Local radio host @philmackey yesterday claimed on his 9-1 show that Dan Shulman was the best play-by-play announcer in baseball right now, which got my ears up. Shulman does Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN television and playoff radio for the network, and I knew right away I wouldn’t put him in my top five, or even my top 10. That’s not an insult or a knock on Shulman. There are like 80 announcers who do play-by-play across television and radio, so to put him outside my top 10 still isn’t too shabby.
I’m pretty serious about baseball broadcasters and make a point to watch every team’s local broadcast at least once during the season. That makes me feel pretty qualified to give my opinion. Can you say you’ve listened to Rich Waltz or Dave Sims recently? Do you even know who Jerry Schemmel is? Didn’t think so.
When I posted my list to Twitter, Mackey gave me the ol’ “with all due respect…” before calling me nuts. Can’t honestly say I am surprised, though. I knew some of them would be controversial locally and nationally. Here I will attempt to give my opinion and justification for who I ranked and where.
If I’m scrolling through MLB.tv here are the announcers who would have to not be on the air at that time for me to stop on a game done by Dan Shulman.
1. Vin Scully.
2. Don Orsillo. Orsillo formed the best booth in baseball with Jerry Remy in Boston before being unjustly dumped after the 2015 season. Orsillo was beloved in Boston, and rightly so. He’s by all accounts and outstanding guy and a true top-tier broadcaster. I hoped he would head west to replace Vin Scully, but the Padres got him. He’ll be doing split work between TV and radio this year before taking over TV full-time in 2017 after Dick Enberg retires. I don’t like the Red Sox, but I watched a lot of Red Sox games because of Don Orsillo.
3. Joe Buck. After Al Michaels, Joe Buck is the best “network voice” in sports. He’s the first voice on the list who is unjustly detracted for being the son of a legend, but after nearly two decades as the lead baseball voice for FOX he has proven his place is more than earned.
4. Duane Kuiper. I’m probably elevating him in part because he pairs so well with Mike Krukow, but I believe he stands on his own as a solid broadcaster who delivers excitement when he needs to while also being able to carry the game through its slow points. And, yes, as this list indicates, he’s the best announcer in San Francisco.
5. Gary Cohen. He’s got to work with Ron Darling, who is much more tolerable on Mets broadcasts than he was on FOX.
6. Buck Martinez. Initially I didn’t expect Buck to be good at play-by-play, he seemed like more of a color guy. But really he’s both. He could carry a game on his own and that makes him a superior play-by-play voice. Being able to call and commentate on a game is a rare combination.
7. John Sciambi. Sciambi does Sunday night radio on ESPN and he does it really, really well. I initially had him just off my list, but after being chastised by Glen Perkins and then moving him to the 14th spot I re-re-considered and put him in the top 10 where he belongs.
8. Victor Rojas. Rojas does TV for The The Angels Angels (the team pretending to play in Los Angeles). He got some national exposure on MLB Network and with TBS during the postseason where his work was solid. I believe he deserves a higher profile on the networks.
9. Brian Anderson. The regular TV voice for the Brewers, Anderson also has national exposure with TBS (plus a growing resume of non-baseball work). He’s really solid.
10. Dick Bremer. Bremer catches deserved flak locally for trying a little too hard to prop up the Twins during their down streaks, but that shouldn’t overshadow how sound a broadcaster he is. I think it really shows on Saturday games when FOX elevates him to do the national broadcast for Twins games (along with Mitch Williams). In that setting he accomplishes the task of being an objective announcer and the polish he shows from more than 30 years behind the mic for Twins baseball is evident. He’s a pro.
11. Ryan Lefebvre. The second-most unsung voice on my list, he got his start with the Twins before moving on the the Royals.
12. Don Sutton. There aren’t many Hall of Famers who do play-by-play in any sport. Sutton does it well.
13. Chip Caray. Staying in the south, this is the one I knew would be controversial. I stand behind it 100 percent. Like Joe Buck, Caray gets blasted as undeserving because his father is a giant in broadcasting lore. But also like Buck he’s proven he belongs and that he knows baseball. He has the pipes to belt out an exciting call when the situation calls for it but like everyone else on the list can carry a boring game if he needs to. I’d bet most opinions on him are based on his national work, but his regular work with the Braves deserves more weight.
14. Jerry Schemmel. The most unheralded voice on my list. I will admit outside factors influence the decision here. If you don’t know Schemmel’s story, take the time to read it.
That brings us to Shulman. He’s not a bad broadcaster, but I’m really down on play-by-play announcers who scream their way through a broadcast. That’s what I feel Shulman does, or at least does too much.
Once you get past this list, in my opinion, baseball broadcasting is a pretty barren wasteland. I originally had Duane Kuiper’s brother Glen on my list, but realized that was an error, so he would be number 16 after Shulman at 15 because he’s still pretty good.
One obvious name missing from this list is Tom Hamilton of Cleveland. I know he should be here. I’ve tried and tried and tried. I can’t get into him. You’ll also notice longtime ESPN Sunday voice Jon Miller is missing. With good reason: He’s not that great. Go listen to his calls from the end of the 2014 NCLS or World Series. Underwhelming would be a compliment.
What can you glean from this about what I look for in a play-by-play announcer? I like narrators. We’re in a time when the ascending baseball announcers grew up in the television era and it’s leading to a fundamental change in the way games are called. Voices who grew up in the radio-dominated era intentionally or unintentionally grew into narrative broadcasters because that’s what you have to do on the radio. Theater of the mind. It’s a different type of play-by-play than television.
To see it play out you can pull up a Dodgers home game with Vin Scully. The first three innings get simulcast on radio and he calls the game more descriptively than he does when his only audience has a visual. He even admitted as much last year when they broke off the simulcast for a few games because he had a cold and couldn’t talk as much as he needed to to do radio play-by-play.
Modern broadcasters, to take nothing away from their talent, don’t always get this distinction. Listen for it. You’ll notice radio play-by-play broadcasters not calling a pitch until it’s caught or put into play or not telling you what direction an infielder moves to field a ball, or whether he used two hands or a backhand. The names on my list who primarily do radio – Sciambi, Sutton, Schemmel, Lefevbre – get it.
That’s my list, and I’m sticking to it.