New look in booth, on screen for ESPN ‘Sunday Night Baseball’
Last spring, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus would fall back on the same answer every time he was asked to predict how Tony Romo would fare in his first season as the network’s top NFL analyst.
Tony will be better in week eight than he’ll be in week one, McManus said. And he’ll be better in year two than he’ll be in year one.
McManus had little doubt that Romo would be an on-screen success. He just didn’t know how long that would take or when on-air chemistry between the former Cowboys quarterback and his booth partner Jim Nantz would take hold.
This spring, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for MLB, Phil Orlins, is facing similar questions about his network’s “Sunday Night Baseball” booth, which will look radically different this season as Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez replace Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone. Jessica Mendoza will return as an analyst and Buster Olney will return as a reporter.
Orlins’ answers about when chemistry kicks in and the new booth gels sound similar to McManus last year.
“It’s not a simple number of games — different combinations gel more quickly or less quickly than others,” Orlins said. “The indicators are good. I think they’ll need a couple of months to understand when to speak and how to take advantage of their strengths.”
As to be expected, the “Sunday Night Baseball” crew spent the past several weeks trying to develop that chemistry, spending hours watching tape, rehearsing and socializing.
At the end of February, a night before ESPN’s entire baseball crew had a group meeting in Bristol, Rodriguez and Mendoza had dinner in New York before driving up to Bristol together.
Four days later, in early March, the “Sunday Night Baseball” crew traveled to Los Angeles for a series of meetings. ESPN producers randomly picked the American League Wild Card game from last year — Yankees vs. Twins — and had Vasgersian, Mendoza and Rodriguez call about an hour and a half of it.
“To me, sitting there and pretending to do four hours of a game becomes tedious,” Orlins said. “We did enough to get a feel for when they talk and how they talk.”
The crew will do more rehearsals this week in Florida. The boothmates will call part of Wednesday’s Twins-Pirates game in private, a dry run a day before calling a March 22 Yankees-Twins game for ESPN2 at 1 p.m.
Already, Orlins sees their booth’s on-air roles developing. Vasgersian will bring his knowledgeable, relaxed delivery. Mendoza will tell stories and provide information. Rodriguez will provide a deeper dive into pure baseball strategy. And Olney will provide various topics, acting like a producer on the sideline.
“If done right, those will complement each other well,” Orlins said. “But I’m basing this on an hour-and-a-half of them practicing so far on air and a lot of conversations.”
Other changes coming to “Sunday Night Baseball”:
More on-screen graphics
ESPN will put win-loss records and the number of games behind on the screen next to the scoreboard. This graphic will remain on-screen about half the time.
“If you ask most viewers when they flip through and turn on the TV exactly where these teams are and what their records are, they probably wouldn’t know,” Orlins said.
ESPN will continue to use technology that calculates exit velocity and distance on home runs, though now it will put those stats across the top of the screen. This season, it hopes to use something Orlins calls “catch probability” for balls hit into the outfield, showing how far and how fast outfielders have to run to get to a fly ball.
“We’re working hard to develop it,” Orlins said. “It’s a simple concept, but I don’t know if fans have their brains around it yet.”
Expanded K Zone 3-D
ESPN will roll out a virtual animated replay rendering of any given pitch, showing whether it caught part of the plate or not. It used this feature three times last year, all during its Yankees-Twins Wild Card game. Orlins expects that it will be used 12 or 15 times a game this season.
“It can be really effective as a reinforcement of where a pitch was,” Orlins said.