ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball: Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Buster Olney excel, despite blowout

Broadcast review

Network: ESPN

Sunday Night Baseball,  April 18, 2021

Opponents: Atlanta Braves at Chicago Cubs, the rubber game of the three-game series

Voices – ESPN’s #A team, Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez. The two were broadcasting remotely. Buster Olney reported from the ballpark.

 What we learned

Vasgersian and A-Rod set the scene nicely, telling fans what to expect from both clubs.

  • Rodriguez said that the strength of Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks is his changeup. He said that it’s  incredibly effective when Hendricks is in front of the count and the hitter is expecting a fastball. Vasgersian added how this was Henricks’ first start since April 7th because he was scratched hours before his last the previous Tuesday. Hendricks had been experiencing COVID symptoms that turned out to be related to his allergies. But for precaution purposes he wasn’t permitted to play. He was tested for the virus and the results were negative.  On Sunday, Hendricks was shelled, giving up six runs in the top of the first inning.
  • ESPN Re-Signs World Series Champion Alex Rodriguez and Play-By-Play Voice Matt Vasgersian as Sunday Night Baseball Team Returns in 2021 - ESPN Press Room U.S.The Cubs have been laboring this season, so much so that Vasgersian shared an eye-popping stat: Entering the weekend series, the Braves pitching staff had a higher batting average than the Cubs’ position players!
  • Rodriguez pointed out that the Cubs have failed to effectively hit fastballs during  this young season causing big failures at the plate. A-Rod says the Cub batters are often behind in their swings against the fastball. After Anthony Rizzo hit his first homerun, Rodriguez added that Braves pitcher Brian Wilson had beaten Rizzo with three straight fastballs (two strikes and a foul ball), then he did Rizzo a “favor” by throwing a slider. After forcing Rizzo to swing quickly against fastballs, the slider was like a batting practice pitch which Rizzo walloped.
  • Buster Olney joined the crew from Wrigley and contributed tangibly. Olney provided updates on the two opponents and sprinkled in developments from around the league as well. He let fans know that Braves’ star Ronald Acuna Jr. left the game with a lower abdominal pain the result of a headfirst slide back to first base on a pickoff attempt (4th inning). Olney added color about Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman’s decision who continued to play during COVID last season. Early into last season, Freeman had a temperature of 104.5 due to COVID and seriously contemplated skipping the rest of the season. But he decided not to after his wife texted him saying, “You didn’t come this far, to only come this far.” Freeman said that the text helped him get back on the diamond and eventually become last year’s MVP of the National League.
  • As we all know too well, baseball is filled with lulls and long pauses. It is the announcer’s job to help keep fans interested through all the stoppages. During one of these moments, in the top of the 5th inning, the crew got into a discussion about the Cubs’ future. With key players like Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant becoming free agents soon, Vasgersian asked his colleagues whether the Cubs should re-sign their players or let them go? Olney says fans can expect the Cubs to make their decision around mid-June to either try and build around this team or unload them at the trade deadline. Rodriguez then asked Olney if the Cubs were to keep only one of the three which one would it be? Olney said it would be Rizzo because Baez already turned down a $185-million-dollar extension before COVID, and Bryant’s agent is Scott Boras whose players usually hit the free agency market.
  • After Baez’ strikeout on a pitch way out of the zone, Rodriguez gave his thoughts on baseball’s new “all-or-nothing” approach. He said Baez stuck out because he unloaded a swing with the intention of hitting the ball into the stands. Instead, he needs to worry about making solid contact with the ball. Rodriguez says this is a problem that has infiltrated baseball. Teams are trying to teach players how to pitch with very high velocity or find hitters with big, long golf swings that either result in home-runs or strike outs. Rodriguez believes finding and developing more players like Yankees star DJ LeMahieu or Rizzo will help make the game more dynamic and create more action. He also thinks it will create more excitement for the fan than the “all-or-nothing” home-run or strikeout approach that most players bring to today’s game.
  • One of the best features of the broadcast was when Vasgersian interviewed former Cubs great, Hall of Famer Billy Williams. Billy played for years with Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. Williams grew up in Alabama and shared stories about his good friend and fellow Alabaman, Hank Aaron. Williams talked about the old days when guys would just sit down and talk baseball for hours. Williams spent 16 seasons with Chicago and another 15 as a coach.
  • Vasgersian did a solid job from start to finish. Viewers are warming up to him. Assisted by some graphics, Matt was able to share interesting facts with the audience, like how Baez has the highest whiff rate this year. He swings and misses over 52% of the time. When the Braves blew the game open, Vasgersian resoorted to setting up his partners with talking points.
  • The play-by-player also said that many consider this iteration of the Cubs to be a failure. Yes, they won a World Series, but Matt said that Cubs fans expected more. He then pointed out the Cubs’ inability to develop pitchers which has stymied their success. Rodriguez chimed in saying the Cubs have spent a lot of first round picks on position players and not enough on pitchers.
  • Overall, the crew did a fine job coming up with topics to keep fans engaged during the blowout, a 13-4 Atlanta win. As the innings dragged along, Vasgersian and Rodriguez were able to entertain and inform. The ESPN crew gets an A.
Brian Seitz

Brian Seitz is a student at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and hopes to pursue a career as a sportswriter.

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