Category: Broadcasting

Gregg Zaun Needs to Go

Gregg Zaun was a decent player and likeable guy as a catcher with the Toronto Blue Jays from 2004 to 2009 over which span he amassed 7.2 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs.  He never hit for much power (.144 ISO), but he did get on base at a .354 clip (.344 career), which was above average for a catcher, even if the run environment of that tenure was somewhat more prolific than it is now.  Zaun went on to play for the Orioles, Rays and Brewers after his Toronto tenure came to an end.

When the Blue Jays failed to make the postseason in 2006, Zaun joined the Rogers Sportsnet broadcast crew as a postseason studio analyst in 2006 and has served in that capacity for every postseason since, as his teams never made the playoffs during the remainder of his playing career.  Zaun retired in March 2011 after attempts to come back from an injury that wiped out much of his 2010 season were unsuccessful.  In December of that year, he signed a three-year deal to expand his duties and become a full-time studio analyst on Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts.
At first, this was a rather enjoyable arrangement with Zaun providing refreshing insight; however Zaun has begun to exhibit deficiencies in his ability since 2012.  Zaun has become increasingly active on Twitter (@greggzaun) and has taken to flirting with women and making misogynistic comments on a regular basis.  Examples of his latest content of this type can be found here – in a wonderful compilation post from Emily Williams of Runs Batted Out.

In addition to the (much-more important) comment issues, it would appear that Zaun has an issue with modern analysis in the game.  Zaun has no understanding of the value of prospects, heaping praise on the Kanas City Royals for making the Myers-Shields deal, even though the trade is fairly likely to be a heist for Tampa Bay in the end.  Zaun is right in that fewer prospects work out that the analysis community would like to think, but the just pass them off as “just prospects” shows a great deal of ignorance.  Zaun also attempted to portray Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman and Blue Jays lefty Sean Nolin as essential equals as they were making their debuts on consecutive days in late May.  Both prospects were recalled from the Double-A Eastern League and the comparison stops there.  Gausman features an 80 fastball, which sits in the upper 90s and can be dialed up to 99+ on occasion when needed.  He also feature a plus changeup and a fringe-average slider with potential for these pitches to become plus-plus and plus respectively.  With that arsenal, Gausman is an ace and if the slider only reaches average, he still would project as a number two starter.  Nolin, on the other hand, has none such potential.  His fastball sits in the low 90s, which is merely average, and his three off-speed pitches are described by Baseball Prospectus as “average at best”, which is essentially to say fringe average (45).  He is viewed with a ceiling of a number three starter, but likely becomes fringe three or average or better back end guy.  Nolin is a guy.  Gausman is a GUY.  Hat-tip to those who get that reference.

Zaun also has a need to make controversial statements, even when they are factually wrong.  When asked on a fan question segment whether he thought the American League or National League was better he said “The numbers probably won’t support me but the National League is better” giving the reasons that their pitchers hit better and that their pinch-hitters are better.  Zaun was right on one count here, the numbers don’t support him.

However, the fact that he was willing to overlook this critical issue and make a clearly untenable argument is disturbing.  Analysts are supposed to base their arguments on facts, not opinions.   It is fine to believe that the National League style of baseball is more enjoyable, as that is matter of personal preference, but when the question clearly asked for an answer to something quantifiable, a quantifiable answer must be given and Zaun willingly ignored the data.
Zaun also demonstrates woeful understanding of basic statistical concepts, such as platoon splits and issues with advanced metrics.  Zaun had this issue in regard to Adam Lind getting a start against a left-hander in the San Diego series:

The problem is that Lind isn’t one of the best nine players for the Blue Jays when they are facing left-handed pitching. Lind is 7-for-14 against LHP this year (small sample size), but has been the worst hitter in baseball against them (minimum 350 plate appearances) since the start of 2010 with a .237 wOBA and 42 wRC+ in .405 PA.  However, Zaun credits his playing experience for giving him more knowledge than others:

A fellow Tweeter took a quick look at Zaun’s claim, with the reason being that if rhythm was an issue, Lind would struggle after a game off.  His study has some mathematical issues, but the point Zaun makes is easily refuted:

He then goes on to make an argument against platooning Lind by saying if the Blue Jays do that, they should also platoon Bautista.  The argument is absurd enough on its’ own, completely ignoring the reformation of Bautista with Toronto, but he makes it even worse by using batting average as the statistical basis for the argument.  Several fans comment on the ridiculousness of the argument and the selected statistical measure, to which Zaun replies asking what statistics myself and others are using.  This is a legitimate question, however his response is awful.  I mentioned that I was using OBP (trying to get him to at least take a look), wOBA and wRC+.  I offer him a link to the Fangraphs glossary page on wOBA and I am met with no response.  Nothing.  Crickets.  This debate can be seen here on Twitter:

Zaun proceeds to follow this up with this disastrous math lesson with a completely incorrect answer:

Zaun completely ignores the concept of weighted averages and the fact that the .200 average against lefties still harms the team against southpaws.  One cannot simply ignore platoon splits and combine them into one large sample to say everything is fine.  Either Zaun fails to comprehend this basic mathematical concept, or this is another instance of Zaun willingly ignoring data to make an invalid point.  Regardless of which of these scenarios is the case, both render him unfit to be a professional sports analyst and the Blue Jays need to find a replacement.

Finding this replacement should not be difficult as the best candidate may already be in house.  Dirk Hayhurst has spent some time on team radio broadcasts over the last few years and blogs at the Sportsnet website. He has served as the backup studio analyst on a few occasions, most recently during on the Blue Jays’ recent west-coast road trip.  Hayhurst makes some silly jokes occasionally; such as when he accused Dickey’s knuckleball of having a “moon spirit”, but he says nothing particularly outlandish.  His work analyzing pitching mechanics is superb, something that no other individual on the television side of the broadcasts can offer.  He gave very detailed descriptions of the mechanics of Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil with clarity and avoidance of overusing jargon.  Hayhurst, while “bad at math” by his own admission, also believes that sabermetrics have a place on baseball broadcasts and makes an effort to learn about them and explain some of the common ones to fans.  This is a crucial component to any broadcast, especially now that many younger, engaged and impressionable fans are viewing the games on television, computers, or smartphones.  Given his pitching expertise and potential for budding expertise in advanced metrics, both areas where Zaun struggles mightily, it makes perfect sense to install him as the regular studio analyst if he is interested.

In Hayhurst the Blue Jays have a young progressive broadcaster with a wonderful understanding of pitching in terms of both strategy and mechanics.  In Zaun, they have an older broadcaster, whose baseball knowledge is severely outdated and who takes controversial stances without evidential support seemingly to simply cause dissension.  Add in his shameless self-promotion for his club events and inappropriate remarks toward the female fan base on Twitter and the only logical conclusion is that Hayhurst is simply the better choice.

It was a nice arrangement for a while, but Zaun has worn out his welcome and needs to be dismissed.  Please give us more Hayhurst.

Thanks.

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