Flagship: Fox Sports Midwest
PxP: Dan McLaughlin (16th season), Rick Horton (10th season)
Color: Al Hrabosky (28th season), Rick Horton (10th season)
Reviewer: Jody Madron
Category: Play by Play
The Cardinals employ a two-man television booth, staffed by a rotating group of three broadcasters. Dan McLaughlin calls play-by-play for roughly 100 games; former Major League pitcher Al Hrabosky offers color commentary for roughly 100 games; and former Major League pitcher Rick Horton does double-duty, providing play-by-play for roughly 50 games and color commentary for roughly 50 games.
This rotation gives the Cardinals’ TV booth three potential “sounds” – and each pairing does sound different.
McLaughlin would have to be considered the lead play-by-play man for St. Louis, and his work is superior to that of Horton. While McLaughlin has battled some well-documented personal issues over the past few years, he is engaging, descriptive and always on top of the action.
One of McLaughlin’s strengths is quickly adding perspective to his play-by-play as it happens. For example, in a game vs. San Diego with a runner on second and no outs, the Cardinals’ batter hit a ground ball to the right side. McLaughlin told viewers, “Ground ball to first and there’s a productive out as the runner moves up to third base.” This was done seamlessly and is just one example of something McLaughlin does several times in each broadcast.
McLaughlin also is often mindful of what the camera may not be showing, making note for the viewer of the outfield positioning or whether a first baseman is holding a runner.
Former left-handed pitcher Rick Horton is a stronger color analyst than play-by-play man, and the quality of play-by-play is noticeably different when Horton is paired with Hrabosky. Horton’s play-by-play is often a few seconds behind the play – not a crime on television, but still frustrating – and his descriptions, timing and sense of drama are a notch below McLaughlin’s.
To put it simply, Horton sounds like a color analyst filling in as a play-by-play guy, whereas McLaughlin sounds like a seasoned, top-tier MLB play-by-play voice.
If McLaughlin were the Cardinals’ full-time play-by-play voice, this grade would be a solid 60 – but Horton’s one-third of the season drags the play-by-play grade down to a more average 50.
Category: Color Commentary
Here again, the Cardinals’ rotation system gives viewers different options, with 100 games of analysis from “The Mad Hungarian” – Al Hrabosky – and 50 games of analysis from Rick Horton.
Unlike the play-by-play side, there isn’t a significant difference in the quality of the color analysts. Both Hrabosky and Horton are competent color analysts – nothing more, nothing less.
Having worked Cardinals telecasts for nearly three decades, Al Hrabosky is certainly comfortable and confident in front of the microphone. He comes across as knowledgeable and likable – like someone you’d very much enjoy sitting and talking baseball with. But if you’re looking for deep insights into game strategy or reasons why a hitter may be slumping, Hrabosky is not your man.
Hrabosky relies heavily on conversations he has with players and coaches prior to games that offer very little insight: “I talked with Bud Black before the game and he said he likes this kid’s approach at the plate.”
Horton is clearly a more polished broadcaster than Hrabosky, but he lacks the personality or presence of The Mad Hungarian. Horton’s color commentary is also lacking depth, and often he simply tells viewers what they’re seeing on an instant replay. In one example, instead of telling the viewer how a pitcher was generating movement – or the impact it may have had on the batter – Horton simply said, “Here you see the downward movement on Wainwright’s curveball,” and left it at that.
Category: Broadcast Team Commentary
With each of the three pairings, there is one overriding theme to each broadcast: they’re all about the game on the field. McLaughlin and Hrabosky can occasionally go off on tangents, but for the most part the focus is squarely on the game action, which is refreshing.
While an occasional get-well message is sent to a fan, for the most part, Cardinals telecasts are simple and to-the-point, with limited distractions or gimmicks.
McLaughlin is also very much in-tune with the production of the broadcast, and he offers appropriate commentary when something away from the diamond – fans in the stands or something unusual in the bullpen – is shown on-screen.
It’s also very clear, however, when you’re watching a Cardinals telecast that the broadcasters are interested in promoting the team. On multiple occasions this season, McLaughlin and Horton made mention of the attendance at Busch Stadium and complimented the team’s fan base on regularly filling the park. In addition, Hrabosky uses the term “we” quite often when referring to the team.
The Cardinals-centric broadcast team also provided interesting commentary – considering the Cardinals own history with performance enhancing drugs – on Ryan Braun’s season-ending suspension, with McLaughlin calling it, “a black eye for Braun and certainly a black eye for the Brewers.”
Category: Charisma and Chemistry
Both McLaughlin and Horton have smooth deliveries – McLaughlin in particular – and are easy to listen to. Enunciation isn’t a strong point for Hrabosky, but he comes across as very approachable during a broadcast.
The rotation of broadcasters can affect the chemistry of a broadcast team, and it does seem as though McLaughlin and Hrabosky have more direct interaction than either McLaughlin or Hrabosky with Horton. When Horton and Hrabosky are teamed up, the broadcast can tend to sound more like a casual conversation between two ex-players than a more traditional broadcast.
McLaughlin does an excellent job of “setting up” his color man – no matter who it is – by asking questions in appropriate situations or engaging his partner when it seems like the broadcast is hitting a lull.
The “all-business” nature of the broadcasts means that there are very few long, drawn-out anecdotes by the color analysts. And there are no forced catchphrases for either McLaughlin or Horton – they simply let the action on the field dictate the direction of the broadcast and the emotion of each call.
With two former pitchers taking turns providing analysis, you’d expect the broadcasts to emphasize pitching over other aspects of the game…and you’d be right.
Hrabosky does a good job of describing the pitching repertoire of each pitcher who enters a game and often describes what a pitcher may be thinking in a particularly stressful game situation.
But the analysis provided doesn’t go particularly deep. You don’t walk away from a Cardinals’ telecast feeling as though you’ve learned anything new about the game or about the teams involved. Instead, you may walk away with a bit of insight about what a player, coach or manager may have discussed with Hrabosky or Horton prior to the game…and that’s about it.
The Cardinals are also a bit understated when it comes to the use of statistics on a broadcast. The statistics provided are almost always relevant – and they don’t overload the viewer with so many numbers that they lose their significance.
One particularly good example of how this broadcast team incorporates statistics came in a recent game where Hrabosky noted that pitchers have recently been trying to get David Freese to chase pitches early in the at-bat. Within seconds, the stats were given showing Freese’s batting average with a 0-0 count and when he was hitting with two strikes.
Category: Production Values
Cardinals’ telecasts are, in comparison to other MLB teams, not over-produced. This crew allows the game to tell the story rather than story lines that were determined in a pre-game meeting of the production staff.
Fox Sports Midwest’s camera work is strong – they provide a clear view of the action. The center field camera provides a straight-away angle – allowing for clear identification of balls and strikes. The angle is a bit wide, however, meaning the players are a bit small on the screen – though this may have more to do with ensuring that all behind-the-plate advertising signage remains in the shot.
The production staff is selective with replays – only two replays of most extra-base hits, rather than the 8-10 you may see on a national broadcast. And they incorporated a super slo-mo camera only when needed – on particularly close plays on the base paths. And the broadcast uses the “FoxTrax” pitch-tracker only a handful of times per game, reserving it for borderline pitches only.
Because the announcers are a bit understated, it’s important that background sound is in adequate supply. McLaughlin and Horton do a good job of letting the crowd noise help paint the picture when appropriate and the production team usually delivers with adequate sound.
Category: Commercialism and Cutaways
Sideline reporter Jim Hayes is used sparingly – and while Hayes provides good information, he doesn’t come across as being particularly smooth in his delivery.
Again, compared to other MLB telecasts, the Cardinals are on the lower end of sponsor drop-ins. Instead of having broadcasters mention sponsors frequently, the Cardinals rely more on ads that appear on-screen next to the score box. This seems less intrusive than having each strikeout, double play or walk evoke the mention of a sponsor by the play-by-play man as is the case with other teams.
Overall, cutaways and distractions are kept to a minimum, which is in keeping with the overall “baseball-first” mentality of the broadcasts as a whole.
Cardinals’ telecasts get high marks for their focus on the game – and the avoidance of many gimmicks and sponsor drop-ins that plague many of today’s telecasts. Where the broadcasts suffer a bit is in the lack of depth when it comes to analysis, and the lack of chemistry when Horton and Hrabosky are working together.
McLaughlin is clearly the strongest of the three broadcasters – a play-by-play man as good as, if not better than, many of the voices heard on Fox, ESPN or MLB Network. But the three-man rotation also means that McLaughlin is on the sidelines for 50 or so games each year, and the telecast suffers as a result, slipping from an above-average production to simply an average one.
About the author:
Jody Madron is a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant based in Eldersburg, MD and has been a SABR member since 2003.
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.