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Voices of the Game: Counting down the broadcasters

How good a ballplayer were the guys who call the game?

John Wehner
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When I was a kid, Lou Boudreau was simply the guy who talked when Jack Brickhouse wasn’t talking. He was just a Cubs broadcaster to me. I had no idea that Boudreau had a Hall of Fame career as both a player and a manager that ended before I was born. Then one day I read a children’s sports book about great baseball team that had a chapter on the 1948 Indians. My first thought was “That’s not the same Lou Boudreau who calls the Cubs games, is he?”

For most of us, the way we primarily interact with the game is through the television broadcasts. A local broadcast team not only describes the action, they tell us, the fans, how we’re supposed to process that action. Every single broadcast these days has at least one former MLB player telling us how to understand the game from the player’s point of view. And anyone who has knows, those points of view can vary wildly from team to team.

I’ve recently been thinking about which men get the chance stay in the game as broadcasters when their careers end. After 629 games in the minor leagues and 20 in the majors, catcher Taylor Davis is a minor league free agent. He also turns 30 later in the month. Davis has been in this position before and he almost certainly could continue his playing career somewhere in 2020, either in Iowa or with another organization. But the end for Davis is coming eventually and while I have no idea what his future plans are, I do know he’s terrific in front of a camera. The “staring at the camera” video made him famous and got him on SportsCenter, but the man nicknamed “The Mayor of Des Moines” has demonstrated that he has a natural instinct for finding the fun in the game. He even had a video podcast for the Iowa Cubs in 2018.

But there’s one thing going against Davis having a post-playing career in the broadcast booth — his very short major league career. While most former players who go into broadcasting these days weren’t superstars, most of them had careers long enough that casual fans know who they are instantly. I started to wonder if there were any broadcasters who had a major league career similar to that of Davis.

The answer is yes. There’s at least one, but he had some exceptional other things going for him. Angels broadcaster José Mota had a major league career of 19 games. But Mota is fully bilingual and is able to serve double-duty as both an English- and Spanish-language broadcaster. He gained fame as the English-language voice of Vladimir Guerrero, even translating Guerrero’s Hall of Fame induction speech. Mota is also the son of Dodgers legend Manny Mota, so even if fans weren’t familiar with José’s playing career, they knew his father well.

So what I’ve done is rank every current local broadcaster who played in the majors by how good a major league career they had. I’m going be counting down these players, with a short bio of each one, over the next few weeks.

I’m only ranking local broadcasters and I’m going by the list provided by the website Awful Announcing in their 2019 rankings. They’re interested in what fans think of their local broadcast teams as broadcasters. I’m only interested in how good a playing career the broadcaster had.

This gives me a list of 64 broadcasters. I’m excluding national broadcasters with ESPN, Fox and the MLB Network. I’m excluding local pre- and post-game broadcasters, so no David DeJesus or even José Mota. I’m only doing TV broadcasters, so Ron Coomer won’t be ranked. I’m also excluding Spanish-language broadcasters. While those broadcasters also play a big role in the way fans understand the game, I need to keep this series to a manageable number. I’d like to finish before Spring Training starts.

The players are purely ranked by Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement stat. I’m aware of many limitations of this ranking and when I think a former player should be ranked higher or lower, I’ll say so. But again, the purpose of this list is to find out what type of player gets to be a broadcaster when their career ends and B-R’s WAR stat does that well.

In case you were wondering, if I included national broadcasters, Alex Rodriguez would be number one on the list and John Smoltz would be in the top five. The playing career bar for a national broadcaster seems to be much higher than for a local broadcaster.

With the retirement of Vin Scully in Los Angeles, every team has at least two broadcasters in the booth. One is the “play-by-play” broadcaster who describes what happens. The other is a “color” broadcaster who gives an analysis or just insight into the game. Every local “color” broadcaster is a former player. Only two former players currently work as “play-by-play” TV broadcasters. (A third, Athletics play-by-play broadcaster Glen Kuiper, had two seasons in the minor leagues, but never rose above short-season A-ball.)

Compiling the list, I noticed a few things. The first is that all of them had a career of more than just a year or two. Even the players who finished with negative WAR did so because they were bad for a very long time. You don’t need a 15-year career to be a local broadcaster, but you do seem to need a career of at least four or five seasons.

Pitchers and catchers are slightly overrepresented as broadcasters. I would guess that’s because those two positions spend more time analyzing the game as players. But there are plenty of infielders and outfielders as well. Utility players who played several different positions as major leaguers are also well-represented.

Also, the vast majority of these broadcasters are white. That’s just a fact.

With that said, I’ll count down a few players ever day until we get to the best of them all. I’ll only include the worst two today to give you a taste because of the length of the introduction. Future installments will have less introduction and more ranking.

64. Joe Simpson—Atlanta Braves. WAR: -2.0

Simpson was an outfielder who was organizational depth for the Dodgers during the 1970s, bouncing back and forth between Albuquerque and Los Angeles for four years. The Dodgers were arguably the best-run franchise in the game back then and they always had four or five outfielders who were better than Simpson.

The Dodgers sold Simpson to the Mariners in 1979 in what must have seen like a cruel irony. Simpson finally got a chance to play regularly in the majors, but for a franchise that was widely believed to be a bad joke at the time. Surrounded by a bunch of other crappy players in Seattle, Simpson did his part by being an outfielder who couldn’t get on base or hit for power. His defense wasn’t good either. After four seasons, even the Mariners had had enough. He spent 1983 as a backup outfielder with the Royals and retired after one more season in the minors.

Simpson played 605 games over nine seasons from 1975 to 1983. He hit .242/.289/.317 with nine home runs and 45 steals.

Simpson must have been popular in Seattle for some reason as he was hired as a broadcaster shortly after his career ended. Or knowing the Mariners organization of that time, maybe it was just because he was willing to work cheap. Simpson moved to Atlanta in 1992 and he’s been a broadcaster for the Braves ever since. Recently he’s been involved in several controversies and the Braves seem to be easing him into retirement with Jeff Francoeur working as the color commentator for most Braves telecasts.

63. John Wehner—Pittsburgh Pirates. WAR: -1.8

Wehner is a Pittsburgh native and he was one of those player who get described as a “grinder” and “old school” and are fan favorites despite not being very good. Wehner was a sensation when he hit .340/.381/.406 in 37 games as a 24-year-old rookie in 1991. For most of the rest of his 11-year career, he was a bad utility player who couldn’t play defense and had no power. But his uniform was always dirty and that counts for something, right?

Wehner got a World Series ring with the ’97 Marlins, although his only got into one postseason game as a pinch-runner in the NLDS. He finished his career back in Pittsburgh in 2001.

His career line was .249/.311/.315 in 461 games over 11 seasons, nine with Pittsburgh and two with the Marlins.

Wehner joined the Pirates broadcasters in 2005. He probably still rubs dirt all over his shirt before entering the booth.

Wehner caused a bit of controversy when he invoked the name of one of his old coaches, Steve Demeter, during a broadcast this past season. Wehner said that Demeter would be “rolling over in his grave” that his grandson, Reds utility man Derek Dietrich, had admired a home run hit against the Pirates longer than Wehner thought was acceptable. Wehner also said that Demeter would “slap him [Dietrich] upside his head.”

The Pirates broadcast booth is known for being generally unpleasant when things go against the Pirates.