Last week, Josh and I were texting about the Angels’ season opener against the White Sox. During the second inning, they flashed a graphic on the screen as they discussed the turnaround in Justin Upton’s 2020 season. Included on the graphic were swing rate, contact rate, exit velocity, and launch angle. And it was in that moment that a lightbulb went off in my head.
Reading the national baseball media, we are bombarded by lamentations on declining viewership, an aging viewer base, and the impending death of the sport. But absent from these protests are prospective solutions. Being a baseball fan from the younger generation, I thought I might speak on the parts of the game that I find most appealing.
I have a scientific background from my days in college, so I gravitate toward the aspects of baseball that can be analyzed objectively and with a sound methodology. Part of the unique allure of baseball is that the 162-game season provides a large enough sample size that one may draw meaningful conclusions from the massive dataset, and I am confident that I am not alone among my generation in this dimension of my baseball fandom.
Speaking with the fellow baseball fans of my friend group, we consume and discuss the game using the common language of modern analytics. We compare batters by their barrel rate, not batting average, and pitchers by their spin rate, not wins. We want to know the nitty-gritty so that we can formulate the full story on our own, rather than just be shown the bigger picture without knowing the underlying reasons.
This is why I feel it is imperative that carriers of MLB games do a better job of not only integrating modern analytics into the television broadcast, but also educating the on-air personalities in how to interpret and communicate those numbers to the audience. I feel there is a sea change among this younger generation and what they want from the game. Whereas traditional metrics such as average, wins, and ERA tell you the “what” in baseball, modern analytics go a step further in describing the “why.”
Gio Urshela continues to get it done on both sides of the ball pic.twitter.com/5iwQINCiiV— YES Network (@YESNetwork) April 3, 2021
Take this graphic from the game two days ago. Simply showing us Gio Urshela’s average tells us nothing of the tangible changes he made to transform from a borderline hitter DFA’d multiple times to an All-Star-caliber bat at the hot corner. This is where I fear the YES Network is at risk of missing the boat on bridging the gap to the new wave of baseball fans.
To be fair, David Cone is already attempting to spearhead this movement, but there is still much room for improvement. Cone is one of the lone bright spots on the YES Yankees broadcast, and his vast knowledge of the game and willingness to adapt his commentary to the growing trends in the game is impressive — especially for a distinguished former pitcher and Cy Young Award winner. But for every mention of spin rate, spin axis, and pitch shape, we get Michael Kay talking about the team’s average with runners in scoring position, or Domingo Germán’s 18 wins in 2019.
This is where YES Network can take a page out of the Bally Sports Angels broadcast book. Daron Sutton and Mark Gubicza are model examples of how to incorporate modern analytics into the broadcast. Returning to Justin Upton, they talked about the mechanical changes he made halfway through the season last year, and then supported it with metrics like contact rate, exit velocity, and launch angle to tell a coherent and logical story.
They explained how, after a rotten first half during which Upton sported an unsightly .165 wOBA, he made a conscious effort to be more disciplined at the plate, as well as to focus on impacting through the baseball rather than trying to lift it. The result: a five-point increase in contact rate, a whiff rate cut in half, a seven-mph jump in exit velocity, and a decrease in launch angle, all contributing to a .413 second half wOBA.
That is the beauty of modern analytics. You can weave a narrative using easy-to-understand metrics. They tell a story that intuitive follows and explains infinitely more than batting average or pitcher wins. And with the aid of knowledgeable broadcasters, the effective integration of analytics into the in-game experience will be a key factor in marketing the game to an info-hungry generation of prospective fans. It’s time for YES Network to step up to the plate; the company can’t let this opportunity sail by.