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Voices of the Game, Part 2: C.J. Nitkowski to Mark Sweeney

We’re counting down the broadcasters by how good they were as ballplayers. Come join us

Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Pittsburgh Pirates
C.J. Nitkowski
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It’s day 2 of my countdown of the 64 local TV broadcasters who played in the majors. If you missed what this series is all about, check out the introduction.

There’s also a StoryStream that you can follow.

62. C.J. NitkowskiTexas Rangers. WAR: -0.9

Nitkowski had a major league career because he was left-handed. He played for eight different teams in ten years from 1995 to 2005 and was bad in pretty much all of them. He had a career record of 18-32 with a a 5.37 ERA. He had one solid season with Houston in 1998 and that’s pretty much it. That was also the only year he walked fewer than 4 batters per nine innings.

When major league teams had had enough of Nitkowski walking batters, he pitched in both Japan and Korea from 2007 to 2010, because it would be rude for America to keep all those free passes to themselves. Nitkowski did have one good year as a reliever for SoftBank in Japan in 2007. He tried to return to MLB in 2012 at age 39 with the Mets where he posted a 7.53 ERA for their Triple-A team before hanging it up.

Nitkowski then turned to blogging about baseball when his career ended. He gained a reputation as being “opinionated” about the game today, to put it gently. That earned him a shot at broadcasting and he’s been in the Rangers booth since 2017.

As a broadcaster, he’s demonstrated that he makes poor decisions and doesn’t take criticism well. Right now, he’s probably searching for my social media accounts so he can block me.

61. Chris Welsh—Cincinnati Reds. WAR: -0.9

Welsh was a Yankees farmhand who was part of a package of minor leaguers sent to San Diego for Jerry Mumphrey. He spent 1981 to 1983 with the Padres and was pretty forgettable, just like every other member of the Padres between Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn. He was a lefty with a weird delivery, so at least that made him stand out a bit. In the “Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers” book from 2004, Welsh said he threw an over-the-top curve for a strike that minor leaguers couldn’t hit but major leaguers could. That’s true. In his 537 major league innings, he only walked 189 batters but only struck out 192.

Welsh finished his major-league career with the Reds in 1986 and played the 1987 season with the Orioles Triple-A affiliate before retiring. He finished with a major league record of 22-31 with a 4.45 ERA in 122 games over five seasons.

Welsh has been a Reds broadcaster since 1993 and for a long time, his broadcasting career was about as nondescript as his playing career. He must have gotten tired of being ignored because last season he got into trouble for saying that Ozzie Albies doesn’t understand money because he’s from Curaçao. At least he apologized without being a jerk about it, which is more than a lot of people can do these days.

60. Ryan SpilborghsColorado Rockies. WAR: -0.5

Spilborghs was a right-handed hitting fourth or fifth outfielder of the Rockies from 2005 to 2011. His hitting numbers were propped up by Coors Field with a career home OPS of .862 and a career road OPS of .679. The numbers say his defense was pretty bad which cancelled out whatever offense he did provide and gave him an overall negative WAR. He spent the 2013 season with the Seibu Lions in Japan when MLB was done with him and didn’t do much better there. His playing career ended right after that.

Spilborgh’s major league line was .272/.345/.423 in 619 games. While that line looks decent, his entire career was at Coors Field.

The Rockies hired him as a broadcaster immediately after his career ended. He’s mostly a studio analyst for now, but he does fill in for regular Rockies color commentator Jeff Huson from time to time.

59. Brad ThompsonSt. Louis Cardinals. WAR: 0.3

Thompson is the first of our broadcasters who retired with a positive WAR, at least according to baseball-reference. He’s also the first of five retired ballplayers who have joined Cardinals play-by-play man Dan McLaughlin in the booth this past year. I really don’t get that. At most a team needs one main color commentator and one backup. On the other hand, I rarely listen to the Cardinals broadcasters and the few times I have, it’s always been Al Hrabosky or Tim McCarver in the booth. Maybe the Cardinals are trying to hoard promising broadcasters so other teams don’t snap them up. In any case, I can’t remember hearing Thompson call a game so I can’t tell you if he’s worth having on the payroll.

As a pitcher, Thompson was a right-handed reliever who pitched for the Cardinals from 2005 to 2009. He was pretty good in his first two seasons in the majors and got into one game of the 2006 World Series when the Cardinals beat the Tigers. The Cardinals tried to make a starter out of him in 2007 and that didn’t work out at all. He never did return to form after that. He played with the Royals in 2010 and missed the entire 2011 season with an injury. He pitched four games for the Twins Double-A affiliate in 2012 and was released after he got rocked pretty badly. Thompson pitched two years in independent ball before retiring after the 2013 season.

Thompson’s other claim to fame was a streak of 57 scoreless innings in Double-A in 2004.

Thompson went 21-21 with one save and a 4.46 ERA in his career from 2005 to 2010.

He’s been a studio analyst for the Cardinals since 2015 and has been calling games from the booth since 2018.

58. John Flaherty—New York Yankees. WAR: 1.6

If you want a long career in baseball after your playing days are over, be a catcher. Catchers are overrepresented in the coaching ranks and to a lesser degree, they are overrepresented in broadcasting.

Flaherty had a long career as a backup catcher for five different teams from 1992 to 2005. He kept finding work because he was a terrific defensive catcher. He had two solid seasons at the plate as the Padres primary starting catcher in 1996 and 1997.

After pitching for Boston, Detroit, San Diego and Tampa Bay, the New York native Flaherty finished his playing days with the Yankees. In Flaherty’s final season in 2005, he served as Randy Johnson’s personal catcher.

Flaherty’s final batting line was .252/.290/.377 in 1047 games from 1992 to 2005.

I suspect that Flaherty’s career WAR underestimates his value. I don’t think we can really accurately gauge the value a catcher brings to the game on defense and game calling, especially with stats from before this past decade.

Flaherty joined the YES Network immediately after retiring in 2006. He’s one of four former players in the booth with Michael Kay and he’s the only one who didn’t make an All-Star team. He has won six New York Emmy Awards according to his bio at the Yankees official website. The Yankees website is extremely concerned that you know how many New York Emmy Awards that each member of their broadcast team has won. Also how many they’ve just been nominated for. However, I’m pretty sure that a “New York Emmy” doesn’t count if you’re trying to complete your EGOT.

57. Mark Sweeney—San Diego Padres. WAR: 1.7

Sweeney played 14 years in the majors as a first baseman/corner outfielder from 1995 to 2008 and only hit 42 career home runs. He’s best remembered as the guy you didn’t want to get stuck with as your starting first baseman in your fantasy league.

Sweeney played for seven teams in his 14 years and four of those seasons were with the Padres in three separate stints. That includes both the 1998 team that made it to the World Series before getting swept by the Yankees and the 2005 team that got swept by the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. He had his best year at age 35 with that 2005 team, hitting .294/.395/.466 in 135 games that year. That was the one season that Sweeney really was a valuable major league ballplayer.

Sweeney’s final line was .254/.347/.387 in 1218 games from 1995 to 2008. Great for a backup catcher or slick-fielding shortstop. Not good for a first baseman.

Sweeney has been working as a broadcaster for the Padres since 2012. Also, according to his baseball-reference page, he went to college with my brother-in-law. I’m sure that comes as a surprise to both of them.