What's with all the dumb baseball commentary on television?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 13 2008 11:35 AM

It's the Thinking Man's Game, Stupid

What's with all the dumb baseball commentary on television?

Baseball Tonight. Click image to expand.
Karl Ravech, John Kruk, and Steve Phillips on Baseball Tonight

During the baseball playoffs, the best place to see comprehensive highlights of all the games is ESPN's Baseball Tonight. Just make sure to watch with the sound off, lest lead analyst John Kruk pulverize the parts of your brain responsible for logical reasoning. Kruk is a champion of the indefensible, the nonsensical, and the utterly pointless who once called Placido Polanco the toughest out in the American League (he isn't) and said that Brett Myers' arrest for hitting his wife in the face would "propel him to stand up and be the ace of [the Phillies'] staff" (it didn't, which is probably a good thing). Last week, Kruk's SportsCenter segment on the Tampa Bay Rays concluded with the meaningful observation that they are "a special team that can do special things."

This would all be more shocking if Kruk wasn't on a baseball broadcast, where such statements are the coin of the realm. While ESPN is the most egregious offender, the pre- and post-game shows on TBS and Fox aren't much better. TBS's cacophonously uninformative production features former pros Dennis Eckersley, Harold Reynolds, and Cal Ripken Jr. yelling excitedly at one another for a half hour, like a better-natured but equally unintelligible version of Crossfire. Meanwhile, Fox lead analyst Kevin Kennedy summed up the Dodgers' Game 2 NLCS loss to the Phillies by observing that the team "went away from good pitches," urging them to include more good pitches in their Game 3 plan. And Kennedy is a markedly better analyst than his colleague Mark Grace.

It's telling that pretty much every football show on television is brainier than today's baseball fodder. Kruk's ESPN colleague Ron Jaworski is the best example of the comparatively happy state of football TV. Not content to provide commentary on SportsCenter and Monday Night Football, for which he's the main color man, Jaworski headlines NFL Matchup, a show in which he sometimes spends up to five minutes excitedly explaining a single play. Two weeks ago, for example, he pointed out that a Steelers left guard had failed to block an Eagles linebacker because he'd blitzed in single file behind a teammate, shielding himself from the guard's view—the kind of detail that someone who'd never played the game would never notice. Compare this with player-turned-analyst Eric Young's scouting report on C.C. Sabathia from a recent Baseball Tonight. "He can dominate with the inside fastball as well as the outside fastball," Young said, over video of Sabathia throwing a curveball.

Jaworski is good at his job, but he's not one-of-a-kind. There's a similarly microscopic show on the NFL Network called Playbook, and even more conventional highlights-and-punditry programs like Inside the NFL and Football Night in America feature smart breakdowns from the likes of ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick and former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth.

Why is there more intelligence on display in a week of football shows than in a year of Baseball Tonight? I put the question to a few TV producers who've worked on football shows. "Like most things, it's basically that a few people—Collinsworth, Jaws—are just smarter and work harder than anyone else," said one producer who's worked on Inside the NFL. That might sound like a tautology—football shows are better because they have better talent—until one considers the sheer size of the football-industrial complex, which supports regular coverage on three different networks and a full-time cable channel. Baseball Tonight might rotate between four or five analysts in a season; that's about one-third of the number of commentators who show up on a single episode of Football Night in America. There are so many guys on TV talking about football that some of them are bound to be smart. (Although some of them are bound to be Emmitt Smith.) And with so many fans, football shows can afford to devote screen time to relatively esoteric subjects that will appeal to the die-hards. With baseball's playoff games routinely rated lower than regular-season football, producers have obviously decided to appeal to the dreaded "casual fan."

There are some savvy baseball analysts. Baseball Tonight employs several experts with actual expertise: Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons, lovably excitable reporter Tim Kurkjian, and ESPN.com regulars Buster Olney and Jayson Stark all make occasional appearances. While none would be classified as a stathead, they've all done enough homework to be conversant with the latest thinking on the game. In one segment that ran before the playoffs began, for example, Gammons mentioned that several teams keep advanced defensive stats that indicate that the Rays' Carl Crawford is far and away the league's best left fielder. But such moments of researched insight are the exception on ESPN's baseball broadcasts.

It isn't simply a matter of ESPN mismanaging its personnel. When I raised the matter with Brian Powell from the Web site Awful Announcing, who subjects himself to more TV sports commentary than any other man alive, he made the simple but important observation that a strikeout isn't as visually interesting as a murderous safety blitz, especially when it's replayed five times. That's why football is so much more popular than baseball in the first place, of course; it has more action, and that action is more easily captured on television. It doesn't help that recent advances in understanding baseball are more related to top-down analysis—how to compare players to one another and predict how they'll perform—than they are to moment-to-moment gameplay. In baseball, a breakdown of a single at-bat often boils down to "first he threw the ball to the left, then he threw the ball to the right." There are certainly interesting points to be made about game strategy, but those kinds of discussions—whether to bunt or pinch-hit, how to deploy a left-handed reliever—tend to be handled best by in-game color commentators, who can take advantage of the game's languorous pace to unspool the various possibilities. (The game's pacing cuts both ways, allowing Joe Morgan to be as expansively dumb as, for example, the Mets' color team of Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez is expansively insightful.)

Nevertheless, I'm convinced that there's room in the market for a smarter show about the national pastime. My imaginary show would ignore the axiom that the highlight is king—frankly, I don't think most fans will really miss those clips of a guy hitting a ball followed by a clip of a ball landing in the stands. (Unless a guy catches it in his beer or while holding his kid or something—everyone loves that stuff!) Instead, my show would take a cue from sites like Baseball Prospectus and Hardball Times and put crucial decisions in context. Consider BP's observation that the Angels-Red Sox series turned on three characteristically bold base-running decisions by the Angels that all turned out badly, which they used to illustrate the point that Mike Scioscia's managerial style has not kept up with the particular skills of his roster. Or their breakdown of the Phillies-Dodgers NLCS, which observed that the Phils' decision to bat Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in succession will allow Joe Torre to use his left-handed specialist, Joe Beimel, against both of them in key spots. It isn't as if this kind of analysis can't be put together on short notice—you just need analysts who aren't John Kruk.

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