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Slowly but surely, sabermetrics seeps into the broadcast booth

David Cone David Cone, now a Yankees broadcaster, is among those embracing advanced statistics when calling a game. (Getty Images)

As a consumer of a steady diet of baseball that includes daily broadcasts for seven months of the year, I'm a notably fussy critic of announcers. Many of the national television ones rankle me, particularly when they dig in their heels to rail against the way the game — and the culture around it — has changed.

 

I don't mind admitting that I considered turning cartwheels when ESPN let Joe Morgan go a couple of years ago — even at the expense of the great Jon Miller — as Morgan's longstanding anti-Moneyball schtick had come to drown out whatever wisdom he was capable of communicating to his audience. I cringed when during the World Baseball Classic, Jim Kaat — for years a welcome presence in the YES Network booth — proclaimed a desire to "throw sabermetrics in the trash can" in defending the tournament managers' overreliance on sacrifice bunting. I shed no tears when Fox's Tim McCarver announced last week that the 2013 season would be his last, because he stopped bringing new insights into his once-standard-setting work long ago.

Sitting down to Sunday night's season-opening game between the Rangers and the Astros, I was quickly driven away from the ESPN booth's feed by their incessant discussion of how Texas would miss the leadership of Michael Young, whom they traded to the Phillies after a terrible season with the bat that contributed to the end of the Rangers' reign atop the AL West — a tired narrative that has been flogged to death all winter long. Thanks to the magic of MLB.tv and Tivo, I was able to seek out an alternative audio feed, in this case the Astros' radio crew of Robert Ford and Steve Sparks, and more or less sync it to the on-screen action to compensate for the feed's slight delay. Their lower-keyed patter was music to my ears, particularly as I was multi-tasking around my living room during the game, and I soon noticed that the pair weren't harping on the type of anti-stat narratives that so turn me off.

As if on cue, on Tuesday the New York Times ran an article centered around the issue of introducing a greater statistical lexicon into broadcasts, leading with a photo of Ford and Sparks on the job and including several of their quotes. For a team undergoing an extensive rebuilding in which sabermetric thinking is playing a significant role, finding announcers who understand where they're coming from and can relate those ideas to their audience is important. From the piece:

“They wanted a broadcaster who is at least comfortable with exploring the idea of discussing advanced statistics and what they mean,” said Robert Ford, 33, who was hired by the Houston Astros in the off-season, along with Steve Sparks, 48, a former pitcher, to call the team’s games. The advent of advanced statistical analysis, Mr. Ford said, has “changed the way we think about baseball.”

...“We need them to tell the story of how we are making decisions and putting the organization together,” said George Postolos, the Astros’ president and chief executive, who added that the team would not want a broadcaster who was uncomfortable explaining the front office’s strategy.

As the article, written by Steve Eder, goes on to illustrate, announcers in such a position need to walk a fine line in introducing stat such as Wins Above Replacement or batting average on balls in play into their lexicons lest they alienate a segment of their audiences. In that regard, those on the television side of things have a decided advantage given their ability to display visual data that can inform viewers without needing to be addressed directly by the broadcasters. You can show a data table on TV, but you can't read one on the radio without boring people.

In this context, it's important to remember that word, broadcasters. Whether on network or cable television, or on the radio, teams are aiming for as broad an audience of viewers and listeners as they can get, which generally means avoiding overt sophistication. Sabermetrics, while it has made great inroads over the past two decades to the point that virtually every team — except the Phillies, apparently — incorporates it into their decision-making process, remains a niche market. It's a growing niche, as the influence of sites such as Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs attests; all three organizations now include members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. MLB Network, whose majority owner is the 30 teams, produces a sabermetrically-minded show called Clubhouse Confidential, one that offers a marked contrast to the network's other on-air personalities, the great majority of whom are former players; some of them serve as foils for host Brian Kenny's "Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside" debates on the hot topic of the day. (Disclosure: I have been a frequent panelist on that show alongside Kenny.)

I know this terrain well, as I got my BBWAA card as a member of BP back in December 2010, two years after the first BP members gained entry. Less than a year later, I began working as a recurring guest on Clubhouse, and on occasion, I've gone head-to-head on a few baseball matters with the likes of Larry Bowa and Al Leiter. Clubhouse, BP, FanGraphs, and other outlets — including, hopefully, this space at SI.com — have helped turn people onto the world of advanced metrics to illuminate corners of the game that they may not have understood as well prior. As slow as it may be, it's good to see that trend extending into the broadcast booth.

If you're in the New York market and have watched the Yankees, you've probably caught at least some flavor of this trend. In the YES booth, former Cy Young winner David Cone has made no secret of his interest in sabermetrics, and in addition to poring over volumes of data to prepare for his on-air work, he's spent time using WAR, BABIP, PITCHf/x data and fielding metrics to help viewers expand their range outside of the traditional W-L/ERA/AVG/HR/RBI cluster of stats. Not all of his colleagues are quite that comfortable relaying such data; Ken Singleton, for years a high-OBP cog in Earl Weaver's Orioles lineups, is quoted in the Times piece as more wary of relating such data.

The trend is hardly confined to New York. Cubs play-by-play man Len Kasper uses a "Stats Sunday" column on the WGN blog, often by a guest writer, to highlight sabermetric concepts that he works into a given day's show; last September, he invited me to write an entry on True Average, which was then integrated into that day's broadcast and shown for every batter. New Diamondbacks play-by-play man Steve Berthiaume is another acolyte, albeit one who has sounded a typically cautionary note about his efforts. On integrating numbers such as WHIP and BABIP into his broadcasts, he told the AZ Snakepit blog, "It's got to be very small doses I think, just like ERA, RBI, home-runs, but consistently, every day, until it becomes part of the fabric of the broadcast."

As important as pacing the introduction of new concepts is toning down the more outmoded ones. ESPN's Jon Sciambi, who used to work for the Braves, wrote a guest piece at BP back in 2010 in which he noted the need to "erase the 'noise'" from broadcasts, eliminating the trivial data that passes for statistical insight and finding more appropriate stats to deploy, such as slugging percentage instead of RBI to show that Ryan Howard is [an] elite hitter (or was, at the time of that writing).

Dave Flemming, one of the Giants' play-by-play men, looked back to a 2011 interview with Giants blog Lefty Malo and noted via Twitter that it's easier to work concepts such as park effects or positional scarcity into the broadcast mix than to use unfamiliar statistics. "[I]n the broadcast medium the more broad [sabemetric] type concepts have a more valuable place than more nuanced, math based analysis, which is hard to absorb on the fly, no matter how sophisticated the viewer... I try to emphasize [how] ballparks skew numbers, [the position] where a guy plays matters, [and that] some stats are misunderstood."

(In my impromptu Twitter poll, Cone, Flemming, Kasper and Sciambi all received a flood of mentions as among the most sabermetrically incined on-air personalities. The Cubs' Jim Deshaies, the Braves' Jim Powell and the Reds' Chris Welsh, none of whom I am as familiar with as the aforementioned, drew positive mentions as well.)

Changes to the way numbers are worked into baseball broadcasts are slow in coming around; it's still remarked upon when a given network adds on-base percentage to its on-screen graphics, or a team hires announcers such as Ford and Sparks who don't recoil at the thought of using WAR to illustrate their points. It's not something that should be done haphazardly, or forced on listeners out of context — we're inundated with enough information as it is, and adding to the noise can alienate an audience as quickly as a well-used stat can hook them.

As with so much inside the game and beyond, such trends build and build and eventually reach tipping points, after which they become accepted as the norm — if not as the dominant way of doing things, then one that at least has earned its spot in the discussion. To call up an example I used a few days ago in my "20 Changes" piece, think of the impact the craft beer movement has had on consumers' palates. It hasn't replaced the dominance of Bud-Coors-Miller, but it has offered the more discerning types an additional array of options. We're not quite yet there with advanced statistics in the broadcast booth, but the day is coming when we'll hardly bat an eye at an announcer's facility with numbers.

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