Have We Learned Nothing From ESPN’s First Take?

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MLB Network’s newest show may be stealing a page from ESPN’s playbook. (Photo credit: congvo)

Apparently looking to capitalize on the heated American League MVP debate (Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera) from last season, Major League Baseball Network has been pushing a new show called MLB Now hosted by Harold Reynolds and Brian Kenny.  The show is being billed as the “old school” versus the “new school,” and this theme is reinforced vigorously in its advertising.  For example, in one of the commercials, War’s mid-seventies hit Why Can’t We Be Friends is playing in the background while Kenny extols the virtues of statistical analysis and Reynolds responds by criticizing the eggheads and saying something like, “I trust my eyes, not statistics.”  (Can’t you just picture this concept being pitched to the executives:  “It’s a cross between Moneyball and Trouble With the Curve, and a twist of Summer Catch with Harold Reynolds instead of Freddie Prinze!”)

Not only does this show sound incredibly contrived (anything that is labeled “Old School vs. New School” is ipso facto contrived), I was physically trembling when I first saw the commercial because I fear that MLB Network is taking a page from ESPN’s trusty “How-to-Generate-Ratings-By-Creating-Faux-Debates” playbook:

Step 1:  Put together two people who the audience will clearly see as opposites; i.e., a nerd versus an ex-player (John Clayton vs. Sean Salisbury), a stat-geek versus an imbecile (Keith Law vs. Rob Parker), a loudmouth jerk versus anybody (Skip Bayless versus anybody), or a loudmouth jerk versus another loudmouth jerk (Bayless versus Steven A. Smith).

Step 2:  Assign the two participants a sports issue that is trending on twitter.  (Note:  the word “issue” is to be liberally construed.)

Step 3:  If there are no trending sports issues, just ask the participants to address a controversial sports figure (preferably, Tim Tebow).

Step 4:  Provide both participants with a microphone and explain that shouting is considered an effective way to make a point.

Step 5:  Advise the participants that they are not permitted to agree on any issue and must take an extreme (read:  borderline irrational) position on each topic.

Step 6:  Embrace the debate!

Step 7:  Repeat steps 1-6 indefinitely

From a conceptual standpoint, I have two problems with MLB Network’s new show.  First, when you advertise a show as “A vs. B,” you have pigeonholed the participants and you have set audience expectations.  The participants therefore fully understand the role they are supposed to play.  With debate-style shows, I am always left wondering whether the person I am listening to speak on a subject really feels that way or if he is taking that position because it’s what is expected of him.  This is kind of like watching any “reality” show on Bravo.  Are the Real Housewives really that catty and horrible?  Yes, probably.  But, isn’t it also possible likely that these women get in so many fights and embarrassing situations because they know that this is what the viewers at home expect and what will drive ratings (and ultimately keep their paychecks coming)?  Here, the show is set up to have Kenny carry the torch for the Sabermeticians and, in response, Reynolds must defend the old school “I like the cut of his jib” approach to player evaluation.  Thus, even before a topic is presented, the show has drawn a line in this sand and instructs the audience to pick a side.

This brings me to the second issue I have with the program.   This show perpetuates the myth that there is an “old school” and a “new school” of baseball analysis.  Or, more specifically, it appears that the show is founded upon the incorrect assumption that the so-called old ways cannot jibe with the new ways.  I submit, however, that it is not an either-or proposition.  It is not necessary for anyone (writers, commentators, evaluators, fans) to classify themselves as “old school” or “new school.”  The use of advanced statistics and data represents the continued evolution of player evaluation, not the end of the purported old way of doing things.  Recent history shows that the best teams are formed by having front offices that embrace both statistical analysis and conventional means of evaluation.  

Ultimately, I sincerely hope that this show turns out to be more than MLB Network’s version of First Take, especially since I really do like Brian Kenny.  Kenny knows his stuff, has a good rapport with guests and co-hosts, and, provides his opinions without the snarky arrogance that most Sabermetric-embracing pundits seem to have (ahem, Keith Law).  At this point, it is too early to judge the direction MLB Now is heading, but I hope that  the decision to utilize the forced-debate format is not MLB Network’s first step towards the dark side.

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