Flagship: Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia
PxP: Tom McCarthy (since 2006)
Color: Split duties: Chris “Wheels” Wheeler (since 1977);
Gary “Sarge” Matthews (since 2007)
Reviewer: David B. Wilkerson
Category: Play by Play
Tom McCarthy is a solid play-by-play man, with a pleasing baritone voice; he understands that he is not working on radio and he therefore doesn’t always need to comment on things the viewer can probably perceive for himself; and he stays away from contrivance.
During an era when the “Fox box” (i.e., the score box) at the top of the screen illustrates the most pertinent game information at all times, McCarthy does not call each and every pitch. He tells the viewer what is happening most of the time, but on some pitches he is content to let partner Chris Wheeler offer the only verbal response.
McCarthy avoids faux excitement, raising the decibel level only when something genuinely dramatic occurs, such as a 9th-inning home run that narrowed a 5-2 deficit against the Mets to a 5-4 margin. His home run call is purely functional, with no rehearsed “signature” phrase.
Category: Color Commentary
Wheeler’s comments are timely and relevant, and he is not afraid to criticize the Phillies. He has been watching and commenting on the game long enough that the telecasts don’t miss the presence of a former player in this role. For example, after Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy doubled in the first inning of one game at Citi Field, he stole third base with one out. Wheeler was aghast that no attempt was made by the Phillies to hold Murphy at second: “I can’t believe they just let him go like that,” he said. “I mean, there’s only one out. If there’s two outs, it’s not that big a deal, and he went on the pitch before that [which was fouled off]. He’s shown you that he’s not just going to dance; he was going to the prom.” Wheeler’s concerns were justified when Murphy scored on a sharply-hit single to left by Marlon Byrd, a ball hit sharply enough that it would have been difficult to score from second.
Gary “Sarge” Matthews comes aboard in the fourth inning, and is heard through the sixth. As a former player, he brings a “what I would do in this situation” perspective that is more in line with the traditional role of a color commentator. McCarthy will often solicit Matthews’ reactions to topics broached earlier with Wheeler. This could be annoyingly repetitive in the wrong hands, but Matthews’ enthusiasm keeps things at an entertaining level. In one game, Mets phenom Matt Harvey had not allowed a hit through 3 1/3 innings, and with Phils second baseman Chase Utley at the plate, Matthews remarked, “I’ll tell you, the sooner you get that hit, when you’re on the bench there, the better everyone will like that … I want to try and ‘zone’ him … [from the] belt area down, figuring that if he throws it up, the way Tom Seaver would do, it’ll just go right on by you. It’s hard to get on top of a ball that would be 99, 98 [MPH up in the zone].” When Utley then got the first Phillies hit of the game, on a change-up, it lent credence to Matthews’ point that it made sense to swing at something other than Harvey’s high fastball. This is a good example of the type of prescient analysis Sarge delivers.
Category: Broadcast Team Commentary
McCarthy and Wheeler work well together, offering a good sense of balance between the play-by-play man’s factual comments about the game as it unfolds and Wheeler’s opinions about what is happening.
For example, during a game in which the Mets’ Matt Harvey dominated the Phillies, McCarthy could merely note whether the pitch was a ball or strike, and perhaps the velocity, and Wheeler took it and ran with it: “One thing we noticed when Harvey faced the Phillies last year,” Wheeler said, “was that his face never changes. He just competes. You can never tell what he’s thinking. And boy, is that another weapon when you have the stuff that he has.”
McCarthy and Wheeler maintain a subdued, professional tone throughout a game, rarely straying for very long from the situation at hand. When it’s time to give other scores from around the two leagues, there will be a bit of commentary about how the teams involved have fared in recent weeks, and any noteworthy individual stories. Cutaways to field reporter Gregg Murphy sometimes serve the purpose of taking us to stories from the broader world of baseball.
When Matthews is taking his turn in the booth, McCarthy is likely to bring up some aspect of the former outfielder’s playing days, either with the Phillies or the Chicago Cubs.
Category: Charisma and Chemistry
McCarthy and Wheeler have a breezy rapport, interjecting humor in a minor key from time to time. Neither is spectacular, but they are also free of irritating mannerisms or habits that distract the viewer.
The two men come across as people who care about the Phillies, without being overly sentimental or going to a wailing wall whenever the slightest thing goes against the club.
McCarthy’s chemistry with Matthews is solid, as McCarthy will often broach a subject he has discussed with Wheeler to get a former player’s perspective on the same issue. Again, nothing terribly striking occurs, but you don’t mind being in the company of these guys for a couple of innings.
McCarthy and Wheeler do a good job of anticipating situations that may be indicative of opportunities or problems later in the game. However, there is no attempt to utilize the latest statistical advances the game has made in the last 20-25 years. This means that analysis outside of situations directly related to the game in front of us is rather limited.
As the Phils wound up one series in which they lost two of three to the Mets, McCarthy sounded a somber note in the eighth inning with the team down 5-0. “Well, after winning Game One the way the Phillies did [13-8], coming out with such resounding success offensively, and then having a lack of success yesterday … this has turned out to be a disappointing series.”
“Well yeah,” Wheeler replied. “Yesterday was a game you thought you really had to win, because Sunday (against Matt Harvey) is going to be really, really tough … you’re just not going to score much off Harvey.” This kind of observation feels amateurish, given the level of Wheeler’s experience.
McCarthy makes virtually no use of advanced statistics, opting for the traditional “baseball card” statistics of batting average, ERA, RBI, etc. This is perhaps the only aspect of his work that would not mark McCarthy as the archetypal modern announcer.
Category: Production Values
Production values are up to the modern standard, with intelligent direction that keeps reaction shots of the dugouts and stands to a minimum. In one example, during the first inning of a Mets-Phillies game at Citi Field, the director held on Phils starter Cole Hamels several times to emphasize his obvious discomfort in 93-degree heat, an effective way to communicate just how hot it was.
The center field camera offers an accurate view of balls and strikes, though the telecasts do not make use of an electronic strike zone to review borderline calls. This seems like rather a glaring omission in this day and age.
Replays are captured and shown quite effectively by the production crew. Graphics are unremarkable.
Category: Commercialism and Cutaways
Most cutaways are promotions for upcoming Phillies home games. McCarthy doesn’t allow his voice to sound like a ringmaster during these moments; he makes the pitch, then gets back to the action, with no glaring change in volume or affect.
There is a sponsored trivia question, and a number of plugs for Comcast’s Xfinity cable service. Nothing seems excessive, and that feels like a relief given today’s advertising landscape.
Field reporter Gregg Murphy’s comments don’t hurt the broadcast, but they seem unnecessary; they could just as easily have been incorporated into the patter of McCarthy and Wheeler.
There is nothing about a Philadelphia Phillies broadcast that transcends the game being played on the field; if the game is exciting, the broadcast reflects that. If it is not, announcers Tom McCarthy, Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews don’t try to give the impression that they are offering scintillating entertainment.
While this keeps the telecast unremarkable, it also prevents it from being describable as terrible. To the extent that it is possible in 2013, Comcast SportsNet and WPHL-17 actually present a pure baseball experience, without frills, bells or whistles. I suspect that someone who grew up watching televised baseball in the 1960s or ’70s and who gets annoyed with Fox coverage of MLB would find fewer things wrong with a Phillies telecast than most modern presentations of the game.
The flip side to this is that the “Millennial” viewer might very well be lulled to sleep, unless the game itself is a barn-burner. Perhaps that’s okay; the game should stand alone largely on its own merit.
About the author:
David B. Wilkerson is a veteran journalist and lifelong baseball fan who joined SABR in 2012. His work, usually focused on the business of media, has appeared at MarketWatch and the Dow Jones Newswires.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this evaluation are solely those of the author. As such, the views expressed by the author should not be interpreted as representing the opinions of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), its board, or anyone otherwise affiliated with SABR. Likewise, the conclusions included in these evaluations are not to be viewed or interpreted as official endorsements (or lack thereof) by SABR, or of anyone affiliated with SABR, of any particular broadcasters or broadcast organizations.