MLB Network Aims To Make Its Mark With First Division Series Games

Somewhere in Louisville, KY — 100 miles from the nearest Major League Baseball city — an NEP Broadcasting production truck was parked and waiting for the call. Would it go to Atlanta? Maybe Detroit? How about Baltimore? Or St. Louis? Perhaps Arlington, TX?

This multitude of playoff scenarios is a dream for excited baseball fans but can be a nightmare for television production executives looking to set plans in motion.

At MLB Network, which will air its first live postseason games in its nearly four-year history with broadcasts slated for Sunday and Wednesday, execs had no idea what games the network would be carrying until this morning, when an early schedule for the League Division Series was released.

Game two of the American League Division Series between the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers will air this Sunday, at noon ET, live from Detroit’s Comerica Park. MLB Network’s Wednesday game is still to be determined, but it was surely a relief for all involved to finally have a destination set for the first telecast.

“[Director of Technical Operations] Chris Brown and [Senior Director, IT and Remote Operations] Tom Sahara from Turner Sports have been doing the heavy lifting, providing the bulk of the mobile facilities for us,” says Susan Stone, SVP of operations and engineering at MLB Network. “They send us all of the scenarios. We had 18 different scenarios [on Wednesday] before any of the games were played. I can’t commend them enough for having this organized. It’s so impressive.”

Without an idea of what teams the network would be covering, the production team did its best to do as much preparation as possible.

“The most important thing is documenting the game,” says Chris Pfeiffer, senior producer, MLB Network. “There are plenty of elements that we have been building, just generic elements that don’t pertain to the matchup. We have a bunch of people standing by in our creative services department that are ready to go with the building of those elements. So we’re at a good place; we’re just waiting on that final word about where we go and we can put all of our plans in place that we’ve been working on for the last week and a half.”

MLB Network will use much of the mobile-production facilities, cameras, and gear that Turner Sports will have in place at all the Division Series sites. That NEP truck that was on standby in Kentucky will serve as a C unit and allow the network to load up all of its own elements.

“It allows them to work independently and not affect Turner’s setup,” says Stone. “We can load the EVS with all of our elements, set up technology elements, and program our graphics.”

Virtual Defense is supported by Orad’s Invictus. The iPad app provides a graphical enhancement on a wide shot of the entire field.

A new feature that will be exclusive to MLB Network playoff telecasts is Virtual Defense. Based on Orad’s Invictus tool, the iPad application will be operated by an MLB Network broadcast associates from the C unit.

Virtual Defense is a graphical enhancement on a wide shot of the entire field. Graphics show viewers where a straight-away defense would be positioned and where the players are actually positioned and measures the distance that the players are shifted.

“This is something we have talked about for about a year,” says Pfeiffer. “The game has changed over the last 10 years: teams are starting to do a lot more research on defensively how to play certain players. So what we discussed is, how can we show that? The numbers tell the story about how Curtis Granderson pulls the ball. When can we show how to tell that story as to how the defense is playing him in response to that?”

MLB Network began using the tool on some of its exclusive Showcase games following the All-Star break and is pleased with how it has performed.

“It gives the people at home the understanding to say, ‘Hey, the third baseman has moved over by short, and he’s moved 32 ft.,’” says Pfeiffer. “Then we usually follow that up with something on why they are doing that. We’ll either show an animation where we’ll show a percentage of hits into the outfield that led to the defense putting on the shift.”

According to Stone, MLB Network will also be working with Sportvision to use its PITCHf/x tool, a feature that hasn’t been seen during a game on the network except for a quick trial run during a game at Washington two weeks ago.

All in all, MLB Network’s Division Series telecasts will have a feel similar to that of its exclusive Showcase games aired during the regular season. Those involved understand that it’s a big opportunity for the network, one they relish.

“To have exclusive content has always been a goal of ours, so we’re exceptionally pleased to have these Divisional Round games,” says Stone. “We air games all year long, but this is the first time we’re fully national, so it’s really a thrill for us.”

In the booth, Matt Vasgersian and Jim Kaat will call Sunday’s game, and Kaat will join Bob Costas for the second game on Wednesday. The games will mark Vasgersian’s first career postseason game call after 11 years in Major League Baseball (Brewers and Padres); Kaat’s first postseason game call in 17 years; and Costas’s return to the MLB postseason booth for the first time since the 2000 ALCS.

Where exactly will Costas be? That’s still to be determined.

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