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Statistics in broadcasts? Fine, as long as you’re not just “throwing obscure percentages” at viewers

Apr 2, 2013, 8:32 AM EST

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There’s a story in the New York Times today discussing advanced statistics and how some broadcasters are trying (in some cases failing; in some cases wondering how to try) to integrate them into the telecast of ballgames. It has a particular focus on the Astros’ broadcasting team of Robert Ford and Steve Sparks, who are tasked with explaining the team’s new direction and management philosophy to Astros fans, much of which does include advanced metrics.

The story uses Indians’ broadcaster Tom Hamilton as a counterexample — someone who is loathe to go that route. His quote:

But some old-guard broadcasters have resisted adding obscure percentages and acronyms to their banter and game descriptions. Tom Hamilton, 58, who is entering his 24th year as the radio voice of the Cleveland Indians, said he believed listeners would rather hear stories from the clubhouse than statistics from spreadsheets.

“Nobody after a game is going to remember numbers you throw at them, but they might remember a story about a player,” Mr. Hamilton said.

This, in my view, evinces a total misunderstanding of how stats can and should be meaningfully conveyed to ballplayers.

Because, actually, Hamilton is right: if you just rattle off numbers at viewers, they won’t make any impact. Indeed, if I ran a broadcast team which I wanted to go a bit deeper into advanced statistics, I’d fire them if all they did was rattle off “obscure percentages and acronyms.” That’s boring. Rather, I’d want them to explain the concepts behind the numbers, even if they never mention the numbers themselves.

There’s no real need to tell viewers some BABIP stat if you’re explaining the idea that many pitchers have bad/good years because they have bad/good luck on balls in play and apply that to the guy on the mound. There’s no need to list the WAR leaders as long as you’re explaining to them that a players’ all-around play — defense, baserunning and offense — matter when comparing them to others. Yes, you note that those things are measured and, sure, if you’re comfortable with them and your listeners trust you you can eventually go down the road of listing leaders and stuff. But the key idea is to get at what those stats are describing, not the numbers themselves. You can hip your viewers to these ideas — many of which are totally intuitive — without throwing math at them.

I don’t care if a broadcaster ever even cites WAR or whatever. As long as he’s intelligently explaining baseball and is able to simply and entertainingly convey the concepts, it’s all good.

  1. dondada10 - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    David Cone, on Yankee broadcasts, is surprisingly well versed in all matters SABR.

    The revolution will be televised.

    • heyblueyoustink - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

      “50 years after the Cuban Revolution, a new Revolution is about to begin”

      Just remember, going to Miami is a last resort, infidels!

      • heyblueyoustink - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM

        sigh…..

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1838571/

  2. stex52 - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:39 AM

    Listen to Jim Deshaies, sadly the former Astros color guy and now with the Cubs for how to do it right. He was a pitcher in the Majors, but he is very much into the stats side. And does it with a slice of off beat humor.

    A good broadcaster will have no problem with that. We just need more good broadcasters.

    • Old Gator - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:48 AM

      That’s the ideal mix for a Cubs broadcaster: good with stats, and a sense of humor to handle the frustration which is the Cubs’ equivalent to the 5K microwave field. It would help too if he were sufficiently well versed in virology to understand the effects of die Vloek van der Geitbok, the prion-vectored Indonesian neurological disorder which accounts for so much of that frustration. We’ll be discussing this often during the season as we watch it spread from the team showers through the new signings, rookies and Theo Epstein’s cerebral cortex.

    • cur68 - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:21 AM

      Deshaies is good and you can’t beat Dirk Hayhurst either for the Beavz Radio Broadcast. He’s not only funny, smart, and well spoken, he knows his advanced stats, too.

    • indaburg - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:49 PM

      I heard the Deshaies yesterday for the first time while watching Chicago’s feed of the Cubs-Pirates game. He was as advertised, stex. I enjoyed listening to him very much.

  3. 11thstreetmafia - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    There are so many intangibles that SABR metrics do not take into consideration that it is laughable. The WAR statistic would be fine if the same pitcher was throwing to everyone, but that’s not how it works.

    • cggarb - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:57 AM

      Do the intangibles affect the eventual outcome of the game? Do they result in more or fewer outs/hits/runs/errors? If so, they’re included in WAR and any other metric. If they don’t show up in the building blocks of the game (runs and outs), then they’re irrelevant.

      /will never get that 30 seconds back/

      • paperlions - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:21 AM

        Exactly. If intangibles have a manifest benefit/effect on play/performance, then the result of those intangibles is already included in an metric (including things like RBI, pitcher wins, and ERA….not just WAR, wRC+, and ERA-).

      • chacochicken - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:58 AM

        Can’t we all just admit the world is a complete mystery in all respects and wander blindly in a demon haunted world?

      • paperlions - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:19 AM

        Still?

    • senorstem - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:58 AM

      Yeah, I guess that means ERA is totally useless, too. It would be fine if the same pitcher was throwing to everyone but that’s just not how it works.

      • 18thstreet - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:38 AM

        Why care about wins? It’s not like the Nationals and Mets will play the same schedule. You can’t compare anything at all.

      • SBG - Apr 2, 2013 at 1:48 PM

        Or batting average!

    • samu0034 - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM

      Or, y’know, you can just look at large enough sample sizes that the different pitchers a batter faces comes out in the wash. The problem would be (and I think this is kind of inevitable) if TV broadcasts started to break down a guy’s WAR against Dan Haren, or against the AL East, or some other nonsense split and discuss it as if it were relevant. I like the advanced stats, but they’re really most useful over the course of an entire season or multiple seasons. A guy’s WAR against the NL Central in July is irrelevant.

    • cktai - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:32 AM

      The batting average statistic would be fine if the same pitcher was throwing to everyone, but that’s not how it works.

      The home run statistic would be fine if everyone was playing in the same ballpark, but that’s not how it works.

      The pitching win statistic would be fine if every pitcher was throwing to the same team with the same score, but that’s not how it works.

      The RBI statistic would be fine if every hitter was hitting with the same number of runners on base, but that’s not how it works.

      etc.

  4. cggarb - Apr 2, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    Hamilton makes a great point. I don’t remember any statistics, but I definitely remember the 1000 different times that George Grande told me that some player “is a good player, yes. But more importantly, a good human being.”

  5. jeffbbf - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Throwing obscure percentages is a new thing? We’ve been hearing the same stupid “Joe Schmo is hitting .347 with runners in scoring position after the 7th inning in night games on the east coast” crap ever since computers were invented.

    • cktai - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:34 AM

      ever since scoresheets* were invented.

  6. mungman69 - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    I watch a game and I know what the hell is going on without too many stats. War? No more war.

  7. paperlions - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:24 AM

    The thing is that there is plenty of time during a game and season for both types of information. What broadcasters (and producers) need to understand is that often, LESS IS MORE….shutting up and letting the game happen or sticking to game events rather than interviewing people that stop by the booth (that no one want to hear from anyway) or telling the same fabrication for the 12th time that year does nothing to enhance the game viewing experience.

    If the goal of those that producer baseball games is to increase mute button activity: mission accomplished.

  8. steincj36 - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    Hamilton could use some stats to tone down his broadcasts. I LOVED him, he’s an icon, but sometimes, his “broadcasting” needs a little breather. If you’ve never heard him, it goes like this:

    “Swing, and a HIGH FLY BALL, DEEP TO RIGHT, WAY BACK, AND caught by the shortstop, about 10 steps off the infield dirt. Boy that was a big cut, and it looked like that one had a chance from up here.”

    Classic.

    • donkastain - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      I love listening to Tom Hamilton. I will watch the TV broadcast on mute sometimes and listen to the radio broadcast.

  9. natslady - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    Clubhouse stories bore me. If they aren’t staged they usually reveal something about the player (like his IQ or his politics) that I would rather not know. Stats I can look up, but if I’m listening in the car, a brief history is appreciated. Radio guys, give an accurate and complete play-by-play. One of our guys yesterday said Nolasco had one shutout last year against the Nats, when I knew he had two shutouts, in a row. I understand it’s a long season and you are cooped up in that booth, but I really, really DON’T CARE what you are snacking on.

    TV guys, keep the interviews short, short, short, and PLEASE show the game! I appreciate explanations and demonstrations of finer points, like baserunning, pitch selection, shifts, etc. Having a former MLB player give insight to actual game situations is great (even if I’ve seen it before) and makes the “color” guy an asset.

  10. sophiethegreatdane - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    I’d like to hear LESS broadcaster nattering. I can’t imagine some of these dopes trying to explain BABIP or WAR.

    That said, I would love for MASN broadcasts to include more than just batting averages in their on-screen graphics. Give me at least OBP and Slugging percentage. That would be a step in the right direction.

    • natslady - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:06 AM

      Pitchcounts and velocity would also be nice. The MASN on-screen stats are the absolute minimum. When I watch other teams, I’m envious.

      • 18thstreet - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:43 AM

        MASN is great at finding whatever statistic proves the Nationals are the best team since the 1927 Yankees. Did you know Roger Bernadina has a hit in the last six games? And he has a .400 batting average against the Rockies this year? He really like playing against this team!

        I really thought the cheerleading would calm down once the team started winning. But it hasn’t.

  11. El Bravo - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    How is it possible that they can explain QB Ratings in football by saying “it’s complicated but basically over a 100 is good”, but baseball can’t figure out a similar technique in explaining WAR or similar advanced stats? This is so dumb! It assumes the populace is dumb! You don’t HAVE to know how a stat is created to get it or what is good WAR and what is not good WAR.

    • El Bravo - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:44 AM

      Further, many fans can’t calculate batting average, but any fan knows .300 and above is a good batting average. How is this possible? Oh lord how???? How can we explain this stat to our regular neanderthal viewers?

  12. Bryz - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:44 AM

    Yes, I want to see more sabermetrics incorporated into broadcasts, but it must be provided with context as well.

    For example, a broadcaster mentions that Liam Hendriks has a .340 BABIP against, which is unlucky, and then leaves it at that. There’s a problem there, which is that the viewer has no idea why or how that’s unlucky. Where’s the baseline? What is average?

    Just like you said, Craig, we can’t just throw out numbers for the sake of doing so. There must be an explanation as to why it matters, or why that particular statistic is above or below average for the player, if we want more people to understand sabermetrics.

  13. louhudson23 - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    I am much more concerned with the production value of a broadcast than what is said. Incessant use of tight angles showing…(wait for it….) a ground ball to the second basemen…(wow)who then tosses the ball off screen….quick cut to SS catching the toss….then throwing off screen again….cut to 1B catching the ball as a blur of a runner flashes by in the foreground….voila,one of the most exciting plays in sports is reduced to the most boring of exercises….baseball is about angles and the relationship between the ball,the bases and the fielders….the absolute worst example of this inanity is the deep fly ball with a tagging runner on third. So we see an OF settling under a ball,cut to split screen,now we see a throw crossing the sky on one side,on the other a runner running hard. Amazingly enough,the throw is headed home(glad we got to see it in flight),where we see a catcher preparing to catch the ball,this shot is interrupted by the runner suddenly appearing from nowhere…..no suspense,no Willie Makeit and Betty Dont,just a guy running and another guy catching a ball. It is hard to tell they are even in the same ballpark,much less involved in the same play……no wonder people find watching a game boring.Nothing happens if you go by what is shown. One has to imagine the speed of a runner and his chances of beating a throw….only at the last instant are we even treated to the presence of the runner…..Watching MLB.com, I can see some teams retain the long shot,but good gosh,FOX is absolutely terrible. I have to wonder if a single one them has fucking clue about the actual game….maybe they should be forced to watch a game from the stands…and see the whole field… positioning,speed,angles,relative location….could be a game changer….

  14. personalspaceinvader - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Most of you should be thankful you don’t have to hear George Frazier or Tracy Ringolsby on your TV. I don’t even think they understand slugging percentage, much less anything more advanced. But if you ever wanted to hear about someone being a “spark plug” or a “club house leader”, their your guys.

  15. indaburg - Apr 2, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    Last year, our resident nerd (I say that with much love) and fielding dervish, Sam Fuld, gave a sabermetrics lesson during the broadcast. He has a background in statistics and economics from Stanford so he was the right man for the job. It was wonderful hearing advanced stats explained in a way that anyone could understand. I believe if these statistics were made more approachable, people wouldn’t be afraid of math (eeek! numbers!) and embrace the newer statistics as readily as they do ERA or batting average today. People typical fear what they don’t understand.

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