For the NL Wild Card Game to open the MLB playoffs, ESPN had a traditional broadcast for traditional fans and an alternate broadcast for the “stats geeks.”
For Tuesday night’s National League Wild Card Game, a 3-1 victory by the Rockies in 13 innings, ESPN had two distinct broadcasts for MLB playoffs coverage. Regular ESPN went with their usual Sunday Night Baseball crew of Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez. On ESPN2, the game was called by Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez and Mike Petriello.
The ESPN crew featured Vasgersian doing the play-by-play with former baseball player Rodriguez and former softball player Mendoza adding their observations. It was just as you’d expect if you’ve ever seen them do the Sunday night game. The alternate broadcast team had a different vibe. Benetti did the play-by-play, with former player Eduardo Perez doing the commentary and Mike Petriello adding his insight.
Petriello was a key member of the alternate broadcast, which he jokingly referred to on Twitter as the “nerdcast.” Petriello is an MLB.com writer who writes about Statcast, which is a “high-speed, high accuracy, automated tool developed to analyze player movements and athletic abilities in MLB.”
If you’ve been watching baseball on TV this season, you’ve likely seen some Statcast information on the screen. Statcast measures such things as launch angle, exit velocity and catch probability. During Tuesday’s game, Statcast was used to add relevant information to the broadcast. In addition to the Statcast numbers, instead of the traditional batting average, home runs, and RBI, you could see WAR, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.
Baseball fans on Twitter overwhelmingly gave the broadcast an enthusiastic thumbs up. Stolen base probability was a popular addition, as was catch probability. One person noted, “… numbers like runs saved by Rockies infielders versus outfielders was amazing, no reason we can’t get that kind of info everyday.”
The Rockies are an interesting case. They ranked 16th of the 30 MLB teams in the defense metric at Fangraphs. That makes them a roughly league average team defensively. A closer look reveals that they were a team of extremes, with very good fielders like Nolan Arenado, D.J. LeMahieu and Trevor Story in the infield and much worse fielders, like Charlie Blackmon, in the outfield.
At one point, Petriello noted that a successful sacrifice bunt actually reduced the run expectancy. He did it in a casual manner, without making it intrusive. A commenter on Twitter enjoyed this, saying, “They’ve woven it in excellently and not made it just ‘look at my shiny stats’ for the sake of using them. A great job by the announcers.”
Joe Sheehan added that he enjoyed the broadcast because the announcers weren’t adversarial towards stats, didn’t use clichés, and seemed to appreciate the love of the game and the players today. When Willson Contreras bat-flipped after a base on balls, Petriello praised it. This is a stark contrast to broadcasts in which former players seem to spend three hours criticizing the game and today’s players. Even without the stats angle, the broadcast was refreshing in that regard.
Of course, there’s a selection problem in looking at baseball fans on Twitter, who likely skew to those more interested in the data. The alternate broadcast isn’t for everyone. Some baseball fans like their baseball without the new numbers. They want to see batting average, home runs and RBI and hear the clichés.
Even though batter-pitcher matchups are basically useless at predicting what will happen the next time they face each other, many announcers still use it. Saying a guy is 3-for-7 off this particular pitcher means nothing because the sample size is so small. In many ways, the alternate broadcast wasn’t really about using stats, because all broadcasts use stats. It was about using stats that traditional fans haven’t been hearing for most of their lives.
One of my longtime friends didn’t like the broadcast at all. He loves baseball as much as anyone I know, but for him the broadcast was “brutal.” He said, “It sounds like an MIT commercial, instead of a ballgame.” He’s not interested in exit velocity or launch angle. And that’s fine. I really enjoyed the alternate broadcast. He didn’t. We still both love the game.
Many fans who enjoyed the broadcast came away wanting even more, of course. One of the online suggestions was a win probability graphic that would show changes in real time. Another suggestion was to use wOBA instead of OPS and wRC+ instead of WAR. Also, when showing a player’s rank in a specific stat, a percentile rank would be better than an ordinal rank.
If the previous paragraph made sense to you, then you should be sure to watch the next time ESPN has an alternate broadcast. If it doesn’t, that’s fine also. We can all enjoy the great game of baseball in whatever way we desire.