Now up for the Diamondbacks … Former ESPNer Steve Berthiaume, World Seriesp-winning manager Bob Brenly
It's a Saturday afternoon, and a multitude of fans – 25,000 total throughout a day defined by a peek-a-boo sun – meander underneath Chase Field's retractable roof for the annual D-Backs annual FanFest. The day is a prelude to the upcoming season – an opportunity for the Diamondback faithful to snag a few autographs, take a few cuts against a wiffleball-lobbing Wade Miley and, most importantly, bask in the glow of the lovely optimism that comes before the realities of a 162-game season commence.
Late in the day of festivities is a question and answer session in center field with five of the Diamondbacks' newest acquisitions. While three of them – pitcher Brandon McCarthy and outfielders Cody Ross and Martin Prado – will make their mark on the team on the field, the other two are tasked with guiding many of the team's fans through a season guaranteed to have its fair share of ups and downs.
Those two men are returning color analyst Bob Brenly and play-by-play announcer Steve Berthiaume, and their goal is to provide viewers with a thorough, cerebral and spontaneous experience every game.
Hired to replace the departed Mark Grace and Daron Sutton – the former plead guilty to a DUI charge earlier this month; the latter not retained for what CEO Derrick Hall reportedly called “philosophical differences” – the new faces of the on-air broadcasts come to the team from very different backgrounds.
The avuncular Brenly is a former major league catcher, turned broadcaster, turned manager, turned broadcaster again, whose third career turn is the most appreciated among Diamondback fans. That arc started in 2001 – the year he led the team to a seven-game World Series victory over the New York Yankees – and ran through into midseason 2004. Brenly compiled a 303-262 regular-season and a modicum of fondness among the Diamondbacks faithful. He's still pretty popular among the fans – “welcome home, Bob,” was a common refrain during the Q & A session – as well as players like Prado and Miguel Montero and coach Steve Sax, who all stopped to greet him before he stepped on stage.
After the Diamondbacks fired him 79 games into the 2004 season, Brenly became the Chicago Cubs' color analyst and worked alongside play-by-play announcer Len Kasper on WGN for eight years, during which the two developed an entertaining and informative rapport.
The decision to come back to Arizona once his contract with the Cubs ended came as a result of a couple years worth of discussions with his wife Joan about returning to the place they consider home. As he put it, there were “too many positives” against a return to the Valley.
“Not to take any shots at the Cubbies, but we had some tough years over the last eight; there were days when you pulled into that parking lot at the ballpark and you knew you were going to have to work to fill three hours of airtime,” he said. “I'm sure there'll be many days like that here, but I like the look of this team. I'm excited about the young talent and the direction they're going and the guys I've had a chance to sit and really talk to are just as excited as I am. And that enthusiasm will carry you a long way in what becomes a very long season.”
Berthiaume lacks the local cachet of his new partner among Diamondback fans, but he brings a little more national renown from his decade-plus run as an ESPN anchor on “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight.” He also has a reputation for having a sizable posse on Twitter – one Diamondbacks' noting him a “Twitter fiend” on Saturday – with 79,600 followers as of Saturday afternoon. (Berthiaume pushed the title to McCarthy, who's abutting 106,000 followers thanks to his self-deprecating sense of humor and self-professed snark.)
He won't have the fan base he did at ESPN, but the trade-off for the move to the desert with his wife – fellow former “SportsCenter” anchor Cindy Brunson – is the chance to transition to play-by-play work, which he's done on occasion during the College World Series for ESPN, full time.
“Being in the ballpark for me, it's a dream come true,” he said. “I feel like I won the lottery.”
So what can fans expect for their new broadcasters for the 2013 season? Start with an emphasis on numbers that goes beyond baseball-card stats and incorporates pieces of the new wave of analytics.
In other words, expect to hear terms like OPS (on-base plus slugging), WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitches) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play) mentioned alongside commonly archaic stats like wins and earned-run average.
“Someone out there is going to do it, and I'd like it to be us. We have an opportunity to become a leader and set the tone for the type of broadcast we want and sort of a fresh start here for the Diamondbacks,” Berthiume said.
The terms, however, won't remain in a vacuum, nor will they reside in the land of esoterica; rather, Berthiaume said, the purpose is to provide context to every concept and explain what it means for an individual player or the team. An example he mentioned is BABIP – how often balls in play become hits for hitters and against pitchers – which could became an important metric of the Diamondbacks' pitching fortune this season.
As it stands now, the Diamondbacks' pitching rotation should consist of just one starter, Ian Kennedy, who averaged more than eight strikeouts per nine innings (another somewhat advanced statistic) in the majors last season – the rest either hovered around seven per nine, which the website Fangraphs considers average, if even that.
Low strikeout rates mean more balls in play – groundballs are the preferable option – and a higher dependence on the performance of the team's defense to turn those opportunities into outs, which will contribute to BABIP. A high figure by the Diamondbacks' staff would be an indicator of a combination of poor pitching performance, bad defense and bad luck, while a low figure would indicate a favorable season for the team's starters.
Some of the advanced metrics haven't caught on with a majority of fans and consider it “a bunch of crap,” as Brenly put it, but they've become a necessity with so many teams finding new ways to evaluate talent. For that reason, Brenly, who hosted a show explaining advanced metrics with Kasper every Sunday on WGN, said fans need to understand there's more to judging a player's worth “than batting average, home runs and RBIs.”
“There are a lot of people smarter than me who've learned the value of advanced metrics. As an analyst, that's something that's more involved in evaluating players when you're making trades, when you're making signings in the off-season, looking a little bit beyond the obvious numbers to really see a guy's value,” he said.
Beyond the sojourns into stats, Diamondbacks' followers can anticipate the formation of an honest back-and-forth that Berthiaume said isn't reliant upon inane banter and unnatural setups. Instead, they said they'll use the research conducted in advance – a blend of homework assignments and pregame discussions with coaches and players – and the strengths of their personalities to fill in the empty moments.
The hope is to avoid having too many down beats, but the baseball season is a slog, and Brenly said no matter how good a team is, there are always lopsided games that provide the best tests for a broadcaster's talents.
“(In) 162 games you'd like to believe that every game is going to come down to the bottom of the ninth inning and be tremendously exciting, but the reality is we're going to see a bunch of stinkers, and those are the times you get to know our personalities a little better,” Brenly said. “The action of the field is not quite scintillating enough, so we'll throw a little spice in there, a little salt and pepper, maybe talk music, maybe talk other sports, you never know what might come up. It has to be natural – you can't plan it out ahead of time. It just kind of has to flow.”
“I can guarantee anytime we get in those situations it'll be off the cuff,” Berthiaume added.
Photo: Steve Berthiaume, left, a longtime ESPN anchor on such benchmark programs as “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight” said being in the ballpark every day as the Diamondbacks’ new television play-by-play voice feels like he “won the lottery.” Bob Brenly, right, is Berthiaume’s new partner and the D-Backs’ once-and-again color commentator. Brenly is still plenty popular among Arizona fans after leading the team to the 2001 World Series title as its manager.