Dear Mike Schmidt, John Kruk, Larry Anderson, and Ben Davis,
The 2018 Phillies are 99 games into the season and tied for first place. If you’re like me, this is a huge, but incredibly exciting shock. Almost everyone thought the team would play better this year, but playing meaningful games heading into August? Maybe in our wildest dreams we thought that might happen for the second wild card berth, but for first place? No one predicted this.
Baseball is back in Philly. There’s no denying it.
However, listening to the four of you as color commentators during Phillies broadcasts, it really doesn’t seem like you’re watching a good team at all. You are constantly bewildered by what the team is doing, highly critical of the players almost no matter what they do, frustrated by their inability to execute perfectly each and every time, and just plain ol’ don’t seem to be having much fun at times.
I probably have a bias here. I’m a teacher by trade, and I like to think that the best color commentators are teachers too. They are there to teach the listener something about the game and the people in it that they don’t get just from watching and listening to the play-by-play. As teachers then, it seems that your job is to explain things in ways that are comprehensible to your audience while generating excitement for what you’re teaching about. At least, that’s how I think of teaching.
This year, you’re doing none of this. And this is the year you’re needed most. With a new manager and a more firmly entrenched analytics department, the Phillies are playing baseball the modern way. After years of being behind the times, the Phillies are working deep counts, employing infield shifts and outfield positioning, putting guys with high OBPs at the top of the lineup regardless of batting average, mixing up bullpen roles based on leverage, not caring too much about hitter strikeouts, and more.
All of this is different than how things have been done in the past, providing an excellent opportunity for you to explain to the viewer or listener what exactly the team they love and are devoting time to is doing. For instance, Carlos Santana is having a good year at the plate this year (1.0 fWAR, .352 OBP). No, this isn’t his best year, but it’s solid. However, he has a .209 batting average. Fans have been frustrated by that Mendoza-esque number
This is a big opportunity for you as color commentator - explain why Santana’s .209 batting average is not a big concern. Talk about BABIP, and how his .207 so far this year is 57 points lower than his career average. Talk about on-base percentage, and explain how Santana is gifted at not making outs, better than everyone else on the team not named Rhys Hoskins or Cesar Hernandez. Talk about the value of not making outs. In other words, your job is to make it clear to your viewers and listeners what they aren’t seeing or might not understand - that Santana is having a nice year at the plate, and should be even better in the second half.
There are so many more examples. You are constantly amazed when Phillies hitters let good pitches go early in the count. Explain their approach and the good things that flow from working deep counts. If, as I heard Mike Schmidt say on Sunday about Odubel Herrera that, paraphrasing, “he clearly has an approach at the plate but I don’t know what it is,” go out and talk with the players and find out what that approach is. That’s your job. Your job is not to sit there and watch the game like any other fan and spout off nonsense about how you don’t know what’s going on. Your job is to provide informed commentary.
One more example. You all bemoan the shifts being employed today as if they are a foreign concept being done to ruin baseball. Obviously that’s not true. Learn about them and teach your audience what’s going on here. Talk about how and why they are employed. Explain why hitters don’t bunt to the other side against the shift. Talk about the complexity of planning for and implementing shifts. Shifts are here to stay, but you talk about them as if they are the end of the game.
One other complaint that stems from a similar place. When players don’t perform, you talk as if it’s an affront to the history of the game rather than conveying the basic fact that baseball is hard. It’s cliche that even the best players fail 7 out of 10 times, but it’s the truth. When a guy swings through a fastball down the middle of the plate with runners on second and third and two outs, well, that’s baseball. It’s not a moral or athletic failing. When a hitter doesn’t hit the ball to the right side when there’s a man on second and one out, that’s because it’s hard to do. When a pitcher doesn’t hit his spots in a key situation, or a runner misjudges whether to tag up, or a fielder misplays a short-hop in a key situation . . . well, you should get the point by now.
It’s almost as if you don’t understand and/or don’t like how the Phillies are winning games and are frustrated by many of the players on the team. But if that’s so, then you really should get into another line of work. This is the modern Phillies team, whether you like it or not. Your job on the air should be talking up this approach and these players, explaining what they are doing to the fans, and getting everyone excited about what the team is doing.
And that’s probably my bottom line here. The Phillies are winning and it’s an unexpected pleasure. This is a season of joy. Yet, there’s virtually no joy from you. You don’t seem to like what the team is doing, and you always seem let down by the players.
This schtick may have worked when the Phillies were terrible, but it doesn’t work now. The team is good, despite being the youngest in baseball, and getting better, with exciting players all over the diamond. Convey and explain that to your audience. Build that excitement in the fanbase and sell the team and the players that your audience is spending valuable hours of their day watching or listening. And if you can’t or won’t do that, maybe you should look for other work.
David S. Cohen
P.S. To the three Kevins - this doesn’t apply to you. For the most part, you’re doing it right this year. Keep it up.