Fox's 'Just A Bit Outside' NLCS Commentary is an Experiment Sports Networks Should Continue to Explore

By Mike Cardillo
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On a micro and a macro level, Fox Sports deserves some plaudits for trying something new Saturday night during its broadcast of the first game of the NLCS. On the main network, Fox viewers got the No. 1 broadcast team of Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds, Tom Verducci along with Ken Rosenthal and Erin Andrews. Nothing new on this front, aside from the fact it’s the first October in years without the presence of Tim McCarver explaining the finer points of a routine 6-3 groundout.

Over on Fox Sports 1, concurrently, Fox used its “Just A Bit Outside” (JABO) baseball team of Gabe Kapler, C.J. Nitkowski and Rob Neyer along with Padres manager Bud Black and host Kevin Burkhardt in a studio in Los Angeles for an alternate commentary of sorts. Beforehand, the broadcast was touted as leaning toward “statistics, sabermetrics, and graphics, with plenty of debate and conversation.” It was not that much unlike ESPN’s blowout, multi-channel coverage of the BCS title game that included a film room featuring current coaches like Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin.

Big picture, there probably isn’t an overwhelming need for a broadcast that is 100 percent focused on sabermetrics all the time, although Saturday night’s broadcast provided a nice alternative. As a viewer it was useful to hear Kapler provide viewers with metrics like Defensive Runs Saved in action and more importantly why these newer metrics are useful in the evaluation of players.

I liked hearing someone like Neyer who isn’t a broadcaster by trade working on the fly to talk about the perceived lack of respect Jhonny Peralta gets for his range at shortstop. Having an ex-pitcher like Nitkowski on hand to demonstrate how the umpires missed Madison Bumgarner’s balk in the seventh inning during the broadcast was, again, useful.

Context remains the key with statistics. Any broadcaster can rattle off a factoid handed to him or her via a spotter or someone in the press box, but without explaining why its significant it’s little more than a way to fill the air. JABO, since the format was low-key and didn’t require promos for upcoming shows on the channel, was afforded a little more time to contextualize or stray a little bit from the action at hand. The low-ish key setting helped the guys talk about pitch framing’s influence on games. Black, a current manager and not a broadcaster by trade, was able to talk about it with questions from Burkhardt rather than needing to be concise and spit out his take in 10 seconds of a normal game broadcast.

All told I’m not sure how much I learned from the JABO broadcast, but I liked it and liked the fact there was another option for watching the game, taking nothing away from the main Fox team who don’t annoy me as much as they do to seemingly everyone else with web access. If anything, the  JABO broadcast felt a lot like a podcast running during a baseball game in real-time rather than the static baseball commentary that’s been in place for 70+ years. Five smart people sitting around, chatting about baseball without any narrative talking points while the game is being played? Yes, that’s a concept with some potential and traction down the road.

Credit Fox, too, for using guys like Verducci and Neyer on television — writers without a playing pedigree — rather than filling all the commentary roles with ex-players. There are a lot of opinions, obviously, on all sports. The “right” opinions don’t necessarily always lie with the guys who played the game for a living, since as we know countless ex-jocks have proven to be awful as analysts. The more perspectives we can add, the better. Say whatever you will about Bill Simmons, but the ESPN lightning rod is proof someone can comment on basketball either as an in-game analyst or in the studio without a 10-year career in the NBA.

[RELATED: ESPN’s “Film Room” Draws High Praise, Could It Be the Next Evolution in Sports Telecasts?]

In recent years, experiments from the standard broadcast formula have failed.  Both Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser didn’t last as analysts during Monday Night Football. This could be more an indictment of the NFL’s nature, which frowns upon anything even the slightest bit out of step with the Shield’s corporate image. Or it could be a reminder than Miller, despite his comedian billing, wasn’t very funny on MNF. Either way, people are so conditioned to the sports broadcast template they’re going to grouse if a network tries something new — and assume whomever is calling the game is biased against their favorite team, although that’s a given.

We’ve come a long way from the days when John Madden breaking out the telestrator made us chuckle. There is a decided lack of natural levity in most sports telecasts these days. Sure, over time Madden’s enthusiasm and everyman approach veered toward shtick toward the end — Brett Favre just loves to toss the ol’ pigskin around — but it never felt forced nor did Madden need to lord the fact he won a Super Bowl ring coaching the Raiders over the viewers’ head at all times.

In a typical football broadcast, is any viewer benefiting from an analyst talking for 30 uninterrupted seconds about a three-yard run in the first quarter simply to fill the air? Call it the McCarver syndrome where ex-players are compelled to speak and show how much smarter they are than the person sitting at home on the couch at all times. The reality is, the bulk of most events during a telecast are instantly forgotten — in one ear, out the other.

Maybe it’s due to the immediacy of social media, allowing us to vent our displeasure at sports announcers at any and all times — Hi Jim! Hi Phil! — but the standard sports broadcast formula of:

play-by-play guy talks –> analysts rambles about a instantly forgettable play –> promo –> more play-by-play –> more instant analysis of a play from the first quarter

–feels all so very tired.

We’ve come up with advances in all other aspects of game broadcasts, yet commentary remains largely formulaic and rooted in 1930s radio — when that was the only medium to track a game as it unfolded unless you were inside the stadium or arena yourself or had access to one of those old-timey stock tickers.

And ultimately that’s the most encouraging takeaway from JABO Saturday or ESPN’s film room coverage for big events — trying something new.

RELATED: Fox Sports New Booth of Buck, Reynolds, and Verducci Debuts This Weekend

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