McCarver losing his fastball

October 25, 2011
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Little things have been annoying the heck out of me this year while watching the World Series on Fox. I’m not talking about big things like the camera cuts or the graphics or the strike zone thing or any of that. I really am talking about tiny things, stuff that probably doesn’t bother anybody else. But I can’t help myself.

For instance, I have now heard Fox announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver repeatedly refer to the Rangers’ comeback in Game 2 as the inning where “Josh Hamilton and Michael Young hit sacrifice fly balls.”* I know that baseball announcers have a long history of loving the RBI, praising the RBI, worshiping the RBI — I get that, but how do you make Hamilton and Young the heroes of that inning? Ian Kinsler hit that pop-up single and stole second base on the great-throwing Yadier Molina. Elvis Andrus cracked a single — the only really solid hit that entire inning — and then took second on a brilliant bit of base running that for some reason was reduced in narrative to an Albert Pujols gaffe. He then took THIRD on the Hamilton fly ball. The point is that the sacrifice flies, while functional at-bats, were not the story of the inning. They were fly balls. The hard work had already been done. To me, crediting Hamilton and Young for that inning is a bit like crediting the guys who drove in the golden spike at Promontory Summit with building the railroad.

*Maybe this is bothering me because the Michael Young deification is driving me up the wall. Young has been a good player in his career. Not a great player. Not close to a great player. But a good player. A solid player. He won a batting title. He’s a .300 hitter who doesn’t walk, has played several positions, but none of them especially well, he has shown a little pop in large part because he has had the good fortune to play his entire career in a great hitters’ ballpark. He gets a lot of points for leadership, and he might indeed be a Patton-like leader in the clubhouse, but I also know that Young has twice complained loudly and publicly when the Rangers moved his position. His career WAR, at this moment anyway, is almost exactly the same as Dave Henderson’s and Melvin Mora’s. His career 106 OPS+ is the same as those of Don Money and Bill Doran and David DeJesus. All of this seems to place him firmly in the “good but not close to great” column.

And yet, all postseason I’ve been hearing Michael Young hosannas. Great player. Classy player. Fantastic player. Leader. Role model. Hero. Even this would be OK if Michael Young were having a great October. But at last check he was hitting .207 in the postseason. I don’t get it.

Meanwhile, there actually IS an underrated guy on the Texas team that the announcers could be celebrating — Ian Kinsler. He has been an excellent defensive second baseman, and over his career he gets on base more than Young, he hits with more power than Young, he’s a much better base stealer than Young, and he’s a better base runner than Young. Kinsler, too, takes big advantage of his home ballpark, but he’s a better player than Michael Young and, as is the case for truly underrated players, nobody in the television booth seems to know it.

The reason for this, I regret to admit, is batting average. Michael Young has a career .300 average, Kinsler is way down there at .275. And that is that. A month or so ago — and I wasn’t the first to say this — I wrote that maybe batting average was finally losing its unique hold on the American psyche, because Curtis Granderson was a serious MVP candidate even though he was hitting in the .260s. After almost a month of watching the playoffs on television, I take it all back. The postseason announcers — pretty much to a man — still refer to batting average like it’s the most perfect of all statistics. I guess batting average, like the Terminator, is impossible to kill.

Sorry. Back to McCarver and Fox. On Sunday night, McCarver broke out an odd statistic that sounded completely wrong to me. I couldn’t quite follow it at first — it sounded like McCarver had said that Elvis Andrus was the first shortstop in the history of baseball to steal 30 bases for three consecutive seasons. This obviously is a million miles from being true — heck, Bert Campaneris had six consecutive seasons of FORTY stolen bases.

But it turns out that wasn’t what he said. McCarver’s voice trailed off at the end, but what he actually said was that Andrus was the first shortstop in baseball history to steal 30 bases for three consecutive seasons to START A CAREER.

Well, that’s different. It STILL sounded wrong, but I do know you can do a lot of damage to greater truth when you throw that extra “start a career” thing at the start of any statistic. The only catcher in baseball history to start a career with three consecutive 120-hit seasons is Jason Kendall. The only second baseman in baseball history to start a career with three consecutive 100 run-seasons is Jim Gilliam. The only left fielder to start a career with three consecutive 100-RBI seasons is yep, you guessed it, Hideki Matsui.*

*That’s a wonderful trick question — Ted Williams played his first year as a RIGHT fielder.

Still, the Elvis Andrus statistic sounded PARTICULARLY wrong. And so, of course, I looked it up, and it turns out that it is technically right but only technically. Hanley Ramirez stole 51, 51, and 35 bases in his first three years, which would clearly put him in the category. BUT, Ramirez got two-at bats for the Red Sox in 2005, so apparently that eliminates him. Maury Wills, Bert Campaneris and Edgar Renteria all stole 30 bases in each of their first three FULL seasons, but each of them had a partial first season in which they did not. In other words, the statistic is meaningless. And it always was meaningless — a shortstop stealing 30 bases is not exactly rare. Ozzie Smith did it 11 times, Freddie Patek did it eight years in a row, Jimmy Rollins has done it a bunch, Jose Reyes has done it every full season he’s had in the big leagues.

You know, I’ve been listening to Tim McCarver call baseball games for almost 30 years now. One of my best friends in high school, Robert, was the first person I knew who had a satellite dish — this was in the days when you had to be one of those guys in the Apollo 13 room to figure out how to operate the thing. I remember there were a lot of vectors involved. Anyway, Robert was and is a huge Mets fan, and so we watched a lot of Mets games with McCarver calling them.

And I loved McCarver. Absolutely loved the guy. Every at-bat, it seemed, he taught me baseball. It was that way for a long time. I honestly believe that McCarver was one of the great pioneers in baseball commentary, the John Madden of his sport in many ways. He was the first I knew who could really break down what the pitcher was trying to do, why he was trying to do it, how the hitter was trying to counter it, and so on. He broke down the game in a way I can never remember any other color commentator doing it. And he was a good story teller too. If I’m listing the greatest color commentators in baseball history, he’s right up at the top.

Trouble is, McCarver has been doing this a long time. And one of the sad truths is that sports color commentary tends to have an expiration date (and, I’ll admit, sportswriting often does, too). There comes a time when everyone has heard the stories, when the insights have become clichés, when the game just changes on you. And if we’re being realistic — and I’m not saying this is true for McCarver because I don’t know — there usually comes a time when longtime color commentators stop doing the prep work, stop working the clubhouses, stop keeping up with the latest news. They rely on their experience, their history. That’s just human nature. I thought it was telling when Terry Francona, who was so refreshing in part because he was so up to date, made the point that Kinsler is one of the best young players in the game. Two days later, McCarver said: “I had never thought of him that way.”

McCarver can still wow you now and again. There was a moment on Sunday when he picked up that Yadier Molina had called a full-count pitch verbally against Nelson Cruz, and McCarver brilliantly deduced that Edwin Jackson was going to throw a slider and it probably was not going to be in the strike zone. Sure enough, Jackson threw a slider out of the strike zone. McCarver still understands the pitcher-catcher relationship better than just about anybody in the business.

But, all in all, he has become a hard listen. Al Michaels*, in explaining the art of broadcasting, said that he sees the game as the music and the announcing as the lyrics. And by that he means that the lyrics need to fit the music, they need to enhance the music, it all must blend together. The worst thing an announcer can do is jolt the viewer out of the moment, stop them cold, take them away from the game. McCarver does that to me way too often now. I find myself 20 times a game taken away from the ball game and wondering if what I just heard was: (1) true; (2) true but misleading; (3) significant in any way.

*Michaels is the master, I really believe this — the best who ever called a football game. On Sunday night, as I flipped channels back and forth between the World Series and the horrendous Saints-Colts game, I heard Al give a statistic. I won’t get it exactly right, but it was something like: The New Orleans Saints’ defense rushes six or more players 36 percent of the time. I have grown so used to the baseball announcers of this postseason giving statistics without any context at all, that I almost wanted to cry with joy when Al followed it up with: “To give you an idea, the league average is 11%. So that means the Saints are blitzing six about three times as often as the average team.” That, my friends, is what a great announcer does. He makes the game MORE interesting.

At some point during the night, I put up a Twitter poll: If you could choose any two living announcers to call the World Series — they have to be living, this is not some sort of imaginary exercise — who would you choose? Hundreds and hundreds of people rushed in to take the poll. Many missed the “living” part of it — Red Barber was a popular choice. Some used it as an opportunity to make a joke about Buck and McCarver. And there were a few people praising some really good announcers out there, such as Jon Miller, Boog Sciambi, Tom Hamilton, among others. I thought an intriguing combo might be Bob Costas and Terry Francona, I’d love to see how that combination might work. But then, I really miss Bob Costas on postseason baseball.

The vast, vast, vast majority of people (of course) simply selected: Vin Scully. No second person. Just Vin. Brandon McCarthy chose Vin and someone to bring him water. Several chose Vin and Teller from Penn and Teller. And so on. I could not agree more. What I think makes Vin such a wonderful listen — and has for more than a half century — is that his voice stays in the background, the statistics he uses make sense and feel true, his stories enhance what you’re watching, he’s honest about whatever he’s seeing and he has Coltrane’s sense of rhythm. It’s a remarkable combination. Baseball is a tough game to announce. The action is spread out. The pace is uneven. The strategies are often intricate and not especially interesting for casual fans (they don’t call boring politics “inside baseball” for nothing). The statistics are often wonky. But there are great opportunities, too — baseball’s a wonderful game for stories, for drama, for insight. Yes, it would be great to hear Vin Scully call a World Series again. Well, hey, at least we got him to trend on Twitter for a while.

Read more at Sports Illustrated where this story was originally published.