Welcome back, baseball. For those of you who don't know, I am a New York Mets fan, and therefor, I need baseball back like a need a dagger to the spleen. I assume, however, that many other people actually see the return of MLB as a positive in their life. Even for me, it means Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, and the rest of baseball's broadcasters return.
Four national networks will air coverage of baseball games during the 2013 season, the last time that will happen before it increases to five in 2014. I talked to some people behind the scenes at each network in an effort to give you a guide to every network's plans to televise America's Pastime from now until October.
Schedule: Fox remains home to the World Series through 2021, which will mark Fox's 26th year of broadcasting baseball (I KNOW!). This is the final year of Game of the Week, once a baseball institution, airing exclusively on broadcast television. Fox will air MLB coverage on 24 Saturdays this season, and eight of the games will be in prime time.
Every American team (but not the star-studded Toronto Blue Jays) will make an appearance on Fox this season, and every U.S. based club will get at least one home game during Fox's eight-week sojourn into prime time. Coverage debuts Saturday, April 6 at 3:30 p.m. ET with regional coverage: New York Yankees-Detroit, St. Louis-San Francisco, Los Angeles Angels-Texas. Fox will also air the 84th MLB All-Star Game from Citi Field in Queens on Tuesday, July 16.
Baseball Shows: Fox operates a half-hour pre-game show out of MLB Network's studios in Secaucas, N.J. I was pleased to see Fox bring back the pre-game show after a hiatus of a couple years, and I think it was a great showcase for how well MLB Network's crew does baseball. MLB Player Poll will also return and air an hour prior to Fox's broadcasts.
Broadcast Teams: This will be Tim McCarver's final season broadcasting baseball nationally on a full-time basis. Joe Buck, McCarver and Ken Rosenthal remain Fox's lead baseball crew, though as always, Buck will be away for many weeks due to NFL commitments. Buck and McCarver have been Fox's lead pair for 18 years now. That crew (along with Erin Andrews) will call the American League Championship Series and the World Series together this season.
Fox will also be borrowing game analysts from MLB Network, with Harold Reynolds, Eric Byrnes and Kevin Millar expected to contribute. Don't forget the usual Fox voices (Thom Brennaman, Kenny Albert, Dick Stockton, Eric Karros, etc.) who usually hang out with you on Saturdays.
Studio Crew: As previously mentioned, MLB Network runs Fox's pre-game show, meaning you can expect a rotating cast of characters from that network on Fox's coverage, though Matt Vasgersian anchored the network's playoff and World Series coverage last season.
New Stuff: Fox probably changes it's baseball coverage the least of the three networks that broadcast games, but the eight weeks in a row of prime time baseball remain an excellent add-on. Fox will also move all of its September baseball broadcasts to 1 p.m. ET, to prevent conflict with the network's college football package.
In 2014: Fox Sports as a company gains more baseball, while Fox as a broadcast network loses much of it. Fox will keep a 12-week, primetime Saturday package of MLB games, along with the World Series and All-Star Game, while a full 26-week schedule of games will air on Fox Sports 1, which will launch Aug. 17. Fox Sports 1 will also air half of the Division Series and may get afternoon LCS games. The network may also challenge MLB Network and ESPN in the studio department, as FS1 will air a nightly MLB look-in show once 2014 begins.
Schedule: ESPN continues to air baseball three nights a week, with Sunday Night Baseball beginning it's 24th season on Opening Night, as new AL West rivals Texas and Houston battle at Minute Maid Park. Monday Night Baseball launches it's 11th season the next day with a quadruple-header featuring Red Sox-Yankees, Giants-Dodgers, Phillies-Braves and Cardinals-Diamondbacks (the latter pair airing on ESPN2). Wednesday Night Baseball launches Season 24 on April 3 with a doubleheader of Red Sox-Yankees and Giants-Dodgers on ESPN2.
Baseball Shows: Baseball Tonight also begins it's 24th year, airing nightly across ESPN and ESPN2.
Broadcast Teams: John Kruk joins Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser in the Sunday Night booth, with Buster Olney reporting. Dave O'Brien teams with Aaron Boone and Rick Sutcliffe on Mondays, with reporter Tim Kurkjian. The Wednesday Night Baseball booth... well, we'll get to that in a minute.
Studio Crew: Karl Ravech remains the best baseball host in the business, and he helms all of the big editions of Baseball Tonight, including the two-hour edition preceding Sunday's season opener. Alex Cora (a new edition), Barry Larkin (who recently re-signed with ESPN) and Curt Schilling will join him on that show. Doug Glanville, Aaron Boone, Manny Acta, Chris Singleton, Nomar Garciaparra and literally anyone else I mentioned above will also rotate in and out of Bristol this season.
New Stuff: Wednesday Night Baseball will have broadcasters that cater to the specific matchup. Sean McDonough will be the play-by-play on some nights, but that role will rotate throughout the season, as will the analysts working the game. An ESPN representative explained it to me as such: If the Red Sox are on, you might see Schilling or Garciaparra, whereas if the network is airing an Indians game, Manny Acta may be in the booth. Or, for example, if you get a good pitching matchup, Mark Mulder will be out there.
It's an interesting idea. Wednesday night broadcasts are still blacked out in the local markets (more on that in a second), so taking a shot at pumping up some buzz for the game by assigning broadcasters associated with that particular game is a new one, but you never know, it might just add a few more viewers.
In 2014: ESPN's going to increase its baseball programming in the new contract, and it's easy to see that the network got one of the better deals out of the new rights agreement. ESPN will add 10 extra games to its schedule in 2014, while blackouts will end for Monday night and most Wednesday night broadcasts, which means likely better ratings. Finally, ESPN will alternate one of the two Wild Cards with TBS, marking its first playoff broadcasts since 2006.
Happy Recap: For more to the ESPN side of things, I spoke to Mike McQuade, VP of Production for the network. I asked him about which potential broadcasters could work on this Wednesday Night Baseball rotation, and he responded simply, "if you work in baseball at ESPN, you will get out there."
McQuade seemed to feel that Wednesday night games were being a tad overlooked, and this could be a way to get fans to tune in whenever games coexist with their local carrier. It's an idea McQuade feels is tailor made to ESPN's baseball coverage. "We have guys who will speak their mind, but they've been in the studio the whole time."
One of the most interesting things we spoke about was the advancement of analytics and advanced stats in baseball. He sees it as a key element. "People are getting contracts and making trades based on these numbers. I told my staff, 'we can be traditionalists all we want, but this is the way the game is going,'" he said. "We were presenting WAR all season last year before the Trout-Cabrera [MVP battle]. You have to use it in a responsible way, but this is something we have to use."
He is excited about ESPN getting into the Wild Card, but cites Opening Day (and to a lesser extent, the Home Run Derby) as the network's big event. "Every team has a chance, and we love to cover it."
Schedule: TBS gets a flex schedule of Sunday afternoon games every week for the final time this season. It doesn't air the games in the local markets, so it largely just takes whatever it wants. The network will launch with Yankees-Tigers on Sunday, April 7. Their first eight weeks features the Bronx Bombers three times, and two appearances each from Atlanta, Boston, the Dodgers, Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Dodgers are the only team west of Detroit making an appearance on TBS through the end of May.
This will be TBS's last year of airing every Division Series game (save for the two MLB Network gets access to each year) and both Wild Cards. The rotation also gives TBS the National League Championship Series in 2013.
Baseball Shows: TBS rarely has a studio show during the regular season, but it will air the MLB All-Star Selection Show for the final time this summer. MLB on Deck and Inside MLB return when October rolls around the corner.
Broadcast Teams: Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and John Smoltz remain the lead broadcast crew for MLB on TBS. All the regulars on TBS you're familiar with from the postseason (Brian Anderson, Cal Ripken, Dennis Eckersley) will chip in throughout the year.
Studio Crew: Again, rarely will TBS use a studio show during the regular season, but expect the usual pieces to return when it does.
In 2014: TBS will cut down its schedule greatly in 2014. Half of the Sunday games will be gone, giving the network just 13 weeks of Sunday afternoons at the end of the regular season. Those games, however, will be allowed to coexist with local broadcasts in the markets of the teams playing. TBS will also cut down on LDS games, as they'll only get two series, as opposed to four.
Schedule: MLB Network has an exhausting flex schedule of live baseball throughout the year. It airs games pretty much every night of the week that Fox and ESPN aren't on the air, with its main focus coming on about four to five games per month with MLB Network Showcase games, for which the network provides its own production crew. MLB Network will air 26 live games in April alone, with five exclusive showcase games. The first of these airs on April 2, when the network broadcasts Giants-Dodgers.
MLB Network wraps up the season with two Division Series games, one out of each league. I spoke to the network's Senior VP of Production, Mark Loomis, who said that these games -- as well as the World Baseball Classic -- "get people who may not know about us to tune in." The WBC, especially, got people into baseball earlier than in years past.
Baseball Shows: Well, how much time do you have? The Emmy-nominated MLB Tonight remains the flagship, airing Monday-Saturday nights at 6 p.m. ET when there isn't a game, as well as Sunday afternoons, and providing all the look-ins and highlights around baseball. Intentional Talk, with Chris Rose and Kevin Millar is back and airs weeknights at 5 p.m. ET. The mid-afternoon show, The Rundown, airs weekdays from 2-4 p.m. ET. The big show the network has put a lot of heft behind is MLB Now, which premieres on April 1 at 8 p.m. ET and settles into a Monday-Friday slot at 4 p.m. ET on April 3. More on that in a moment.
Also, on Friday nights, MLB Strike Zone returns. Available on select cable providers, as well as both DirecTV and DISH, the channel launches at 7 p.m. ET every Tuesday and Friday and airs, commercial free, providing a live whip-around to key moments throughout every major league game. Loomis said that Strike Zone has helped the network determine the pacing of MLB Tonight. "You find that, around 10 p.m. ET, there's a lot of games ending and that's when it might be time to go faster with the highlights. But sometimes, you remember that we have a lot of analysts here and you may want to slow things down." There haven't been talks to expand the show to more nights as of yet.
Quick Pitch airs every night at 1 a.m. ET and repeats throughout the early morning to recap all of the day's action.
Broadcast Teams: Bob Costas and Jim Kaat remain MLB Network's lead broadcast team, though other play-by-play men and analysts will rotate in and out. Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz will also call games for the network. Sam Ryan and Tom Verducci are reporters.
Studio Crew: Well ... the network has a lot of people, can we just say that? (MLB Network representatives silently shake their heads, saying no) Fine. Hosts for MLB Net's studio programming include Vasgersian, Kenny, Rose, Ryan, Greg Amsinger, Scott Braun, Alanna Rizzo, Paul Severino Lauren Shehadi, Heidi Watney and Matt Yallof. The list of analysts is just as long, featuring the Emmy-nominated Billy Ripken and Harold Reynolds, as well as Larry Bowa, Eric Byrnes, Sean Casey, Darryl Hamilton, John Hart, Al Leiter, Mike Lowell, Joe Magrane, Dan Plesac, John Smoltz, Dave Valle and Mitch Williams. Peter Gammons, Jon Heyman, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci contribute as insiders. Phew.
New Stuff: MLB Now stars Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds, who will, according to a network press release, "represent two different groups of baseball fans and how they watch the game today as Kenny, armed with his analytic acumen, will match wits with 12-year MLB veteran Reynolds on daily news across the league, including everything from second-guessing a crucial managerial move in a game to discussing whether or not a player should be signed to a long-term contract." The show will also feature guests and interviews, and social media polling to help guide debates.
The idea, according to Loomis, came from last season, "when we had Kenny and Reynolds together on MLB Tonight a lot." The Cabrera/Troup MVP race and the argument that sprung from it sort of showed there was an appetite for a show like that, "without having to cut away to game highlights."
Kristina Akra, who covered the Nationals for MASN last year, joins the network this season and will make her debut on MLB Now. Fran Charles moves from NFL Network to MLB Network to host MLB Tonight.
Last season, MLB Network experimented with using graphics that would help explain defensive shifts. Those will go into further detail this year, says Loomis. They'll use "virtual spray charts" to help explain both the technical (how far the defenders are moving) and logistical (why are they doing it) aspects of positioning.
In 2014: Not much changes for MLB Network with the next contract, since it already has most of the games and access to the postseason.
Happy Recap: It should be noted, from my conversation with Loomis, that viewers shouldn't go into MLB Now expecting an attitude of ... how do I put this lightly ... an embrace of debate? Reynolds and Kenny have "a respect for one another's arguments," which come from a more philosophical place, rather than a debate for debate's sake.
Finally, one more note on sabermetrics: Loomis says that it "absolutely" has a place in MLB Network's studio shows, "though sometimes you have to pull back on it a bit." He cited Kenny's offseason Clubhouse Confidential as a place where you could go, "and for 30 minutes, you knew everything was coming from [that perspective]." It was very encouraging to hear such a positive attitude regarding advanced stats from both McQuade and Loomis, considering the two men oversee production at the networks that broadcast the most baseball content every year. There was no questioning whether or not these aspects of baseball analysis belong, but rather where they fit in to both networks' baseball programming.