TV: Houston Astros

Flagship: CSN Houston

PxP: Bill Brown (primary, 27th year)
Alan Ashby (backup, 6 years in Toronto; new to this gig)

Color: Alan Ashby (teams with Brown as primary team)
Geoff Blum (rookie)

Reviewer: Robert Dorin

Category: Play by Play
Grade: 55

Bill Brown, or “Brownie”, as he is affectionately called by “Ash” (Alan Ashby), is a veteran PxP guy of the old school (conservative) variety. He provides lots of detail, and at times sounds rather bland and monotonous, but he makes very few mistakes and is appropriate or understated regarding a play or situation. His voice is classic; it feels as though he’s channeling his inner Vin Scully (not a bad model to base yourself on). While he is a consummate professional, he does use a variety of baseball lingo, at times too much; it seems that every HR is a “bomb” or a “dinger”,. and it can be hard to accept a stat line like “.278, 62 RBIs, and 12 bombs.” Nevertheless, after a while, Brown’s reliable, articulate, and informative style grows on you.

Alan Ashby, is similar in style — not as articulate as Brown, tripping on a word here and there, and with a slightly more homespun, country boy flavor. He might show more excitement than Brown, but, like Brown, he is not prone to overreact nor overly reflect a hometown bias. Both Brown and Ashby have controlled energy, understandable for a terrible (in historical terms) team. They imbue some, but not too much, significance to the game outcome; their priority seems to be the long-term success of the Astros franchise. In this regard, their focus is on the players rather than the strategy to win a game — and on building and educating their fan base.

Category: Color Commentary
Grade: 45

The main color man, Alan Ashby, who does some PxP as well, does his homework and comes armed with plenty of inside dope, and stylized lingo, about players and teams. (Raul Ibanez is a “big league yakker,” for example.) The Astros switched leagues for 2013, so education about the AL is a priority. Ashby does this well, is very comfortable, and adds some excitement. Sometimes his lingo sounds forced — is every HR a “bomb”, every fastball “heat”, every curveball “filthy” and every DP a “twin killing”? His phraseology recalls Edwin Newman’s 1970s critique of sportscaster excess: “I can’t fathom a reason.” “Location is king,” an homage to their BK sponsor. And the alliterative “lazy, long lead.” But it is entertaining and keeps the listener engaged. Like his partner, Ashby’s focus is on player performance over the year rather than specific game situations. Given the market and the franchise’s current state, it works just fine.

Geoff Blum is new to the broadcast game and is less crisp and a little harder to understand than Ashby. Like Ashby, he plays up his ex-player persona with lingo: “pop”, “hammer”, “paint job”, “cement mixer.” Sometimes it works well, such as his analysis of an RBI hit from a low inside pitch, the left-handed hitter’s “happy spot.” Blum is trying to get comfortable working with Ashby, and clearly needs experience. Someone should ping him each time he says “I couldn’t agree more.”

Category: Broadcast Team Commentary
Grade: 50

The broadcast team’s focus is squarely on baseball, though not necessarily the specific game at hand. Much of the talk relates to other teams, other divisions, etc. Late in the season, they chat about Houston’s minor league affiliates, the RoY ballot, and the end of September visit of the NY Yankees and Mariano Rivera — and speculation as to whether he would pitch his final game in Houston. In order to broaden the fan base and build for the future, the education and plethora of information seem appropriate.

The teams keep things moving, minimize dead space, and are very professional. They tend to play things by the book, offering more facts than opinions. Ashby sometimes injected humor or sarcasm, but, mostly, they could use more anecdotes to avoid sounding “ho hum.” To their credit, the team treats umpires fairly, and, while the talk is Astros-centric, the bias and enthusiasm are only moderate. An umpire mistake that favored Houston was acknowledged, Astro rookie mistakes (overly aggressive baserunning) are called out, and both teams’ errors and deficiencies are noted.

All in all, there are lots of data, facts, and information, but not great insight. Sometimes the minutiae gets pretty obscure, such as noting that the Oakland A’s ballpark announces the attendance earlier than they do in Houston. Really? I want to be a well-informed fan. But isn’t there a limit?

Category: Charisma and Chemistry
Grade: 45

The chemistry between Brown and Ashby — and extending to Blum when he joins Ashby — seems genuine and friendly, though unexciting. They are eminently likable, unlikely to offend though equally unlikely to be memorable or exceptional. They fill the time with a varied mix of pleasant digressions — about Yogi-isms (Berra was once an Astros coach), stadium names, the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, occasional jokes, and other teams and division races. They’re not very funny, though, despite Brown’s laughter at Ashby’s quips.

Leila Rahimi, the face in the crowd, deserves a special callout, as her clever and intelligent repartee with Brown and Ashby differentiates her from the more predictable (and more classically comely) Julia Morales. When Rahimi is involved, the chemistry and spark of the banter is noticeably improved. However, overall, Brown, Ashby, and Blum are lacking in a certain cleverness, sophistication and, certainly, edginess that would transcend the comfortable friendliness of the team and bring additional excitement to the broadcast.

Category: Analysis
Grade: 40

Analysis is where the very listenable Astros broadcast team falls short. While there are lots of numbers and lots of education for new fans, there is little discussion of game possibilities and situations. The score and game outcome seem secondary to the long-term prognosis for the organization and the peripheral activities (races, trades, etc.) within both leagues (and the minors). Insider information is mostly about Astros players and prospects.

The use of statistics is omnipresent but, for the most part, not in an advanced or sophisticated manner. For example, in one instance the Brown/Ashby team noted the number of errors and unearned runs yielded by the Mariners without commenting whether this was good, average, or bad. To be fair, another time, they mentioned team home runs, and did give the rank within the league. This should always be included when quoting team statistics Most statistics are not particularly advanced — player home runs and RBIs at home versus on the road, for example. They often give near-term, Astro-specific data, such as “0-for his last 15 at-bats,” which seems appropriate. There was one point, though, when discussing Steve Trout that they discussed WAR and dWAR, which is rather cutting edge for a broadcast in 2013.

Bottom line, though, is that most analysis is not directly relevant to the game, but intended to supplement the otherwise boring on-field activities.

Category: Production Values
Grade: 50

The production components are pretty “vanilla” — basically one camera, from CF, for the pitches, a big difference from the assortment of perspectives one sees on network broadcasts. The views are comfortable and clear, and there are no execution problems. Replays are well done, with examples occurring on a successful pickoff, a barehand/quick throw 1-3 putout, and a bang-bang call at home. Inning breaks/resumptions are smooth and replays effectively presented without disturbing the game action.

The sound is adequate, although at times (such as during a road game at Oakland) the ambient crowd noise can be distracting. It was likely a mike placement issue since the crowd was not unusually loud or large.

Category: Commercialism and Cutaways
Grade: 45

Sponsor drop-ins are not too intrusive, mostly limited to clear breaks in the action. Upcoming schedules, promotions, and minor league updates (of which there are unusually many) are Julia Morales’s main sideline reporter focus. Leila Rahimi, the other sideline reporter, contributes more to the content and chemistry of the broadcast, providing more than a commercial digression. When Julia reports comments or an anecdote about a player, it sounds fully written and prepared for her, whereas Leila’s “inside stuff” reflects greater baseball knowledge and insight, and certainly sounds more spontaneous.

Occasional a guest interview will take place in the broadcast booth. One recent example, with softball player Cat Osterman, was of reasonable length and relevance, although Brown and Ashby pretty much ignored the game during the interview. (To be fair, one would hardly notice, since game action was not gripping). At times, backup color commentator Geoff Blum displayed some inexperience as a commercial announcer. For example, his “Dollar Dogs” promotion spot sounded like a promo for a church picnic.

Category: Overall
Grade: 47

The broadcast team of Brown and Ashby handles their responsibilities well, with professional dignity and thorough preparedness. Blum lacks experience, but there is no reason to believe that he can’t grow into a charming and amusing ex-ballplayer commentator. While their lack of in-game strategy analysis and their emphasis on long-term growth and improvement for the team and the fan base is unusual for a baseball broadcast, given the Astros’ situation it works pretty well. They provide a very informative and, at times, entertaining show for the viewer, and, given the realities of being a last-place team, any other strategy might seem forced and less-than-genuine. They take few risks and avoid overt controversy and bias. Time will tell whether this team builds greater chemistry, improves its analysis and humor quality, and ultimately succeeds. It will be interesting to revisit the CSN Houston broadcast once the Astros are a contender.


About the author:

Robert joined SABR in 2013 but has been fascinated by the game’s history since his childhood in Brooklyn.  Although most of his writing experience comes as a market analyst in the computer industry, he has also made recent contributions to various SABR projects.  He has lived in greater Boston since 1975.


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.

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