Kennedy's inside pitch for ESPN puts shine on spotlight coverage

Media Watch

October 06, 1997|By Milton Kent

Long before the first pitch was thrown in yesterday's Orioles-Seattle Mariners playoff game and before any fan had passed through the Camden Yards gates, Kevin Kennedy had a pretty good idea how the contest would be decided.

Kennedy, who was the spotlight analyst on ESPN's telecast, remembered from working a Mariners-Texas Rangers game two months ago that pitcher Randy Johnson had suffered tendinitis in a finger on his pitching hand.

Since then, Johnson has lost some velocity off his fastball. The drop-off was probably subtle enough that the untrained eye could not notice, but it was perceptible to the baseball-savvy.

Armed with that knowledge, Kennedy, a former manager in Texas and in Boston, trotted out a hypothesis during a pre-game production meeting: If Johnson, who is pretty close to unhittable when he's on, couldn't get his fastball to consistently come in at 95 mph or better, the Seattle ace could be hittable.

"We'll see today," said Kennedy before yesterday's game. "It's directly related to how effective he'll be. This [the spotlight] is like managing. You look for tendencies and point them out."

From there, the ESPN telecast focused on Johnson's velocity, pitch location and selection, taking note of the ratio of his sliders to fastballs, Johnson's two best pitches. A heavy dose of sliders would indicate that Johnson's fastball wasn't up to snuff.

It's that kind of "inside baseball" that makes ESPN's coverage so special. Baseball coordinating producer Tim Scanlan approached Kennedy a few weeks ago and asked him to take on the role of spotlight analyst, a sort of third man in the booth, whose responsibility is to explore a specific angle of a game and see how it plays out.

ESPN has used the spotlight in its NFL, NHL, NASCAR, college football and basketball coverages, but never before in baseball until this week, and Kennedy, as a former manager, seemed the perfect candidate.

"A guy like Kevin is essential to doing something like this," said Jed Drake, ESPN's vice president of remote production. "What it allows him to do is zero in on one thing or a group of things and really explain them."

In the process, Kennedy has to be sure not to tread onto analyst territory best plowed by lead commentator Joe Morgan, and the two men, under the watchful guidance of game producer Phil Orlins, adeptly stayed out of each other's way yesterday.

"He can see things that you just can't see here in the booth, and the fact that he managed recently means that his knowledge should be good," Morgan said.

Indeed, Kennedy proved to be quite prescient. Johnson's average velocity through the first six innings came in around 92 mph, and the out pitch on seven of his first nine strikeouts was a slider.

In addition, Kennedy was able to show that Johnson's release point was substantially lower than usual, leading him to surmise that the ailing finger was hurting him, and thus affecting his performance.

"That's where we want to draw the viewer, to see something that they might not notice or know," said Kennedy. "Why is Cal [Ripken] able to make those plays from that position? Hopefully we can show them. The idea is 'Let's show them before it happens, not after.' "

Kennedy's was just one of a number of brilliant performances yesterday in what turned out to be ESPN's final baseball telecast of the year.

Morgan was terrific as usual, with a precise dissection of the Orioles hitters' approach to Johnson. His partner, Jon Miller, was also on the money, linking the questioning of manager Davey Johnson's decision to bring Mike Mussina back on three days' rest to a similar decision by former California Angels manager Gene Mauch in the 1982 American League Championship Series with Tommy John.

The production truck also turned in a fine effort, with only the necessary amount of replays, delivered at the right time, as when the low first base camera caught Ken Griffey stumbling out of the batter's box to close the eighth, before the commercial break. The replay was telling but was shown only once, sparing the useless clutter of a replay just for the sake of a replay.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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