MLB broadcasters adapting to faster pace under new rules
Major league pitchers and batters aren't the only ones going on the clock this season — big league broadcasters have also been using spring training to adjust to baseball's new rhythm amid a series of rules changes.
When the season opens Thursday, Major League Baseball will usher in an age of sharper, quicker and more concise commentary.
For a generation of play-by-play pros who grew up idolizing loquacious storytellers like Hall of Famer Vin Scully, it's been an adjustment — but not necessarily an unwelcome one.
“It’s been one of the most enjoyable spring trainings I’ve had in a long time,” said Greg Brown, who is in his 30th season calling Pittsburgh Pirates games on radio and television. “I think over the years I’ve been critical of a lot of things Major League Baseball has done, but in this case, I think they’ve got it right.”
With only 30 seconds between batters and 15-20 seconds between pitches, announcers have had to learn where to focus their view between pitches so they don’t miss anything.
To say the quick pace affects all elements would be an understatement. Brown, who said he is a notorious water drinker, has started to chew on hard candy to keep his mouth from drying up — a trick he learned from Scully.
Before joining the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, Chris Garagiola did games for Pensacola in the Double-A Southern League, which had a pitch clock and limited infield shifts. But even with that experience, Garagiola is still learning the best way to get the requisite promotional reads during games.
Garagiola said last season he would do some during the middle of an at-bat if the game was lagging, but now he is trying to do them coming out of a break between innings or immediately after an out.
Many worry the new rules will take away the storytelling and folksy nature of calling baseball on the radio. Then again, Scully thrived in an age when games were quicker, too — the average time of big league games never exceeded 2 hours, 40 minutes until 1982. The average time has been above three hours since 2012, including 3:10 last season.
Cleveland Guardians radio broadcaster Tom Hamilton said he paid too much attention to the clock during the first week of spring training, to the point where he was missing what happened in the field. Hamilton hopes the one adjustment that umpires can make is being more demonstrative on pitch clock violations and whether it is on the pitcher or batter.
“You have to pop up your head in a hurry after writing something down, or you miss something. I’ve gotten burned on that a couple of times,” said Hamilton, who has done radio for Cleveland since 1990. “You’ve got to be a lot more judicious with your words and get in and out of things quicker because it’s amazing how quickly an inning of baseball can go by right now.”
Hamilton said the last three innings of baseball games had become like the final 2 minutes of some basketball games because of how things tended to grind to a halt.
“I would have a hard time finding a group of people that enjoyed watching nothing. We’re saving 25-26 minutes of nothing,” Garagiola said. “I did the math over a whole season, which adds up to under 80 hours. I mean, just three full days of nothing.”
Michael Kay — who does Yankees games and is part of ESPN’s KayRod Cast on “Sunday Night Baseball” — still thinks the changes will significantly impact radio more than television.
“Maybe you won’t be able to see eight replays on a simple ground ball to short because there’s not much time between batters, but I think it’s going to have a big impact on radio broadcasts where the analyst simply is not going to have time to talk,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a different vibe, baseball on the radio this year.”
Kay also noted that the KayRod Cast, which he does with Alex Rodriguez, usually had guests on for 1 1/2 innings last season, but that might change if the innings are shorter.
Sometimes though, not talking is not a bad thing. ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” analyst Eduardo Perez acknowledged that there's a running joke in which the best innings are ones when the analysts never talk — and said there might be some truth to it.
“If you want to still broadcast Major League Baseball, you better adapt, or you’ll become a dinosaur,” Hamilton said. “The game will dictate whether or not you can get those stories and stats in. If you have a great game and didn’t get a chance to use a lot of that material, that was better for the audience anyway, because it’s still the game that matters.”