It is no secret that, to this point, the 2016 season has been an unmitigated disaster for the Atlanta Braves. It seems that every week the team is setting another record for incompetence. This week, by starting the season 2-20 at home, the Braves broke a record that had been untouched since 1906. But for all the team’s struggles to this point, there should at least be some excitement about young players like outfielder Mallex Smith and starting pitcher Matt Wisler. These two players and others should help to usher in a new-look roster that the Braves hope could help lead them to prolonged success in the future. However, even the most passionate fans in Braves Country would agree that something is missing from what made this team watchable when it experienced similar stuggles in the late-1980’s: an entertaining broadcast crew.
It may seem silly to point to an issue that has nothing to do with the team’s performance on the field as a reason not to tune in, but the fact remains that the Braves sub-standard broadcast is making a bad team unwatchable. Last week Fangraphs released a piece that ranked each major league broadcast team 1-30, in which the Braves broadcast team of Chip Caray and Joe Simpson checked in at number 29, a dismal ranking for a franchise with so much history in the broadcast booth. Chip’s father, Skip Caray, is one of the most iconic personalities in Braves history and along with Pete Van Wieren helped to create one of the most entertaining, insightful broadcasts in professional sports.
Do the Braves need to make a change in the booth? Does it really matter if the team is this bad? Well, those are questions that need to be answered if the Braves expect to have regular viewership for the remainder of the organization’s rebuild. The sentiment has been growing amongst the fan base that it may be time some fresh faces in the booth, and an unbiased opinion from Fangraphs only serves to strengthen the case for change.
During the Braves’ historic run of 14 consecutive division titles, the iconic voices of Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, Don Sutton, and a younger Joe Simpson helped to create a broadcast that featured deep insight in addition to a transparency that endeared spectators to the TBS Superstation. Caray’s tone of uncut honesty mixed with the calculated, ever-knowledgeable presence of Van Wieren created a perfect atmosphere for Braves fans. Both Caray and Van Wieren are now deceased, but their place in Braves history will always be etched alongside even the most influential players because of the relationship that they built with seemingly every fan watching at home.
When examining the list compiled by Fangraphs, you will notice that among the top broadcast teams in the game, all of them are able to entertain as well as inform. Topping the list is maybe the greatest broadcaster of all-time in Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1950. Scully has an innate ability to deliver information, but also keep fans entertained with anecdotal tidbits that can be humorous, insightful, and honest. The bottom line is that broadcasters like Scully, Gary Thorne of the Baltimore Orioles, and Don Orsillo of the San Diego Padres (and formerly of the Boston Red Sox), for example, have the ability to connect with people at home. Right now, the Braves seem to be lacking that bridge between what is happening on the field and what fans are experiencing at home.
While Simpson has been a mainstay in the booth for over 20 years, his open distaste for analytics leaves new-age fans with much to be desired with regards to information. A broadcaster in this era of baseball does not have to like analytics or even understand them, but to ignore them altogether is a disservice to the team’s fan base.
In addition to Simpson’s old-school commentary, the Braves feature Chip Caray as the team’s play-by-play announcer. While Chip is very well schooled in the contemporary style of announcing, his seemingly emotionless take on most baseball related topics makes the broadcast seem distant. Caray lacks the intimate feel that both his father and grandfather, the iconic Harry Caray, evoked from fans during their respective careers.
At present the Braves are devoid of an identity in the broadcast booth, and it has made the pain of the rebuild run even deeper. This is an organization that has always used its continuity as a source of pride, but continuity is not always a means of success. Sometimes change is necessary, and if the Braves’ willingness to part ways with manager Fredi Gonzalez is any indication, the organization is willing to attempt it in areas of need. For the sake of Braves fans, the next area to be addressed needs to be the broadcast booth. The team needs to find its next Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, Ernie Johnson, or Milo Hamilton to re-connect fans with their team on a nightly basis. The current state of the Atlanta Braves is tough for fans, and it may be a while before that changes, but the Braves need to be watchable again.