Baseball - General

Vin Scully and the Future of Baseball Broadcasts

This guest post was written by Daniel Matthews, who has contributed to Redleg Nation a couple of times previously (here and here).

Earlier this month, Vin Scully wrapped up 67 years of broadcasting games for the Dodgers. He began his career in 1950 when the Dodgers still played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and he followed the team to Los Angeles when it moved there in 1958. He was behind the microphone for some of the most famous plays in baseball history, including the ball that went through Buckner’s legs in the ’86 Series and Gibson’s walk-off home run in Game 1 of the ’88 Series.

But what made Scully legendary was not just his ability to call a game; it was his story-telling. It was his knowledge of the players and their unique backgrounds as well as his drive to pass on his passion of learning to his audience. He never put himself above the game, and even in the most exciting moments, he let the drama on the field speak for itself. If you go back and watch the Gibson walk-off in ’88, after Scully exclaimed, “She’s gone!” he didn’t speak for over a minute. And when he did speak, he said with eloquence and simplicity, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote a magnificent piece on Scully that will take you a while to read but will be well worth your time. One of the things that Verducci points out in this interview on the Jonah Keri podcast in which they discussed his feature article, is that Scully is the greatest story-teller of our time, and we may never see his likes again. He told a story about bird poop and its connection to St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. He gave a brief history of beards. He told a story about when he found out about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when he was only 14 years old. He even made the reading of a grocery list sound majestic. And one that Reds fans would appreciate is a story he told about how Jonny Gomes survived a wolf attack.

Scully began his broadcasting career in a time when radio dominated the way fans consumed the game. You relied on the announcer for accurate descriptions of the action, and he was the best at his craft and will be greatly missed.

But we are in a different world today, and I’m starting to wonder if our way of consuming our nation’s greatest sport on TV needs to change.

So here’s what I’m proposing: we get rid of the play-by-play guy. And before you start questioning this, just consider all the things the play-by-play guy tells us that we already know because they are on the screen: the ball/strike count, the pitch count, the number of outs, the hitter’s BA/OBP/OPS, a pitcher’s ERA/WHIP, that the leadoff hitter just drew a walk, there’s a deep drive to left field, et al.

The main thing that propels this thinking for me is all the advanced statistics we now have. Just think, 15-20 years ago, it was all about home runs and RBIs. Now, pitchers are more concerned about not walking too many guys because that means their pitch count increases, and the opposing batters see more of their pitches. Teams are focused on a player’s OBP and WAR to determine his value to a team. The way the game is played has changed, the way teams draft has changed, and the way front offices approach establishing a 25-man roster has changed and will never be the same.

So why are we still calling games on TV the same way?

My proposal is this: we have three guys in the booth. It could be a combination of former players, baseball writers, or others with broadcast experience. We don’t have the legendary broadcasters we used to, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t weep if some of the game’s most highly-touted broadcasters weren’t behind microphones for baseball’s brightest moments.

Take this postseason, for example. I’m extremely pleased that John Smoltz got moved from the MLB Network international broadcast and is now on the FOX broadcast team for this World Series. He’s a brilliant, baseball mind and adds insight about a pitcher’s strategy that others didn’t provide in the past. And – I realize I might be in the minority on this – I really like Alex Rodriguez as an analyst. He’s energetic and knowledgeable, and if you watch him on the FOX Pregame Shows, he seems to have easily found his second career.

Traditional producers would still want someone to be the designated “host” and I think Verducci could fill this role perfectly. He would be able to do the little things like welcome the audience at the top of the broadcast and give the lead into a commercial break. Those skills can be developed and learned, if necessary, but you just can’t teach someone to provide game analysis the way Smoltz delivers it.

Just imagine this: you’re watching a postseason game and instead of a traditional broadcast, you have three guys in the booth: Smoltz, A-Rod, and Verducci. Occasionally, they go down to Ken Rosenthal next to the dugout. Or what if they added our beloved Pete Rose to the booth? He’s unpredictable and provides candid reflections on the game.

This great game thrives on the discussion that surrounds it, and I feel like that needs to be embraced rather than suppressed, and a three-man booth can do just that. A broadcast team with the aforementioned analysts – or the like – can be an intriguing baseball experience that would feed our need for intellectual conversation during broadcasts.

As much as ESPN dominates coverage of nearly every sport, I appreciate the megacast it puts on for the FBS national championship game with a film and coaches room as an alternative to the traditional broadcast. In fact, Fox Sports 1 did the same thing last year while a playoff game was being broadcasted on the FOX Network. Analysts sat in a studio on FS1 and dissected the game as it was happening. They talked about pitch count, walk rates, and other advanced statistics. It was phenomenal, and I was disappointed it didn’t happen again this year. But why can’t this be done in every broadcast, especially during the postseason?

If there’s one sport that provides ample opportunity for extensive dialogue and second-guessing, it’s baseball, and furnishing TV broadcasts with capable analysts to do this will give the TV-watching experience a fresh, unique edge to coincide with the modern way teams analyze players’ statistics.

11 thoughts on “Vin Scully and the Future of Baseball Broadcasts

  1. I think the idea of a parallel broadcast/ telecast with the analysts is much stronger than the idea of changing the primary broadcast.

    For the masses (which probably excludes about all of us who frequent sites like this), the game hasn’t changed enough/ that much to support the concept of no play by play guy. Much of the essential appeal of baseball to most folks is that they can loosely follow along while going about other activities on long summer evenings and early night. Whether it is radio or TV, they need the narrative to stay in touch and let them know when the game requires more of their attention.

    • I agree. I watch baseball while doing something else. The play by play guy is the skeleton upon which the analysts add muscle and sinew. That said, I wouldn’t mind a toned-down play by play guy. We don’t have that in Reds TV land.

      • Same with me. I rarely just sit down and watch a game. The back room TV is generally on, volume muted and CC activated with the DVR running so I can recover anything I happen to miss. Meanwhile I’m at the computer or in the living room usually with the radio feed in one ear so I can move back to the game TV as events merit and allow. When I arrive at the TV, I’m interested in the immediate game situation. I can always (and usually do) debrief the SABRE analysis later.

  2. Being a “Story” person, Ilike to tell stories, hear stories, read stories etc, I think this is a great idea. Living in VA. I often have had to listen to the other teams announcing team so I have often just muted the TV and watched the game it is much better than listening to an announcer complain about the umpiring, or tell me what I already know by watching the game. Give me two good analysts anytime. BTW I do like Brantley just because he does tell stories and he keeps the game interesting.

    • I like Brantley a lot too. I follow the action on the radio instead of on my phone to hear him and 2nd inning beat reporters’ sound byte segment.

  3. Thanks, Daniel!

    Regarding Smoltz, I agree about his pitching analysis. I really enjoy it. I also like his even-keeled delivery. However, his ideas and statements about offense (especially stealing bases) and line ups are so far off this planet that I’m left shaking my head for some non-trivial portion of the game!

  4. The average age of someone watching a baseball telecast is about 60. The average radio listener who stays tuned in for most of the game is over 65. In general, they want consistency and familiarity. They don’t necessarily want to be told that most of what they know about baseball is probably wrong.

    MLB has done a nice job with MLBAM and sites like Fangraphs appeal to the more analytically inclined. There are lots of people…mostly younger..who are interested in baseball, but aren’t particularly interested in watching baseball games. They want highlights and stats and they are inclined to focus their attention on the mediums that provide those things.

    • I’m certainly not saying you are wrong, but I’ve never heard of a fan who is passionate enough to care about FanGraphs or know what MLBAM stands for who aren’t also interested in (and enjoy) watching baseball games.

      These people have me curious…

  5. Interesting take. Before television we relied on the story as told by the broadcaster and the sports writer. As I am sure you know the best writers used to always be the sports writers before the advent of modern media. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio I had Sy Burick, Ritter Collett and Hal McCoy (all in the baseball HOF).

    I think Smoltz is great and while I am not a fan of ARod the player I also like him as an analyst. I like the back-n-forth with ARod, Thomas and Rose. I am up for something different.

  6. Probably the best current example of what the author is suggesting is the San Francisco Giants broadcast team of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow. Both are ex-MLBers, and they will ask each other on how a hitter (Kuiper, infielder) and pitcher (Krukow) will react in a given situation.

    Paying $100 for MLBTV on my tablet, and getting the Giants, Cubs and Mets broadcasts are well worth the money. All those TV broadcasters have a common theme (to me) of incisiveness on what they see, plus a whimsical, don’t-take-themselves so seriously attitude, which is needed over 162 games.

    There is a grimness and by broadcasters in some markets (ahem) that drag down the overall presentation, regardless of how the team is doing on the field.

  7. I think this article is influenced by the fact that tHom is just terrible. I will watch a game in dead silence or with the other team’s obviously biased broadcast before I listen to tHom. One thing I really enjoyed this year was hearing Jim Day as the play by play guy. He was just a straight play by play guy and deferred the baseball opinions more to the color guys.

    I’d be all for implementing the plan in this article for the Red’s broadcast if it meant showing tHom the door.

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