A quick perusal of Fan Interference’s archives will reveal that I have been quite hard on ESPN for the last two years. One reason for this is the network’s ubiquity; it is everywhere, creating a shortage of other targets for my criticism. Another is its tendency to employ shoddy analysts that produce equally lousy insight, all while maintaining a misguided sense of entitlement. I do not begrudge ESPN for its enormous success, just for its general inability or unwillingness to be a pioneer in sports coverage in a meaningful way.
Recently, however, ESPN has made a small change that has challenged my near-instinctive distaste for the network’s products. The powers that be decided to start including the statistic OPS in the network’s baseball telecasts. Traditionally, graphical overlays have shown an individual player’s batting average (yuck), home runs (excellent), and RBI (gag). Now, it would appear that ESPN is attempting to make OPS an accepted part of our general sports lexicon by adding it to the preceding three statistics.
Having battled every urge to condemn this change as unacceptably tardy, I have decided that I admire the decision-makers for making this adjustment. Taking risks to affect change in the face of overwhelming cultural opposition is a bold act. This is especially true when that cultural opposition is the baseball community, which is not exactly known for its willingness to embrace new ideas. Those responsible for this change must have known that a sizable amount of their audience would look at this new statistic with confusion at best and indignation at worst. But they also probably wagered that there are people out there like me, or, more realistically, people who are comfortable with evaluating information that might conflict with their usual way of thinking. I give the network tremendous credit and my genuine appreciation for taking such a risk.
There are certainly problems with the way ESPN is using OPS, and even problems within the statistic itself. In the former case, the network shows the player’s OPS relative to his league’s average figure. For example, tonight’s Brewers-Indians telecast compared Asdrubal Cabrera’s OPS of .802 to the American League’s average of .759. The unfamiliar viewer could understandably look at this figures and conclude that Cabrera is a slightly above-average hitter, when in fact his OPS is quite good for a middle infielder. This lack of context is a fairly glaring weakness in the network’s admirable use of the statistic. Ideally, the production team would compare the player’s OPS to those of his positional peers. This easy change would impart some valuable context and, consequently, useful information to the audience.
With a little more thought, ESPN could have implemented this change more meaningfully. That should not, however, detract too much from the network’s bold effort to adapt to the changing sports landscape. The reason for this effort matters very little to me. What matters is that they’re trying, and really, what more can you ask of someone?