It’s hard to describe, the experience, really. Like meeting a person you already know all over again. It was almost like the blind baby who saw her mom for the first time. OK, not quite that. But close. The man, quite suddenly and unannounced, now has a face.
After spending a good amount of time over the past two plus years railing against Major League Baseball’s talking heads and hot takes, Baseball Prospectus’ Editor-in-Chief Sam Miller loaned his own versions of both to MLB Network a couple days ago.
Now, that in and of itself isn’t a revelation. Brian Kenny, host of MLBN’s Clubhouse Confidential, has been bringing SABR-minded bloggers in for commentary for some time now. Dave Cameron’s done it multiple times. Jeff Sullivan’s been on there. But for listeners of Miller and Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh’s Effectively Wild daily podcast, Miller’s appearance on the screen was akin to drawing back the curtain and revealing the Great and Powerful Oz.
To loyal listeners of the podcast, Miller had long been a disembodied voice. Almost like your baseball conscience. A voice you got to know like a cousin or co-worker. Familiar. Comfortable. Funny. With painstakingly correct grammar. Early on in my listenerhood (listenership? listenerdom?), I found myself Googling images of Sam. I was curious to put a face to the voice, but I had little success. His Baseball Prospectus bio doesn’t include a picture. His Twitter account includes a photo that’s almost a silhouette of a man in a hat and beard in what appears to be the middle of a dense forest. A man shrouded in mystery. (Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may see a resemblance to the infamous Torgo character – Ed.)
Google images had this picture of Sam supposedly on a baseball panel of some sort. It didn’t say which one was Sam, but I imagined it was the smallish guy with dark hair whose face was half-obscured by his hand. Google images also brought back a guy in a Mariners hat with horn-rimmed glasses and mutton chops (which, it turns out, was Felix Hernandez, and featured in an article Sam wrote about Google search results of MLB players!), plus a guy that looked like a lawyer, and a creepy looking guy that I just assumed wasn’t him. There was also an old guy, a really old guy, a husky guy, and an adolescent. I’m a journalist, and I’m sure I could have dug up something if I looked harder, but it wasn’t that important, and I kind of enjoyed the mystery of Sam Miller, the disembodied voice of baseball reason.
But on January 30th, I found myself both delighted and disoriented to finally match a face with the voice. Suddenly, Sam Miller was trading quips with Brian Kenny on MLB Now. Dissing Mark DeRosa. Describing A-Rod as “loaded with performance-enhancing smack.” It was at once dizzying and envigorating. Sam looked a little uncomfortable at first:
But after getting into a groove talking for a bit about PECOTA projections, which are his bread and butter, he seemed to loosen up. He threw in the DeRosa jab, describing the way Ryan Braun dinked the ball the other way in the second half of 2014. I think maybe he didn’t realize DeRosa was an MLBN analyst, and that his quip would send Kenny cartwheeling to defend his colleague, which looked a little like this:
But really, that was just a bump in the road, and Sam and Brian would go on to have a lovely conversation about A-Rod and Matt Kemp’s PECOTA projections, and overall, this author thought Sam acquitted himself quite well.
Now, his unannounced appearance made some substantial waves in the Effectively Wild Facebook group, where many members had, like me, never seen Sam’s face and voice put together before.
Henry Gifford wrote, “I’m having a hard time processing this.”
“He looks like he could be Ben’s dad,” said Jeremiah Nelson.
Another commenter referred to Sam as an “otter.”
Several others complimented his beard, with one even slapping a 70 grade on it, if one were to use the scouting scale.
This last comment made me think Sam deserved a full scouting report. On his television skills. I happen to have worked in television for the past 16 years, so I consider myself at least somewhat capable of judging on-air “talent,” so I’ll give it a shot.
On-air presence: 55
So basically what we have here is a well above-average talking head. With a strong beard. I won’t hang a 70 on it, because that’s Duck Dynasty territory, and Sam’s not there or really ever headed in that direction. He looked a little nervous from time to time (especially during the DeRosa exchange, but that’s understandable!), and didn’t seem to have any hands, which I assume he either sat on or had clenched in fists somewhere. However, I thought his delivery was strong, as well as his content, which I’ll put at near-elite level, when it comes to talking baseball heads. I might even have graded him higher on content, but I feel like that might be observer bias, or familiarity. Or just because I like the guy! For a comp, I like Jeff Sullivan, who you can see in this segment on MLBN’s Clubhouse Confidential. Sam was guilty of some nervous hard swallowing, and the occasional facial distortions like this:
.. but overall, comported himself quite well, almost as if he’d done this before.
Now, another comp for Sam would be his partner in podcast crime, Ben Lindbergh, who had also appeared on Clubhouse Confidential, and looked like this:
On the scouting scale, I’d say Ben grades out a little higher in comfort and delivery, maybe a 60 and a 65, respectively. I suppose some of the comfort could have come from the fact that he was sitting in a comfy chair, facing a real human person, and holding a sheet with notes on it, but he also gestured with his hands and moved his head, so that gave the impression that he was at least reasonably comfortable speaking on TV. However, I’d say Sam has the edge on humor and presence, since, as mentioned above, he possesses both a strong beard and gray hair in said beard, and Ben looks like he could conceivably still be in high school.
Overall, though, I’d say I was impressed with Sam’s television debut. I’d love to see them both on TV at the same time, some time. Even more, I’d love to see a visual representation of Sam chortling uncontrollably, as he’s done on occasion on Effectively Wild. Because when Sam Miller laughs, it’s just impossible not to laugh along. Maybe somebody could make that happen. I imagine a few heads somewhere might explode as a result. But I think it would be worth it!
(Note: In a more recent Google search, I also found this old picture of Sam in an interview he did with Productive Outs, which is well worth a read.)Next post: The Gamer’s Guide to the MLB: Part 1, AL West
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