Saturday, April 12, 2014

Art has been replaced by VORP

Baseball broadcasting on the radio used to be an art. Announcers were distinctive, passionate, colorful, and entertaining. Those days are sadly slipping away. Instead, the new breed of announcers are polished, generic, stat oriented, and often put you to sleep. 

Statistics have always been a big part of baseball. And a major crutch for announcers who have no imagination and nothing else to fill time with. Now with Sabermetrics and more detailed categories like VORP, DRS, FIP, EQA, WHIP and WAR number crunching has been taken to a whole new level. Not that these new stats aren’t informative and useful, but there is an avalanche of them. Certainly way more than the average baseball fan can process or wants to process.

And now the Houston Astros have mandated that these analytics be a prerequisite to their broadcasts. I feel especially sorry for their longtime TV announcer, Bill Brown. He’s a terrific play-by-play man. But now saddled with this emphasis on modern-day stats and a bad team, this was the rating for the Astros’ telecast last Monday against the Los Angeles Angels: 0.0. Let me repeat that number. 0.0. And this isn’t the end of the season when the team is mathematically eliminated. It’s their first homestand.  How is that even possible?  (And it wasn't the first time.) 

Yeah, WHIP and WAR really save the day.

Listeners want to hear storytellers. They want to be entertained. If they’re listening on the radio they want the game to come alive. They want the announcer to put them in the stadium through vivid descriptions. They want personality.


Statistics are fine in key game situations. Especially if the games have import. Playoff games, for example. Ninth innings.  Pennant races.   They can enhance a big moment.  But breaking down a batter’s average against a certain pitcher when he’s had only six at bats against him and it’s the second inning of a game in mid April – who gives a shit?

Why cater your broadcast to the diehard fans? A) There are not that many of them. B) They’ll listen no matter what you do. C) You chase away casual fans. Women (50.8% of the American population), in particular, tend not to care about Wins Above Replacements.

Who would you rather spend two hours with – a captivating storyteller or someone reading actuary tables?

With MLB.COM and Sirius/XM, baseball fans can now listen to out-of-town local broadcasts. Most are interchangeable. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Vin Scully (the Dodgers), Jon Miller (the Giants), Marty Brennaman (Reds), Eric Nadel (Rangers), Jim Powell (Braves), Bob Uecker (Brewers), Pat Hughes (Cuts), and Howie Rose & Josh Lewin (Mets). There are other announcers who are also terrific, but these guys can make a game interesting even when their team is losing by 10 runs in the fourth inning. And they all have distinctive styles, voices, deliveries, opinions.

Yes, I'm old school, but give me Ernie Harwell, Bill King, Jack Buck, Dave Niehaus, Hank Greenwald, Lon Simmons, Harry Caray, Chuck Thompson, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Mark Holtz, and Jack Brickhouse.

Baseball broadcasts need showmanship, not additional deep-dish analysis. The only statistic that really counts is this: 0.0.

50 comments:

Matthew E said...

I appreciate the way you threaded the needle in writing this post; I can go along with everything you wrote but I would have had a problem with a few things you had the opportunity to write but didn't.

The trouble here is that there's still an unnecessary rift between the fans-and-announcers who are conversant with the new stats and the fans-and-announcers who are hostile to them. As you say, you only want to go so deeply into the numbers on a radio broadcast anyway, so it shouldn't be an issue... but.

Jerry Howarth, the primary broadcaster for my favourite team, the Blue Jays, is a case in point. Howarth has been around forever, he's always very well prepared, he's an excellent broadcaster, and is supposed to be a super nice guy. He doesn't touch on the advanced stats much, which is fine, but when he does, he makes it clear that he thinks they're all very silly and he has no time for them, and that puts me off. And I'm not the only one. I wonder if this is the kind of thing the Astros are trying to avoid, and wound up going too far the other way.

Lindsey Nielsen said...

One small problem: it's the Houston Astros.

A "storyteller" isn't going to spark public interest in the 2014 Houston Astros even if he announces fucking Beowulf.

Nancy said...

Since Fantasy leagues and straight-up gambling are so huge in professional sports now, I think that's the basis for this more intense focus on sabermetrics during broadcasts I catch from a wide variety of contemporary baseball broadcasters on satellite radio. MLB would kill to get to where the NFL is in the gambling stakes. The die-hard gambler demands these arcane stats, and casual bettors must feel it gives them a better shot at competing. If more Astro players were in Fantasy leagues their ratings would zoom.

What has always made Vin Scully especially dynamic and engaging as he calls the Dodger games is his due diligence to stats spieling as it relates to the specific circumstances of the game situation, or the overall narrative of a player's career. So his mix of data with human interest story-telling connects.

But is this what feeds the need of the contemporary and future betting public?


Kate said...

Thanks for the Ernie Harwell shout out. As a girl, the only language I could speak with my dad and grandpa was Tigers baseball. Ernie's voice (The Voice of Summer) is one of my earliest memories, and your mention brought all three men, sadly gone now, back to life for a moment.

Ray Barrington said...

Interesting note - two of the announcers you mentioned, Jim Powell and Pat Hughes - used to work with Bob Uecker. Maybe if Uke wants to cut back on his traveling, he could open a school.

blinky said...

Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reece where my first and favorite announcers. I think it was the Saturday game of the week. They would announce the first pitch and then go into stories about fishing or hunting. Dizzy would go on and on about the big one that got away or some other adventure in the deep South he had during the previous week. Only occasionally would they actually talk about the game. And this was when Mickey Mantle was playing outfield.

John said...

SiriusXM also makes a big deal of touting its fantasy baseball (and football) shows, so the idea of the stat-geek disease spreading into the game broadcasts in no shock.

(I was intermittently listening to the end of the Yanks-Blue Jays game last weekend on the Toronto broadcast, and when a flipped back over they were into the post-game show, where a caller was detailing for the show host how many times per game a catcher can pull a pitch back into the zone to get a 'strike' call from the umpire, and how the percentage was higher for the Yankees and the Red Sox. Compelling radio it was not, and if teams decide to turn their in-game announcers basically into the Fox stat ticket at the bottom of the screen during their MLB broadcasts, listeners are going to zone out and then tune out quickly.)

Max Shenk said...

It's funny that when I listen to a ballgame, I'm less interested in hearing every detail of all the action than I am in being in the company of broadcasters I enjoy listening to. Harry Kalas and Rich Ashburn might have been the best at this: listening to them, as one person said, you felt like you were sitting at a bar listening to your Dad and your uncle talk about the game. All of the baseball radio guys I ever enjoyed have or had that quality, to some extent: affability, a sense of humor, professionalism... they could broadcast anything and I'd love listening to them.

Mike Barer said...

The second year Mariner announcer is pretty straight forward, but that gives Rick a chance to bring out his personality, something he really couldn't do as much when he was teamed up with Dave.
It was a brilliant idea for the M's to do the rotating announcers (of which you were part of), Dave was irreplacable.

Brent said...

I still listen to the radio broadcast, even if the game is on TV. It's a different style, not dependent on "let's watch the super-slo-mo replay".

A few advanced stats in a broadcast are fine, but there's no need to cater to that crowd. The advanced stats fans spend the game on their computers, filling up game threads on blogs, watching on Gameday to see pitch f/X data, snarking at it because it can't tell the difference between a 97 mph four seam fastball and a 92 mph cutter. It's all just "fastball".

Lindsey, Dave Niehaus could make you want to listen to an awful Mariners team, and he had many, many opportunities to do so. Beowulf not required, just a master storyteller, talking about a game he loved. Vin Scully still can.

The problem I have is that the game has become a three hour commercial. I know, the bills have to get paid, but the flow of the game is so disrupted; with every single aspect of it, from the first pitch to a call to the bullpen, being brought to you by (fill in the blank). It's really exasperating.

Mike Barer said...

Anyone remember the Seattle Pilot announcing crew of Jimmy Dudley and Bill Shonley? I listened to them on KUJ in Walla Walla.

MikeN said...

>Women (50.8% of the American population), in particular, tend not to care about Wins Above Replacements.

The President of Harvard Larry Summers was fired for talking like that.

Toledo said...

No, Mike Barer, but I remember very well Jimmy Dudley when he was the Cleveland Indians radio broadcaster for many years. He was another of the great old-school personality broadcasters. His broadcasts were terrific, even though he hated the announcer he was paired with and never talked to him on or off the air.

Mike Barer said...

Do you remember Jimmy's sign off? Something like "Good bye and lots of good luck, ya heah!

Ray Sanford said...

I remember going to Dodger games where everyone around me had a portable radio so they could listen to Vin Scully while watching the game.

Tim W. said...

Now, I haven't watched baseball since the Blue Jays started getting rid of all the players that won them the World Series, back in the mid-90s, but I do watch basketball.

I would definitely be considered old school in many ways, for one I've been a fan for more than 25 years, but I'm also big on advanced stats. In basketball, surface stats, like how many points a player scored or even how many rebounds he got can be extremely deceiving in his overall impact on the game, yet announcers rely on these stats which misleads the viewer.

I would love for announcers to start educating viewers about advanced stats and get away from these surface stats which often mean very little.

It might take a few years for fans to start understanding them, but I think they will be better off for it in the long run.

Now, baseball is different, in the sense that there is more time when nothing is going on, so having an announcer that can be a storyteller is obviously a big plus.

emily said...

"We don't care who wins, so long as it's the CUTS(?)!

goodman.dl said...

Stats are far more useful between games than during them - they are great for projecting what a player does over the course of a season, but not on a specific night.

Anybody who tries to kludge a stat into a broadcast is going to sound clunky, but then again I've heard broadcasters sound bad trying to stuff an ill-fitting anecdote in too.

Context is always going to be the most important think while watching a game. Stories that are good in and of themselves, but also fit around what's going on. Stats that accurately describe players, but that also make sense to bring up. If a manager makes a not-obvious choice, and there's either a story or stat that illuminates it... that sort of thing.

I certainly don't want to get lost in minutiae, but I also don't want a broadcaster to sound hostile to ideas. Especially if they are ideas that my teams front office is using very heavily.

Of note, though, the Astros blow. Their ratings should be terrible.

Eric J said...

"Instead, the new breed of announcers are polished, generic, stat oriented, and often put you to sleep."

But the game itself already accomplishes that.

Allan V said...

I agree that many announcers today are "cookie-cutter" and not particularly interesting to listen to. I'm kind of spoiled --- I get to hear Denny Matthews, who's been the radio guy for the Royals since '69. He's a breath-of-fresh-air compared to so many these days.

Mike Schryver said...

I've been involved in advanced stats for years, going back to the early days of Bill James' Abstract.

I think the problem comes when people throw stats out without context (which can be done with old-timey stats as well.)
A statistic in baseball should be the answer to a question. "Was the trade for so-and-so a good one? Well, they're getting 3 WAR now at the position where they were getting 1 before."
A good storyteller like Howie Rose and the others should be able to make use of any information if it helps tell the story. It sounds like the Astros are not doing that.

Eddie D said...

Robert McNamara strikes again...

Mister Charlie said...

I'm glad you mentioned Jack Brickhouse. That was our Cubs announcer when I was a kid.

astroworf said...

Went to bed nearly every night of my childhood summers with Buck (Cards) or Kalas (Astros) playing on the hand-held trasister radio tucked under my pillow. Wouldn't happen if I was a kid now.

VincentS said...

I'm also old school, Ken. I grew up listening to Phil Rizzuto and had the pleasure of hearing Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully as well. Yes, how I miss that kind of broadcasting!

Kathleen said...

I enjoy stats as long as I understand what they're measuring, but as many have commented, they need to be interwoven with compelling narrative. I think many ans who listen to games on the radio hear not only the game, but experience a different time and place in their lives. When I'm walking at dusk on a warm summer night and I hear Marty's voice coming from someone's porch I think of summers when I was a kid and my dad and I went to Twins/Yankees games when we lived in Minnesota. By the way, Twins announcer Ray Scott was the best I ever heard (and I like Marty). His well timed pauses and understated style added dramatic tension. "Swing and a miss. (Pause) He struck him out."

DBA said...

Woman here, who does care about WAR because it's generally a clear and useful way for me to know when some never-heard-of-him player, for example, for the Astros appears in a game. They traded who for what? Gimme the WAR and I'm set.

The idiotic stats that bother me lately are this trend to find any pattern in any thing and present it as a stat. Like when they start saying things like the batter has the most first-pitch hits on Tuesdays in April of anyone in the league in the past three years. Meaningless stats that are more quirks of the sample size than anything remotely relevant. This bullshit is creeping into broadcast and has certainly overtaken scoreboards. Everyone has jumbotrons. No one has decent content for them.

Tommy Taxi said...

Enjoyed your post. As a long time Phillies fan I have been spoiled by the team of Harry Kalas and Richie (whitey) Ashburn. I have heard Vin Scully only a limited amount of time but Harry and Richie were the closest I have ever heard to the great Dodger announcer. Now Phillies fans have a great team on radio, Scott Franzke and Larry Anderson and they are old school which is to tell a story that can't be seen on radio.

DrBOP said...

Best sign-off ever......old Canadian sports host...

..."Remember, if you can't play a sport....

.....be one."

Anonymous said...

There have been better single announcers, but the best team ever, bar none, was that brief year when Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall were doing White Sox games. They knew baseball as well was as anyone but that was completely beside the point. If it struck their fancy, they would be critical of the players, fans management, anything.
"He popped him up. That wouldn't be a home run in a phone booth".
Then they'd go off on any tangent they felt like, whether Piersall was really crazy, whether Harry drank too much, the inside stuff on baseball groupies and wives, etc. etc.
You could have your feel-good nostalgia and your Vin Scully and Mel Allen, but for a short while, there were never two announcers like those two.

Michael said...

The beauty of these comments is that each person cites a favorite announcer who was--get ready--unique. Each of them had a style. Now, you can be statistical and have a style, but I think of a line from Marty Glickman, who was a great football and basketball broadcaster and coached NBC's announcers. He listened to a basketball broadcast and heard the announcer throwing out stats and said the problem was, you wouldn't remember them in 10 seconds because there's so much going on. That brings to mind something from another great, Dick Enberg, once with the Angels, now with the Padres. He said that The Vin would drop in a great story in the 8th inning because THAT was when it fit; if it didn't fit in during the game, he'd save it. Big news was another matter. But having a sensibility for journalism and storytelling is so crucial, and the greats have it.

Gordon said...

Living in Los Angeles for most of my life I remember not just how great Vin Scully was and is, but also Dick Enberg, who announced the Angels for a lot of years. At one point he was joined by the late great Don Drysdale, and without hearing the announcing teams from other teams, I thought they couldn't be beat.

I'd also like to make a pitch for worst, almost unlistenable announcers -- unless your a fan of their team -- and that would be the announcers for the Cardinals -- who regularly dismiss or ridicule the other team.

In this day and age when you can listen to any teams broadcasters, being homers like these guys makes them sound like idiots.

Angry TechGamer said...

Sigh...

Knew it would happen sometime.
Someone posted a vile statement under my name this will now be my new name.

Angry TechGamer

sorry for the troll

The REAL Angry Gamer

Ron said...

Please Ken, really read up on Sabermetrics. You are so wrong here and seem completely out of touch.

Advanced stats are the friend of the narrative, opening up all kinds of possibilities for broadcasters to go deeper into the game.

Using these stats isn't going to take away the storytelling aspect of broadcasters it will enhance it. Mandating that broadcaster use these numbers will teach fans newer and smarter ways to enjoy baseball.

Since I started reading your blog I have learned much about TV. When I watch shows I understand and enjoy them on a much different level and it is better then before. I understand why I like some comedies and dislike others and am able to better express it to my friends. My enjoyment of TV is enhanced.

Understanding advanced stats is very similar, once you get passed Batting Average and RBIs to looking at on base percentage and deeper. Advanced stats attempt to get closer what makes runs happen and how runs are prevented. It allows a deeper understanding of the game, and tells more stories, not less.

Knowing how a sitcom gets made allows me to better appreciate you antidotes about working on Cheers. Knowing how good a player really is lets me appreciate the storytelling of the announcers.

Rob Hoffmann said...

To answer your question, Ken... a Houston Astros TV game can pull a 0.0 rating because Astros' ownership made the mind-bogglingly stupid decision to sell their TV rights to NBCUniversal in order to found CSN Houston.

CSN Houston is now bankrupt, has been accused of trying to avoid paying the Astros since day one, may have colluded with debt-holders to force the network into bankruptcy in order to steal the Astros' media rights, and has almost no carriage in the Houston area.

If nobody can get the network, a 0.0 isn't a surprise.

And yes, this is the same NBCUniversal that wants us to trust them with the potential Comcast-TimeWarner Cable merger. We're all doomed. :)

Anonymous said...

Cardinal fan here. I haven't noticed the bashing of the other team, but then I can't stand listening to Mr. Shannon. Call me spoiled, but when you grew up on the combo of Harry Carey and Jack Buck together, it's hard to listen to someone who doesn't always know where he is.

Pam

Tom said...

Echoing Anonymous re: Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall: Their announcing of the 1977 White Sox was otherworldly. Harry was likely drunk, Piersall was likely psychotic (and off his meds, which Harry would kid him about), the Sox were pretty good that year, Bill Veeck owned the team, Comiskey Park was a giant saloon and it was only two years until Disco Demolition Night (which BTW, Harry and Jimmy did a great job covering as a live news event. Catch it on youtube, especially to hear Jimmy talk about how he'd rather go swimming...).

John said...

Jon Miller (Giants) is a joy to listen to.

www.bodegabayf2.com

Norah said...

Sabermetrics aren't the problem--boring announcers are.

Alan C said...

This is for Mike Barer, who mentioned Bill "Rip City" Schonely, whom I remember as the voice of the Portland Trail Blazers. I looked him up and am happy to see he's alive and kicking. Here's his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BillSchonely

Mary Stella said...

I miss Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. After 12 years of living in the Florida Keys with only rare chances to watch my Phillies, I recently got an MLB.tv subscription. Not only do I not know who the Philly announcers are on their Comcast broadcast, I can't tell them apart because they're so similar.

devin mcmusters said...

Growing up near the border, I was lucky to listen to hours of Dave Van Horne and Duke Snider calling Expo games.
And then a click down the dial for the 70's Yankees guys, Bill White, and Phil Rizzuto's few innings before he bolted early every night.

Coleen Burnett said...

Thank you Ken. Well said. And as a Mets fan, I LOVE Howie and Josh. And as a writer, I love words, not stats.

Love your blog. This is my first post. Do I get a prize or something?

Coleen Burnett

Dan Ball said...

Oh man, a Marty Brennaman pic! Pre-head-shave, too.

The Reds have a good thing going both on TV and radio. I'm becoming pretty proud of it, even if the games they're calling don't make me feel likewise. Sure, they pull out the stats, but they also know their audience enough to tell us what's going on in the clubhouse and around the ballpark too. Marty, Thom, Chris Welsh, Jeff "Cowboy" Brantley, Jim Kelch, and the special guest appearances by George Grande and Sean Casey all bring that. It definitely harkens back to the innocence and nostalgia that baseball can achieve on a good day. This approach really nails the spirit of Cincinnati. It's the kinda thing WKRP really nailed about Cincy, too.

Jeffro said...

Call me crazy, but I like the bare minimum play-by-play and as little color as possible (I say get rid of all the color guys), and just having the ambient sounds of the game fill the moments between plays, so that it's like being at the park as much as possible audio-wise.

MLB.TV (their streaming service) now has this feature where you can not only choose whether you want to listen to the TV or Radio, but you can instead opt to listen to the audio of the ballpark. I love it! Give me that on TV with the SAP or something (instead of a Spanish simulcast or the like).

Cheerio,
Jeffro

VP81955 said...

Talkin' about Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall...Caray is most identified with the Cardinals and Cubs, but one could argue that his 11 years with the Chisox were his most important. He came to the South Side in 1971, when the White Sox were coming off 56-106, Comiskey Park was a ghost town and the franchise appeared headed for Seattle. Harry enlivened things and energized the Sox fan base. You can argue that Caray and Dick Allen (who arrived in 1972 to become AL MVP) kept the Chisox in town, something that paid off for their long-suffering fans in 2005, ending an even longer (albeit far less publicized) "curse" than Boston's.

bobGreen said...

Got to clarify that 0.0 rating. We have COMCAST. Enough said. The broadcast was full of pixelization and no audio.... couldn't watch it...which, with the team's perfomance might have been a choice worth
considering had the transmission been ok.

Anonymous said...

Funny how none of the MLB teams seem to have a "second screen strategy" for all this stat nonsense. Why not drive all these facts and figures to mobile devices and leave the narration to the p-b-p announcers? I grew up listening to Ernie Harwell and he used facts sparingly and only when they enhanced the storyline of that moment in the game.

mike said...

Amen, Ken. You are right on the money on this. The cookie-cutter corporatization of the game is just another factor driving me away. As another commenter noted, the constant barrage of advertising on the broadcasts undercuts the entertainment aspect. Of course broadcasting has always been a commercial enterprise but in 21st century America, must EVERY aspect of society be squeezed for every nickel? This is why we're not allowed to have nice things like national health. Also, I've been following the Mets since '69 and I have to say that the current radio guys are bland and pedestrian compared to the golden days of Lindsay, Ralph, and Bob; nor are they as good as Gary Cohen or Gary Thorne when they were on radio. Ah, the age of lowered expectations! Just my opinion, though.

mike said...

don't forget about the Indian's Tom Hamilton. Under rated under the radar and one of the best. NO ONE can do home run better than Tom. "there's a drive...way back..GONE!!