Five Tools In-Depth: Mechanics

In our last post, we stressed the importance of accuracy.  Everything that is said needs to be true in order for both the broadcast and the broadcaster to have credibility.  Next, we’ll take a deeper look at the mechanics tool, which covers what it is that you’re actually saying.

A baseball broadcaster’s mechanics form the descriptions provided to the listener.  The quality and efficiency of your mechanics are heavily dependent on your knowledge and experience of both baseball and sports broadcasting in general.  However, this is the most learnable of the five tools, and you can dramatically improve your mechanics over time through commitment, repetition, and immersion.

Mechanics are also the most tangible element of your broadcast, making them the easiest and most likely to be critiqued.  If someone is going to listen to you call a three-hour baseball game, by the end of that broadcast, they are going to have a very good idea whether or not they enjoyed your style.  Were you able to execute the fundamental elements of baseball play-by-play?  Was each line of dialogue an answer to one of the traditional question words (who, what, where, when, why, and how)?

A general manager for an affiliated team, who had served as a broadcaster himself, once summed up the importance of mechanics with his “15-second test.”  When sifting through potential candidates for a broadcasting position, he would listen to each demo for 15 seconds.  His belief was that 15 seconds was enough time to determine if the candidate possessed the basic skills required to perform the job.  Only those tapes that passed the 15-second test were given a second look.  Given how many applicants there are when a job in our industry becomes available, it’s an effective tool for a decision-maker.  If you have trouble describing what’s happening on the field, your preparation, accuracy, and storytelling won’t matter.

Think about the players you’re covering.  No two styles of hitting are exactly the same.  Each hitter has a different body type, starting hand position, width of stance, and swing path.  However, each hitter has the same end goal of making hard contact with the ball, regardless of how the process started.  They are all trying to “get to the same place.”  The best hitters are able to take advantage of past experiences, new instruction, and intuitiveness to sharpen their mechanics and achieve their goal on a more consistent basis.

It’s the same for broadcasters.  Each announcer is going to have a different voice, presentation style, and experience level.  But there are certain expectations every listener is going to have when tuning into a game, regardless of who is behind the microphone.  While accuracy determines your credibility, it’s mechanics that determine how effectively you’re informing the listener.  The best broadcasters will tap into past experiences, absorb constructive criticism, and utilize their instinct to refine their mechanics so that they can deliver a quality product to the listener on a more consistent basis.

The biggest expectation a listener is going to have is a steady reminder of the score and inning.  If you’ve gone through a traditional communications or broadcasting program, this has been ingrained into your mind since day one.  This is especially important in baseball, because you are more likely to forget to reference the score in baseball than any other sport.

Football, basketball, and hockey are all timed, so even if you forget to reference the score, you’re still likely to check the scoreboard to see how much time is left in a quarter or period.  In these sports, the remaining time helps paint the picture as much as anything, so if you’re frequently checking the time, then you’re eyeballs are frequently checking the score as a result.

Since there is no clock in baseball, it’s very easy for broadcasters to get sidetracked with everything else taking place once a half-inning gets underway.  Listeners tune into the game at different junctures, and the broadcaster needs to account for that.  You could be telling the most unbelievably heartwarming story, but going any length of time without reciting the score and inning will aggravate the listener, especially the ones who have just tuned in.

I don’t believe in making your broadcasts rigid and inflexible, and while I know there are some announcers who like to use an hourglass or egg timer to remember the score, I don’t think they are necessary.  The score and inning are essential, but you don’t need to disrupt the flow of information simply because it’s been 62 seconds instead of 60 seconds since the last update.  Just don’t let 62 seconds turn into 180 seconds.

If you don’t have a structured method for the score and inning, try aiming for once per batter.  That’s a minimum of three times per half-inning, and five total if you always reference the score when a half-inning begins and after the third out is recorded.  Obviously, there is some room for interpretation if a half-inning is unusually fast, or a single at bat is unusually long.  The more experience you gain, the more adept you’ll become at making this determination on the fly, but once per batter is a good starting point.  A future post will be dedicated to some of the creative ways you can work in the score and inning without always resorting to the conventional (and banal) “top of the fourth, red team 3, blue team 1.”

The starting lineups and defensive alignments should be staples at the beginning of each broadcast.  Some announcers like to read over the lineups concurrently, or even cover them during the pre-game show.  I prefer to read them in separate halves of the first inning, meaning I’ll do the visiting starting lineup just before the first batter of the game, and then do the same for the home team in the bottom half.  If a listener does not have access to a scorecard or online gametracker, it can be difficult for them to remember nine consecutive names all at once, let alone 18 names.  If you save the lineups until each team is about to hit, the first few batters can help reinforce the names in the listener’s memory.  That being said, I understand that the timing of the starting lineups are often dependent on a sponsorship, so not every broadcaster has the option of splitting them up.

Going “around the diamond” and listing off the defense for each team should be accomplished within the first two innings.  Ideally, you’ll have done the defensive alignments for both teams in the first, but that may not be possible if there is a quick inning.  Just keep in mind that if you haven’t helped the listener visualize the defense by the third inning, one-third of the game has now elapsed without this key descriptive element being provided.

“First time through the order” statistics are another core expectation of listeners.  Batting average, home runs, and RBI help introduce the players, and they are an easy way to help you get into a good rhythm.  Don’t worry about stolen bases unless the batter actually reaches first, or if there is something significant about the player’s stolen base total (among the league leaders, close to a milestone, etc.).  OPS has gained mainstream attention on TV broadcasts, but I have rarely heard it used on radio.  Advanced metrics can add value to your broadcast, but only if you can incorporate them without having to go into detailed explanations every night.

I refer to batting average, home runs, and RBI as “first time through the order” statistics, because you should avoid using them as a crutch in subsequent at bats.  You can reference them if there is relevant context, such as “he came in batting .356 and has raised that even further with a 3-for-3 performance thus far.”  However, a hitter’s remaining at bats should be reserved for background information (although, that doesn’t mean you can’t provide background information during a hitter’s first at bat) or how their trip to the plate fits into the current game strategy.

Another major expectation for radio (less so for television) is calling every pitch.  Avoid missing pitches at all costs.  I know Phil Rizutto was adored by Yankees’ fans for his “WW” notation, but unless you’re as revered a figure as Rizutto was, missing pitches or batted balls will frustrate your listeners to no end.

Totaling the runs, hits, errors, and runners left on base at the conclusion of each half-inning is a necessary practice.  Because of their infrequency, I leave out errors unless an error was actually committed, but this is another personal preference.  No one will criticize you for totaling all four every time.

Score and inning, lineups and defense, traditional statistics, and calling each pitch fall into the category of static descriptions.  They help paint the word picture by setting the scene.  Other static descriptions include what pitchers are warming up in the bullpen, who is on deck, pinch hitters and other substitutions, and unusual defensive shifts.

Fluid descriptions refer to all of the moving parts on live plays.  This is where the action takes place, and consistently working all of these moving parts into your call will only come with practice and self-evaluation.

If a batter drives in a runner from second base with a single, you should be able to inform the listener who hit the ball, where the ball was hit, who fields the ball, where the ball is being thrown, who is rounding third base, who is waving the runner around third base, if there is a cutoff man, what does the cutoff man do with the ball, if there is a play at the plate, who catches the throw to the plate, if there is a collision at the plate, if the ball is held or jarred loose, confirm that the runner scores, if the batter advanced to second on the throw to the plate, and how the score changes as a result of the runner coming home–citing all the appropriate names, all in one call, and every time this particular play happens.

This is as challenging as it sounds, and even experienced broadcasters can have trouble nailing fluid descriptions on every play.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for this as an industry standard, because when you execute a call like the one described above in a close game, you will have the listener’s ear glued to their radio.

Lastly, your mechanics include your on-air vocabulary.  It can be very tempting to use a lot of “nine dollar” words, but this type of vocabulary will at best, make you sound like you’re trying too hard, and at worst, make you sound condescending towards the listener.  You don’t have to dumb down your broadcasts, but keeping things simple will make for a more enjoyable experience.

You also need to be careful of saturating the broadcast with baseball slang.  Some colloquial terms are acceptable, such as a “seeing-eye single” or a “can of corn.”  But you should stay away from the lesser-known terms such as “trips” referring to Triple-A or “oppo taco” referring to an opposite-field home run.  If you do occasionally sprinkle these in, then you have to explain their meaning in full detail.

This is already a lengthy post, so the following piece of advice is somewhat ironic, but the most mechanically sound broadcasters are efficient with their words without sacrificing relevant detail.  Be succinct.

When it comes to mechanics, my best recommendation for broadcasters seeking improvement is to simplify your style as much as possible.  This allows you to comfortably focus on the basics.  Sticking to the who, what, where, when, why, and how is a great approach if you’re just beginning.  If you can regularly articulate the answers to these questions while combining them with basic baseball terminology, you can begin weaving in some of the more complex elements one by one.

To use another player analogy, one of the biggest things scouts look for in a pitcher is a “repeatable delivery.”  A simple and repeatable delivery leads to more consistent results.  And even if those results are less than desirable, the consistent mechanics make it easier for a coach to determine what adjustment is necessary.  If different parts of a pitcher’s delivery are changing from pitch to pitch, it becomes much harder to identify which variable is the real culprit.  Or worse yet, the multiple changes can lead to an entirely new problem altogether.

As a broadcaster, don’t try and reinvent the wheel every night.  Simplify your mechanics, repeat, and adjust where necessary.  The more you simplify, the easier it becomes to add something that will enhance the broadcast, subtract something that is making it worse, and adjusting the core elements that need improvement.

If you have a strong broadcasting background, but are relatively new to baseball, immerse yourself in the industry.  There are hundreds of great broadcasts available on YouTube, many of which have radio feeds of the game’s greatest voices.  Watch and listen to as many of these archives as possible to gain a broader perspective of baseball broadcasting.  You will gradually begin to cultivate your own style.

If you are more experienced and have a firm grasp on the game, always strive to continue learning.  The moment you believe you know everything or have seen everything is the moment you begin to fail the listener.

Here are two of my favorite resources authored by professional baseball players.  It’s a shock this caliber of information is available for free, and you’re only cheating yourself as a broadcaster if you’re not using them to learn more about baseball.

Pro Baseball Insider

The Complete Pitcher

Take advantage of every opportunity to expand your knowledge of the game, its processes, and its perspectives.  Your mechanics will only improve with repetition, immersion, and a desire to get better.

Constant self-evaluation plays a critical role in this process, so listen to your previous work with an objective ear.  And if you’re on the more experienced side of the industry, be sure to lend that ear whenever possible.  Someone did it for you in the past, and it’s only right to pay it forward.

4 comments

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