Wednesday, October 27, 2004


There's no first amendment in baseball!

Am I missing something, or are the announcers prohibited from saying the word "Moneyball"?

I began my life as a baseball fan watching broadcasts with in the Curt Gowdy era. Gowdy was the most boring play-by-play man I have ever heard in my life – the guy reading the line-ups at the ballpark had more verve than Gowdy – and he seemed to know next to nothing about baseball. His color commentators were either Tony Kubek or Joe Garagiola, two dim-witted ex-Major Leaguers who must have known something about baseball, but who gave the impression that revealing any insights about how the game was actually played would betray some code of silence like cops ratting each other out.

I think Joe Buck is a terrific play-by-play guy, whose only annoying habit (which he has dropped this year) was his pedantic insistence on pronouncing the T in "pos-T-season," instead of glossing over it in the more normal way ("po-season"). And I am second to none in my admiration for Tim McCarver as a color commentator. McCarver may be single-handedly responsible for the paradigm shift in which color commentators now have to talk about real baseball strategy and tactics. I have learned so much about the game listening to McCarver over the years that I can even forgive his penchant for bad puns. Buck and McCarver are, in my view, the best baseball announcing team ever.

Having praised these guys, I now wish to complain. When closer Keith Foulke was brought in to pitch in the seventh inning in Game Four of the ALCS, they took it as an inspired stroke of managerial genius by Terry Francona. When they have observed from time to time during the post-season that the Red Sox hitters have laid down an AL record low 12 sacrifice bunts all season they just sort of scratched their heads. When they noted that Sox hitters this year saw more pitches (i.e., took more pitches) than any other AL club, they noted that fact but sort of took it in stride.

Haven't these guys read Moneyball? The fact is that each of those three approaches – (1) using your closer as a "fireman" in critical situations rather than simply to get the last three outs; (2) declining to give away outs by sacrifice-bunting; and (3) working the count to look for more walks and thereby raise on base percentage – are all part of the SABRmetric-influenced strategy that Billy Beane brought to Oakland. This management approach applies a number-crunching business model of decisionmaking that tries to use baseball's rich statistical database in a rigorous and comprehensive way, instead of the traditional management model based more on anecdotal experience, intuition and a highly imperfect use of baseball stats. Theo Epstein, hired two years ago to be the Red Sox GM, comes from this new school of thought, and one of his first moves was to hire the dean of baseball statistical analysts, Bill James, as a consultant.

You don't have to buy into the whole Moneyball thing to at least acknowledge that it raises some interesting questions that would enliven the World Series broadcast. Given the success, first of Oakland, and now of the Red Sox, more teams are probably going to move toward this approach. Why don't McCarver and Buck at least acknowledge the Moneyball approach?

I can think of three reasons:

1) They haven't read the book, and it's just not on their radar screen – seems unlikely.
2) They are personally wedded to a traditional view of baseball and think this new wave of baseball management is a bunch of empty hype that's not worth mentioning – maybe.
3) They're under orders from their employers not to go there.

Major League Baseball likes to avoid airing front office controversies. Sports journalists report on that stuff, of course, but baseball announcers – even those employed by the network – are not journalists: they are highly skilled service industry professionals, and Major League Baseball is their client. So no talk about how the new kids on the management block are showing everyone else up.

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