My parents made me a Red Sox fan, but it was Peter Gammons that made me a baseball fan.
That’s what I planned to say if I got the chance to meet him at the Hot Stove, Cold Beer event in April. What actually came out when I had the honor of shaking his hand was, well, a bit less eloquent. Not to mention comprehensible. As my wife can relate, given that she had to step in and do the talking once I trailed off, stammering. And for the record, he was very gracious about my verbal implosion. It’s not every day that one of your heroes not only lives up to, but exceeds your expectations.
All of which is to say that I owe Peter Gammons a debt that cannot be repaid. His Sunday Notes column, penned by Nick Cafardo these days, introduced me to the wider world beyond Boston, a game whose nuances I had to that point been missing. It was inside baseball before there was inside baseball: the behind the scenes of major trades, the trends shaping the game, insights on players never before even whispered. One single writer – and the subtle, self-contained perfection of the game itself, of course – was all it took to turn a rooting interest into a lifetime of obsession.
Respect for the profession of sportswriting, then, I do not lack. But sad to say, the quality of the current scribes is uneven. There is willful mediocrity alongside innovative brilliance, with the inevitable faux-populist vitriol bubbling to the surface every so often.
To help you sort the rational from the irascible, here are our Boston Writer Rankings for 2010.
A few notes before we begin:
- Peter Gammons isn’t officially ranked here, because that exercise would be pointless. He’s forgotten more about this sport than most of us will ever know, and as such he remains the once and future #1.
- In case it wasn’t already apparent, this is a focus on Boston market writers. National writers (Law, Olney, etc) are excluded from this ranking, though I may do a similar national list at a later date.
- Priority on this list, with a few exceptions, is given to writers focused exlusively on the Red Sox. As an example, I’m not including those who divide their time between baseball and hockey like Joe Haggerty (CSNNE) or Joe MacDonald (ESPNBoston).
- A note on bias: I lean towards statistics, clearly, but not exclusively. I appreciate, as does the front office, a balance between statistical and human based analysis. I have little patience, however, for those overtly displaying hostility towards numbers or the sabermetric side of the game.
With that context, herewith are the rankings.
- Alex Speier (WEEI):
An easy choice for the top spot, and not simply because Peter Gammons himself holds him in high regard. Speier displays everything I’d like to see in a modern sportswriter: a willingness to consider and incorporate statistics, a compassion for players that’s tempered by his journalistic integrity, and, perhaps most importantly, the drive to innovate.
Case in point, his recently launched Minor Details podcast. In it, he leverages his strengths well. Too many media members, both locally and nationally, are doing things simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Rehashing games, for example, is something that can be done by a variety of third parties: it’s non-differentiating for writers. What still sets them apart is access, which Speier uses brilliantly, getting everyone from Anthony Rizzo to Keith Law to Mike Hazen on his podcast.
Simply put, Speier’s as good as you’ll find in this market at present, and if comments like Gammons’ are to be believed, would stack up well across the pool of national writers. It’s a pleasure having him cover the Red Sox.
Strengths: A versatile reporter adequately conversant in modern baseball statistics, one with contacts that bridge the traditionalist / new school divide in front offices. Leverages his strengths and advantages well. Best Red Sox minor league coverage this side of the excellent soxprospects.com, and easily the best amongst mainstream media outlets.
Weaknesses: Occasionally gets bogged down in metrics, losing the forest for the trees. Occasionally over-rotates, a la Olney, on human interest stories. His media outlet, meanwhile, has its share of technology issues, from frequent bad links from Twitter to mobile redirection issues.
- Chad Finn (Boston Globe):
Chad Finn, who like Speier and national writers such as Will Carroll, has enjoyed favorable attention from Gammons, is one of the remaining bright lights for me at the Boston Globe. The Globe has as proud a history in sportswriting as any paper in the country, from the aforementioned Gammons to Ryan to Montville to MacMullan. From this reader’s standpoint, however, the section has been in decline for years. Dan Shaughnessy – not ranked because I haven’t been able to read him for five years or more – has effectvely become a caricature of the angry, ill-informed Bostonian. Tony Massarotti, who we’ll get to, appears headed in the same direction. Ryan is still periodically excellent but loses me when, as last year, he spells Jed Lowrie as Jed Lowery.
Finn, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. He’s opinionated, but rational. He’s an exception on this list because he covers all of the major teams, not just the Red Sox, but he’s included because I value his thoughts on the team. Alone amongst colleagues like Cafardo and Massarotti, Finn is at least not against statistics, even if they’re not a focus for him. True, it’s more often basic metrics like OPS+ rather than, say, xFIP or WAR, and he remains skeptical when it comes to the accuracy of modern statistics. But that’s probably as it should be, and the relevant point is that he’s not afraid of numbers, or of learning more about them. Which is to his credit.
Better, he’s genuinely funny in an understated way: think the Sports Guy less Vegas humor, reality show references and sexist jokes.
Overall, he’s a tremendous asset to the market and one that I look genuinely forward to reading, even if I don’t really appreciate the baseball cards.
Strengths: Finn’s a writer first, which means content well above replacement value. Humor is one of his stronger tools, and his self-effacing brand plays well in the market. Engaging and open to dialogue; he’s responded to a couple of mentions on Twitter, which in my experience is rare.
Weaknesses: The opposite of prolific, the cost of Finn’s higher quality content is less of it. His analysis – e.g. his willingness to back up the truck for Gonzalez – occasionally skews towards fan and away from hard evaluation. His property, Boston.com, is amongst the most egregious abusers of pop-under advertisements of any property on the web.
- Godon Edes (ESPN Boston):
Edes, the pride of Lunenburg, is back on the Boston beat after a stint as a national writer for Yahoo Sports. A veteran of the Boston scene after his years covering the Sox for the Globe, Edes brings immediate relevance to ESPN’s new local property, ESPN Boston. He’s been covering the team for a long time, and it shows. For better, and for worse.
On the plus side, he’s got excellent context for the market, having covered it for so long. Not only are his relationships within the organization extensive, his understanding of the clubs history relative to individual players is of real benefit, because much of what’s happening with the Red Sox at present is the product of multi-year planning cycles.
On the minus side, Edes can be a bit of a traditionalist. His defense of the “gamer” – the post-game writeup which is about as useful as an appendix these days – is one example of his affection for the way things used to be done. And while he’s not in the camp attacking statistics, neither has he embraced them the way that peers like Speier have.
One thing worth noting that I’ve always appreciated from Edes has been his respect for the privacy of the players. He’s mentioned a few times that he feels obligated to cover off the field issues only to the extent they affect play on the field; as someone with no desire to hear about the pecadilloes of wealthy grown men, I appreciate this. I don’t need the players sugar coated, but neither do I want to be besieged by sordid little details, daily. You never get this with Edes, which is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.
It’s good to have him back from the national beat.
Strengths: Edes doesn’t let his ego get in the way of the story, which can be a rarity in this market. Diverse approach at the keyboard, with good coverage that blends a focus on local events with national context. Remains rational and grounded, which history and his peers tell us is difficult.
Weaknesses: Leans towards the traditionalist, and apart from his periodic video work has shown little inclination to evolve his approach. Hasn’t really added modern statistics to his arsenal. The ESPN Boston property is sadly afflicted with autoplay video, one of the least popular inventions of the modern web.
- Sean McAdam (CSNNE):
Sean McAdam, who I’ve followed since his Providence Journal days, is one of the more respected writers on the beat. As a piece of trivia, I sat next to his daughter during Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS, after which Schilling had his famous surgery. And no, we didn’t discuss her father.
For my part, I’ve always appreciated the measured tone which hasn’t, for the most part, been impacted by the impatience and urgency of Red Sox Nation. Whether it’s been in print or as a guest on WEEI and such, McAdam has exuded calm in a sea of irrationality. The product hasn’t been remotely Polly Anna-ish, but the criticism and concerns were always grounded in fact. By advantaging data at the expense of overheated speculation, McAdam’s voice has always been one to listen to and look forward to.
Marring this reputation, if only slightly, was an incident last season in which Okajima essentially ducked commentary following an ugly appearance, which is reportedly his custom. McAdam and several of his colleagues publicly called him out on this behavior, justifying their actions with claims that it was affecting Okajima’s teammates. McAdam was perhaps the most strident critic, at one point calling Okajima “cowardly.” The obvious question is whether this needs to be reported. Reporters will almost universally argue that it does, but what they typically don’t address is how much of the need to report it is driven by frustration with or dislike for the player at issue. And from a fan’s standpoint, I don’t particularly care one way or another, and frankly tire of reading such claims from reporters which at some point come across as vindictive. The phenomenon of reporters seeking revenge on players through the pen is hardly new, especially in Boston. This isn’t to say that this was the case with McAdam, but the context here is important: fans by and large do not care nearly as much about players not talking to the media as the media do, for obvious reasons.
Setting the larger question aside, however, there remains the issue of McAdam’s tone and language following the Okajima incident. I can’t speak for other fans, but I can say that his conduct there dented his reputation in my view. He’s better than that, I believe, regardless of what Okajima did or did not do.
Strengths: Tenured reporter with excellent contacts. Solid reputation in the market both for integrity and rationality. Excellent radio voice, as well.
Weaknesses: The move to CSNNE has lowered his visibility for this fan. Comcast Sports hasn’t made the same effort that WEEI has to establish relevancy, and because Comcast competes with other media outlets McAdam’s ability to make relevant market media appearances is limited. Like his more experienced colleagues, has not actively embraced statistical analysis although he has not taken a line against them, either.
- Peter Abraham (Boston Globe):
Give Abraham credit: jumping from a Yankees publication (LoHud Yankees Blog) to a Boston outlet (Globe) could not have been an easy transition. Subsets of the Yankees community felt betrayed, and the new market was hardly waiting with open arms. Even if you argue, as he did on his exit, that beat writers don’t root for teams, you are writing for people who root for those teams and building relationships with people around them. I respect Abraham, then, for taking this on.
His work, fortunately, commands the same respect. More perhaps than any of the other writers on this list, Abraham gets the difference in tone between traditional outlets and blogs. It’s little things like his dispatches from airports that allow readers to identify with him in ways that they can’t with traditional beat writers, whose columns and even blog entries are typically sanitized and overedited.
As for numbers, Abraham will use them, but perhaps not to the extent he should: his dismissal of Miguel Cabrera’s value, for example, was curious. Likewise, a bit more depth of metrics in the Buchholz vs Wakefield decision would have benefited his analysis.
If I have a concern regarding Abraham, it’s his New York ties. Accepting at face value his contention that beat writers don’t root for teams, it’s nevertheless unreasonable to expect that they don’t root for people on those teams. Nor that they would not build relationships with fans of same. All of which is fine, and none of which is my concern: it would be absurd to suggest that because Abraham took a new job, he should sever all ties from his years on the Mets and Yankees beats. But while his relationships are none of my business, his coverage, to some extent, is. I finally unfollowed Abraham on Twitter because I didn’t really want to read about Yankees on a Boston beat writer’s Twitter feed.
There’s little question that Abraham brings a lot to Red Sox coverage generally and the Globe specifically. What’s equally apparent is that his former ties rub some fans the wrong way. We don’t need our writers to root for the Sox, but it would be nice if they didn’t actively encourage Yankee fans.
Strengths: Well adapted to modern baseball coverage, both in tone and approach. Voice is balanced, neither strident nor fawning. Constructs arguments rather than arguing opinions.
Weaknesses: Shallow use of statistical analysis, though the extent to which that is by choice versus dictated by an editor is unclear. The Yankee ties – which may well have abated, as I haven’t followed him for some months – can be grating. Like Finn, Abraham’s outlet – the Boston Globe – is unfortunately aggressive with its late 90’s, AOL-style pop-under ads.
- Rob Bradford (WEEI):
Ironically, Bradford’s place on the bottom half of this list is to his credit rather than otherwise. Historically one of the better beat writers – I’m a long time fan – Bradford seems to be consciously stepping back from his duties as a Red Sox writer to take on larger roles as the architect of the ascendant WEEI content machine and media host.
While this is probably good for Bradford’s career, the decline in coverage is bad news for Red Sox fans. It’s partially offset by his discovery of the asset that is Alex Speier who heads this list and is clearly cut from the same cloth, but less Bradford cannot be spun as a positive for Red Sox fans. Particularly those that trace him back through the Herald to the Eagle-Tribune.
When he does write, however, it’s worth reading. Always.
Strengths: An original innovator in the Boston media landscape, brought an evolved approach to the market, properly leveraging his access to provide differentiated coverage. Good usage of both historical precedent and numbers to form and/or supplement his arguments.
Weaknesses: His diverse responsibilities have led to an inevitable decline in production.
- Ian Browne (MLB):
Ian Browne is the Red Sox beat writer for MLB.com. On the one hand, that means he has access to some amazing media assets; MLB Advanced Media is pretty much the best in the world at what they do. On the other, Browne has considerably less room to maneuver than everyone else on this list. Remember the Twitter dictum?
Browne’s coverage is credible if non-differentiated. His mailbags are enjoyable, and his columns are informative, but there’s little that sets him apart in the way that, say, Finn’s humor or Speier’s diversity does.
Strengths: With MLB resources behind him, enjoys a substantial multimedia advantage over his peers, if not a similar local relevance and immediacy.
Weaknesses: Doesn’t stand out in a crowded market place, lacks a clear niche advantage versus the competition.
- Nick Cafardo (Boston Globe):
Currently responsible for the high profile Boston Globe Sunday Notes column, Cafardo is among the best sourced writers on this list. His Sunday column, while not in the same ballpark as Gammons’ version, remains a must read for local Red Sox fans but also fans of the game on a wider basis. Cafardo has probably the widest scope in terms of baseball of any of the reporters currently working, and he largely delivers.
Which is why his inability to adapt remains a tragedy. Like Murray Chass and other traditionalists, Cafardo is aggressively old school, with his antipathy towards modern analysis regularly on display. Case in point is his focus on pitcher wins as the metric by which pitchers should be judged. In 2007, the year in which Sabathia won the Cy Young, Cafardo gave him a fourth place vote, with Beckett getting the nod for #1. In that year, Sabathia threw 40 and a third more innings than Beckett with a better ERA and a better strikeout to walk ratio. Why did Cafardo give Beckett the edge?
“The 20 wins, the consistency, the toughness, and what is generally regarded as absolutely nasty stuff put Beckett slightly over the top.”
Sabathia’s win tally? 19.
But at least Cafardo’s consistent. He wouldn’t vote for Felix Hernandez this year because he believes that wins “still matter.” Which might be fair if Hernandez’ team score more than two and a half runs for him per game, but they didn’t.
Cafardo’s willfull ignorance, then, is regrettable. He’s got the talent to do the job, clearly, but is either unable or unwilling to reconsider his perspectives in light of new teachings.
Strengths: Excellent national context with broad coverage across the league. Differentiated content within the local market.
Weaknesses: Stubborn and hostile to non-traditionalist thinking. Not an industry innovator. Demonstrates an overreliance on certain friendly sources (e.g. Kapler). Prone to substantial, unacknowledged factual errors.
- John Tomase (Boston Herald):
Tomase, persona non grata in many parts of New England due to his role in the Patriots Spygate debacle, has appeared on the Red Sox beat. Like Ian Browne, his work is competent but largely undistinguished, though his salary deconstruction as one example was a creditable piece of work.
Apart from the benefit it saw as an outlet for one of the rival factions during the Red Sox front office schism, the Herald Sports Section’s fortunes have been in decline for years. Tony Massarotti’s defection set it back, as did Sean McAdam’s abbreviated stint and subsequent departure for CSNNE. At present, the Herald looks to be largely treading water, doing just enough to keep from drowning but not enough to adapt itself to an increasingly competitive market.
Witness the limitations of its technology infrastructure. In 2010 going on 2011, the Boston Herald’s content management system is still producing stories with a second page that consists of one sentence. It’s bad enough that media outlets still overpaginate their content in an attempt to articifically inflate viewership metrics, but when the payoff for that click is a few words, well, you become the definition of a poor customer experience.
Strengths: Tomase shows some creativity, rather than just rehashing news that has already been covered by one of the dozen other media members in market.
Weaknesses: Undifferentiated in the marketplace, and likely to lack the resources of more aggressive and committed outlets moving forward. For some audiences, tainted by his mistake in moving forward in publishing spygate claims without proper substantiation.
- Tony Massarotti (Boston Globe):
Tony Massarotti is, somewhat unexpectedly, the obvious heir to Dan Shaughnessy’s throne. Which is to say both a writer I will not read and one whose schtick, if it can be termed as such, is fear mongering, irrationality and vitriol. To be fair to Massarotti, this may well be what he was hired for. If the Globe’s mandate in bringing him aboard was to stir the pot, they can consider it mission accomplished.
While controversy does little for me personally, however, I’m cognizant of its role in selling newspapers. I’m not naive enough to expect something erudite and grounded to ever sell well on a volume basis; Mencken, better than any of us perhaps, understood this. But the least I would expect from a sportswriter, particularly in an age where the commentary is growing more sophisticated at an accelerating rate, would be some basic logic to offset the emotionally driven opinions. A professional sportswriter should be speaking to the talk show callers rather than arguing as one of them, in other words.
Massarotti, however, is less than grounded by facts. From his flawed valuation of Clay Buchholz to his contrived and misleading assessment of the Jason Bay contract to his interminable crusade against our failure to sign Teixeira, Massarotti has shown little inclination to let the facts get in the way of a good argument.
Chad Finn tells us that Massarotti is no dummy, and I believe that. Which leads to the logical conclusion that he understands exactly what his place is in the market, and is filling it intentionally. The truth is that Massarotti’s primary role, at present, is to generate controversy. And he’s certainly competent at doing so. If that’s what you like reading, enjoy. My time will be spent elsewhere, on writers with more substantive agendas to pursue.
As an aside, Massarotti in the past has requested that critics not hide behind anonymity:
Somewhere along the line, someone needs to devise a system in which people who post comments on the internet are required to provide their real names and, perhaps, places of employment. This would help eliminate the legions of nitwits and cowards who shred anything and everything in their path while hiding in their mothers’ basements.
In that spirit, everything he might want to know about me can be found here.
Strengths: Perfectly embodies and argues the voice of the angry talk show caller. Long experience in the market.
Weaknesses: Perfectly embodies and argues the voice of the angry talk show caller. Cherrypicks and prooftexts facts to buttress arguments that would otherwise be unsupportable. Diversity of responsibilities – writer, radio host, etc – have negatively impacted his quality of coverage. Analysis is frequently emotionally driven.