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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.

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