ESPN Vice President of Production Phil Orlins answered questions Wednesday regarding ESPN’s production of the T-Mobile Home Run Derby, 2022 MLB Draft and the ongoing in-game conversations with players during Sunday Night Baseball. Below is a transcript of the call. For more information about ESPN’s significant week of coverage from Los Angeles around MLB All-Star 2022, please visit ESPN Press Room.
Phil Orlins: Obviously, this is a big week for us. We’re coming off Yankees-Red Sox, pretty pleased with the overall viewership and the presentation on both networks, ESPN and ESPN2 with the KayRod Cast special on ESPN2 for that game.
MLB Draft on Sunday at 7 p.m. in the normal Sunday Night Baseball slot. For those of you who are interested in workflows, essentially that will be a REMI back to our compound at Dodgers Stadium, so sort of a remote coverage into the Dodger Stadium compound, where we primarily host all of the All-Star-related coverage from.
Karl Ravech will host that. It’s Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for Kiley McDaniel, who is our draft and prospect talent evaluation expert for ESPN. He takes center stage alongside Karl. He’ll be joined on the set by our lead college baseball analysts. Eduardo Perez has been doing College World Series coverage for six, seven years, as well as Chris Burke, a terrific analyst, former Astro and Golden Spikes nominee and all of that from Tennessee — and Kyle Peterson.
So that’s the primary group for the MLB draft, 7:00 p.m. Sunday night from LA Live outside, right across the street from what used to be Staples Center. Crypto.com, I guess these days?
Jeff Passan will report and Jess Mendoza will have specific player contributions as well. So that’s the talent involved with that show.
It’s an interesting exercise for us, the draft. We love doing it. We are sharing with MLB Network. So they kind of have first dibs on player interviews and stuff like that. But it’s a good, collaborative approach and has worked well for us, and has definitely added to the exposure of the MLB Draft.
As Ben said, Home Run Derby, I think of it, probably the biggest night of our summer for baseball or maybe even ESPN. We have three hours of Baseball Tonight leading into the Home Run Derby. 4-6 p.m. Eastern, and then again 7-8 p.m. Eastern.
Kevin Connors will host most of that with a plethora of our other talent involved — those that are involved with the derby, those are not involved with the derby. We’ll be rotating a lot of people in through with Kevin and Tim Kurkjian taking center stage as Kurkjian gets ready to go into the Hall of Fame the following Saturday.
Derby we’ll have on ESPN and ESPN2 at 8 p.m. And we’ll also have a Baseball Tonight on ESPN2 for leading into the derby. We’ve got it promoted right now, 7:30 to 8 p.m.
There’s a Statcast version of the derby on ESPN2, and then obviously conventional presentation, if there is such a thing, for the Home Run Derby on ESPN, led into by Baseball Tonight there.
Home Run Derby coverage, ESPN, Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez on the set, the set on the field, as it normally is. Buster Olney and Marly Rivera reporting on the Home Run Derby. ESPN2 will have the Statcast version, Jason Benetti on play-by-play. Jason’s always embraced the event, the Statcast presentation, you’re aware of that.
He’ll be joined by Jessica Mendoza on the set and Mike Petriello who over the years have shared with MLB.com and has been crucial to our shared relationship with really developing Statcast and new analytics and presenting them on our air. So Benetti, Mendoza and Petriello handling the ESPN2 version there.
That’s the All-Star focus. We happened to be there on Thursday night as well for the Giants and Dodgers. That will be Karl and Eduardo with Buster Olney doing that game as David Cone recuperates from his hip replacement surgery that he was nice enough to be able to schedule on our one Sunday Night Baseball game off. So he’ll hopefully expect to be back for the game on the 24th at Citi Field. That’s the overview of the talent.
I’ve talked to a few of you about this from time to time through the years. Apologize about any redundancy on my lead quotes here.
But, look, I think from a technological standpoint, we obviously have a very low-profile Phonak earbud that has been really great for making this comfortable and easy for the player. No wires. I mean, no wires attached to the IFB hearing device.
And the talent has done a great job nurturing it, understanding the timing of how to use it. And lastly, as some of you have heard me say before, I just think it’s crucial for the sport to present themselves in an aggressive and progressive style.
And it’s created interesting, great content. It’s taken advantage of the nuance and the pace of the sport, and I think for the expectation, it’s a brand of baseball seeing the sport of baseball, Major League Baseball do something that other sports have not been able to do.
Again, players get mic’d. There are plenty of players on other sports, NFL Films over the years, NBA, wearing microphones, but the actual ability and the pace of the sport to allow us to actually have a real conversation in game and not adversely affect anything about the game has been a great opportunity and just, in my opinion, just a really smart, aggressive play for MLB to encourage, and the Players Association to encourage, and, patting ourselves on the back, credit to Karl, David Cone and Eduardo for really managing the on-air execution in a way that’s made it stand out for ESPN.
Q: Has there been any decision yet on whether the KayRod concept will be extended beyond this year, whether that is Michael and Alex, or just that kind of philosophical broadcast, or is the approach still that, as a lot of executives say, we’ll evaluate at the end of the year and sort of make decisions heading forward?
Orlins: Yeah, I think, I guess we’re always evaluating, is always a safe response. But the commitment to Alex and Michael, or at least both of them, is at least two years.
We did announce it as multiyear when we started it. So, you know, with Alex, there’s always chances he’ll bid on owning a baseball team or something like that, like has happened in the past. But our expectation is that we’re in for at least two years.
Q: Could I ask you to sort of step outside the box? People in your position, obviously, there are restrictions as to sort of how far you can go with technology or how far you can go with creative ideas, because ultimately MLB sort of has to sign off on it. But as a producer, what would you love to do for Home Run Derby, if there were no sort of issues when it came to MLB greenlighting something? I wonder, just, if you have always wanted to sort of think of something outside the box, but realistically it can’t be done?
Orlins: Good question. So the first thing I’d say, the restrictions, you know, the restrictions are there’s MLB. There’s The Players Association. But they’ve always been pretty good. Home Run Derby has always been seen as an event that stands a little bit outside the boundaries and has — I wouldn’t say it never had any hiccups, but it’s generally been a place where we explored aggressive placement of microphones and cameras right in front of the hitter and things of that nature without really much hesitation.
I would say the real exercise, limitation with Home Run Derby, is the battle or challenge of managing an electric pace to it, at the same time that we’re trying to do new and innovative things. So I don’t feel terribly limited in terms of what we can do from an MLB standpoint. What’s just challenging is that the event moves — and by design, beginning in 2016, with Tony Petitti, made the decision to move it to the clock-based format.
And it just allows you so little discretionary time to — even beyond the discretionary time, like you want to show home runs from innovative angles, but at the same time you’re trying to manage the fact that two balls are being hit in the air at the same time.
And they’ll like to try to show it from an alternative high-corner golf-type shot view that shows off the sexiness of the home run, like almost makes it an unmanageable viewer experience to be suddenly altering your point of view by 90 or 180 degrees to see it from a different angle.
So again, I don’t want to make this sound critical at all, because I agreed with Tony — Tony made the suggestion, it had to be a month before I think the 2016 event to alter the format. I think he was surprised when he got on the phone with us and probably expected ESPN to probably be oh, my God, we’re changing everything; none of the scoring is going to work; none of the graphics will work.
But my immediate response was, no, you need to change the format. It’s a good change. It’s going to be worth the things we lose to have the electric pace of the event. And I think it’s been completely correct.
So we can put cameras pretty much anywhere. It’s just that I just — you can’t really take shots from the hitter point of view or the catcher point of view and have multiple balls flying at the same time. We’re pushing the stack, yes. Technology, really hard this year. We’re moving into some live augmented reality stuff.
I think the thing that I would like to do, if the screen weren’t limited to 16-by-9 space, with two things happening at once, meaning a hitter and a ball is flying at the same time, I would like to be able to sort of have golf-like virtual 3D images of the home run like you see on the flank of a golf screen at the same time that you’re watching the pitches and swings on the other side.
But, to be candid about it, not a permission factor. Just the pace of the event, you know, doesn’t really, one, the execution of the data, even as amazing as the real time data is right now, to execute that much stuff that quickly with multiple — with balls being hit every four or five seconds is still challenging.
And then, to find a way to visually show a picture and hitter on one part of the screen, multiple balls flying in the middle part and then a graphic presentation on a third part, just feels overwhelming to me as a viewer. But that’s what I’d love to be able to do.
We might be pretty close there on ESPN2, and I can get into more detail, this year, but we’re not going to show three things at once. In other words, we’ll show the pitcher and hitter on one side of the screen. We’ll show the balls flying on the big part of the screen. And then we’ll go to the 3D animation or the 3D tracking, virtual graphic, in the five or six seconds between foul balls when they happen or something like that. But I wish I could do all three at once, I guess is what I’m saying.
Q: Is the expectation now that the Derby is a three-hour event? I know there’s been a couple of years where on DVR listings it listed as two hours, and then it just seems like for the past five, six years it’s gone as three.
Orlins: As long as it’s the highest rated event we do in the summer, we don’t lose too much sleep over the length of it. I’m going to borrow a little bit from the commissioner, respectfully, here, that we worry more about pace of action, to use his words, than we do about the length of the event.
We get first pitch about 14 minutes after 8 p.m. The event’s probably going to run 2:35. I wish I had the exact numbers. We’re looking at now, I think 300-plus home runs in two and a half hours, whereas the old format, I hate to admit, we hit a point where the event itself was 3 hours long and the home run totals were probably 120 or 130 or something like that in the old format.
So yeah, I think we expect to be off air before 11, where we got the premier episode of the Derek Jeter Captain series. So we focus a lot on the pace of the action, the audience flow.
We do tend to lose a little bit after the first round. But it’s still a magnificent audience for us, and as long as the pace continues to be electric and home runs deliver, we’re not too worried if we get off the air at 10:50 or 10:45.
Q: In terms of maybe for this year, with Dodger Stadium, you know, being photogenically a great ballpark and everything, are you planning on putting cameras maybe in that reserve level in the outfield to catch the flight of home run balls? And just piggybacking, has there ever been any thought of maybe putting cameras on the hats of the pitchers or the hitters to get a unique angle for the derby?
Orlins: Yeah, there have been thoughts of it. So here’s what I guess I would say on that. One, absolutely, we have robotic cameras that are more or less in high outfield corners, very golf crane shot-esque robotic cameras there. We have alternate shag positions inside of there as well. We have outfield cameras and handheld cameras to try to catch the scrums out in the left field pavilion for people fighting for balls and just even seeing where a ball ends up if it clears over everything, so cover all that stuff.
Over the years we’ve occasionally delved into the player — the hat cameras are a little tricky because they don’t wear helmets and stuff like that.
It feels a little — the catchers, we’ve done the catchers over the years. We haven’t gotten great payoff from it. Again, we have ultra slo-mo cameras within ten feet of the hitter.
So, again, the pace of the thing, we’re literally limited only to replays when the action stops, which is either at the timeout or end of the round. We really can’t take the hat cam or catcher cam live without it creating an almost bizarre divergence in the viewer expectations.
That’s where we are with that stuff, the ultra slo-mos around the hitter, great looks with the swing.
And the last thing to say to your point on the long home runs, what’s really challenging about the event is that because multiple home runs are hit at the same time, it’s not actually the shots that are challenging; it’s the organizations of which ones are shooting which home runs that’s organizing.
Because when Pete Alonso walks it off in the bonus round and hits six home runs in 24 seconds, which is literally what he hit last year, it’s just trying to organize which camera goes with which home run and then finding them, is an incredibly challenging exercise.
So when Ohtani hits a 520-foot home run like he did last year, it’s like, which of the cameras actually shot that, and which ones were resetting because he had just hit a home run 3 seconds earlier. That’s like a hefty organizational process that we’re still trying to master.
Q: Wanted to quickly ask about the mic’d-up players. It seems like it’s been universally well received by players. But I’m curious if there’s been any pushback, if any players have said for any reason I would prefer not to do it. Has that been the case at any point so far?
Orlins: Yeah, I couldn’t give you a full breakdown off the top of my head of the year. My perspective on it is that we’re in a good era right now. Younger players have grown up with — around a lot of media, social media and YouTube and all that throughout their entire lives, most of their lives right now.
My gut feeling on it now is that we’re probably over 50 percent that actually embrace it and are willing, if not enthused, to do it.
Thinking about the Mets, we’ve had Lindor and Alonso, that’s the two top asks. We had Nimmo ready to go if Alonso had done Fox on Saturday. He ended up doing ESPN so we didn’t have to go to Nimmo.
We definitely get no’s. There are guys who prefer, think it would be a distraction or just feel like it’s on target with the way they see themselves and their brand or whatever it might be.
But as someone who, to be honest, has been dealing with this from the time I produced Sunday Night Baseball at the beginning in 1994, and when the early microphone — these were not two-way interviews, just getting players on mics, that we were doing in the late ’90s, going back that far. I mean, it was hard back then.
There were days when I had one guy who used to work for me who I think he’d go to the clubhouse, he’d ask all 25 players if they’d wear a microphone. Sometimes he got 25 no’s.
So it’s come a long way from then. But the Yankees still don’t participate. And there are some no’s along the way.
Q: One derby question. With Pujols’ participation, curious if there’s any special emphasis on tapping into sort of the hype around that. Do you plan to mic him up? Do you have anything special that you might be able to share in that regard?
Orlins: Well, I would say this. We mic all the players. And we have access to them on the set. Usually, if we want to bring them to the set, our sideline reporters have access to them. And we also will have the earpiece that we use on Sunday Night Baseball if we want to talk to people from, just say, casually when they’re on the side watching.
So I mean we’ll see how it develops. I think Albert’s going to hit fairly early in the contest as a relatively lower seed, but we don’t know that officially yet until we get to that point.
But our typical approach to it is that we might bring him to the set in advance of his at-bat depending on the pace, but I don’t know. There are a lot of stars, I guess, is what I would say. I think the number one story, we’ve never had a guy win three derbies in a row. And I think Alonso set a pretty high standard there, and he’s embraced it. I think the primary buildup will be oriented around Alonso probably more so than Pujols, candidly.
Q: Another question about the draft. Just sort of becoming a bigger deal, especially with the advent of the combine, the draft coming All-Star weekend. In your mind has the profile of it raised, and is this broadcast just sort of more fuel in that fire?
Orlins: Well, I’m just fascinated by the interest in drafts and sort of the interest in ancillary content from the younger generation. I have kids that don’t — at least my son doesn’t watch a lot of baseball. My daughter watches a fair amount of baseball, yet a draft seems more interesting to them than a game.
And I think that conditioning really developed through probably through the NBA and NFL, especially the NFL. It’s fascinating to me that they see this aspect and the human interest aspect of it and the team building aspect of it as interesting, as interesting as a big game, really, a really big game.
So it’s fascinating. The MLB draft, we all know it. Of the four major sports, it’s got the least immediate impact. There’s no likelihood that the number one pick is going to be starring for your team and helping to win a championship this year or next year.
But people are still intrigued by the human component of it and the team building aspect of it. At this point it won’t — it will do a solid audience and the interest will be solid and people will be into it. The drafts have become an event unto themselves. And it is what it is.
It will be a fun night, even though I think about how much we talked about Al Leiter’s son, Jack Leiter, last year, and he’s scuffling away in Double A right now. He’s not winning a championship for them right now. It’s not a Zion Williamson kind of story.
Q: My first question was like with the Home Run Derby and all the All-Star festivities coming up, how do you plan on incorporating a youth component to try to attract more youth athletes to want to get involved with baseball?
Orlins: Well, we’ll have kids cast on August 21 from Williamsport, and so forth. I would say our goals are for draft, one is kind of the access and human component of seeing the young players in their environment, families, what not, that I think younger viewers relate pretty well to.
And for Home Run Derby, to me the things that we’ve done to make this attractive to a younger generation, I guess I would say three things strike me — I should never say three things because I have a hard time remembering all three after I get through the first one or two.
The change in the pace of the event is absolutely designed to connect with a younger generation. I’ll give you a brief aside that after producing our first 11 Home Run Derbies and Sunday Night Baseball for 10 years, I shifted to X Games for 10 years, managing that project. And I will say, when we got the call about changing the format of the Home Run Derby, I was like, yeah, this is exactly what we did with every event in X Games.
Took them all out of, like, one by one slow, scored judging into essentially constant action jam festivals that had real-time scorings that went.
So the action change is a crucial, crucial component of it. The access, being up close, hearing from the players, hearing their natural sound as well as talking to them is a crucial component of that.
And then third, maybe this isn’t quite the youngest level, but I think the contemporary delivery, the contemporary data and the offering of that, particularly on the ESPN2 telecast — so I could actually take a moment and show you what we’re working on.
But like you’ll see on ESPN2, you’ll see an augmented reality delivery of like launch angle and exit velocity, attached to like a track of the ball leaving the bat as well as real-time distances and stuff like that.
So a really aggressive approach, which everything shows — again, I don’t want to say it’s necessarily 12-year-olds — but everything shows us that our younger demographics continue to embrace the more contemporary information much more aggressively than the older demographics that are still the makeup of a strong portion of our audience.
Q: Follow up to that. Have you ever considered asking youth to send in a question on social media and try to answer a few questions every Sunday Night Baseball game to intrigue more youth listeners?
Orlins: That’s a good question. And we’ve not gone that way. We do incorporate a fair amount of Twitter on the KayRod Cast stuff and made it conversational in that way but we haven’t been youth specific in that. So I’m going to say we have not done it.
I like the idea and I don’t know exactly how we’d manage it from an age standpoint, necessarily, but, look, I do like the participatory aspect of it. And we’ve been aggressive with that on KayRod Cast. We were really aggressive with that during the pandemic on the KBO coverage, the Korean coverage. We’ve been less aggressive with that on Sunday Night Baseball coverage.
To be honest, as I’m noodling through it, probably would be a great direction for us to go as part of the player interview chunk, to be honest, to like — so give me until July 31 on that one.
Q: Any lessons learned from producing the draft last year, because that was your first one having to worry about on site, and I guess building off of it, worrying about having to do the draft and the Home Run Derby and kind of establishing that running model you talked about?
Orlins: It’s interesting. Nothing is black and white anymore in terms of how you build a workflow. And as you know we do the Sunday Night Baseball and the REMI model out of Bristol. It’s just too much, too big at the site and you want to be at the site for the Home Run Derby coverage.
But we don’t want to split ourselves into a full production over at the LA Live area — and four miles or whatever it is down the road at Dodger Stadium.
So we take advantage of our LAPC. I think the feeds go back to Bristol from there, as crazy as it sounds, then goes back to Dodger Stadium. I guess it doesn’t sound all that crazy in the world of fiber and things traveling coast to coast in a tenth of a second.
So essentially our hub becomes Dodger Stadium and LA Live becomes the remote outpost feeding into Dodger Stadium and we’re able to use our Baseball Tonight control room at Dodger Stadium as the derby control room while we’re prepping for the three versions of coverage of derby, with ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes all in their own control rooms at Dodger Stadium. So that’s four of them running there.
The lessons, you know, to be bluntly honest, we lost power from the Denver facility last year and we had one remote talent in Chris Burke in his home in Tennessee hosting the coverage by himself because he was not connected to the power that we lost from the draft coverage. So I don’t know what lessons we learned.
Q: Make sure the power is on?
Orlins: I clearly didn’t learn the lesson because I’m moving Chris to the actual site this year. So if we lose power to the site I’ll have one less. I won’t have the one guy to host it. I think the lesson is don’t lose power this time around.
Look, I just think we’re just always trying to optimize kind of the timing and how we dance in and out of the — it’s a great exercise, an interesting exercise, because we’re both taking commissioner’s picks, we’re sharing a world feed for the picks, and we’re kind of going our own way between picks with they do an interview, we analyze, then we go back for an interview while they analyze, things like that. We’re always trying to optimize that dance, I guess, with MLB and the cooperative approach.
Q: Wanted to ask you about the front bench. It’s probably still even a year ago at this point that Doug Holmes and Jeff Dufine shifted over to hockey. And now you have a new front bench with Andy — are Ben and Jeff still splitting directing duties, is my first question or have you settled into a director? And for two such big positions that may be the average viewer doesn’t notice when something like that changes but it’s still a substantial shift, what has the new front bench brought to the table that’s maybe different that maybe the average viewer wouldn’t notice? Are they putting their stamp on Sunday Night Baseball in any significant way? And what’s it been like working with a front bench after having an established one for so long?
Orlins: Things change. Times change. Look, I guess the way I look at it, it’s a beautiful part of my time with ESPN that events come and events go. And people who earned opportunities get those opportunities and other people move on to other big responsibilities. I’m thankful that that’s the way things have worked.
First off, Doug will be with us at Home Run Derby, with Scott Matthews producing. Andy Jacobson, who you referenced, is producing Sunday Night Baseball now, will still handle the Statcast version with Ben Johnston who does Sunday Night Baseball predominantly with Andy.
I would say, to your point, I just came back from doing College World Series with Jeff Evers, and Jeff is a tremendous baseball director. He does NBA, ended up doing some NBA finals. Did College World Series, does college football.
When it’s all said and done Ben will probably do 90 percent of the Sunday Night Baseball games, to answer that question specifically.
The other piece of it I would add is that, it’s hard for me to even articulate this, the quality of the workflow and the collaboration between ESPN and ESPN2, particularly on Sunday Night Baseball and the setup we have, it blows me away every time I sit — typically because we only have eight KayRod Casts — I sit in the KayRod Cast production area, set up to listen and watch both shows, all the talent, and I sit there and I want to give a moment to Joe McCoy and Jim Ryan, who produce and direct, and have done an unbelievable job developing that with the whole Seaport scenario and all that group mixed in there.
One quick anecdote on this. I sit there, and I don’t know if the other shows, secondary shows have done the kind of cross-promotion that we do. But to me it’s absolutely imperative to help our audience navigate what we’re offering.
So we get Bucky Dent and Mike Torrez at Fenway Park, while Billy Crystal is in the Seaport with Michael Kay and A-Rod. And I am just, literally I’m through a wall to Andy Jacobson, who’s on the other side of the wall and I’m with Joe McCoy on the other side.
I hit one point and say to Andy, need the promo on ESPN for Bucky and Mike Torrez at Fenway Park. Ten seconds later, the ESPN2 video with a little background audio is showing on ESPN. David Cone is saying on the air, I wonder if Torrez really wants to reach over and punch Bucky Dent like Tommy Pham.
In the moment, 3 seconds after that, I’m texting Michael Kay, because I want it in writing, not in his ear — on ESPN Cone is asking if Torrez really wants to punch Bucky.
Twenty seconds later, Kay is reading that text on the air and asking Mike Torrez, hey, David Cone wants to know if you really want to reach over and punch Bucky Dent.
Like, where we are in a seamless, central workflow and the ability to execute that kind of stuff in 90 seconds’ time, just blows me away all the time.
To answer your question, that’s a big digression. To answer your question, I don’t know. I’m so proud of Ben. When I came back to baseball in 2014, Ben was our lead Baseball Tonight director. He had a passion for directing, loves baseball, had a passion for becoming a live director.
Started using him four years later on ESPN weekday games. And from the outset he did a great job. He has all the advantages of being completely native and comfortable with the centralized Bristol workflow. It’s like in his blood. He loves baseball. He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s done an awesome job. And just couldn’t be happier.
And Andy, he has the best feel of any producer I’ve ever worked for of understanding that producing is more than matching appropriate content to the appropriate story. It’s how you deliver content in an entertaining and unpredictable, and often surprising way that’s always made him stand out.
I use one story in particular, there was interview he did with Tim Kurkjian and Paul DeJong who was a noted chemistry major in college playing shortstop for the Cardinals.
So rather than just talking about his degree or putting up a graphic of his degree and what he’s done, it’s like a sit-down interview where he Tim Kurkjian quizzes Paul DeJong on initials and whether they’re from the periodic table or from advanced baseball analytics, or both.
He asks Paul DeJong, what does LI stands for? He comes up with lithium, but he can’t come up with leverage index, or something like that.
But that’s what’s always made Andy special as a producer is he understands that it’s not just putting appropriate content at the right time on the air, it’s how you use that content to surprise and entertain the audience. And he does that really, really well.
He also had a great relationship from doing weekday games with Karl and Eduardo. Cone has been welcomed to the thing, and has just been able to do an aggressive, contemporary broadcasts without, in my opinion, without feeling it’s too much over the top.