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The FOX Sports 1 Sabermetrics Broadcast Reviewed

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FS1 did an experiment during Game 1 of the NLCS last night, providing a sabermetric-heavy broadcast. Here's what I felt were the pros and cons from yesterday.

I'd like to offer up a disclaimer here first. I did not watch the entire NLCS Game 1 on FOX Sports 1 last night. This review is merely from the half-hour or so that I did catch because it was a date night with my wife and life does come before baseball. If I happen to exclude something from this review that you felt was important, well I apologize.

As for the broadcast itself, it was a bold experiment done by FOX Sports 1. Being a new sports station that is tasked with competing with ESPN, NBC Sports, MLB Network, and other established sports networks, it has to think outside the box in order to gain viewers. Everyone has the highlights shows, talking heads shows, etc., so FS1 came up with a bold idea and unveiled it during yesterday's first game of the NLCS. They would do an entire broadcast of the game while focusing on sabermetrics.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I complain quite often about the lack of sabermetrics used on broadcasts. Now, I'm not in favor of saturating the entire game with them, as you'd chase away the casual baseball fan. However, I prefer to see something done by the excellent broadcast team of the Chicago Cubs, where they are not afraid to sprinkle in some advanced stats when they see fit. In fact, Len Kasper says right in that linked article that he knows that he should say that a team does an excellent job of turning balls in play into outs instead of simply citing a team's Defensive Efficiency stat.

Again, I did not watch the entire broadcast, so this is not a 100% serious take on what FS1 did yesterday. However, I feel like I still got a good gist of what they were doing and how well it was done. To make it easy on you, I'll just stick with a simple pros and cons format.

Pros

- The Stats

Well, no duh I would think this was a pro. I'm tired of seeing "Hitter X is 4 for 13 in his career against Pitcher Y" or a fielder's assists, chances, and fielding percentage shown on screen as if they're the best stats used for evaluating a player. It makes me think that it's why this XKCD comic exists.

Meanwhile, FS1 didn't hold back at all. BABIP, wRC+, wOBA, ISO, you name it, they had it. I even saw an at-bat for Matt Adams versus Madison Bumgarner that featured not just Adams' batting average against LHP, but also his ISO and wOBA as well. The additional stats showed that Adams really has been terrible against LHP this year in more detail than BA would have on its own.

- Definitions

When introducing a bunch of new stats, you've got to explain what they mean. FS1 would show the wOBA of Matt Carpenter in 2014, and then immediately followed it up with a graphic explaining wOBA to the viewer. The same was true for wRC+, ISO, and virtually everything else they threw up on the screen during the game. A big purpose of the broadcast was to educate the viewer and FS1 excelled here.

- Context

This drives me crazy when watching a broadcast. A new pitcher comes in and we see that he's walked 25 in 50 innings. That sounds pretty decent, right? However, that's a 4.5 BB/9 and the MLB average in 2014 was 2.89, so that pitcher actually exhibits pretty poor control. You wouldn't know that though because your typical MLB game doesn't let you know that the average BB/9 for pitchers was under 3.

FS1 was proactive in letting the viewers know when a player's stats were good or bad. At one point I saw Matt Carpenter's wOBA from the regular season, and shortly after a graphic was up letting us know what constituted an excellent, great, good, average, and below-average wOBA. It was basically the table below, except made to be TV pretty.

wOBA Context

- The Panel

FS1 easily could have just brought in a bunch of guys from FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus to talk baseball for the entire game, but not many people would be interested in watching Dave Cameron and Eno Sarris on their TV. You're not alone if your response to those two names was "Who?"

Instead, FS1 brought in a panel that featured host Kevin Burkhardt (former field reporter of SNY which broadcasts Mets games and current studio host for MLB on FS1), baseball writer Rob Neyer (15 years with ESPN and 3 with SB Nation), former MLB players Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski, and current Padres manager Bud Black. There's no way anyone could accuse FS1 of populating the broadcast with stat nerds when three-fifths of the panel has/had direct ties to MLB.

- Cool Graphics

I mean, look at this graphic overlaid on Busch Stadium showing where Gregor Blanco hits the ball. Coincidentally, Blanco ended up flying out to center field.

Blanco Spray Chart

Cons

- Split-Screen

Split Screen

The vast majority that I watched had the game on the right and the panel on the left. As you might expect, this made the game extremely small and difficult to see on the screen. I did see one person's comment that the split-screen was necessary to show viewers that they were not watching a typical telecast, but that was an issue when you've got...

- Idiot Viewers

FS1 teamed up with the Fox Sports website Just A Bit Outside to present the game, and the JABO website was filled with viewers that didn't know that the regular game was being shown on FOX with Joe Buck and Harold Reynolds. Alternatively, they didn't realize that they were not watching a normal broadcast even though it had been advertised for a few days before Game 1. Just take a look at the people ranting in their Facebook comments on JABO, even though they easily could have just gone to MLB.com to see that FOX, not FS1 was tasked with airing the game.

JABO FB Comments

Additionally, the FS1 Twitter account did advertise that the regular broadcast was on FOX, but clearly that did not reach all fans. From the bits that I did catch, it seemed like FS1 never alerted viewers that the regular game was on FOX, so that was another thing they could have improved upon.

- Laptops on Display

Brandon Warne may disagree with me, but if I'm a casual fan that's a little interested in sabermetrics and also well aware of the "stat nerd" narrative, turning on FS1 and being greeted by 5 guys with open laptops in front of them only fueled the belief that it was a broadcast of said stat nerds with their heads buried in spreadsheets. No, the guys weren't reading straight from their computers, but I did see them staring right at their screens and that turned me off as a viewer, even when I was a pro-saber guy. Either prepare more beforehand or find a way to hide the computers in the future.

- Lack of Play-By-Play Commentary

If you prefer watching a game on mute while listening to guys talk about the game, the FS1 presentation was perfect for you. Unfortunately, not many people actually prefer that. The panel spent most of the time talking and incorporating sabermetrics into the discussion, but the broadcast severely lacked play-by-play. You may think that hearing someone narrate the very thing you're watching is a bit unnecessary, but it would have made this broadcast feel a little more normal and a lot less experimental.

Summary

If you didn't care about commentary (and remember, the alternative was hearing Joe Buck and Harold Reynolds) then the FS1 broadcast was just fine. It was educational and provided a decent alternative to your typical game. However, if you actually cared about hearing broadcasters narrate and entertain during the game, then this was definitely not your cup of tea.

In offering recommendations to FS1, I'd want them to spin this more as a regular telecast than as a bunch of guys sitting around a bar table talking about the game. While I'm not a huge fan of the color commentary and human interest stories given during games, I understand that they have a place for some fans and even a couple here and there are genuinely interesting. I'd want to see something like your normal Cubs broadcast with Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, except there could be a bigger slant towards sabermetrics. Again, there's no need to pound them into our skulls, but just including more of them while still keeping the fans tuning in simply because it's the playoffs in mind would create a broadcast that would appeal to all fans.

Ultimately, I was impressed with what FS1 did last night. There's a ton of improvement that could still be made, but they were bold in trying something new and it could have gone much, much worse.