key moments, the hosts will also bring on analysts to offer their takes.

When DAZN announced the three-year deal with the MLB, DAZN executive chairman John Skipper said, “We will target young multicultural fans, many of whom do not have pay television. The fast-paced nature of a whip-around show will appeal to this audience and bring in new fans.”

SIGHTLINES

• Amazon is rumored to be emerging as a contender for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket digital package. “We’re having great discussions with DirecTV and AT&T,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We’ve had a 25-year partnership and we want to continue that partnership, but we also are looking to see how we can change the delivery.”

The Oregonian asked readers if they watched the replay of Jusuf Nurkic’s gnarly leg injury. Over 40% said they opted not to.

• Joe Girardi has joined FOX as an analyst.

• Between dominating NCAA tournament opponents, Sabrina Ionescu has doubled as an ESPN critic.

• College players are laughing at how the NCAA has portrayed their lives in a new commercial.

• Buster Olney talked to ESPN MLB programming manager Rick Mace about how their Sunday Night Baseball schedule comes together.

• Baseball at-bats are coming to Twitter.

• Madeline Berg explains why a rapper and a jewelry designer are bidding on 21 regional sports networks.

• The NFL has confirmed its season-opener this year: Packers at Bears.

• Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, March Madness ratings are up big.

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for whatever this was.

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