With the 2019 regular season in the books, today starts the MLB postseason with the airing of the American League Wild Card Game. For ESPN, who will air the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s (8 p.m. ET), it gives them a chance to crack open their technology toolbox for both the average fan, and those that want to dig deeper into the numbers. For the first time, ever, ESPN will air not just a traditional broadcast on their flagship station, but a Statcast AI broadcast on ESPN2. The game will be called on ESPN by Matt Vasgersian, analysts Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza and reporter Buster Olney. On ESPN2, the game will see Jason Benetti do play-by-play with analyst Eduardo Perez and MLB Statcast analyst Mike Petriello. The Statcast broadcast was first experimented with as part of this year’s Home Run Derby, which ESPN said garnered good ratings for an add-on broadcast. ESPN informs that for the first time at the Wild Card Game, ESPN will broadcast an additional hour of Baseball Tonight on ESPN2. Benetti, Perez and Petriello will provide extended Statcast-based coverage preceding the game.
As to what technology fans will see across both broadcasts, it runs the gamut. To start, ESPN upgraded mid-season this year to all 1080p cameras which allows the game to be broadcast in 4K. Introduced last year, ESPN will use their K-Zone 3D to give a better perspective on balls through the strike zone at any angle. Using MLB’s Statcast data, it lays over a computer-generated virtual ballpark. Additionally, the broadcast will see the use of ESPN’s Hit Tracker that was first introduced during last season’s Wild Card game and used throughout this year’s regular season broadcasts. Like K-Zone 3D, it uses Statcast data to visualize the tracking of the ball as it leaves the bat, and most notably used for home runs to see launch angle and exit velocity of the ball off the bat. As to how critical Statcast data is to provide additional visualization and context, senior executives at ESPN said it was a game-changer.
Statcast Data Visualized for spray charts
“Statcast is very important,” said Mark Gross, ESPN senior VP of production. “It’s where the game is at with exit velocity, launch angle, and defensive shifts. And with baseball being such a stat driven game, the use of Statcast and other analytics provides us with additional resources for fans, as well as players, staff, and personnel as an additional lens to look through at the game.”
There will also be what ESPN dubs as the Front Row Cam, a robotic camera that is situated in a narrow box and mounted in the field behind home plate and features robotic pan, tilt and zoom controls.
Statcast data used to show K Zone 3D
But if there’s one technical aspect that has garnered the most buzz for ESPN and their baseball broadcasts, it’s the use of what they call 4D Replay. Introduced as part of the 2018 Home Run Derby broadcast, the system utilizes more than 100 4K cameras placed throughout the stadium surrounding home plate and the pitcher’s mound, capturing a 180-degree view of a batter at the plate and the pitcher on the mound. What it allows for the production team to do is rotate views around batter and pitcher in a stopped frame to see body position from a sweeping view.
As to how it ties all together, ESPN will leverage the tried-and-true story telling that comes with baseball broadcasts. To add a twist to the game on ESPN, Vasgersian, Mendoza, and Rodriguez will broadcast from the seats, as they have done for several broadcasts during the regular season. The key is that visualized data adds one more piece of telling the game story which helps retain viewers in the hyper-competitive media landscape.
“Whether it’s Statcast data visualized, 4D Replay, or storytelling, the additional technology is just one piece in the overall resources at our disposal to provide our viewers,” Gross added. “You take all of these aspects in our toolbox. At the end of the day, it’s our job to use them all to tell a story.”
ADDITIONAL ESPN WILD CARD GAME INFO
For those that can’t watch the game, ESPN has exclusive rights to the AL Wild Card Game on ESPN Radio. Dan Shulman will provide play-by-play with Chris Singleton providing commentary for the American League Wild Card Game on ESPN Radio. ESPN Radio will also provide coverage of the National League Wild Card Game Oct. 1 with Jon Sciambi and analyst Jim Bowden on the call at 8 p.m.