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National networks need to improve their MLB broadcasts

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Better broadcasting could help the presentation of the game.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics

As Mets fans, we’re spoiled. We get to watch games on SNY and witness one of the best broadcast booths in baseball with Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling. Unfortunately, this standard of excellence is not the case for every broadcast booth in baseball. In fact, many national broadcast booths—which are by far the most viewed ones on a per-game basis—are among the poorest that you’ll find.

Every time the Mets have a nationally televised game, the downgrade in broadcast quality is evident. Obviously, nobody is expecting an unbiased, national commentator to have the wealth of knowledge about the Mets, or any team, that a local commentator would have. But the downgrade goes beyond that. The play-by-play in these broadasts is often choppy, uninspired, and sometimes minimal. The commentators lack chemistry, since national broadcasters don’t usually work together for long, with only a few exceptions. The discussions frequently involve topics not involving the game at hand—this is most prevalent on ESPN, which uses its national games to plug and discuss other sporting events on the network. But most of all, the game of baseball just comes off as vapid on these telecasts. Take, for example, this call by Kenny Albert on Fox of this Kelly Johnson home run this year:

This was a game-winning home run in the 11th inning, and the call was choppy, the emotion was mostly absent, and Albert didn’t sound like he really cared about what was happening. He is far from the only culprit of this, though. There are a multitude of examples like this from national broadcasters on every network. This call by Dan Shulman of ESPN is another example:

That was a crazy moment in a huge, divisional game with a raucous crowd, but the commentary just didn’t match up with the moment. Now, there’s something to be said about an announcer’s ability to “get out of the way” and let the game speak for itself. But at the same time, the announcer should still be able to capture the excitement of the moment as well. To be fair, there is a very fine line between the two, and it’s not easy to find the perfect balance, but it can be done.

Additionally, TBS’s coverage of the MLB postseason, in particular, has been under grand scrutiny for years. Just this past postseason, the network’s coverage was littered with graphics mistakes that should, frankly, be beneath a broadcast of this magnitude. And TBS’s commentary has not been without issue, either.

I should preface this by mentioning that Ernie Johnson is one of the best people in sports today. His story is a complete inspiration, and I encourage everyone to watch his E:60 profile; it is truly touching. He’s a very good studio host for TBS’s NBA coverage. That said, his baseball play-by-play commentary for the network seems to fall short of the mark. This was exposed the most in the 2014 AL Wild Card game, in which Johnson’s calls of some of the biggest plays in that classic game left quite a bit to be desired:

When you watched the clip of Johnson’s subdued call of the second Brandon Moss home run, you probably had to look at the scoreboard to realize how huge it was. There was nothing that would allow you to differentiate that call from a regular season game in May. What’s more, his broadcast partner, Cal Ripken, has also been criticized quite a bit for his work as a color commentator. And Ron Darling, the third member of that crew, also does not have the chemistry with Johnson and Ripken that he does on SNY with Cohen and Hernandez, and it shows.

So why is this relevant? Does any of this really make a big difference at all? Well, for die-hard baseball fans who would watch an SNY kidcaster call a game if it meant there was baseball being played, it doesn’t really matter, no. But it does matter, however, for the demographics MLB cares about the most: the young fans, and the casual fans.

One of the baseball’s biggest existential problems is its aging fan base. A part of the reason millennials and young kids have difficulty getting interested in baseball is the slow pace of the sport, and the long periods of time where nothing happens. Unenthusiastic and uninteresting commentary supplements this poorly, presenting the game as dull, and it does not make it appealing to anyone trying to get into the sport. And for that to usually be the case during the biggest games of the season, which more impressionable young and casual fans watch than any other games, is a big problem.

And the root of that problem is clear: national networks tend to go for the in-house big names for their baseball coverage, as opposed to pedigreed baseball commentators. But calling a baseball game isn’t just something anybody can do. It is incredibly difficult, and there are only a few that can do it well. It takes years of practice to refine the craft, and constant exposure to the game really helps. Ultimately, people who are exclusively baseball announcers tend to do the best job at calling baseball games, which makes sense. Kenny Albert is not primarily a baseball announcer; Ernie Johnson is not primarily a baseball announcer.

But these networks might not even have to look far or hire new talent to fix this problem. Fox has had Matt Vasgersian as their “C” announcer for the past few postseasons, behind Albert, who is their “B” guy, and Joe Buck, their “A” guy. Here is Vasgersian’s call of Rajai Davis’s dramatic home run in Game 7 of the World Series last year:

That is a tremendous call that could really draw casual fans in. But it was on MLB’s international feed, so most casual fans in the U.S. did not see it.

TBS, on the other hand, has both Brian Anderson and Don Orsillo, who are widely regarded as two of the best in the game today, and they both have covered postseason games for the network. But both of them trail Johnson in the pecking order, who is the network’s main play-by-play man for baseball, despite being inferior to both. The networks already have the right people; they just need to put them on the air.

While it may seem more like a mere annoyance on the surface, improving the broadcasts and the viewing experience of the biggest games could actually go a long way towards growing the game and drawing in more fans. And it’s very, very possible for these networks to do so.