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The art of the broadcast

Can you be everything to everyone all the time?

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Lefebvre knows he has critics.

This is, I suppose, not surprising. Any time you’re a Personality, via the internet, television, or otherwise, you know that people have opinions about you. You can Google your name and get a negative opinion about you on the first page.

So when I asked Lefebvre about how he and the Fox Sports team felt about their more adventurous use of advanced statistics lately, the first thing he mentioned was criticism, and then a response to that criticism.

“I am not anti-statistic,” said Lefebvre.

The optics of how some fans arrived on that opinion, though, are reasonable. Listen to a past Royals broadcast—any one, really—with either Lefebvre or Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler and you’ll be sure to encounter a segment in which one of the two either minimizes or ignores stats or statistical evidence.

But, of course, there’s more reason for that beyond what you might initially think.

Recently, Fox Sports Kansas City has indeed used some more advanced metrics, perhaps coinciding with a larger trend of statistical analysis in the game. And, to his credit, Lefebvre said that he does like certain advanced stats in broadcasts, specifically mentioning Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).

According to Lefebvre, one of the biggest challenges in including advanced metrics in a broadcast is that broadcasters only have so much time to explain the metric. As a result, the easiest ones to include are often the easiest to explain. While the computation in DRS is much more involved than fielding percentage, it’s an easy stat to explain and contextualize. The time it takes to explain something is even more precious on radio, as the broadcaster doesn’t accompany the game; for your ears, he or she is the game.

This could be a reason why Statcast statistics have caught on. Speed and distance are inherently understandable metrics, and even something like launch angle is easy to comprehend.

Advanced statistics do also offer insight into another avenue of broadcasting: criticism. At the beginning of the 2017 season, I noticed that Fox Sports Kansas City was using and featuring DRS when it hadn’t before, but I noted that their usage of it was unequal—they were using it to highlight positives, but ignoring what the statistics said about the negatives of a player. They also ignored the statistics if it highlighted a discrepancy between the raw data and general consensus of a player’s skillset or performance..

And while I do maintain broadcasts can and should do a better job of offering a more even-handed account of advanced statistics—for instance, if a player is in a big slump, broadcasts won’t hesitate to show you their batting average over that time frame, but if DRS shows a player’s poor defensive year you won’t see that displayed anywhere—Lefebvre brought up the general difficulty of criticism in general. Even when an opportunity presents itself to be critical of a the team, it is not necessarily easy to always take it.

As we were chatting on the edge of the dugout, watching the Royals take their cracks at batting practice, Peter Moylan sauntered by, offering a friendly greeting to Lefebvre before scooting into the hallway back to the clubhouse.

“What if he blows the game tonight?” Lefebvre said as he gestured to the former position of the tattooed Aussie. For fans of the team, the average fan who has never seen a Royal in person from closer than 50 feet away, you can yell whatever you want about a player. Criticism, realistic or perhaps otherwise, can be lobbed from the safety of distance and anonymity, even though players are more than just a collection of pixels on the screen.

For you, ripping into Moylan for the blown game may be cathartic, an action without consequence other than sweet anger relief. For Lefebvre, and the other broadcasters and writers who cover the team closely, criticism has a cost. They get to know players. They even get to know their families. Bombing Moylan for blowing a game is not so much fun anymore when, as Lefebvre pointed out, you might to face him on the team plane to a different city the next day, or if you need a quote for Moylan for some reason later in the season.

But beyond criticism, beyond the difficulty of explaining and utilizing the bevy of advanced statistics ready for use, is the audience. Again and again, Levebvre brought up the idea of the ‘average’ Royals fan.

It’s easy to forget, but the average Royals fan doesn’t go to dozens of games a year. The average Royals fan doesn’t watch every broadcast, or know what spin rate is, or can name at least 30 of the players on today’s 40-man roster. Lefebvre said that the average Royals fan is the guy who “puts the kids to bed, turns on the TV, and enjoys two to three hours of entertainment.”

For Lefebvre, who brought up granular baseball items like WAR, the vagaries of defensive positioning, and a critique of UZR without any prompting from me, and from his decades of Major League Baseball coverage and personal upbringing as the son of a MLB manager knows the sport and the industry intimately, the type of broadcast that he could do and the type of broadcast that actually happens is a big gap. Make no mistake: Lefebvre knows his stuff. All broadcasters do. It’s a hard job to be enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and informative all at once for hours at a time.

Broadcasts are painfully intentional. That’s for a good reason: there are just too many things to juggle at once otherwise. You have to keep your core audience in mind regardless of what you do.

So, yeah, Ryan—for that’s what most Royals fan know him by, so familiar he is in our homes—has heard your criticisms. Some still probably have merit, of course. No one is perfect.

But Ryan and Fox Sports Kansas City have a response to each and every one. That, more than anything, is the art of the broadcast.