Although sabermetrics has substantially reshaped baseball’s on-field product over the past few decades, its progress in the broadcast booth has been slower. It’s not hard to see why the two trends haven’t moved in lockstep: While teams adopted the analytics model out of the need to win games, the same market pressures didn’t apply to commentators. For teams, integrating sabermetrics meant they were more likely to win; for commentators, it meant they were more likely to confuse. But now a younger generation is steeped in analytics, and statistically minded fans obsessively check sites such as Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Brooks Baseball to get what broadcasts and talk radio aren’t providing.
Broadcasters have taken note. In the past few years, we’ve seen some geeky milestones: Sun Sports produced a special sabermetric broadcast of a Tampa Bay Rays game, and WGN flashed a run expectancy matrix on screen during a Cubs broadcast. And Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver, not exactly standard-bearers for the analytics movement, are off the air.
On Saturday, Fox Sports 1 is hoping to facilitate the next breakthrough for on-air stat-geekery. During Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, the channel, working in conjunction with its Just A Bit Outside blog, is mounting a broadcast that promises to focus on “statistics, sabermetrics, and graphics, with plenty of debate and conversation while the action plays out on the field.” The show will feature a split-screen, with the game in one window and in the other a panel that includes longtime sabermetric proselytizer Rob Neyer and ex-players turned stat-friendly broadcasters Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski, not to mention current San Diego Padres manager Bud Black. It’s an experiment in whether mainstream America — or at least the America that watches Fox Sports 1 on a Saturday night — is finally ready for metrics to invade Morgan and McCarver’s former province.
Kapler certainly seems to think it is, noting that plenty of numbers now widely used on TV (like WHIP and OPS) were once just as foreign to viewers as xFIP and Ultimate Zone Rating. “Baseball fans are ready to absorb metrics they can use to predict what’s coming,” he said.
Along similar lines, Neyer hopes the JABO broadcast can put numbers to the baseball fundamentals that fans are used to. “We’ll be talking about the same things that everybody else talks about, just on a somewhat different — and ideally, higher — level,” he said.
Neyer’s pet example is pitch framing. While most serious fans know that Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is an expert in what Neyer calls “stealing” strikes on borderline pitches, the NLCS coverage will highlight the fact that Molina’s counterpart on the Giants, Buster Posey, is just as good at that dark art according to the numbers.
But it won’t be all numbers. The coverage also aspires to effectively blend advanced statistics with the experience of the former players on hand, as well as Black’s managerial mindset. (For instance, in addition to a studio area, the set will also feature one of those whimsical mini-fields upon which Kapler and Nitkowski can perform hands-on demos.) Host Kevin Burkhardt will guide a running conversation that Kapler hopes will appeal to fans seeking hardcore analysis — statistical or otherwise.
There’s a tension in any sabermetric treatment of baseball between the cool empiricism of numbers and the gauzy comfort of narrative. In the post-season that’s even more pronounced, because it’s so difficult to make sense of the randomness that short series bring. Neyer thinks the Fox broadcast can straddle that line.
“We’re lucky, given the mix of the people who will be on the set, to do both things,” he said. “Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski are both quite well-versed in sabermetrics. … We can a cite a number, but [when an event] doesn’t fit the statistical narrative, Gabe Kapler can literally jump out of his chair … and demonstrate what happened, and why.”
Everyone I talked to — including Kapler, Neyer and producer Matt Schnider — also emphasized that the broadcast will have room for debate between the sabermetric outlook and the conventional wisdom. “Those things do come up,” Neyer said. “One of the tricky things for us will be [when] somebody says something that maybe isn’t supported by the data, we’ve got to be able to jump in (on my laptop or with one of our researchers) quickly and find out if that’s true, and then get it out there and see if we can hash it out.”
Perhaps the telecast, then, is better thought of as an update to the way baseball broadcasts are done, rather than a groundbreaking exercise in sabermetric programming. It will be the first televised, in-game manifestation of what Baseball Prospectus’s Dayn Perry famously described as the ideal marriage between sabermetrics and traditional thinking:
“A question that’s sometimes posed goes something like this: ‘Should you run an organization with scouts or statistics?’ My answer is the same it would be if someone asked me: ‘Beer or tacos?’ Both, you fool. Why construct an either-or scenario where none need exist?”
In a field where traditional broadcasts have clung to more or less the same format for half a century, the beer-and-tacos approach is a refreshing change of direction.