Someone Has to Go; Maybe It Should Be Me, to KMOX

When it comes to talking baseball, I can come across as arrogant. I listen to or watch any game I can. I follow the season through the prism of my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. I pore over baseball metrics. I listen to and follow some scouts who post and talk about prospects and major leaguers. The first thing I wanted to do in life was pitch for my home team.
I grew up listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon doing Cardinals games on KMOX Radio. I’m old enough to remember when not every game was televised and there was no commercial Internet. Many nights lying in bed, or riding in a car on a summer afternoon were spent taking in the two men’s voices outlining the contours of a Cardinals game.
As a child, I liked Mike Shannon. He was folksy, jocular, breezy in an awkward way, and I thought he knew what he was talking about because he had played the game at the highest level, and heck, he was an adult. He seemed to have good institutional memory about the sport. As I grew up I became more discerning and sophisticated about baseball, and I realized Mr. Shannon’s colloquialisms were often trite and not too factual. For instance, when an opposing team’s heart of the order is up and it happens to be the ninth inning in a close game he will tell his partner that “Ol’ Abner has done it again”, meaning that at the most crucial time of the game the toughest hitters need to be retired. The thing is, this is so about once a week, and so that is when we hear the comment. He endeavors to make it seem like this is an everyday occurrence. When one of the Cardinals’ hitters blasts a home run his call is “Get up, get up, get up…oh yeah, a home run for Carlos Beltran” or whomever. It’s not usually an accurate characterization of the drive, and inculcates a frustration in the listener, as one just can’t tell if a ball has been smashed, corked, blasted, driven, scorched, blistered, jacked, scalded, tomahawked, or any other more interesting, descriptive term for a ball going over the boards.
Jack Buck is gone. He was a local legend. That was somewhat mysterious to me. During pre-game interviews Mr. Buck never asked questions, he simply made statements, which the player or manager being interviewed might elaborate on or recapitulate in a stock manner. He evinced little curiosity about the subject at hand: he was a known authority and it was up to the interviewee to follow along Buck’s predetermined path. Shannon learned his lesson well from his broadcasting mentor, and it colors his outlook on today’s game negatively, from this fan’s point of view.

I pitched in college. I know how to throw a slider. I knew what type of hitter, count, and situation that I might use one. I worked for ten years as a radio broadcaster. I love the sport of baseball and marvel at its greatest practitioners.

I honestly hope this post is not received as a condemnation of KMOX’s production or of Mike Shannon personally. Near the end I will highlight what is good about the broadcasts, recommendations/suggestions about what should be done to make them better, and the reasons why I believe these matters are important for people with odd shifts who rely on radio broadcasts, and/or older people who may prefer to take in games over the radio as a habit or custom.

I’ll continue with examples of what I call sins of commission and omission, in that order. Mike Shannon’s partner in the booth is usually John Rooney, a veteran broadcaster who came over from White Sox broadcasts several years ago. Rooney indulges Shannon in his malapropisms. Shannon has a notorious problem pronouncing players’ names, especially those of Latino players. The Cardinals played six games against the Cubs in a ten-day period, and he could not get the name of Luis Valbuena right. He seemed to think his last name ended in an “o”. Most of the time he was “Val-bway-no”, and once it was “Val-bwah-nuh”. Then he’d revert to “Valbuena”. Thankfully, Yorvit Torrealba moved to the American League. When playing against the Cardinals he was always “Torree-bella”. He had trouble recently with Andre Ethier, referring to him as “Andrew” several times. Don’t get me started on the relief pitcher Enerio del Rosario!

A real topper occurred at the beginning of the 2011 season. The Cardinals were in San Francisco, where a man named Nate Schierholtz (since traded recently to Philadelphia as part of the Hunter Pence deadline deal), shared time in right field for the Giants. Schierholtz is a good right fielder. He’s a left-handed hitter, and not a very good one. On-the-fly Shannon concocted a story that he was the son of a former successful general manager who had worked for the Braves and Royals. That man is John Schuerholz. You could tell it hurt him to do it, but Rooney felt compelled to correct Shannon a few innings later.

He gets facts wrong. When the Dodgers came to town on July 23rd he referred throughout the game to Matt Kemp as the “MVP last year”. Rooney did so as well. Ironically, many believe Matt Kemp should have been the MVP in 2011, but the fact is that Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers received most of the BBWAA’s votes. They corrected it the next night.

Shannon has a lazy style of calling pitches. For instance, he often goes off on a tangent while pitches or plays are made. He may catch us up later; he may not. You’re left to wonder what is happening regularly while listening closely to the radio.

His patter instills cynicism, even to the level of revulsion in the listener. He laughs at the idea of “paternity leave”, a newish policy that allows a player to leave the team temporarily to be present at the birth of a child. This is “unnatural”; not the way things were done when he played. Shannon routinely offers that stadium radar guns are “5 to 6 mph fast, and would not hold up in court”. He said this most recently when lefthander Rex Brothers of the Colorado Rockies let fly with a four-seam fastball clocked at 96. Brothers is a huge man who is known to touch 98 mph on his fastball, and sits around 94-95. 96 for Rex Brothers would be well within the realm of his abilities.

Not to get too technical, but stadium radar guns are tied into the pitch/FX camera/radar/computer array installed at every MLB park by SportVision. This is a system of strategically-placed high-speed cameras tethered to proprietary software that computes the speed of the ball 50 feet from home plate. There is variance in velocity of pitches out of the hand and at the plate, and SportVision knows this, but the standard reading is provided from 50 feet from home plate. The system is quite accurate.

Mike Fast, a physicist who used to calibrate pitch/FX systems in stadiums for SportVision, and wrote for Baseball Prospectus, doing groundbreaking research on arcane matters like the angle of downward plane on pitches, and catcher “framing” of pitches and catchers’ effectiveness of the practice, (and who has been hired as an analyst by the Houston Astros), says stadium guns are averaged up, so if a fastball is clocked at 93.6 mph, the stadium gun reading would be 94. There was a problem in Kansas City last season where the gun was a “little hot”, (their jargon for too fast), in which the stadium gun was one-and-a-half to two miles per hour fast for two months. They discovered the problem and it was fixed. When Mike Shannon says guys aren’t throwing as hard as the gun says, he is flat wrong.

We all do this, and admittedly it is a very demanding job, but Mr. Shannon often questions the competency of home plate umpires. Look, I’m for #RobotUmpsNow, and there’s room for comment if both teams are complaining about the strike zone and it appears to be affecting the flow of play. But this is a man in his mid 70’s sitting 80 feet high and 70 feet behind home plate providing instantaneous pitch types and locations. He has a TV monitor next to him, but protocol, tradition, and actual time constraints mitigate against him peeking at that in any practical sense to determine where a pitch is in the strike zone or what kind of pitch it is.

I use MLB At Bat 12 to track pitch type, location, and velocity while listening to Shannon classify pitches. Last season I consulted with MLB one weekend because I had written them an email saying that everything looked good except for where pitches were located on the application screen. Still, it is not perfect, but their type and velocity are taken straight from the pitch/FX system, and appear to be very accurate. Shannon has called a pitch traveling 80 mph a fastball. I hope not. Any fast pitch thrown by a righthanded pitcher that is away to a righthanded hitter is a slider or cutter. (Not taking into account that a pitcher has to “throw back” somewhat in order to throw strikes; every arm slot is outside the strike zone “envelope”.) Many of these pitches are simply fastballs of the 2-or-4-seam variety, a typical offering meant to get the hitter to beat the ball into the ground on the right side. He’s inaccurate and it evinces an incuriousness about a particular pitcher’s approach.

Sins of omission: The broadcast is firmly lodged in the 1970’s. Shannon scoffs at the new statistics; he doesn’t acknowledge ongoing, important research. When goaded recently by sometime partner Ricky Horton, a former pitcher who is somewhat sabermetrically inclined, Shannon offered that “It depends on who’s entering the numbers into the equation”, rather cryptically.

One doesn’t hear the the terms BABIP, (batting average on balls in play), OBP, (on-base percentage), or OPS, (on-base plus slugging percentage). BABIP is computed for both hitters and pitchers and tends to normalize around .300. Outliers–up or down–can lead to more research or point to reasons why a certain player is having unusual success or bad luck. If the BABIP is low for a hitter it might mean he’s hitting a lot of balls right at people, or he is slow and cannot beat out slow rollers on the infield, and other reasons. Another example: say a pitcher’s BABIP is very high–it could be that he’s giving up a lot of line drives and homers, the fielding behind him may be poor, etc. The data can be misleading and confounding using traditional metrics.

Two quick examples: Joe Sheehan compared Hanley Ramirez’s outstanding 2007 season to this season’s disappointing numbers. His fly ball/ground ball rate is almost identical, he is walking at about the same rate…his numbers are eerily similar, yet he’s getting less results. His BABIP is way down, as is his power. We just don’t know if he’s had bad luck, or peaked early, and is not the same player he was just a few years ago when he won a batting title in 2009. He’s Dodgers property now, and it’s likely the next year and a half will tell whether he can be an elite major leaguer again.

Fernando Salas is a Cardinals relief pitcher. He has not been as effective as he was last season. If you look at Baseball Reference one learns that his BABIP is a full 100 points higher this season than last. He is allowing more line drives than he did before…last season he gave up several balls that left the park but had a high groundball rate–these cannot leave the yard, are more likely to be hits, but he had the fortune of having fielders making plays behind him in 2011. BABIP is volatile, and has important implications, especially for players trying to get more playing time, or avoid getting less. Baseball isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be, and this is why there is so much studying going on. None of this can be gleaned from a Cardinals radio broadcast.

It’s all ignored or blithely waved away. Shannon provides the batting average, home runs, and RBI’s for every hitter. “This guy has a seven-game hitting streak in which he’s hitting a cool .364”. He’ll provide hitter/pitcher matchup stats based on as few as two at bats! “This guy is 1 for 2 off Lowe with a double”. Huh?

Interruptions/promos/in-game interviews: American commercial radio is already close to unlistenable because of all the advertising but it is taken to a further extreme during baseball broadcasts. They have a captive audience and take advantage of it. The clutter is mind pollution and detracts from enjoyment of the proceedings. Exactly WHO is paying attention when there are two outs and two on in a one-run game in the ninth inning, an impending pitch, and John Rooney starts in with “Check out the Chevy Cruze, it gets 40 miles per gallon highway…”.

There has to be a better way, and I’ve heard it on other stations. The Toronto Blue Jays set aside an entire ad break for an interview with a player or manager. It startles you if you’re not used to it; a conversation about the game or an injury could be almost over before you realize that they’re not selling/promoting something.

Bumper music: these are the musical snatches and interludes that lead in and out of the broadcast proper. KMOX’s selection is very stale compared to what is being done around the leagues. They could use a producer who knows about music after the 1970’s. I’ve heard 50 Cent banging behind Vin Scully on a Monday night in Los Angeles for crying out loud! If Vin can handle ten seconds of hip-hop Mike Shannon can abide it too.

Then there’s the unremitting homerism. The other night part-time player Matt Carpenter started in right field. Mr. Rooney stated that “Carpenter is looking a lot more comfortable in right field these days”. (He had looked bad on several fly balls earlier in the season). This was code for “He doesn’t look completely lost anymore.” Shannon: “David Freese is a great third baseman”. That’s debatable: one old-fashioned metric, fielding percentage, has his at .969. The league average for third basemen is .994. More advanced metrics from Fangraphs note that Freese’s range is average to slightly above average. See www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=9549&position=3B for a deeper look. Freese has a history of ankle injuries and does not appear to have great range if you watch him on a regular basis.

Strategy is rarely questioned, in fact, Shannon often assumes and suggests that “small ball” tactics are the obvious, proper course of action. New manager Mike Matheny tends to agree. Recently, he has called for sacrifice bunts several times with men on first and second and nobody out. He went 0-4 in a one-week stretch. Three of these occasions involved relief pitchers who had just come into the game and promptly surrendered consecutive hits. The first two resulted in 1-5-4 double plays and no subsequent runs, while the third resulted in a successful sacrifice, moving the runners up, (one out in this case), but then Lance Berkman struck out and Rafael Furcal popped out.

Daniel Descalso is a good-fielding, lefthanded-swinging utility infielder who is not a very good hitter. As expected, he has a platoon split and has even more trouble against lefthanded pitchers. Against the Dodgers on July 23rd he got two hits off ace Clayton Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young Award winner. He was on first base, while there was a man on second. Matheny ordered Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright to bunt. He sacrificed successfully. The next batter bounced to the third baseman, who caught the runner off third in a rundown. After that, a ground ball was hit to short. Inning over.

Guess what? Later in the game, with a runner on first Wainwright was allowed to swing away. He doubled, driving in Daniel Descalso. Crucially, even later, Wainwright worked a walk with the bases loaded, driving in a run and forcing Kershaw from the game. Three plate appearances, and the pitcher reached base both times he wasn’t ordered to make an out! Whatya know?

Oh, they were so happy. Wainwright “was really getting a good look at the pitches”. Well, if Descalso can hit Kershaw, why can’t Wainwright, a good athlete who bats righthanded? I’m not naive; the rightsholders have their prerogatives and do things they think will make an inning flow on-air. But couldn’t they question the manager’s moves in real time occasionally?

As a regular listener who knows about other players and teams I believe the broadcast would be more interesting if it were more objective. At the very least it would help those who can’t see what is going on to make better sense of the proceedings.

A good example of what I’m talking about is the team of Jon Sciambi and Chris Singleton, who are the ESPN Radio voices for Sunday Night Baseball. They are conversant with newer statistics, and seem to know more about a greater number of players than the local crew. They’re quirky, funny, but they don’t sugarcoat things. They produce a picture of what those outside of a particular market think about the hometown team.

Last postseason this crew got to cover the Cardinals in the playoffs until the World Series, when ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball TV crew took over those duties. (Fox television had the TV rights). I chose the ESPN crew throughout the Cardinals’ championship run. I maintain that Dan Shulman’s call of David Freese’s extra-inning home run to win Game 6 of the World Series is one of the most exciting calls in baseball history. First, you have to conjure Mr. Shulman’s voice: it is stentorian and rich in timbre. “Full count to Freese. The pitch–fly ball–deep center field—IT  IS  GONE!” Shivers, for all fans of baseball.

Does the production team conduct meetings? Is Mike Shannon coached on pronunciations? What kind of feedback do they get? Are they just left alone, knowing their role is to root for the home team and not get too silly? These are important things to know and do if a business is concerned about broadening its audience.

The feeling here is that they don’t really care about higher radio ratings so long as Shannon has cachet with Cardinal Nation and John Rooney can get along with him. But baseball is considered slow by young people today. Even if they were interested in the Cardinals they would or have migrated to other platforms to consume the action: TV, MLB.TV on the Internet, or simply time-shift and watch it later.

There’s nothing here to attract them. KMOX is simply not capturing the under-40, casual fans. I don’t have evidence; this is only anecdotal. What about the effect on a typical Cardinals baseball fan, say, a 73-year-old woman who lives in Fairfield, IA? What does she learn from a Cardinals radio broadcast on KMOX? I would think it instills cynicism, as we’re told repeatedly that “the game is played differently now”, (meaning it was better in the old days). Shannon abhors pitch counts and can’t begin to elaborate on possible rationales for the practice, like protecting an investment, reconfiguring roles, compensating for overuse in amateur ball, etc. I should think the typical radio listener would be mystified as to why the Cardinals ever lose, because they’re all so great, you see?

What is the experience like for baseball junkies who rely on this service to understand what they can’t see? Frustration, promo overload, the realization that you have to look elsewhere simultaneously to find out what you’re not getting from the team covering the game. (Not that I mind that part! I love the  MLB At Bat app!) But you’re truly on a rutted-out off road trail instead of an information superhighway. (Haven’t heard that in a while). You’re acutely aware of what you are missing, and what could be if more progressive, significant changes were instituted. To intrigue listeners, to enlighten them, that is the thing. With Mike Shannon on KMOX, we are in the deep, dark Middle Ages indeed, and until local radio reimagines–in its own fashion–a forward-thinking broadcast, hardcore baseball fans who wish to have stories told about this great sport on hot summer nights will be struggling in the desert toward the caravanserai they know is there, the refuge where they can gather the information they need, and be entertained, as well. It’s supposed to be fun!

Mr. Shannon has stopped learning and he conveys it volubly and readily. It follows that the audience is not learning much, either. My recommendations for Cardinals broadcasts are these: Sample other crews to look for best practices, like updated bumper music, and perhaps forego one ad break for real news and information. Limit promos during action if at all possible. Conduct meetings about how things are going. Exile Mr. Shannon to his “Live at Shannon’s” weekend post-game show.

The best course right now would provide continuity with the listeners and possibly broaden audience reach: Keep John Rooney, who is an excellent play-by-play man and has a good sense of humor, and team him with part-timer Ricky Horton, a former Cardinals pitcher who is articulate and easy to listen to. Long-time fans would still be able to enjoy Rooney. Horton is amiable and knows how to work new information into the broadcast. I believe this would be a better quality broadcast with audience growth potential. I fear–heck, the St. Louis Cardinals fear–the loss of Shannon would drive away folks they already know they can count on.

This is not a job for life, however, Most people today change jobs and even career lines several times in their adult lives in order to make a living. I don’t think Mr. Shannon should be immune from this reality.

I understand the following coda will not pre-empt a torrent of retorts like “Who is this guy?” and “What an asshole.” (If only I had a readership that could create a torrent of questions!) I do hope that I have provoked a larger discussion about baseball on the radio in St. Louis, or at least encouraged some reflection on the matter. I have supported my objections and suggestions with facts and examples. And yes, I do want that job. It would be great!

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