Q&A: Jon Miller, Hall of Fame Broadcaster

The voice is instantly recognizable. So is the easygoing style and depth of knowledge that makes him one of the best play-by-play announcers in baseball. No one calls a game quite like Jon Miller.

Miller is best known as having been the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball from 1990 to 2010. Paired with the polarizing Joe Morgan, he developed a reputation as a great storyteller with a genuine love for the game and a deep appreciation for its history. He has also been a part of history. Miller has called numerous World Series and League Championship Series, as well as Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 756th home run. A member of the San Francisco Giants broadcast team since 1997, Miller was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award in 2010.


Miller on Broadcasting the Numbers:
“[Broadcast partner] Dave Flemming and I talk about advanced stats all the time. I recall UZR coming up for us in 2010 when we saw Andres Torres playing a great center field. I remember thinking, ‘Torres covers so much ground.’ Then I read this note saying he was number one, in all of Major League Baseball, in Ultimate Zone Rating. I figured that would be of interest to any Giants fan, so I used it on the air. I said it was a method of determining how much ground a guy covers.

“Back in the 1980s, when Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts first came out, I would pore through that stuff. It was fascinating to me. Runs Created were interesting.

“In 1984, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken had great years on a team that didn’t hit at all.“They had a bunch of guys who suddenly got too old and were fading, so most of their lineup was terrible. The Baseball Abstract — which Bill was putting out without a lot of help — had you calculating things like, ‘What if Eddie Murray and Don Mattingly had played for each other’s team?’ It showed that, given all the same opportunities, Murray could well have knocked in a lot more runs than Mattingly did. That was fascinating to me, but also difficult to explain between pitches.

“Sometimes the game isn’t so compelling. It’s a blowout, or it’s being played at a ponderous pace, and then there’s time to go into other things. One difference between radio and TV is that on TV you can show the numbers. You can show things like formulas, and from there explain the significance. On radio, you have to verbalize what could be a graphic on television. Then you explain the significance of it. It’s a longer process on a radio broadcast.

“I learned the game on the radio. Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons were the Giants broadcasters when I was growing up in the Bay area, and they taught me about the game. They taught me about the subtleties of the game, but they also gave me the game and let me enjoy it. That’s the main thing, whether it’s TV or radio. You have to give the fans the game, and if it’s a Giants broadcast, the vast majority are Giants fans. In terms of story lines, most would be about the Giants.”

On Park Effects and the Giants: “AT&T Park suppresses offense, although the Giants have had some teams that struggled scoring in any park. They’ve had other teams that weren’t bad offensively and were able to sneak up on people. Their overall numbers didn’t look good, but a lot of it was because they scored so little at home. Last year was a prime example. They led the National League in offense in road games. They hit a lot of home runs on the road. Home was a whole different story. It was almost like they were incapable of hitting a home run.

“I remember when Cincinnati came in last summer. They have another ballpark that skews the numbers, but in the opposite direction. I was thinking the Giants are actually a better offensive team than the Reds. Cincinnati has Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. They have some big-name hitters there, but the Giants were outscoring them on the road. Cincinnati was building most of their offense at home.

“Everybody thinks about the Giants in regard to pitching, but their pitching was way better at home last year. On the road, they were in the lower level of the league. Cincinnati led the league in road pitching.

“Maybe the year itself was an anomaly. I’ve done all the games the Giants have played in the new ballpark and I thought it was a truly odd year. They’ve always been better offensively on the road, but they hadn’t been leading the league in offense in road games. Maybe they did back when they had Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Ellis Burks and those guys.

“I think the Giants have struck upon something. You have to be pretty good to get the postseason, but in the postseason they’re even better. They have guys who seem to be at their best in those biggest games. Exactly how you’d quantify that is another story.”

On Bruce Bochy and Earl Weaver: “I think Bruce Bochy is similar to Earl Weaver when it comes to the idea of giving away outs. From the moment he arrived with the Giants, he told me hates the bunt. He almost hates to have the pitcher bunt. But there are times you have to, depending on the situation. He wants pitchers who can handle the bat, and he wants them to work on it.

“Unlike Weaver, Bochy has had some teams where he can’t rely on getting the three-run homer. There were times last year, in home games, he couldn’t count on getting any home runs at all. He adapted to that.

Jim Palmer always used to tell a story about Earl. He liked to stick a needle in Earl. In 1974 — my first year of broadcasting games — I was with Oakland. The Orioles made a great run at the end and made it to the postseason. They finished something like 29-6 and played the A’s in the League Championship Series. Palmer’s story is that Earl hated to bunt and give up outs, or attempt steals, but that team didn’t have much power. Brooks Robinson was getting older and I think only hit six or seven home runs all year.

“According to Palmer, the players themselves started putting on steals, hit-and-runs and bunts. Earl said, ‘You think I’m an idiot and don’t see what’s going on, but I can see what’s going on. But we‘re winning, so just make sure we keep winning.’ Earl wanted whatever was going to work. He was willing to adjust.

“Bochy, as well as a lot of managers, ascribe to Earl’s ideas. For a lot of years, Earl also had some big boppers in his lineup. The Orioles were built that way. Bochy has been in two straight ballparks that might be the most difficult to hit home runs in. Everything being equal, he’d rather have a team that could hit a lot of home runs, but I don’t see him sitting back and waiting for them when he knows his team isn’t likely to do that.

“Last year’s Giants team was the best I’ve seen as far as getting runners home from third with less than two down, scoring from second and going from first to third on a single. Their base running had been sloppy for years, but last year it was good. They were also good with situational hitting, and overall execution.”

On Former ESPN Broadcast Partner Joe Morgan: “I can’t presume to speak for Joe, but I think he definitely feels statistical analysis has its place. He works with Walt Jocketty now; he’s a consultant with the Reds. Walt picks his brain and Joe tells him what he thinks, based on his experience. Walt has his number-crunchers as well.

“Making up a roster based on numbers, or a decision based simply on the numbers, is where Joe disagrees. I remember talking about that with him around the time Moneyball came out. We were in Oakland and the A’s had picked up Ray Durham for the stretch run. It was a winner-take-all game in the Division Series, in the Coliseum.

“I would always kind of prod Joe. I always want the guy to run, or least would say that on the air. Instead of asking Joe a question, I’d say, ‘If I’m the manager, I’m sending him.’ Then Joe could say whether he thought it was a good idea or not. In this case, Durham was on base early in the game.

“Joe made the point that this game was different. You can take statistics over the full course of the season — the benefits and downside of attempting to steal — but with an ace pitcher on the mound it was bound to be a tight game. For the A’s to plant the seed that their guys with speed were going to run, and you better be mindful of it, could be important. It could serve as an added distraction to the pitcher.

“I think a lot of people misunderstand that the numbers themselves — those formulas — are generally based on the season being 162 games. To take one game in October, and manage it based on those numbers, is where Joe would have a disagreement.

“There are times Bruce Bochy sends a runner, or puts on a hit-and-run, because he thinks it’s the right time. I saw Earl Weaver put on a suicide squeeze bunt, in Milwaukee. It worked. Everybody asked him, ‘Wait, we thought you told us you didn’t even have a sign for a suicide squeeze, because you hated it so much.’ Earl said, ‘I still don’t.’ I asked him, ‘How did you put it on then?’ He said, ‘I whistled at Cal Ripken, Sr., my third base coach. Then I shouted at him, ‘Squeeze! Squeeze! Then I motioned a bunt.’ I said, ‘Paul Molitor was playing third. Didn’t he hear you?’ Earl said, ‘If he did, I’m sure he thought there was no way we were putting it on, or I wouldn’t have been yelling for it.’

“Things happen in baseball, even if, in theory, it’s something you don’t do. Stats are a tool, but it doesn’t mean that’s how a game is being played at that moment. There’s more than one way to win a game, or have a winning team.

“I think Joe actually inspired a generation of Bill James kind of people. When Bill James started his Baseball Abstract, Joe was Exhibit A of the ideal player. Not was he only a good second baseman who could hit for average and power, but his on-base percentage was huge. And when he stole bases, he almost never got caught. I don’t think people can say Joe didn’t understand what he was providing. No one understood the benefits of what he added to that ball club more than he did. Joe understood that value back when most didn’t have a clue about it. I think it’s disingenuous for people to think he was an idiot who didn’t know why he was good.

“Another thing is that Joe didn’t come to the game as a fan. He played the game, and he started out at a time when, as a rookie, the first thing pitchers were going to do was throw the ball at your head. They wanted to see how you responded to that. He got thrown at a number of times.

“Joe got drilled once, and later, in the dugout, Turk Ferrell came up to him. Farrell was veteran right-hander, and a tough guy, and said, “Look, I’ve seen you get thrown at, and hit, and you just keep getting up. This is going to stop today.”

“When you think about it, even his own pitchers were complicit. ‘Of course they’re going to throw at him; he’s a rookie. Let‘s see what he‘s made of.’ His own pitchers were fine with that.

“Turk Ferrell says to Joe, ‘No more. I’m going to drill a guy for you. Tell me which guy you want, then I’m going to drill a second guy for me. That way there won’t be any mistake about the message I‘m sending.’ Joe said, ‘Turk, I really appreciate it, but the last thing I want is a fight.’ Farrell said, ‘Listen, I’ll pick somebody for you and for me. It’s ending today.’ That’s what he did. Ferrell drilled two guys. They knew what he was doing, and after that, things changed. That was the game Joe came up in.

“Joe’s era wasn’t about statistics. It was about what kind of heart you had. There are no statistics for that. That’s where Joe started out, and he was told by scouts, to his face — this is when he was in school — ‘You have no future in this game. You need to go into another line of work.’ Joe took that challenge. It inspired the competitor in him.

“Joe understands there are moments in games where you want certain guys on the mound, or at the plate. There are other guys you’re probably better off having up there in any other situation. That’s the whole package with Joe. Many of the people who criticize him could learn a lot from Joe. It would make them even better analysts.”

On Blyleven, Morris and Cain: “When I first started, in 1974, Bert Blyleven was one of the premier pitchers in the American League. The DH was already going and he played in a park where the ball jumped. Metropolitan Stadium was a pretty good place to hit home runs. He also played on a pretty bad ball club. His statistics were among the best — low ERA and high strikeouts — but often as not, he’d be 18-16 or 16-15. I always thought guys who didn’t see him didn’t truly understand. They were going mostly on his wins and losses. I’m happy to see that has been rectified. He was a top pitcher for a long time.

Jack Morris is another guy who played in a very tough park to pitch in. He was a right-hander in a park where you were better off being a lefthander. In Detroit, you wanted them to hit the ball on the ground or to the big part of the ballpark. Tiger Stadium was very unforgiving. If you hung a splitter to a left-handed hitter, boom. And you didn’t even have to get all of it to get it out.

“Morris was the ace on a lot of good ball clubs and a premier pitcher for a lot of years. Sometimes the raw statistics don’t tell you the whole story. The Tigers, for many of those years, in that ballpark, had a lot of hitters and scored a lot of runs. Dave Stewart, with Oakland, was another guy. All of a sudden it’s 8-1 and you might give up a couple of home runs, because your idea is to not walk anybody. You fall behind in the count and don’t want to put anyone on base, so you groove one and he ends up hitting it out. OK, now it’s 8-2. Big deal.

“You have to look at more than how many runs a pitcher gave up in your analysis. Jack Morris was a winning guy. He was the Opening Day starter and the Game One starter in the postseason. His managers weren’t stupid. He was the guy they wanted out there.

“A guy I kind of liken Morris to is Matt Cain, from the Giants. Cain has learned to throw strikes. He used to walk a lot of guys, but he’s changed that. He’s always around the strike zone and he’ll give up a few home runs. He makes a mistake here, he makes a mistake there, but he wins. That’s what you want. He’s not afraid to give up a home run and Morris was the same way. Cain has a big advantage over Morris, too. When he pitches at home, when push comes to shove, he can lay one in there and the guy probably isn’t going to hit it out. His numbers away from home — especially last year — weren’t as good. Numbers, like everything else, need to be taken into context.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Very interesting, thank you! Keep the interviews coming.