Q&A with Dan Shulman of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball

Prior to the White Sox playoff chances being struck in the head with a candlestick in the conservatory by Mr. Verlander Friday night, I was offered the opportunity to speak with Dan Shulman.  Dan's finishing up his first year doing the play-by-play with ESPN's flagship Sunday night baseball broadcast, but has been calling games on radio with the network for a few years, and was the everyday play-by-play guy for the Toronto Blue Jays TV network from 1995-2001.

He's in Detroit this weekend to cover the Buehrle vs. Scherzer matchup in primetime Sunday night, which or may not have playoff significance by the time it rolls around.  I got to pick his brain concerning his feelings on some of the major storylines on the season, Mark Buehrle's career, advanced statistics, the entertaining Ozzie Guillen, and more.

My notes in italics from here on out

On the focus of this weekend's broadcast: "We want to look at Verlander's season obviously because it's been special, we were talking about doing something on all the great Venezuelan players in the game--that includes Ozzie, handicapping the AL Central race and looking at the upcoming schedules.  With Buehrle, having a nice video package of his no-hitter, his perfect game, the great defensive play he made last year, and talking about his accomplishments like how durable he's been with 200 IP every year, how quickly he works, how rarely he shakes off the catcher and how that makes him a different breed among modern pitchers."

Verlander for MVP?: "I think pitchers should be eligible, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be.  I don't have a vote, but if I did [Verlander] would be in my top 5.  If this were the type of year where the top teams didn't have great hitting candidates, he could win it."

"If he's starting 35 games a year, and he's winning 23 or 24 of those games, that's huge.  Take him out, and put their top Triple-A pitcher in, maybe they're winning only 13, 14, or 15 of those games.  That's 7-9 wins a year."

Top 5 for MVP?: "Well it's so close and changes day-to-day.  In no particular order, my top 5 would be Granderson, Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Bautista, and Verlander.  You could make a case that Miguel Cabrera should be in there, or Dustin Pedroia, or Robinson Cano.  It's really close this year."

At this point, Shulman had referenced the same concept I read in a FanGraphs article about the number of batters faced by pitchers, essentially assessed Verlander in terms of Wins Above Replacement, and noted stathead favorite Jacoby Ellsbury as an MVP candidate.  It was time to see how saber-friendly he was

Advanced Statistics in the broadcast?: "That's a tough one that we wrestle with a lot.  Everyone who watches the broadcast understands home runs, RBI, and batting average.  Not everyone understands OPS, and a smaller percentage of people understand WAR.  I'm big on on-base percentage and slugging percentage, so I like OPS.  I don't believe I've gone out of my way to talk about WAR on air yet.  I just don't think at this point it's what people are talking about around the water cooler.  It's more 'Did you see this guy hit his 30th?' and not 'This guy raised his WAR from 5.9 to 6.2'.  You can't please everybody.  If you go too far, you're leaving some people behind.  If you don't go far enough, you're not doing all you can for part of your audience."

I can really sympathize with this for someone with a broad audience like Shulman.  Really, by emphasizing OBP and SLG, he's doing a lot to shake off batting average being dogma, and showing people how power matters not just for HR-hitters.

Buehrle in the HOF - Fringe candidate or completely absurd?: "I wouldn't put him even as a fringe candidate.  I will say this, he's everything a young pitcher should aspire to be.  He's smart, he works quickly, he changes speeds, fields his position well.  He works hard at his craft, but doesn't take himself too seriously.  I love Mark Buehrle, he's one of my favorite pitchers to watch on television or cover in person."

"At the same time, he doesn't have Cy Young awards, 20-win seasons, ERA titles, and that sort of thing.  He's a very good pitcher having a very good career, but I don't think he's in the Hall of Fame conversation."

I floated a comparison to Johnny Damon, a guy who's been good for a while, but never great.  Shulman pointed out that Damon's numbers are his saving grace, while Buehrle will need to build his up.

"He's 32, and the way he throws, he looks like a guy who could pitch for many more years.  If he does that, perhaps."

Buehrle's pace vs. All those darn Yankees-Red Sox games: "I like a quicker pace.  It's got nothing to do with me as a broadcaster, I think it's the way the game is supposed to be played.  The extra time that is built into Yankees-Red Sox games is not something that makes baseball better.  Watching Josh Beckett stand still on the mound doesn't do anything for me.  Watching David Ortiz step out after every pitch, spit in his gloves, tap his cleats, and all that, doesn't do anything for me."

"I prefer a quicker game.  The biggest reason I prefer it, is because I think baseball has got to do everything they can to appeal to young fans...I don't think 4 hour baseball games are going to keep young fans."

"I think you could eliminate the catcher going out to the mound.  I think you could limit the number of times the pitching coach or manager can go to the mound.  Instead of once per inning, the second time you have to take the pitcher out, make it once per game.  If they can do something reasonable to make the pitcher throw the ball quicker, that'd be great.  If they could keep the batter from stepping out, or the pitcher from stepping off the rubber when there's nobody on base, I'd have no problem with it.  It'd be an adjustment for the modern player, though."

On the Alex Rios mystery: "I remember when he came up, the first month or two I saw him and thought 'He's got a chance to be special.  Really special.'  Great baseball physique, looked like he might fill out a bit more, liked his swing, his speed, his arm, he had a little bit of power that could project to more, and I thought he was going to be an absolutely terrific player year after year, after year.  And then it stopped.  'Nonchalant' is one word [you could use], but there are stronger ones that could go there.  He just doesn't look like he's into it anymore.  I don't understand, because he was once a really, really good player, and now he's one of the biggest underachievers in baseball.  As someone from the outside looking in, it seems like you got to light a fire under this guy.  He's been benched, but that didn't change anything.  His contract is guaranteed, so I don't know what you can do there.  He's a tremendously talented player who could be an All-Star multiple times if he played to his potential, and I don't think he's even close.  It looks to me like the fire is not inside him right now."

"Right now he's hitting .214, he's not playing everyday, and he's being ridiculed in the press.  If that doesn't get a guy going...some guys that would put down more, some guys that would fire them up.  What motivates Alex Rios?  I think that's a question the Blue Jays asked themselves...they just let him go, with a big contract.  That doesn't happen very often."

The Blue Jays' Man in White: "The notion of a guy in a white shirt, signaling from 420 feet away, just seems unlikely to me.  There's no basis this year to say [the Blue Jays] are doing something.  Their hitting numbers are better at home, their pitching numbers are worse.  It's always been a hitter's park.  Last year there was a sizable difference, but I can't tell you why that is."

"There could have been more [in the ESPN.com story].  They included the 5 guys who had better numbers at home, they didn't mention the 4 guys who had worse numbers at home.  I've watched Jose Bautista a lot...he hits well on the road.  I don't have a problem with the story, I think it could have been handled a little bit differently.  I think the Blue Jays could have been given a chance to respond."

"I know cheating is as old as baseball, but the manner described in the story strikes me as really, really unlikely."

Shulman didn't recognize the Sirotka-Wells trade as particularly significant, or even a big contributor to Toronto GM Gord Ash getting fired, but one quote about David Wells hinted at why that might be the case: "David Wells had some really good years here, and he had some disgruntled, difficult years here."  Perhaps it was more of a undesirable-for-undesirable swap than we initially realized.

On Ozzie Guillen: "He's hilarious.  One of the funniest people I know.  I know he's a lightning rod for criticism, and obviously there are times where he could use a filter...I'll say this; I think he's passionate about baseball, he's passionate about the White Sox, he's very knowledgeable, and he's a fine major league manager.  If I owned a team, I'd have no problem with Ozzie Guillen managing my team.  I think he makes a team interesting and relevant, and I think he cares.  He knows what he's doing out there and he's nobody's fool."

AL Central in the final stretch? (Stop laughing! It's still a legit question!): "Well, obviously the White Sox need to make up some ground this weekend.  I thought early on they were the most disappointing team in baseball.  They were horrible in just about every aspect of the game.  There's still time, and I'm curious to see Viciedo up now, and De Aza up now.  If those guys stay hot, they could give them some energy.  A month of baseball is a long time.  They need to take at least two out of three this weekend, a sweep would even better.  They're a talented team."

Hmm, I think "Here lies a talented team" would make a good gravestone for the 2011 Sox...should they need one.


Many many thanks to Dan for being a great, gracious, and engaging interview, Ben Cafardo for setting this up, and ESPN for dropping me a line.


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