Fox's New Baseball Booth is Keeping An Open Mind Toward Analytics, Will You Do the Same?

By Mike Cardillo

Late last week, The Big Lead broke the news about FOX tabbing Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci to replace Tim McCarver in its No. 1 baseball broadcast booth with Joe Buck. Since then, the reaction from many corners of the Internet peanut gallery has been mostly negative toward the new three-man booth, citing some combination of Verducci — a writer by trade — being bland and Reynolds’ failure to sleep with a copy of Baseball Prospectus tucked under his pillow.

This rush to judgment, a negative one at that, shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Last October I wrote that there wasn’t a perfect replacement for McCarver and no matter whom FOX tabbed as his successor would be met with scorn from the public. Unless FOX somehow, either through science or the dark arts, cloned Curt Gowdy or gave Bob Uecker a drink from the fountain of youth, nobody it picked from its pool of candidates to sit alongside Buck and call baseball games was going to make a lot of people happy, especially baseball fans on the Internet. 

During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Buck, FOX’s lead baseball guy since 1996, said as much, “I don’t think there’s any more criticized or picked apart role in major television sports than doing a World Series on network television.”

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The instant dislike for FOX’s new booth can, in part, be chalked up to baseball’s continual culture war between folks who simply like to watch the game for entertainment purposes and the omnipresent stat brigade which wants every single second of baseball quantified. Reynolds is being branded, by some, as a typical baseball Luddite, someone who still feels — gasp — that a sac-bunt has its place in the game. Since his move to MLB Network, he’s been painted with the “old school” brush and has frequently faced off with the Martin Luther of the stat community, Brian Kenny.

During Monday’s conference call I made sure to ask how advanced metrics and analytics would fit inside the structure of the traditional conversational baseball broadcast. The answers from the three FOX participants — Buck, Reynolds and Verducci — might surprise you.

“I’m one voting for conversation. People in the positions of power at FOX have wanted us more into the analytics,” Buck said. “I think it’s very different to just throw statistics out there that fall under one category. I still think they’re so new and they still take explanation. If it takes something to be explained over the course of multiple pitches or in some cases, multiple at-bats it’s a tough thing to carry through a half-inning. That said, I don’t think you can ignore it.”

He continued, “If it takes a long explanation, to those who don’t know what that is, I think it’s a tough sell during the game. There are shows for that. There’s the Internet for that. Outside of skimming the surface on a lot of that stuff I just think that drama and the excitement of the game might get bogged down by that stuff but I might be a dinosaur, which I can’t believe I’m saying.”

Imagine that, a broadcaster is actually concerned about the natural, human-produced drama of the game. Incredible, right?

Meanwhile Reynolds, against type, is open to analytics creeping into the broadcast booth.

“The one thing that people will be surprised about our broadcast is how current it is,” Reynolds said. “This is 2014. All the guys are current. Tom writes in the current. I broadcast everyday in this current realm where Sabermetrics can’t be denied or ignored and so it’s a compelling conversation whether you’re on one side or the other. There’s a place in the conversation for it in baseball, no doubt. I know what Joe’s talking about with the education. If there’s a window open to do it I think we’re well-versed enough to discuss it. I got my training from Brian Kenny last year. Everyday he threw a different metric at me that I had to go back and study. The main thing is, if you ignore it, you’re not current and we’re current with all these guys in the booth. Joe might joke, but we are current. We’re in it everyday in baseball. It will be part of the broadcast.”

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If there’s one quick thought on FOX’s new booth, it is nominally more current than McCarver. Reynolds may have played his last game in 1994 but has remained close to the game, working five nights a week for MLB Network, while Verducci is tapped into the game at large. How their connections come across on a broadcast remain to be seen.

Finally Verducci, the man you’d think would be positioned as the traditional foil to Reynolds, remained open-minded about analytics, but noted like Buck they have to fit into the structure of the broadcast itself.

“I think it’s a very good question and there’s definitely a place for advanced metrics in a broadcast,” said Verducci , who’ll continue to write for Sports Illustrated.  “Joe touched on the key. How easily explainable is it. You have to be sharp [about] what you introduce to the average fan. It’s an interesting dynamic. Now the hardcore super fan is more educated than ever before and more demanding than ever before. You have to be able to speak to that person without losing the average fan.

“I don’t think people tune into an average baseball broadcast and think they have to do math. You don’t want to introduce AP calculus during the game, but there’s so much data out there, so much good data you don’t want to ignore that either. I’d equate it to what hitting and pitching coaches do. Their job is to boil down the data, the noise and get it into one or two useful points. You don’t want to fill a player’s head with too much information, but you want them to absorb something from what’s out there. Our job is very similar, taking that information and applying it so it’s useful it so it’s easily understandable.”

Could a happy medium exist in this new-look FOX booth? Could the trio find a way to balance talking baseball like a couple guys around the dinner table AND appease the stat-inclined fans at the same time? Conversational baseball, for lack of a better term, and advanced statistical metrics aren’t oil and water. They can mix together and enhance one another, so long as everyone on both sides of the aisle can refrain from name calling and entrenched idealogue positions. It’s just a game of baseball, after all, isn’t it?

It might sound impossible, but until we see Buck, Reynolds and Verducci in action — starting April 5 with a Dodgers/Giants game on FOX Sports 1 — I’m willing to take an open mind before passing judgement. Granted, in the year 2014, that is one of the hardest things do on the internet.

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