Vin Scully's Numbers Problem
In the sickening moments that followed the line drive that struck L.A. Dodger pitcher Hiroki Kuroda in Saturday's game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, announcer Vin Scully provided a calming voice to TV viewers who watched medical staff members and teammates surround the fallen hurler. Scully's fireside-chat voice was the one you wanted to hear - a voice that didn't speculate about Kuroda's condition, that didn't make promises about his recovery.
Unfortunately, we get this genuine Vin so little these days, since he seems compelled to repeat the endless feed of statistics he receives. Perhaps because of the way the game is constructed, baseball is more about numbers than some other sports. Or it can be, if you become obsessed with them. Scully, who throughout his career has been a master of filling air time with anecdotes and trivia, now appears to be a prisoner of stats.
Not that Scully is the only announcer to bring up some figures to fill dead air -- far from it. As Major League Baseball began to stretch out ball games so that more ads could be sold to TV and radio sponsors, something had to fill that extra time. Computer technology and the ease with which facts and figures can be summoned obligingly filled the sound vacuum. There seem to be three kinds of figures broadcast over the air from a baseball game.
Essential Numbers. These are the figures that are needed to immediately grasp where the game stands: The inning, the score, number of outs, the pitch count, number of runners. Today, however, these all appear at the top of a viewer's television screen, putting TV announcers, at least, in the odd position of repeating what is already evident to the viewer.
Secondary Numbers. These are the stats that aren't necessary for understanding the game at hand, but which might be nice to have: The scores from other games, an individual player's figures for the current game (someone is batting two for three, say), his batting average, how many runners have been stranded by a team. These begin trailing off into more dubious territory, however, when announcers start bringing up a player's stats for the current road trip or home stand. Then you might get the height and weight of the player who is pitching or batting at a given moment.
Statistical Upholstery. Most of these numbers are the figures that could not easily be accessed from a broadcast booth in pre-computer times. Nor are they particularly pertinent, other than they allow an announcer to fill time between pitches. Some of the figures may actually be relevant metrics -- yet when they are repeatedly piled on, provide the listener with a Novocain-like numbness. These might include a player's batting average for the past few days or his history of hitting with men in scoring position -- and if he's a switch hitter, how these figures break down from each side of the plate.
Then there are lame or bizarre "streaks" - as long as a batter's hit in at least four consecutive games, you can count on that fact being mentioned. Vin even talked up James Loney's having reached based (not even hit safely) in his past 20 games over several years' worth of plate appearances at the Diamondbacks' Chase Field. Beyond these kind of numbers lay the vast reaches of junk stats - trivia about who is the youngest manager or oldest pitcher; a team's won-loss record in games in which they've scored first in the game, or scored in the first inning, or in extra-inning play - and these can all be refined further to include home and away games.
By far, though, the most annoying metric is the speed of each and every ball thrown by a pitcher - even though, again, on television this usually appears onscreen. Vin in particular seems to believe that the speed of each and every pitch must be announced, even when they are the same or nearly the same as the previous pitch.
You hear very little from the MLB database when listening to the Dodgers' radio announcers, Rick Monday and Charley Steiner. Then again, they'll fixate on a player's quirkiness or specialty and gnaw the subject to the bone. Last week the pair marveled at the number of tattoos worn by an opposing team's pitcher and just wouldn't let go of the subject. I just wish Vin would get out of the numbers racket - or at least stop announcing the speed of each individual pitch, as though it were a train arriving in the station. Mercifully, there was no speed given for the ball that hit Hiroki Kuroda.
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