I've long enjoyed baseball on the radio. Maybe that's because growing up, there wasn't a lot of baseball on TV. Now you can get 160 or 161 of them in "stunning high definition," and you get mad that one or two might not be available. We're spoiled, really. Anyone who only began paying close attention to the Tigers during the past five or six years might not realize it, but for so long there just weren't a lot of games available to watch.
That had distinct advantages. You learned to let the game weave itself into the fabric of your life that way. Maybe you were driving in the car, trying to listen on the AM through static. Maybe you were at the beach with waves crashing in the background. Maybe you were hanging out in the backyard on a hot summer day. Maybe you were at your desk during work with the volume turned just high enough so only you could listen. Maybe you were laying in bed while a game on the west coast began. It didn't matter where you were or what you were doing. The game -- and the announcers telling you about it -- were a big part of your life.
Fortunately, we've had it very good in Detroit. For decades, we had Ernie Harwell describing the action to us with just the perfect southern voice, with stories weaved into the broadcast perfectly because Ernie never forgot the game was the reason people tuned in. (He wouldn't admit to himself we would have tuned in just to hear Ernie tell stories, or frankly it would have been fine if he described his breakfast cereal as long as he was the one to do it.) There were a few years in the '90s that were unfortunate -- not because of the broadcasters that showed up in Ernie's stead, but because they were necessary at all.
As Ernie aged, he gradually passed the torch to Dan Dickerson, a Detroiter himself who worked his way up the radio world from a reporter in Grand Rapids to play by play man in Ann Arbor and sports show host for WJR. His final bit of education before taking over the reins full time as the Tigers lead radio broadcaster was studying alongside Ernie Harwell after a fairytale start to his major-league career.
Dickerson proved to be a very good student. He learned not just the nuts and bolts from Ernie -- keep a scorecard in two colors, not one -- but also to remember each game has a unique story to tell, and that the people who surround baseball can be so fun to talk to and about. Dickerson, along with analyst Jim Price, put together the kind of broadcast that makes you want to grab a radio and sit down to enjoy. They're filled with stories, analysis, and built on a good understanding of statistics -- both traditional and advanced.
Saturday, Dickerson spoke to Bless You Boys about why he enjoys spring training, how he gets ready for the season, why he enjoys every statistic he can get his hands on, and more.
BYB: What's your favorite part about spring training?
Dan Dickerson: The part that I enjoy the most is seeing some of the young guys that are close to being in the major leagues. Guys who come up through the system.
You can really notice a change since the first three, four, five years I did this. A lot of invites to spring training were clearly guys being brought in to fill some spaces: career minor leaguers. Now the guys who are invited are either on the (40-man) roster or are for the most part young guys who are coming up through the system. Some of them will be part of the future. Not all of them. It's fun to see which ones look like they belong here.
Have any caught your eyes from this year's crop?
Andy Dirks is standing out. He's batting almost .500, drawn six walks in just over 30 at bats, only struck out four times. He's been fine in the outfield. I haven't seen him really tested yet, but he's a rock solid outfielder as well.
I've been enjoying watching Scott Sizemore because he clearly looks different than what we saw a year ago. I think his action at second looks a lot smoother. This is a guy we thought we'd see last year, suddenly you can see why they were excited to have this guy take over at second base.
Behind the plate, Rob Brantley. Al Alburquerque has been fun to watch. The first two times we saw him he was wild all over the place and got knocked around. The last two times we saw him he has given up two hits and struck out the side both times. You can understand why they're intrigued by him. There's something to work with there. It'll be interesting to see if the Tigers can get it out of him and if that will be at the major league level.
Jose Ortega has been intriguing. Brayan Villarreal. I like those power arms. I'm like (Tigers GM) David Dombrowski. I thought (Joel) Zumaya was outstanding that inning we saw. To see him come back from a broken bone in his arm like that. There was no radar gun, but you didn't need one. He was throwing in the upper 90s. I'm hoping, hoping, hoping he can stay healthy.
Avisail Garcia has been intriguing because of his size, 19 years old. He's a big kid. Jim Leyland has caught his eye.
Casper Wells dropped like 15 pounds. He looks terrific. I think he's going to spend some time with the Tigers, I don't think there's any question about that.
Is it spring training for announcers too? What do you do to get ready for the season?
I spend a lot of time just laying the ground work. We get national clips and Tiger clips every day. I go through them. It’s a good time of year to print out features about players, put them into a file. If we’re going to play a team and there’s an interesting story that might fit when we play that team, you stick it in the file. Anything that looks remotely interesting, you stick it in the file. There's a three-ring binder that I fill.
I’m going through all of last year looking in depth as much as possible, the statistical breakdow. I throw anything on paper that looks ike it might stick. I have a lot of discussions with (hitting coach) Lloyd McClendon or a player himself about an area he might improve. I did a lot of that (Friday) on an off day for us. You start building files for the other teams that we’re going to play.
I'll get to work on New York and Baltimore (who the Tigers open the season against) pretty soon here. I get my Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times.
It’s a great time. It’s long days, but it’s baseball. I used to do this in my free time! I love the start of a baseball season, trying to figure out how the pieces are coming together, not just for the Tigers but for other teams too.
You mention Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times. Are there any sites or blogs that you really go to?
I don’t hit as many blogs as I’d like. I’ve got to start reading yours. I think Bill James' website is terrific. His writing has fascinated me. I like Fangraphs. You can get overwhelmed by it -- you have to parse it down.
I read national stuff. The Tigers' media relation staff puts it out every day. ESPN. Some days there’s a link from a Buster Olney column and that leads you to somewhere else. There’s no end to where you can go.
There’s some good ones. Hardball Times, Bill James, ESPN.
Baseball-Reference is -- jeez I don’t how you'd live without that. That guy is unbelievable, Sean Forman. A reliever goes into the game and I go to his game logs. You can click get the last eight games, find out the strikeout percentage, the ground balls to fly balls, the air outs to ground outs. To break it down all the ways they do it, it’s fascinating.
Any stats that you really like to look at?
There’s two different ways to look at it. There’s the ones you can use on the air. I’m not going to use OPS a whole lot on the air; you have to appeal to the wider audience. OPS is becoming enough used and known that you can use it. I still think you have to explain that it's on base plus slugging. The feedback I get from friends that are casual listeners, you still have to explain slugging percentage some times. What is a good slugging %? I do think OPS is a useful tool.
I like the breaking down of it to batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I want to see all three to see if the high on-base percentage is because of his batting average or if he walks a lot. I like to look at walk rates and strikeout rates. I start there for pitchers and hitters. I think you always start there. For hitters and pitchers, certainly for pitchers.
I like runs created per game. I think that’s a very useful tool. I like wins above replacement a lot. I like the baserunner statistics that Bill James comes up with. You don’t see that anywhere.
On a very basic level I think you have to start with the platoon splits. If I'm preparing for a series, I think you start with platooon splits, home//road splits. I think the ballpark often plays into that. I think you always have to start with the basics right off the bat. I want my listeners to know what kind of hitter is this. Is he a patient hitter? Is he an aggressive hitter? Does he have pop? Does he not have pop? If he's a lefty, can he hit a lefty? I always do my thumbnail sketch of each hitter from my notes. Right away I’m hoping that they know that it’s important. This guy swings a lot. He’ll chase when he gets to two strikes. Can he put the bat on the ball with with two strikes?
You have to remember what’s going to fit into a broadcast. You’re not going to be able to read a number like he strikes out 17.4% of the time.
On Bless You Boys, I find a lot of it isn't using a certain statistic itself so much as knowing what it means and saying it in plain speak.
Right. If I say something, I want to be able to back it up statistically. When you deliver it, it’s got to be simple. It just does.
I’ve used defensive efficiency, and people are like, "What the hell is that?" I do think that it's a somewhat illustrative stat for team defense. How often does this team turn a batted ball into an out. I think the top teams for defensive efficiency are based on what you see, good defensive teams.
I talk about the Fielding Bible statistics. I think fielding statistics are still evolving. But they’re one of the best at trying to evaluate each and every player defensively. Who else looks at every single play? Is there still some subjectivity? Of course. But they’re doing it as thoroughly as anybody I know, so I’ll use some of their numbers. Like Austin Jackson made 10 more plays in center field than anyone else last year. That’s impressive. I felt in watching him, I felt, That’s Gold Glove caliber defense in center field. He made +33 plays, +21 runs saved. That’s both the best at his position. I try to ask, Does it give people are clear understanding and is it something they can use? Then I’ll try to introduce it.
Joe Posnanski did a great breakdown of counts. It was on the SI website a couple of years ago. He broke down the batting average for each count when the ball was put into play. That kind of stuff to me is interesting. He hits 360 with power on 3-1 counts or, but they don’t put a 3-1 into play that much compared to the other counts.
I like ball parks, too. I like ballpark statistics. Like how a ballpark plays. I like talking about that. It certainly explains home team stats one way or the other often times.
Look for Part 2 tomorrow, where Dan talks about his philosophies in the booth, what he does before he goes on the air each game day, and how Ernie Harwell helped launch his baseball announcing career!