7/21/2014 12:23 P.M. ET
Astros telecasts catching on to advanced metrics
CSN Houston integrating core sabermetric stats like WAR into daily broadcasts
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- The addition of advanced metrics to the baseball landscape has prompted fans to generally fall into one of two categories: those who are intrigued by them, and those who have absolutely no interest.
Concepts such as WAR and BABIP and the more mainstream OPS aren't for everyone, but there is a segment of the baseball-watching society that digs that kind of stuff. How much of the general population? Well, that's up for debate.
Most either like it or loathe it, although "loathe" is probably too harsh of a word. Disinterest often stems from a lack of understanding, which is a reasonable explanation for the segment of the fanbase that prefers to take in a ballgame the old fashioned way -- contemplating how many home runs the cleanup hitter has hit in a season without also wondering how his BABIP stacks up against others in the league, or what Player X's wRC projects over the course of a season and how that will affect his team's place in the standings.
Eyes glazed over already? Totally understandable -- and, with proper context, possibly reversible. That's what the folks in charge of the Astros' telecasts have in mind, as they gently invoke basic advanced metrics into daily broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet Houston.
During a typical Astros TV game, it's not out of the ordinary to see graphics pop up on screen that don't fall into the normal batting average/home runs/RBIs categories. While those statistics are readily available and used often, those working in the TV truck have added advanced metrics to the presentation -- the same metrics most front offices use daily to evaluate players.
The difference, of course, is that the formulas used by front offices are a little outside the realm of what most of us understand -- or, quite frankly, want to understand. That's not what the TV production crew is going for. Instead, it takes some of the information that it finds interesting and presents it in a way that will, hopefully, intrigue the masses.
The idea was bandied about last year by CSN Houston senior producer Carl Patterson, who discussed with his staff how to realistically work some of this into the telecasts. Because the Astros' front office relies so much on advanced metrics, introducing some of it, independently, into the telecasts seemed like a logical next step. The question was, how to do it?
"Normally, the standard thing is RBIs, batting average, home runs," Patterson said. "Last year, we talked about doing a whole game where we just talked about sabermetrics stuff. But we kind of realized that none of us understood it well enough to talk about it intelligently. So I spent the offseason just thinking about how to do it."
The best course of action, Patterson decided, was to pick just a few metrics -- the ones that are easy for the layman to understand -- and work those into the telecast.
Like, for exmaple, WAR. What is it good for?
WAR -- Wins Above Replacement -- actually is not so much of an enigma anymore. It has worked its way into the more mainstream baseball lexicon for quite some time, and better yet, it's easy to understand.
The premise is simple: If Player A gets hurt and his team has to replace him with a Minor Leaguer or bench player, how much value is lost from a team standpoint? The value is shown by wins. So, conceivably, Player A could be worth +3.7 wins, while his teammate, Player B, may be worth only +1.5 wins.
This is something Astros TV analyst Alan Ashby -- who admittedly is not a huge sabermetrics fan -- feels comfortable with, and often expounds on it when a WAR stat pops up on screen.
"One of the reasons that I bring it up is some part of it is subjective on the defensive side," Ashby said. "You've got Mike Trout from a couple of years ago that has so much WAR positive created on his defensive side. That's the kind of stuff that makes it intriguing to me."
Patterson limits the metrics-speak to five main concepts: WAR, BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), wRC (Weighted Runs Created), FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and Z-Contact% (Inside-the-zone contact percentage).
"I feel like five is enough," Patterson said. "Pick five that make sense to our guys, then talk about it fluently and passionately."
And that doesn't mean everyone has to agree they're relevant.
"It's OK to say, as an old-school baseball guy, 'I don't care for that,'" Patterson said. "If the numbers make sense and they're justifiable, they'll make sense in an argument."
Bill Brown, who's been broadcasting baseball since the 1970s and Astros games since the '80s, has enjoyed working advanced metrics chatter into his conversations. He's also a fan of WAR, because it's less confining than more traditional stats. Where else can a pitcher's value be compared to that of a hitter?
"It's an attempt to attach one number to a player that covers the entire offense-defense spectrum of the game," Brown said. "It's attempting to put hitters and pitchers on same footing. Is Clayton Kershaw more valuable than Miguel Cabrera? We don't have to lump all the pitchers over here and all the hitters over there. Let's mix them up and say, 'Which would you rather have?' I think it's an interesting debate and easy to talk about."
The advantage to television is that a graphic doesn't always need an explanation. The visual can speak for itself at times when a broadcaster is talking about a different subject or in the middle of calling a play.
If a sabermetric graphic pops up on screen and the announcers leave it alone, Patterson has the option to also run a definition of that particular term, alongside the term itself.
That takes the onus off the broadcasters to delve into something if the timing isn't right, while taking nothing away from what the viewers are watching. It makes for a smooth, unobtrusive experience that doesn't feel forced -- for the broadcasters, who find sabermetrics tolerable in moderation, or the fans, who have varying degrees of interest.
"My thought was just to try to introduce people to it, in a way they can understand, and that tells stories about players they're watching," Patterson said. "It engages them in a way they can't normally do, just by sitting there and watching. For the people that watch, I think a lot of them are liking this side of it."