The 2018 MLB Postseason is done and dusted, and the Boston Red Sox are (once again) World Champions. While viewership for the World Series was disappointing, the Postseason prior to the Fall Classic drew strong enough ratings, though there weren’t too many memorable moments throughout this year’s playoffs.
With that in mind, we’re going to run down the good, the bad, and the mehs (in other words, not great, not awful, but somewhere in the middle) of this year’s MLB Postseason coverage across ESPN, Fox, and Turner.
GOOD: Brian Anderson. Anderson stepped in for Ernie Johnson as Turner’s main MLB play by play voice this Postseason, and was excellent. His work with the Milwaukee Brewers during the regular season is often praised by fans of the Brewers as well as other teams, and he’s also done a great job working the NCAA Tournament for Turner. But baseball is clearly his bread and butter, and Anderson took advantage of the opportunity this October with Turner, despite being paired with an up and down Ron Darling. With all due respect to Johnson, Anderson and Don Orsillo should return as the play by play broadcasters for the MLB Postseason on TBS in 2019. They were both fantastic, despite the AL Postseason largely being a walk in the park for the Red Sox.
BAD: Narratives. Hey, did you know that the Brewers use their bullpen a lot? Were you aware that the Dodgers have a very strong, versatile bench and can mix and match their players at most positions? Have you heard that the Braves are young, Jose Altuve has been banged up all year, and that no one knows what the hell is happening with Chris Sale’s health? I really feel like the game broadcasts beat these narratives, and many others, to death during the playoffs. I understand you’re playing to an audience that may or may not have watched baseball all season, but after the third or fourth time talking about bullpenning in one game, I think everyone got the point…and yet, the narrative was still slammed down our throats.
And furthermore, when a narrative didn’t necessarily pan out, it was STILL referenced and cited as if it did! The Brewers didn’t lose the NLCS to the Dodgers because of bullpenning – they lost because their offense didn’t show up and they scored one run at home in Game 7. That wasn’t the spin coming out of the series – so much of the focus was on Wade Miley getting pulled early in Game 5, or Josh Hader getting used early (and completely shutting the Dodgers, who were already winning when he came in, down during his time on the hill) instead of likely NL MVP Christian Yelich and key trade deadline acquisitions Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop not showing up.
MEH: Advertising. I confess – at first, I sort of liked the Google Assistant ads that plagued the LCS on both TBS and Fox. Then…they kept coming. And they didn’t stop. And I was completely over them by the end of Game 2. But hey, it was somewhat unique, and then Apple’s Siri used a similar format during the World Series, and I was just about over all of the digital personal assistants on the market.
YouTube TV had a number of ads during the World Series, as the presenting sponsor, and I thought they were repetitive, but still somewhat well-placed and unique. The Mila Kunis (I think) voiced ad (featuring only Fox programming, for the record) talking up YouTube TV as the future of TV was long and ridiculous, but the cuts that shrunk the game into a YouTube TV browser on the scoreboard at the stadium were pretty great (at least the first few times).
As for the cutaways….holy shit, there really were a lot of cutaways, weren’t there? It seemed like Fox knew they could squeeze an extra ad in during the game every inning or two, and would roll out a split screen ad for Taco Bell, or some other company. Fox has been doing this for awhile in plenty of sports, but it seemed most striking to me during these playoffs.
My main complaint with the advertising is this – there was way too much of the same style of advertising, despite the concepts being interesting. If viewers only had to deal with one Google Assistant/Siri ad per game instead of three (or however many there were), maybe I wouldn’t have been inspired to write that anti-Google article a couple weeks ago.
GOOD: Dugout reporters. No one ever notices the reporters. This year, I did, and they all did a good to great job. When the aforementioned Wade Miley was pulled early in Game 5 and John Smoltz was shocked into silence, Ken Rosenthal was there to explain the logic behind the move and confirm that it actually was planned. Rosenthal and Tom Verducci continually asked interesting questions on Fox and also showed off their reporting chops. Jon Morosi and Hazel Mae each only worked one series, but were fine (at worst). Lauren Shehadi arguably shined the most on TBS, showing off the personality that’s made her so popular on MLB Network’s MLB Central and also asking interesting questions and getting good answers. The reporters during these Postseason have clearly been immersed in the game all year, and it showed in their work.
BAD: Anti-thinking analysis. I could not deal with so much of the anti-thinking, anti-progress, anti-stat commentary we saw during these playoffs. So many of the broadcasters seemed like they were annoyed by teams thinking outside of the box, and instead of explaining why teams did what they did, they simply criticized the moves and came off as dinosaurs. Tell me why teams shift, instead of lambasting teams on the one or two occasions per game where the shift doesn’t work. Dive into the logic behind bullpenning instead of wondering why a mediocre starter has been pulled so early.
I felt like so many of the analysts during these playoffs didn’t bother to “analyze” anything, and that the play by play broadcasters didn’t even push them into breaking down what was going on! Isn’t that the whole point of having an analyst in the booth? For all of John Smoltz’s insightful analysis into pitching, he missed so many opportunities to explain why teams were doing things that don’t follow traditional patterns. Grow the game and explain what’s happening instead of complaining that things have changed and aren’t the way they were.
MEH: Studio shows. I thought the Fox pre and post game shows were something of a mess, with Kevin Burkhardt doing a good job as traffic cop and the three analysts trying to be louder and jokier than their colleagues. Alex Rodriguez continues to regress with more exposure, and he no longer stands out from the crop of MLB studio analysts and is just another face in the crowd. I’ve never thought David Ortiz was very good at this – he’s loud and jokey, and I can’t tell you one thing he actually broke down or one moment that stood out.
Turner’s studio coverage was a bit better, but still didn’t stand out too much. Gary Sheffield was forgettable, and he’s really going to need to do more than a month of analysis a season if he wants to get better at this. Pedro Martinez was excellent, as usual. Jimmy Rollins showed flashes of brilliance, but like Sheffield, needs to do this more if he wants to really shine and stand out from the pack. Host Casey Stern was also fine/professional/dry/whatever other similar adjective you want to use, but had less to do than Burkhardt.
Overall for the two networks, their studio coverage was about what you’d expect – no one is going to rave about the coverage (like two years ago with the Pete Rose/ARod bromance), and no one is legitimately going to claim it was a blight on humanity. It just sort of “was”.
GOOD: Respect for the past. Joe Buck did one of the coolest things I can remember during Game 2 of the NLCS when he stepped aside for an inning and let Brewers broadcasting legend Bob Uecker take over for an inning. It was a wonderful gesture from Buck, and one he was willing to extend to Vin Scully had the Dodgers legend didn’t shy away from the spotlight in retirement.
BAD: Series length. This isn’t something MLB, Fox, or Turner could control, but after the regular season ended with two Game 163 tiebreakers, the league and their TV partners were amped for a strong Postseason. It didn’t really happen. The NLDS matchups went three and four games, as did the two ALDS matchups. The ALCS was over in five, and while the NLCS did go seven, the World Series was done and dusted in five games. That’s seven games over the minimum games combined for the seven series matchups – and if you take out the NLCS, you’re looking at four extra games over six series. Talk about missed opportunities.
MEH: Start times/ratings/etc. I’m not a “get off my lawn” guy like Chris Russo is, at least when it comes to start times. I admit that starting games after 8 PM wasn’t ideal for those on the east coast, but it’s not as if this is a new thing that’s just come into existence over the last few years. If start times for World Series games were pushed earlier, you’re starting them still during the work day for most on the west coast, and the games in Los Angeles would have somehow had a worse traffic situation (given that their three games took place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). However, I do think the insistence during the Division Series of making sure that either the Braves-Dodgers or Yankees-Red Sox series was in primetime was a bit ridiculous (something that Alex Bregman of the Astros agrees with wholeheartedly).
As for TV ratings, it was a mixed bag for MLB. Turner’s coverage was up from both 2016 and 2017. ESPN’s Wild Card game broadcast was up from last year. Fox’s coverage heading into the World Series was down from last year, and the NLCS resulted in particularly disappointing ratings and viewership. The World Series, which many had high hopes for given the LA and Boston markets involved, has taken a bath, with the first four games all down (and Games 2, 3, and 4 all seeing double digit drops). Overall, the Postseason is going to finish down from both 2016 and 2017, which stems the flow of good news for MLB Postseason ratings from the last two years.
Sure, maybe it’s not “fair” to compare the 2018 World Series to either 2016 or 2017, but this World Series is trending lower than Royals-Mets from 2015. That’s not the comparison you want, and while overall viewership will probably surpass both the 2012 and 2014 matchups, we could end up looking at one of the five least viewed World Series matchups ever. That’s inconceivable, and represents a massive step back for Major League Baseball.