It’s no secret that baseball’s television ratings have suffered for years. The game is covered differently today. Technology has lots to do with it. Unending replays and camera angles do tons.
The on-air characters, the storytellers and raconteurs are voices of the past. The days of Vin Scully, working alone, Joe Garagiola, spinning a yarn or Jon Miller, referencing an anecdote are long gone.
So the other night, I tuned in John Smoltz and partner Joe Buck to see what an avid fan of the game can pick up. They’re hardly a throwback to the old generation broadcasters.
As you’d expect, Hall of Famer, Smoltz, focuses on his strength, pitching. Yet he’s also comfortable profiling hitters and their strengths, and sharing his views on broader aspects of strategy. The bottom line is this. If you’re a budding player or just a student of the game, there’s lots to learn. (Smoltz, right, with Buck)
As for Buck, calling game three on Friday night, you would never know he called a football game the night before. His knowledge of both the Dodgers and Rays and baseball itself were strong.
Buck’s been around so long that it only seems that he started at Fox right out of high school. He’s alreay been with the network for a quarter century. But Joe did spend a season learning the ropes in the Minor Leagues working in Louisville. And, of course, he grew up around the game as a son of Hall of Fame baseball announcer, Jack Buck.
Because of this, Joe is able to further conversations with Smoltz. It’s more than just, “yep, ya, sure!” He’s able to engage comfortably with his partner addressing just about any baseball topic.
As for learning points from Smoltz, here are a number of them that students of the game would appreciate:
- He defined a ‘front door curveball’ in a fashion where most would understand. “When the baseball starts outside the strike zone, and the hitter believes it will be a ball inside. But after the hitter makes up his mind not to swing at the pitch, the ball drops down low and moves into the zone for a low and inside strike.”
- He notes how the fastball of the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler has tremendous backspin to it, making it appear to the hitter like it is rising. When pitches have this effect, it is extraordinarily hard to get the barrel of the bat on the ball.
- Smoltz said Buehler would rather walk a batter then give up a hit. This is very rare and curious because the number one thing pitchers say is that giving up free passes to hitters is the last thing they want to do. I wish that Smoltz would have offered more detail about why Buehler has this surprising philosophy.
- “If a batter is looking to pull, you pitch him inside. So, they hit above the ball and ground out. If they are trying to pull the ball, throw an outside fastball.” Smoltz discussed the pitching approach to someone like the Ray’s Brandon Lowe who loves to pull. This is good insight for young pitchers learning how to throw to certain type of hitters.
- Smoltz addressed a play that is rarely seen in MLB today, the safety squeeze. With runners on first and third and one out, Dodgers’ catcher Austin Barnes hit a perfect sac-bunt toward first base, allowing a run to score and the runner to get to third. Smoltz loved this because, “the worst thing that can happen is the runner doesn’t score and it’s second and third no outs.” He says that when the bunt is put into play the runner either determines he can score and goes home or stays at third and allows the runner at first to get to second.
- The other was why all the Rays were missing badly on their swings against the fastball. He pointed out Joey Wendle’s big swing, “His hands start high then fall down so he can try and get under it, but the velocity is so high he can’t catch up to it.” Since Buehler was throwing 96+ MPH, the hitters didn’t have time to adjust the height of their hands to create the launch angle we see all over MLB today.
- Smoltz makes an interesting comparison between the two teams. He said that both rosters are full of guys who failed with other organizations but have succeeded in their new homes. It is not surprising to see these two teams share similar qualities since the GM of the Dodgers (Andrew Friedman) was once the general manager of the Rays before leaving for Tinseltown.
Smoltz jumps the gun, triggering a funny interaction with Buck:
Smoltz asked Buck, “How many times have you waited for the info about something before going out on the limb and saying it out loud?” Buck said he does so “many times.”
Smoltz posed the question to Joe after Austin Barnes hit a homerun. He told the audience that this was the first World Series game when the same player hit a homerun and got a sac-bunt in the same game.
Upon further review, Buck later told Smoltz that Barnes was actually the second player to do so, not the first. Maybe Smoltz should have waited for confirmation, but I liked the transparency and how he went with his gut, right after the play and he did not wait. You knew the guys who research the numbers would eventually look into it.
Beginning with the first pitch, Buck took control of the game #3 broadcast. He knew what questions to ask his partner, but he also knew when to give his partner the room to delve into the intricacies of the game. The two announcers have excellent chemistry and feed off each other very well.
The only question I have for Buck is who does he like working with more, Smoltz or his football partner Troy Aikman? He works well with both.
Overall, I liked this broadcast. Certainly from a learning perspective, I give this crew an A+ grade. This said, there are those longtime fans who prefer anecdotes over heavy analysis and entertainment over information.
Technology, analytics and longer telecasts provide the runway for depth and analysis. The limited black and white TV coverage years ago were more conducive to storytelling, because they were void of graphics, replays and micro break downs of close plays.