Ray Fosse and Scott Hatteberg

By Jason Wojciechowski on June 7, 2012 at 9:15 PM

Susan Slusser reported today that Scott Hatteberg would be performing analyst duties on the A's TV broadcasts for twenty games this year, beginning next week. Slusser reached Fosse for comment and wrote that

Fosse, an A's broadcaster for 27 years, confirmed the news but declined further comment other than to say that the decision had nothing to do with him. He has no personal or health reasons to miss any games.

Fosse and play-by-play man Glen Kuiper were recently ranked by the FanGraphs readership as the ninth-best TV team in baseball, though the comments make clear that it's Fosse who drives that ranking, not Kuiper. I think Kuiper deserves praise for his chemistry with Fosse, but I also think that Fosse would be pretty easy to get along with, and Kuiper is notably dull in the play-by-play duties that are his exclusive province. I couldn't tell you what kind of perspective he brings to the game because it's not clear to me that he really has one. He fits a lot of the A's players that way: he's nondescript, not terrible, but not anyone you'll miss when he's gone.

Judgments about who is a good announcer and who is not are, obviously, inherently subjective. Everyone wants a different thing from their team's game-callers. Some people like Hawk Harrelson-stye homerism, others want more detachment. Some like a boisterous crew, prone to loud, corny calls that amp up the excitement while others like a calm approach more focused on explaining the game than on the emotional experience. Some want constant chatter a la Vin Scully and others want guys who will stay out of the way as much as possible.

And some (and you knew I'd get to this, didn't you?) want the broadcasts peppered with advanced metrics like WAR, wOBA, UZR, others would prefer no stats at all, still others like AVG/RBI/HR. And then there are surely those, like me, who think the advanced stats are more trouble than they're worth, that the amount of explanation that goes into them doesn't work on television, and that we're best off sticking with metrics that are almost entirely descriptive/objective. If a stat-box for each hitter just displayed batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total plate appearances, I would be a happy man.

Once you start getting into advanced stats, you risk misrepresenting what a stat says or doesn't, or you omit serious problems with the stat because you're talking to a TV audience, not the readership of Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs or The Book Blog. To my mind, citing UZR or DRS without discussing the serious problems with those stats (and the data they're built on) is as irresponsible as attributing RBI to player skill or quoting batting average as the best way to rank players' offensive value. Want to grab WPA or something like that from FanGraphs? Joe Sheehan had a line that comes to mind: WPA is just "fancy-math RBI."

I'm sure every team has a producer or a PA or someone else on the broadcast squad who understands the stats, how to use them, and how not to use them, but those people are, if I had to guess, very infrequently the ones who are actually on the air, talking about the game.

Why even bring this up in the context of Hatteberg and Fosse? Mainly because in my mind, Ray Fosse's main weakness is his unwillingness to embrace anything we've learned about baseball since the day he retired. Hatteberg, you'll remember, works in the A's front office as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. Here in 2012 and on the Oakland A's, we can assume that Hatteberg is familiar with the precepts of modern baseball analysis. Maybe he doesn't spend a lot of time citing any particular publicly available value metric, but I would guess that he understands better than most announcers what makes one hitter more valuable than another, what role luck plays in things like pitcher-hits-allowed, things of that nature. I'd wager that where you'll find Fosse praising "productive outs" and displaying a weird obsession with "shutdown innings," we might find Hatteberg focusing on aspects of the game that stat-heads recognize as being part of the baseball conversation only in the post-Bill James era. Maybe I'm entirely wrong and I'm making silly assumptions, but it does seem that a shift from Fosse to Hatteberg would be part of a shift from old-school to new-school.

Where I'm conflicted is that I don't know how much I care. Outside of guest announcers, illnesses, and the fact that the A's television partner doesn't broadcast all 162 games, I have not watched an A's baseball game without Fosse calling it. I can't say he's taught me about the game or anything like that, but his presence is comforting. It's going to take a long time to get used to having someone in the booth who doesn't obsess over ballpark food (and the Dibs ice cream snack in particular), who doesn't reliably explode with "that's a HORRIBLE call" when an umpire does, in fact, make a horrible call, who doesn't rant indignantly every time an ump causes or escalates a confrontation with a player or manager, who doesn't have one of the top mustaches in all of baseball, with bonus points for longevity.

Is losing all that worth the (theoretical) analytic value added by Hatteberg? He is very likely not going to teach me something I didn't already learn by reading and interacting with analysts. (On the analytic side, that is. Hatteberg, as an ex-player, knows far more than I ever could about a million things: baseball culture, how the ball looks coming at him, how hard it is to play every single day, the nuances of defensive positioning, receiving pick-off throws, framing pitches, game-calling, and so forth. I would hope that he would provide this information, but I would hope that any ex-player announcer would do the same. The question is whether the (again, theoretical) analytic superiority that sets Hatteberg apart from a random retired player who never worked in a front office.)

For me, the trade-off only works in an attenuated way: talking about baseball with people who don't share my proclivities for research-backed knowledge, with people who insist that they can identify who is clutch and who is not, that on-base percentage is a fad, that our team should trade all their crappy players for a superstar, can be frustrating, so if their TV announcer teaches them a new way of thinking about the game, then I wind up having more enjoyable discussions with those people.

And frankly, that's not worth it. I probably find the proliferation of "X has a .320 BABIP, so he'll regress downward" over-simplified analysis using semi-advanced stats and ideas more annoying than people who would fit well at a 1937 beat writers' convention. If all Scott Hatteberg gets me is more of the former and fewer of the latter, and we lose two-inning-long discussions of a Texas man eating a $27 hot dog and questions about whether it's too early to order Dibs, well, you might find me moving over to the other teams' broadcast, something I never dream of doing now.