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February 23, 2010
Building a Better Broadcast
Jon Sciambi, who does play-by-play of Major League Baseball games for ESPN, has been kind enough to grace the Baseball Prospectus site with a guest column.
Let me tell you about an argument I had with Chipper Jones. Last year, I came across an interesting nugget on Fangraphs while doing pre-game prep: Besides Albert Pujols, Chipper sees the fewest first-pitch strikes in the majors.
Chipper is open-minded when discussing hitting, even when he disagrees, so I decided to present him this information prior to the game. He was really surprised. He didn't believe the facts, even though the numbers were inarguable. Or, more to the point, he believed in what he knew (and himself) more than my stupid, never-played-the-game facts.
Chipper was so surprised that he went around the clubhouse asking teammates, one by one, if they were surprised. None of them were. Everyone saw it but him, the guy with ostensibly the best view. Chipper has great eyes, obviously, and great belief in those eyes, but those eyes can also occasionally lie to even one of the best hitters in the game.
I went on to ask why he'd swing at so many first pitches when the numbers suggest it's not a great play. Chipper explained that the first pitch is often the only time he'll get a "heater" the entire at-bat. "OK," I say, "but clearly, mathematically, factually, you're not getting a ton of strikes." We go round and round for a bit without concession on either side and eventually I go upstairs to broadcast the game.
Fast forward to the top of the first. San Diego's Tim Stauffer on the mound. Chipper digs in� and takes a 91-mph fastball right down the middle. He steps out of the box, finds our broadcast booth with those great eyes and, well, here's what follows:
Chipper Jones 1, Stats 0. But Chipper, sample size!
Will Carroll's "Be Stupider" post got me thinking: How can the broadcast world do a better job of delivering sabermetrics to the masses? And, more importantly, how do we make it "illuminating" instead of "coma-inducing?" Additionally, how do I get Chipper to understand I'm not a moron?
Like Will, I'm "mathematically challenged" and find lots of BP, Fangraphs, Tango, etc., tough to digest. I am somewhat "tentative" to push SABR-type stuff on air because of the aforementioned coma potential. That's not an excuse, just reality. But it's also on me to do better. During my years doing Braves games, I had the good fortune of working with a crew that was open to new ideas. All our player stat lines included OBP (not earth-shattering) and the bulk of our graphics were presented in rate-stat form. But the thing that made it work was my broadcast partner, Joe Simpson. If I dug up a non-mainstream stat somewhere online, I'd say, "You know, Joe, I was looking at 'I live in my mom's basement.com,' and I found this note on Javy Vazquez�" He would giggle and poke fun, but he would always listen. You know what else? He would change his mind sometimes. Joe is very old school. But he's fun enough to spitball in one of the classrooms of that old school. What's the line from Mr. Baseball? "I bet you didn't start playing baseball as a kid because you wanted to work?" That's right, Magnum P.I., I just quoted Mr. Baseball.
So how do we make a better broadcast? It's gotta be fun. Entertaining. To us. Yes. But, by extension, to the audience.
What else? Well, it's as much about eliminating certain stats from the lexicon as it is about adding them. We need to slowly erase the "noise." Stop mentioning and graphically supporting with stats like RBI and wins because that stuff doesn't make people smarter.
Let's not forget "it's the search for objective knowledge about baseball." The goal is not unveiling newfangled stats; it's about getting people to understand basic ideas and concepts. To achieve that, we can't just slap stats up on the screen and explain them. Understanding has to come in the form of analysis. We have to use the stat and explain it. Sometimes it needs to be the PBP guy playing analyst and getting the color guy to react:
If Ryan Howard is up, I can talk about RBI and why dependent stats don't evaluate individual performance well; RBI aren't what reflects Howard's greatness, his SLG does. I can mention that Howard's massive RBI totals may be due to the fact that no player has hit with more total men on base than Howard since 1492 (I believe this is a fact but didn't feel like looking it up). Point is, there are dead people who could knock in 80 runs hitting fourth in that Phillies lineup. (OK, I probably wouldn't say that on-air.)
The metrics are getting so advanced that we're in danger of getting further away from the masses instead of closer. We, as broadcasters, have to find better and entertaining ways of explaining the math in bite-sized terms. Simplified, we need to explain that one of the problems with batting average, as opposed to slugging percentage, is that batting average values a single and a home run equally. We can't assume that's understood just because we understand it. And the only way it gets embedded is to keep beating the audience with it so that it becomes ingrained the way ERA eventually did, even though that once passed for advanced math. That, and we should all wear blue blazers with an emblem that reads, "OBP is life."
I also believe, as it relates to the masses, the PBP guys can't move the analysis needle much. The masses will always find former players more credible, period, and the BP base needs to be more open to that-if the goal is indeed to inform the masses and not be "right."
The average fan wants the analysis from McCarver, not Buck. Joe Morgan may not be popular in these parts, but last year I worked a Tigers/Angels game with him in Anaheim. At one point, I mentioned UZR, UZR/150, and other defensive metrics. As we were going to commercial, Joe said that he'd like to talk about defensive metrics when we got back. What followed was a pretty straightforward, simple discussion about defensive metrics without disdain or dismissal on his part.
Look, there's still a ways to go. We need a former player to look into the camera and explain properly why this guy:
is a better offensive player than this guy:
We need to get to where the masses understand there is no choice. This isn't subjective. I evaluate offense with OBP and SLG while you like RBI and runs scored is not the same as "I like strawberry, and you like vanilla." It's "strawberry is better than vanilla." More accurate and, therefore, more delicious. To be clear, I don't speak for ESPN here, just me, but I think we have a responsibility to inform correctly. If a majority of teams are using advanced metrics to inform decisions, then we should do some of the same in analyzing those decisions.
In 2008, Dick Cheney was informed that two-thirds of Americans thought the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. Cheney's response? "So?" We need a little bit more of that 'tude. This isn't to say I agree with his politics. Or the war. Why am I even going here? Eject!
I'd liken this task to how The New York Times operates. The Times places the stories it deems most important above the fold and to the right. The majority of other papers go with what they think we think are the most important. The goal is to be the Times. If we eliminate the noise of RBI, runs, etc., keep it basic and utilize the slash stats, I believe that, slowly, the desert masses will drink the sand. The BP base must understand: VORP, EqA, WAR, and Robert Parish are not walking through that door. Not for a while. But it can only help if the broadcasters are a team, too-in uniformity (together, I mean, not wearing those blazers) while patiently holding that door open.