Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pat's New Partner: Someone Completely Different?

This much we know: Pat Hughes has signed a 5-year extension with WGN; the Cubs and WGN are looking for someone to fill Ron Santo's slot as radio analyst (seriously, follow that link and you can apply right now); no one can fill the void Ron Santo left in the heart of Cubdom.

Ed Sherman says it well in his column on the Cubs' task of finding a new analyst:

Let's make this clear: The Cubs never will have another Ron Santo.

They'll never find another analyst who played the game harder and knew and felt more what it meant to be a Cub. There never will be another character in the booth who could make you laugh the way he did. Certainly, it is highly unlikely the new person will be wearing a toupee.

Indeed, Mr. Santo will be missed.
Sherman also informs us that Mark Grace is unlikely to leave his gig with the Diamondbacks, which allows him to moonlight with Fox on the weekends. That leaves a list of proposed usual suspects of Keith Moreland, Dan Plesac, Dave Otto, Todd Hollandsworth, Eric Karros, and Gary Matthews. If I had to pick between any of those prospects, I'd choose Zonk. But I'd much rather see the Cubs go in a completely different direction.

I don't know if the aforementioned job listing is official or facetious and can't say for sure how reliable the listed prerequisite is: "Preferred candidate will have played with the Chicago Cubs -- or played major league baseball with previous broadcast experience as a game analyst." I hope they'll find someone who meets none of those criteria.

Really, are you pleased with the state of baseball analysis as we know it? Do you find yourself saying, I wish a former player could tell me when the big moments are coming and that a hit here would be big or a strikeout here would be big or a win today would be big, big, big, BIG? Will you be waiting all winter for that special ex-jock to pretend he knows what the pitchers and hitters are thinking? Are you going through Joe Morgan withdrawal?

Didn't think so. I understand the value of former players who wish they were still playing can help us better relate to the action on the field, but for most of us who have been following the game for more than, say, two years, that style of insight has become repetitive. Every baseball broadcast I've ever heard follows that formula. Good-with-words guy describes the action, good-with-sports guy interprets it. Listen and watch enough games, and you pretty much know what's coming. Only the personalities change (and some of those have been and are truly entertaining, don't get me wrong).

But wouldn't you like to see something different? Wouldn't it be a stroke of genius to add a little spicy variety to the broadcast booth? What if we actually *gasp* learned something during a baseball game? It could happen if WGN would take a page out of Billy Beane's Moneyball manual.

Let's try putting a stathead in the booth. I'd prefer a witty, friendly one, but even a person with a caustic edge would be new. Regardless, Pat Hughes, for all his brilliance, is not a champion of advanced statistics. I don't get the impression he's closed to the concept, but he's an unabashed traditionalist in the most endearing sense. Imagine if the Cubs countered Pat's calm, old-fashioned play-by-play with someone who brought the conversation into the 21st Century of baseball metrics.

While Pat gives us the colors of the pinstripes, caps, shirts, shoes, and socks, his partner could hit us with win probabilities, linear weights, wOBA, and WAR. How much more interesting would the broadcast be if the analyst could tell us how the run expectancy would change when Quade chooses to sac bunt? I would love to hear someone challenge the antiquated myths of baseball lore, an anti-Morgan of the broadcast world. It would actually teach me something and inform us all. Scary, I know, but I'm willing to try.

WGN and the Cubs should be willing too. There's no reason this couldn't work. Pat Hughes can establish an on-air relationship with just about anyone, though I don't dream any pairing will be as magical as Pat & Ron. So how about some science instead? Do something new, something different, something informative for all who listen. I guarantee, it would have the entire baseball world talking. And some of the discussion might actually be complimentary.
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