For various reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time the last few days thinking about how much I liked the Statcast broadcast on ESPN2 a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to say that it was great because of the excellent job my friend Mike Petriello did, and because of the superb work of my broadcaster e-migo Jason Benetti, and because Eduardo Perez, who I don’t know as well, was excellent too. All of those things are true.
But the reason I liked it so much goes beyond that.
It was the first time in forever that I watched a baseball broadcast and didn’t feel dumb for liking baseball the way I do.
There’s a theme in broadcasting that I talk about a lot on this blog, something you might call the “As you can see syndrome.” It usually happens in football, and it involves an announcer sputtering an opinion and then, when replay comes up, he or she (but mostly he) will stick with the opinion against video evidence. He will often say, “as you can see …” to make the point.
“As you can see, there were no receivers open.” (Arrested Development narrator*: “There were.”)
“As you can see, the fullback made an excellent block to spring the play.” (Arrested Development narrator: “He didn’t.”)
“As you can see, the cornerback made incidental contact, that was a good no-call.” (Arrested Development narrator: “He didn’t and it wasn’t.”)
*You already know, I assume, that the Arrested Development narrator is Ron Howard.
This is infuriating because the announcer is telling us, “You don’t need to actually watch this replay, I will tell you all you need to know.” As the years have gone on, I’ve come to realize that most announcers don’t mean to sound that way. The game is just moving so fast, and they’re trying to keep up with the action, and they find it hard to reverse their thinking quickly. It utterly warms my heart when an announcer — and this does seem to happen more often now — will say something off the top of his head, and then when watching on replay will say, “You know what? I was wrong. The quarterback just missed an open receiver.”
Baseball announcers in general have a slightly different, but even more intractable, issue: They’re saying the same nonsense that they’ve been yammering about for a half century. It’s like they’re still calling 1977 baseball. On Tuesday, Joe Buck — who I actually like much more than most people on Twitter — was talking about Brewers starter Gio Gonzalez, and he mentioned how Gonzalez won 15 games last year, and he won 11 games two years ago, and how he won a career-high 21 games in 2012, and how he won 10 games this year …
And I kept thinking: Am I crazy? Who in the heck still talks about pitcher wins in baseball?
Understand, it didn’t bother me that he brought up wins — that’s still a statistic that many baseball fans relate to, and this is for a broad national audience, and wins can be a decent shortcut to get into a pitcher’s story. Announcers often use batting average the same way — NOBODY IN BASEBALL judges players by batting average anymore, but announcers keep on using it like it’s the only thing that matters.
And that’s the issue: If you START the conversation by talking about wins or batting average, OK, great. But Buck ENDED the conversation with wins and batting average. He didn’t bring up anything else. It’s like the last 20 years of baseball never happened.
This was particularly galling in Gonzalez’s case, because he pitches for the Brewers, a team that couldn’t give two figs about pitcher wins. The Brewers did not have one starter throw 200 innings this year. They were one of TWENTY-ONE teams that did not have a pitcher with 200 innings, the most ever. There were only 13 pitchers across baseball who threw 200 innings, the fewest ever.
You can’t just talk in 2018 about pitcher wins like that’s where the analysis ends. It’s like telling people “OK, take out your flip phones and let’s try something called ‘texting.'”
And yet, this happens over and over and over and over on baseball broadcasts. Announcers talk at us in ways that are no longer relevant, no longer compelling, no longer educational, no longer linked to what’s actually happening on the field.
They gripe about defensive shifting — I mean, sheesh, shifts are not new anymore. They’ve been going on for years.
They whine about how advanced metrics and analysis don’t tell you what’s in the heart of the player — guys, that battle is OVER.
They complain about the number of relief pitchers — look, I get it, you miss the Jack Morris days, when a man was a man and a starter finished the job, but at this point you sound like hockey announcers who miss the days before helmets. I mean, it’s done.
And here’s the biggest issue of all: There’s no counter. There’s no one to say even relatively basic things like, “Actually a bunt there would lower your win expectancy,” or, “He only batted against that pitcher eight times, so that statistic is pretty worthless,” or, “Based on strikeouts, walks and home runs, he might have pitched better than his ERA would suggest.” There’s certainly nobody in the booth who looks at baseball from a higher plane, the way today’s best general managers do, the way today’s top baseball analysts do.
Too many announcers are, for the most part, just giving us the same batch of clichés, gut reactions and in-my-day stories that we’ve been getting forever. We’ve heard it. You want to hit the ball to the right side to move over the runner. We get it. As a pitcher you want to get ahead in the count. We know. After a team scores runs, you really want a starter to deliver a shutdown inning.* We understand!
*Actually, the whole shutdown inning thing might be a silly one. Mitchel Lichtman poses this riddle: Take two pitchers who give up exactly the same number of runs in a season. Their teams score the same number of runs. One of those pitchers allows fewer runs in shutdown innings, which is to say, after his team scored.
Whose team wins more games?
Answer: Astonishingly, the team whose pitcher has FEWER shutdown innings will win more games. Why? It’s a little bit mind-bending; it has something to do with the airy concept of pitching to the score … but the main point is: That countless hours spent on television celebrating shutdown innings are probably a bunch of nonsense.
And even when they do throw in an advanced stat or a modern thought, it often feels out-of-place or obligatory or — and this is the worst — it’s done with a little bit of a sneer.
Here’s the thing about baseball that television has yet to catch up with: The game is no longer being run by ballplayers. It’s no longer being guided by old-fashioned baseball dudes. Over the last 15 years, baseball has been pushed in startling, exciting and curious new directions by people who didn’t play in the majors, the vast majority of them didn’t even play in the minors, they don’t come from the sort of baseball backgrounds that television still celebrates.
You already know this, but just to get it down, there are currently 28 general managers in place in baseball. Of those 28:
- 11 went to Ivy League schools
- 5 of those to Harvard
- 2 have degrees from the Kellogg School of Management
- 2 have law degrees
- 1 has a degree in Science from MIT and a PhD in economics from Berkeley
- 1 began at Baseball Info Solutions, John Dewan’s baseball data company
- 1 was discovered after writing an academic paper on the value of draft picks
- 1 was working in labor relations
- 1 was working in business development for a spirits and restaurant company
- 1 started in the mail room
- 1 played major league baseball
And many of those general managers work for someone else with equally glowing off-the-field credentials.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Television keeps throwing former players at us in the very-1980s hope that they will give us insight into the way the game is played, and yes, sure, their viewpoints can be interesting and informative, they know more than anyone about the FEELING of playing ball, the pressures, the effort, the details, the funny little things that happen on the field. They can give us the perspective of the ballplayer, and the best of them do that.
But that’s just about all we’ve been getting for 50 years … and it sounds the same. It sounds tired. Where’s the rest? When announcers start bashing advanced metrics, where’s the person who says, “Well, actually …” When they start carping about all the strikeouts or the shifts or managers’ refusal to let starting pitchers face a lineup more than twice, where’s the voice that explains why those things are happening, and how it doesn’t mean that players today are somehow less talented, less diligent, less enthusiastic or weaker than past generations? The opposite is true. When they show those absurd, small-sample-size playoff statistics on the screen like those actually MATTER — they all do that now, it drives me insane — where’s the person who offers some perspective?
That’s why I liked the Statcast broadcast so much. There was a smart former player, a smart baseball thinker and a play-by-play guy with interest in both. They said things that broadcasters never say. They unapologetically referred to statistics that revolutionize our understanding of the sport. When they disagreed, they gave each other space, allowed the booth to become an exchange of ideas instead of a sermon from the top of Mount Smoltz.
I’ll offer a personal example: I’ve been lucky enough to be on a lot of panels with former players. Some were very kind, and respected my thoughts on baseball. Some thought I had no idea what I was talking about, but they still talked with me. Both of those kinds of conversations are great.
But every now and again, it seems, I’ll be on a panel with a ballplayer who doesn’t even respect my right to HAVE any thoughts on baseball. What do I know? I didn’t play in the majors. That’s where the conversation begins and ends. Sure, I may look at it this way: I love baseball and have spent the vast majority of my life learning about it, reading about it, studying it, interviewing people in the game, writing about it and playing it with the meager talents I have.
It stinks to be reduced to: “You didn’t play major league baseball. You don’t know anything worth knowing.”
And THAT’S the feeling that so many of these baseball broadcasts stir. That’s why the Statcast broadcast made me so happy. They were saying, “Baseball is a big, intricate, beautiful game. Let’s talk baseball in a bunch of different ways.” I sure wish we could have some more of that.