October 16, 2012
Bringing Sabermetrics to the Broadcast Booth
Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Len Kasper, a Midwest native, just completed his eighth season doing play-by-play for Chicago Cubs TV broadcasts after doing Florida Marlins play-by-play for three years for Fox Sports Net. Prior to joining the Marlins, he did play-by-play for select Milwaukee Brewers games from 1999-2001. Kasper's broadcast career also included a stint as the morning sports anchor at WTMJ in Milwaukee. In nearly eight years working for WTMJ, he hosted pregame and halftime shows for the Green Bay Packers radio network and co-hosted a hot stove league show on the Brewers radio network. Kasper graduated summa cum laude from Marquette University in 1993 with a degree in public relations. He and his wife, Pam, have one son: Leo. You can follow Len on Twitter @lenkasper or Len and his broadcast partner, Bob Brenly, at @lenandbob, or read their blog for WGN Sports.
When I started calling baseball on TV back in 1999 as a fill-in announcer in Milwaukee for my good friend Matt Vasgersian, I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of the game. I was an expert at keeping score (an impressive trait, I know), I knew the rulebook pretty well, and I was sure I could tell a good hitter from a bad one based pretty much on batting average, home runs, and RBIs. Same for pitchers with ERA and for fielders with errors. I was the classic fan who consumed and dissected what was given to me on radio and television and in The Sporting News. In fact, I still have boxes of old Sporting News issues from the 1980s in my mom’s basement.
Early in my broadcasting career, that foundation of baseball knowledge served me just fine. I certainly didn’t stand out from other young broadcasters in terms of the stats I used or the way I talked about the game. I was just trying to figure out how to call the plays with a producer and director talking to me at the same time in my headset.
After I was hired for my first full-time baseball gig calling Florida Marlins games on television in 2002, my baseball world was turned on its head. Number one, I got to broadcast every day with the great Tommy Hutton, so career-wise, I was in heaven. He helped polish me into a confident, yet still nerdy and goofy play-by-play guy. I also forged a fast friendship with Jon “Boog” Sciambi, who was working with eventual Ford C. Frick Award winner Dave Van Horne on Marlins radio.
Well, this was the time of the Oakland A’s early-2000s success—the “Moneyball” era. Boog was paying close attention and was excited to find an eager student of the game in me with whom he could share his intellectual take on the game on a daily basis.
Suffice it to say, the Woody Allen-like subtitle to the essential BP book, Baseball Between The Numbers (Why Everything You Know About The Game Is Wrong), became my mantra. I started thinking about out avoidance, walk rate, and slugging percentage and began to look skeptically at individual runs scored and RBI totals. It was exhilarating because my views of the game were being totally re-wired in a way that really meshed with my intellectually curious personality. I liked that a player’s value wasn’t immediately obvious from simply watching him play and looking at the basic numbers ingrained in my head as a kid. I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea that there is a lot I don’t know, and sabermetrics opened up an incredible new world to me.
If Bill James taught us nothing else, he showed us that questions are as important as answers. Our curiosity leads us (and more importantly, others who might be better equipped to find the answers than we are) on an exciting journey and, in James’ words, adds to our collective bank of knowledge. I’ve long said that it doesn’t really matter to me if we ever find the answers. I just like that we are trying to get there.
Well, fast forward from 2002 to 2012: the landscape has completely changed, and for the better, I think.
On a personal level, I just finished my eighth year in the Cubs TV booth, and I'm still pinching myself. I work with the best analyst in the game in Bob Brenly, and we have a national audience for about half our broadcasts on WGN, which gives us a good platform to talk about some of the things you read about at Baseball Prospectus all the time. We added a fun Stats Sunday feature and had a star-studded list of guest bloggers help us teach our viewers about some stats they should know. I've also gotten a chance to observe Theo Epstein and his incredibly bright front office do its thing up close on a daily basis. While 2012 was the first time I ever covered a 100-loss team, it was pretty enjoyable on one particular level—I am watching Theo, et al rebuild this organization from the ground up, a pretty exciting and new way of baseball business here on the north side of Chicago.
On a macro level, over the past several years, the migration of the mainstream media from print to the internet has brought a massive paradigm shift. And while on the business side, I feel bad for some very good people who have been marginalized because they work for a newspaper, the upside of this shift has propelled forward-thinking baseball analysis out of the periphery and into the mainstream.
Instead of waiting impatiently every year for the annuals from Bill James and Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times to arrive at my front door, now there are quick takes, columns, and in-depth research at websites like this one just a click away. Joe Sheehan can shoot out an email blast with his breakdown of big trades and important games on a daily basis. Rob Neyer can jump on Twitter and give his 40,000-plus followers a quick link to his insightful breakdown of the infield fly rule play from the Cardinals-Braves wild-card game. And I can go to BP or FanGraphs before a Cubs broadcast and quickly find out if Starlin Castro is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than he used to and if so, what is his contact rate?
It’s that instant access to great information and the communal aspect of the sabermetric movement that have drawn in much of the baseball masses. One thing that needs to be pointed out more often is the willingness to share the wealth. That Stats Sunday feature I mentioned? Here are some of the names we recruited to help out: Neyer, Sheehan, Sciambi, Jeff Passan, Joe Posnanski, Jonah Keri, Jay Jaffe, just to name a few who eagerly contributed. I know on at least one level, we are all "competing" for air-time, readership, website hits. And yes, the snark factor on Twitter can get pretty nasty when arguments get heated. Yet, at the heart of it, the urge to learn more, to bounce ideas off each other, to further the debate, to let that intellectual curiosity take us wherever the thread leads—those are the things that set this group of baseball thinkers apart. And they are what have truly propelled WAR and UZR and PECOTA into daily baseball conversations around the country.
As someone who has been working at a ballpark every day for the past 11 years, trust me when I tell you times have changed. Just five years ago, I would have had a difficult time finding anyone at the park, let alone a manager or coach, who would have known what FIP or “replacement level player” even meant. Being a stathead wasn’t viewed altogether favorably in most clubhouses into which I ventured, forcing me to bite my tongue when someone would claim that hitting with runners in scoring position is a repeatable skill.
But slowly, things have progressed. I think we have done a decent job of blending new stats into our broadcasts. I don't know if we will ever completely go to slash-line stats—BA/OBP/SLG—in lieu of BA/HR/RBI for each hitter, but we are at least getting close to broaching the subject. I do believe we need to be careful to not overload fans at home. As a play-by-play guy, I am always cognizant of the narrative aspect of the game, and getting overly clinical with esoteric stats is a good way to lose your audience in that setting. The best way for us to push the conversation forward is to pick our spots and relate the new numbers to the game/topic at hand. If a team rates highly in Defensive Efficiency, I can merely say, "The numbers say when balls are put in play, this team converts them into outs better than most." Or if a starting pitcher's BABIP is killing his ERA, we can say, "His peripheral numbers might indicate some bad luck this season, and an adjustment may be in order." These are ways to introduce people to better evaluation tools without turning the broadcast into an advanced math class.
What is really thrilling for me is to hear people in uniform talk about what really matters. Cubs' manager Dale Sveum speaks openly about team and individual OPS scales and his pitchers trying to limit opponents' slugging percentage. My own partner, a three-decade veteran of the big leagues in every capacity, is dropping advanced fielding stats into our broadcasts to discuss the merits of Darwin Barney as a Gold Glove candidate. And veteran writers like Jon Heyman, while telling us he’s voting for Miguel Cabrera for AL MVP, meticulously works OPS and WAR into his analysis because he understands that these things do matter and are essential to the debate.
But here is where it really crystallizes for me. Recently, two long-time New York sportswriters took personal and unnecessary shots at us “geeks." Murray Chass called Bill James a “self-professed expert” and wore as a badge of honor the fact that he had no clue what Baseball Think Factory was. And Bill Madden wrote that WAR is ludicrous and that all the smarty-smarts have somehow disparaged guys like Miguel Cabrera and R.A. Dickey (which, by the way, is totally false in both cases).
But guess what? These horribly out-of-date, the-earth-is-flat diatribes were received by the Twitter universe and the blogosphere just how you’d expect them to be taken: with a chuckle and a figurative wave of the hand. You just can’t get away with writing uninformed stuff like this anymore in an arena in which the audience has gotten so smart.*
And that’s why we are in a better place now. We all know better, and we now have a wonderful, wide-open forum in which to make our thoughts clearly known. Keep spreading the word. It's working.
*This is a topic for another time, but the biggest problem I have with the internet is the ability to post comments anonymously. It’s something I have not done and will never do. The discourse gets way too ugly and personal when people are allowed to hide behind a random avatar. I believe you should own your opinions and be transparent about them. That is what keeps us all honest and upstanding as internet users.