I’ve been equal parts inspired and amused by Brian Kenny’s Twitter account this baseball season. Kenny – a former ESPN anchor, now working for the MLB Network – has continuously ventured out on a campaign he promotes as #killthewin. He’s a voracious consumer of statistics, both advanced, sabermetric and “traditional”, whose ideal baseball world would be one in which no one judges pitchers by their win-loss records, seeing as these outdated metrics depend largely on run support received from one’s offense.
(I don’t believe it’s necessary to get into much of a discussion about this point, seeing as any semi-educated baseball fan now knows the true value of these statistics, but disbelievers still remain…as evidenced by Chris Tillman [11-3, 3.95 ERA, 111.2 IP] making the American League All-Star team over Hiroki Kuroda [8-6, 2.65 ERA, 118.2 IP], a decision that never did and never will make one iota of a quark’s worth of sense. Mr. Leyland, please pick up the white courtesy phone…)
So when I discovered Brian Kenny would be joining Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report podcast, I had to dive in headlong, with my various worlds of interest (Simmons, baseball statistics, Grantland) colliding. The 38-minute-or-so conversation really piqued my interest, though, about halfway through, with the two embroiled in a discussion about the best way to put forward advanced metrics. A few excerpts…
Simmons: I do think a big part of the problem here is all the people that announce baseball games. For whatever reason, we’ve decided that baseball announcers have to do the games like they’re from a different era…it’s from another generation. I think the last piece of this puzzle has to be the announcers embracing it in an everyday way, and until that happens, it’s always gonna feel like a schism.
Kenny: I think a lot of it is those who are still in control of producing baseball games, baseball shows – and this goes for all sports – and I often question “why does it have to be done this way?” And even when I start calling a game, I latch right into a guy that I would call 1940s Man. “And the 2-1…just a bit outside…”…that’s the way it’s been done…why do we go into this kind of hypnotic play-by-play trance that goes back to Dutch Reagan years?
Simmons: It’s the one thing in media that has literally not changed in 50 years. It’s done the same way, with the same beats, with the same types of people.
Naturally, as a baseball announcer, this didn’t so much as catch my attention as it did grab my attention, hold it upside down and shake it until change fell out of its pockets. I exited the podcast with two main questions: are those assumptions true? And how do we change the presentation?
In his thesis of sorts, Simmons claims that baseball announcing is “from another generation”. Essentially, he’s saying, there’s a certain way to do baseball. He’s right – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Baseball, more so than any other sport, is meant to be a slow burner, a storyteller’s game. Simmons argues in the podcast that baseball announcers tell the same “corny stories” – and while he’s not wrong about certain folks’ types of humor, baseball by its very nature has to be a storytelling game.
Consider the four “major” American sports – the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL – and what an announcer of one team has to do during one team’s regular season, using approximate figures…
MLB: 162 games x 2:50 average length of game = 459 hours of air time
NFL: 16 games x 3:10 = 50.67 hours of air time
NBA: 82 games x 2:30 = 205 hours of air time
NHL: 82 games x 2:30 = 205 hours of air time
The numbers are rough, but you get the idea. Simmons and Kenny propose doing a “talk-show format” of sorts during baseball games – which may work for a crew doing one baseball game a week. But for an announcer following a team from day to day, from city to city, there simply isn’t enough everyday material to avoid telling stories on the air. Remember: baseball’s not just about the numbers. The game’s about the people and the colorful characters that make it up. (From three years’ and 400-plus games’ worth of covering Triple-A baseball, I feel fully qualified to say this.)
That being said…baseball is a game driven by numbers. I, as a baseball announcer, have a responsibility to present those numbers to you, as do my colleagues at the various levels of the game. But, as Simmons and Kenny posit, we’re just not doing our job well enough in that area.
Close your eyes for a second, cancel out the noise in your area and think of the sound of a baseball broadcast. You probably hear an announcer in his mid-50s, lording over the stadium with a booming voice containing a gravelly streak. You picture a slightly portly fellow with a buttoned-up shirt and dress pants. And his words sound something like this:
“One out, one on for Jones, a right-handed hitter. He’s batting .276 with 15 homers and 70 runs driven in. The pitch from O’Connell…a fastball, strike one. O’Connell looking for his fourth straight win today…”
OK, fine – I’m presenting a few specific words and phrases to make my point. But does that sound too far off from a typical broadcast to you? It doesn’t – and that’s the problem.
Because you’ve learned nothing in that exchange.
We’re subconsciously trained as announcers to give a batter’s “Triple Crown” line when he walks to the plate – batting average, home runs, RBIs. It is (erroneously) the most easily identifiable measure of a player’s value to the casual fan – and I believe that’s why so many announcers recite the line verbatim for player after player.
As a play-by-play broadcaster, you’re taught to communicate with the audience, to let the viewer or the listener sitting at home feel as if they’re truly part of the game. We want to identify with the audience – and for that, we end up simplifying far too often. What we as a collective group fear is alienating viewers or listeners with numbers that they might not understand. But that’s not an excuse to try.
.276/15/70 sounds like a decent player to you at first blush, right? With only that information presented from a broadcaster, that player sticks in your mind as such – but it’s simply a minute piece of the puzzle without any sort of context. How many games has this player appeared in to collect those numbers? Does he often walk or strike out? Where does he hit in the lineup? What sort of power does he have? How is he on the base paths?
Contextualization of statistics: that’s what baseball broadcasts seem to be missing. Why is that? I’d theorize that broadcasters have the notion of sounding sophisticated rather than being sophisticated at times. I, for one, have often emphasized how I’m saying something at the expense of what is being said.
Lest we forget, “Triple Crown” lines (average/homers/RBIs) have long been thought of as the simple way to identify a baseball player’s talents, and that’s not easy to change. But it also makes sense as to why that line works in a visual medium. Television producers don’t want to overload graphics with slash lines, WAR, and games played. If you’re lucky, a player’s graphic will have stolen base numbers to go along with Triple Crown stats – though you may not be so lucky as to see caught-stealing numbers or stolen-base percentage rates.
It’s that problem again – identifying by simplifying – and of the major sports, it’s unique to baseball. One basketball graphic can easily tell the majority of a player’s story in simple, identifiable numbers – points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game and field goal percentage, for example. A football graphic can simply show you a quarterback’s completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions, or a running back’s carries, yards and touchdowns. A hockey graphic illustrates a player’s point totals, minutes and plus-minus. Are any of these the full story? No – but they’re significantly more telling than Triple Crown stats, and they’re significantly simpler to an audience than a graphic with on-base percentage, WAR and stolen-base rate would be.
It’s an uphill challenge, then, to communicate to audiences the true measures of a baseball player – and a challenge that falls squarely on us broadcasters. But we don’t have to start throwing out every advanced metric in the book when a batter steps to the plate. We’re smarter than that. We can ease our listeners in by talking about a player’s walk rate – easily identifiable – and then explain on-base percentage in those terms. We can point out why a high number of steals doesn’t necessarily correlate success and prove it through statistical benchmarks. We can talk about how many hits and walks a pitcher’s allowed and then discuss why their low ERA might be somewhat of a fluke. But we don’t have to settle for a few simple, arbitrarily decided numbers.
At its core, I like to imagine broadcasting a baseball game to my father. He’s long played baseball or softball, follows the sport more than a typical “casual” fan would and has rooted for the Yankees his whole life. But he probably couldn’t explain to you how to calculate slugging percentage – and that’s fine. I can ease him in by talking about how many extra-base hits a batter has or where a certain batter ranks in slugging percentage as compared to his teammates. By giving my dad context, I can help him become more well-versed in statistical methods that dominate the modern game.
Being a broadcaster is a uniquely powerful position. We’re positioned as the expert on certain teams and sports. Our words, as harmless as they may seem to us, have the power to impact the way a generation views a game. Let’s choose them wisely.