Monday, October 13, 2008

Building the Perfect Highlights Show

Over at Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley explains why most football analysis seems so much smarter than most baseball analysis. He hits on a couple of good reasons, with the best -- contributed by Brian Powell of Awful Announcing -- being that, because there are more moving parts on any given football play, there are more opportunities for nuts-and-bolts analysis in football than in baseball:

. . . a strikeout isn't as visually interesting as a murderous safety blitz, especially when it's replayed five times . . . In baseball, a breakdown of a single at-bat often boils down to "first he threw the ball to the left, then he threw the ball to the right." There are certainly interesting points to be made about game strategy, but those kinds of discussions—whether to bunt or pinch-hit, how to deploy a left-handed reliever—tend to be handled best by in-game color commentators, who can take advantage of the game's languorous pace to unspool the various possibilities.
I think that's right, and in light of it, that the new six-hour-a-night MLBTV broadcast I mentioned last week had better take extreme care in choosing its approach and on-air personalities. Ex-jocks speaking in generalities about "who wants it more" or how "special" a given team or player is will kill the broadcast, as will endless highlight loops of the same three key plays of every game. Baseball just sort of happens every night. There is a lot of repetition. On one level, that's what makes it so great, but on another, more practical level, it's what makes producing so much content such a challenge. The languid splendor of a summer night doesn't translate well to a cable telecast.

My suggestion: get people who can truly offer original insight on distinct aspects of the game, even if it means no one has heard of them before. Experts on pitchers' mechanics and injuries would be extremely valuable, as would someone very knowledgeable about transactions and the various rules that surround them. Likewise, while they'd do well to avoid turning the show into a shout-fest, Baseball Tonight cameo appearances by Gammons, Stark, and other folks with journalism backgrounds have shown that those kinds of guys do way more to move the larger issues-of-the-day conversations along than do the ex-players who quickly find themselves out of their depth when no longer able to draw from sources beyond their own personal experiences.

Also, given how much advance notice we all have of the schedule, do what the NFL pregame shows do and send a field correspondent out to a series or two each week. Not necessarily to report on the games themselves -- as we've established, only so much happens in a given game -- but to provide context and flavor. Drop a feature or two about the teams or the venue. Do some fun man-on-the-street stuff. You know: have fun.

Maybe none of that will work, but it has to beat squeezing a size 46 ex-ballplayer into a 42 suit and passing him off as an expert.


Mets Tailgate said...

Well put. For the record I need to nominate Fernando Vina for worst Baseball Tonight analyst in history.

A standard Vina analysis: "look at that.. he hits a homerun there... he just, you know, swung hard, guessed right, and came through in a big way.. that was a big hit right there for his team"

Michael M said...

I'd love to see Keith Law be the guy who would do those 'fun' features you mentioned in that latter part. He'd come up with amazing and unique ideas.

Alex said...

Boy, this network has a huge chance here to make sabermetrics mainstream. There's so much great content out there on the internet, as the Slate article mentions, dealing with careful, nuanced, and usually stat-based analysis. I love reading all the new pitch-F/X stuff, so how cool would it be to see those bloggers working on it the most (Josh Kalk, Mike Fast, et al) bring it to life with videos and animated simulation? Also, it seems like ex-managers would make good analysts, by and large, because they understand all the little things that make the game go. (For example, I saw a great explanation by Buck Showalter about why there's less stealing in today's game than 30 years ago -- pitchers are faster to the plate, and umps allow tricks like fake to 3rd throw to 1st.) Players, on the other hand, are good at the game without ever really understanding what they're doing. Can't the baseball internets rise up and take over this new network?

Oh also, I second Vina's worst analyst ever nomination. Too bad they don't make a steroid that would make him better at it.

Anonymous said...

Hard to argue with the Slate article's criticisms of baseball's talking heads. Although I dunno how they missed Rick Sutcliffe's braying ignorance. But since when was pro football ever considered a legitimate sport? Alan Ameche days perhaps. This is the TV product made for ADHD victims. This is the made for TV league where the union and the owners collude publicly to ignore drug testing results. Anyone with a passing interest in comparing betting lines and subsequent game results cannot but conclude a successful fraud of massive scale has been ongoing for years.

Preston said...

The key to a good sabermetrics show would be an interesting personality presenting it, because otherwise it could be hideously boring for the vast majority of those tuning in. However, an Alton Brown Good Eats-esque show using statistics could be a fascinating watch.

I'll also be interested to see if they think about a show based around fantasy baseball - seems like an opportunity to take advantage of the ever growing market (even though I'm not a big fantasy person).

I'd actually love to see a scouting show - hire a pro scout/Keith Law clone and have him profile various prospects, while explaining the specific aspects of mechanics, etc. that he looks for.

By the way, let's not pile on ex-players too much - there are some very interesting analysts from their ranks (and by the way, most ex-managers are ex-players too), though there are admittedly a lot of truly terrible ones as well.

Larry said...

Why are we stuck with the team's/network's announcers? In the digital world, we should be able to pick any of a bunch of announcing options. A couple sabremetricians, comedians. I'm surprised someone hasn't started some pirate channels to do just that over the internet. Nature hates a void...and there is absolutely a quality void. That I am I stuck listening to Rick Manning bray on...he's not the worst mind you...but they are so beholden to the teams and leagues that they are fundamentally and systematically dishonest brokers of candid analysis. This isn't rocket science to figure out, but anyone whose livelihood is dependent on the team will not be 100% candid or honest. Announcers are PR shills. They may consider themselves otherwise, but that's what they are.

Michael M said...

Can you imagine a Chip Caray/Vina broadcast? Oooof

Anonymous said...

...and umps allow tricks like fake to 3rd throw to 1st.

I remember Steve Busby back in the mid 1970s did that and picked off two runners in a week. After that, everyone did it, and it never is successful. In the thousands of games I've seen in the 30 years since Busby, I've seen it work only once.