On Baseball Announcers And Bias

Stephen Dunn - Getty Images

I've never really read the Wall Street Journal, but I remember seeing commercials for it on TV when I was a kid and when I was a kid it seemed like a publication for really smart adults. It seemed like something I might one day be able to understand, but only if I studied hard and did all my reading and never succumbed to peer pressure to consume alcohol and cigarettes. Well nuts to my peers, I pressured myself into consuming alcohol. And here I am today, beginning a post with the words "I've never really read the Wall Street Journal."

They just published something online that's relevant to our interests, though, because it has to do with baseball. The headline of the article: "How Biased Is Your Announcer?" It's nothing too meaningful but it's something certain to generate a hell of a response. I recommend that you just read it yourself, because it will only take a few minutes, but the idea is that they wanted to try to measure the bias in each team's TV broadcast. So they determined indicators of bias and tallied them as they occurred over the course of a game.

Now, immediately, it seems like the study might be on to something, because Hawk Harrelson ends up in the most biased broadcast by an absolute landslide. But here's where my sciencey background becomes a factor because I have to point out they determined all this by watching one baseball game each. They selected for home games won by the home team, but as far as I can tell they didn't select for any certain style of game, and again, one game each. For each broadcast, we have an n of 1. Additionally, they settled on some potentially decent bias indicators, but they left out others and provided what is to me an insufficient explanation of methodology. This is a rigorous study, in that it required that 30 baseball games be carefully listened to, but it's not nearly rigorous enough for the results to really mean anything. I would, for example, love to see this study get peer reviewed.

So I would caution against reading anything into this. It's an interesting idea that was poorly executed. I'm comfortable with the Harrelson broadcast ranking #1, because I have listened to a Harrelson broadcast for more than zero seconds, but it doesn't mean anything to me that Dave Sims and Mike Blowers came out near the bottom, or more toward the objective side. It wouldn't be surprising to me to learn that Sims and Blowers run one of the more objective broadcasts in baseball, but this isn't a study that's going to convince me of that.

In May, FanGraphs concluded a series on broadcast evaluations that may be of greater value and utility. It didn't exclusively attempt to measure bias, instead capturing charisma, analysis, and an overall rating, but according to those voting results Sims and Blowers come out right in the middle of the pack. Another way of reading that is that Sims and Blowers got the same overall ranking as the Orioles' TV broadcast and the Orioles' TV broadcast has Gary Thorne, and Gary Thorne is amazing. At least his voice is amazing and my memories of his hockey play-by-play are amazing. He might in truth be quite the terrible baseball broadcaster. I don't know and I doubt it.

So this leaves us with perhaps many questions, including the following two:

(1) Is bias even a bad thing in a home broadcast?
(2) How good are Sims and Blowers, really?

I think some degree of bias is to be expected, and a great degree of bias is off-putting, but that's my own opinion and everybody's got a different one. It seems to me that Sims and Blowers play it pretty straight, while leaving no question which team they cover every day. I'll frequently see fans of other teams accuse the Mariners' broadcast of having a strong pro-Mariners bias, but I think oftentimes they're mistaking excitability for bias, and Sims tends to get pretty evenly excited. Blowers also tends to get pretty evenly excited, in that he doesn't get excited ever. If the Mariners put up a big first inning, Sims'll make it sound like he's a compete homer. If the Mariners' opponent puts up a big first inning, he'll do the opposite. He's not a homer, and you wouldn't expect him to be.

As for the second question, again, that's entirely up to the individual viewer, and I know people who love the Mariners' TV broadcast and I know people who hate it. I can't recommend strongly enough checking out a few other team broadcasts, just for reference's sake. If you don't like the ROOT Sports broadcast, but you only ever watch the ROOT Sports broadcast, you might not appreciate how unlistenable some other broadcasts can be sometimes. Imagine that Ichiro was the only baseball player you ever knew anything about. Two-thirds of the time, Ichiro would make an out instead of a hit, and that doesn't seem very good. Now imagine that you were exposed to much of the rest of baseball. Turns out Ichiro routinely had one of the league's highest batting averages. Everything is relative and you can't really evaluate something like a game broadcast in isolation. You can't evaluate anything in isolation.

I'm not going to try to change your opinion on the Mariners' TV broadcast, whatever your opinion might be. I suspect I wouldn't be able to regardless since people develop unreasonably strong opinions about this sort of thing. Just always be aware of what other broadcasts are like before you go saying anything of substance about this one. One of those broadcasts has Buck Martinez. You don't even know.

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