Monday, March 26, 2007

Baseball -- Covering games


I should have comments from several other baseball writers in the coming weeks, but wanted to post this right now since so many schools are covering baseball on campus. This posting also includes some fine advice from the baseball beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Enjoy.


Dejan Kovacevic, the baseball beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says reporters need to prepare before going to games. That’s true whether you are covering a high school game or a major-league game. Read as much as you can on these teams and check for updated stats.

“The most important element is preparation, exhaustive study of trends on both sides, and written notes to accompany those,” Kovacevic says. “On a tight deadline, there is no time to look up how many home runs Albert Pujols has hit at PNC. It simply has to be at your fingertips. This way, if he does it in the 10th inning, you have time to get that information into the first-edition version of the story, even before the one that has quotes.”

LEAD ELEMENTS
Elements to put in the first several paragraphs.
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Date
■ Team records
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the “big picture?” What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.
■ For precedes, do not lead with the fact two teams are going to play one another; instead, find an angle that is more interesting. What’s the history between the teams? What’s the significance of this game (For instance, does it impact the conference or district standings?) Find something about the upcoming game to introduce the fact the two teams will be playing. Perhaps, this is the first game of a conference schedule.
■ Try something new each time you write, otherwise you will fall into a rut. There is no best way to write a lead but the points above might help you to develop your own creative leads to game stories. “As soon as a lead starts working for you, you get formulaic, and I try very, very hard to avoid that,” says Kovacevic. “Especially in baseball, where your annual byline count is easily 800 or more, it is important to avoid predictability.”

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ How teams scored. Each inning write a few sentences describing how each team scored so you will have this when you write the gamer later. (Make sure you also keep a good account in a scorebook.)
■ Runners each team leaves on base. You will see the stat ‘LOB’ in many box scores. Some box scores now break down LOB for each individual player. This number can be perceived at least two ways. On the one hand, a team with many runners left on base (say, 10 or 12) must have hit pretty well to get so many players on base. Even teams that score eight or 10 runs will leave higher numbers of runner on base. On the other hand, a team may have hit poorly in clutch situations. You’ll notice this when a team has left many runners on base but has scored far fewer runs (perhaps two or three). In addition, look for specific examples from the game to illustrate this, perhaps by focusing on an at-bats where a hitter failed to drive in runners already in scoring position (second or third base) with fewer than two outs.
■ Sacrifice bunts. Determine when (and how often) a team uses the sacrifice bunt in a game. Some managers rely on this much more often than others. For example, one coach (or manager) might bunt a runner over to third when the team has no outs to set up a sacrifice fly while others might prefer to give his batters two opportunities to drive the runner in with a hit. (Look for trends during the season, if this is your beat.)
■ Hitting behind the runner. Determine how often a batter hits a ball to the right side of the field to advance a runner. A right-handed hitter like Derek Jeter will often try to hit balls toward right field (or to second or first base) in order to send a runner from second to third, especially if there are no outs. This is really an unofficial sacrifice, where the batter has given himself up to help the team. As a result, the team would only need a long fly ball to get the runner across the plate. This is not considered a sacrifice, though, because the batter might also punch the ball through the infield for a hit. Still, take note of times when batters do something unselfish like this.
■ Be a stats geek. Go through box scores to analyze stats. Look for trends in hitting and pitching stats for individuals and teams. For example, you might find that a team has left more than 10 runners on base over the past six games, or that the team has averaged 2.1 runs per game during the past two weeks. (Ask high school coaches, or their team managers, if you can review their scorebooks before games. That means arriving to the game much earlier, when the teams are warming up.) You might also notice that a pitcher has not walked a batter in his past three games or that a hitter has gone nine-for-12 in his past four games. Some other team stats to consider: errors, stolen bases, and number of times a team has grounded into a double play (That’s GIDP in most box scores.)
■ Hitting streaks. As you look through stats, check for hitting streaks such as those listed above, so you can ask questions afterwards that focus on why players are doing so well. Also, check for streaks where players are struggling. Check to see if a player has gone hitless in his last nine at-bats or if he has managed just two hits in his last 19 at-bats. It is particularly interesting when excellent players struggle (in a long season, every hitter struggles at some point). Even Derek Jeter went through a streak like this a few years ago, going hitless in 20-plus at-bats. Hitting is a difficult thing to do, perhaps one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. (Someone who is successful 30 percent of the time at the plate is considered a top player with a .300 average. That would be a horrible percentage for a basketball player or a quarterback.) Do not be unfairly harsh on players when this happens, but citing stats that reveal a hitting drought is not a problem.
■ Pitching streaks. Check to see how a pitcher has performed during the past several games or weeks. Has this pitcher won or lost a number of games in a row? Has this pitcher struck out 10-plus hitters a game or walked four-plus a game? Also, see how many unearned runs this pitcher has allowed recently (or for the season). Errors cause pitchers to work harder, and, as a result, to often allow more runs to score. You can also check for other stats, such as ERA and number of pitches per game. You can also check into how many runs this pitcher typically allows in the first few innings against the last few innings, or how a pitcher does after 80 or 90 pitches. These are more detailed stats that will be harder to get at the Little League or high school levels unless you are charting every game. But as you get to the higher levels, these stats are out there – typically compiled by sports information or the major-league clubs. Make sure you speak to pitching coaches, catchers and managers to get more insights into these stats. Stats alone do not always tell the story. A pitcher might be throwing through injuries or may have lost his mechanics. Ask these questions to determine the reasons for pitchers’ performances.
■ Key plays. These plays are not always as obvious as a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth or a grand slam in the sixth inning. Look for the less obvious plays as well, such as a hard slide in the fourth where a runner broke up a double play that, in turn, allowed the inning to continue and a run to score in a game determined by a single run. Or look for a batter who fought off a tough pitcher for a 10-pitch walk late in the game that forced the starting pitcher out of a game and allowed his team to score against the reliever. Or look for a successful hit-and-run that confused the defense and allowed an easy grounder to short to roll into left field – and sending a runner in for the decisive score. Learn the game by speaking with veteran coaches and players, by reading reports on games by regular baseball beat writers, by listening to baseball announcers, and by reading the rules book, among other things.
■ Ground balls vs. fly balls. Determine how many outs a pitcher records from fly balls compared to ground outs. Pitchers and managers prefer ground outs. They can lead to more double-plays and are less likely to go for home runs. You’ll also find these outs reflect the types of pitches thrown. A sinker ball pitcher is more likely to get many more ground outs than a pitcher who relies on a fastball. Of course, any pitcher can hang a curveball that floats to the plate softly with nary a break. That’s a nightmare for all pitchers. Determine when this happens as well. The more you watch and listen, the better you will get at analyzing the game.
■ Isolate a moment. “I will say that I try to isolate on a moment or turning point in the game,” Kovacevic says. “Or, to give the game a face or personality that might make it memorable. I want the reader, even the one who attended in person, to feel it important to pick up the paper the next day to have a definition of that game.”
■ Mini-streaks during games. Did a pitcher retire nine batters in a row across four middle innings, or retire the final eight batters? Did a team score a run in five straight innings, or connect for eight straight hits? Look for these ministreaks as well. They might not be the lead, but they are interesting to note elsewhere in the story, especially if you can connect the streak to the bigger story.
■ Play by play. Start by focusing on the key plays. After that, you should usually focus on scoring in the later innings before the first few innings, the same way you would focus more on the final quarter of a football game or a basketball game. That’s when the game is much more tense and likely to shift in one team’s favorite, if the game is relatively close. For games that are blowouts, focus more on key plays.
■ Injuries – were any key players hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Use earned-run average in first reference. You can use ERA in subsequent references.
■ Use RBI in first reference. Still, find other ways to cite them. For example, you can also write that a player “drove in three runs,” not just that “he had three RBI.”
■ Batters go 2-for-3, not two for three.
■ High school games are typically six innings.
■ College doubleheaders typically go seven innings.
■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (18-10, 12-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference) is one game away from earning an NCAA bid. If you have mentioned that the game is a conference or district game, you do not need to cite that information in the parentheses. For example: Lake Brantley (15-3, 9-1) drilled four home runs to rout Lyman (14-4, 8-2) in a key district game.

CLICHES TO AVOID
■ These are games, not “contests.” That’s true for any sporting event. Pie eating? Now that’s a contest (and a tasty one at that.)
■ Runs are not “plated,” they are scored.
■ Check the Associated Press Stylebook for the spelling of key words, such as home run (being two words) and left-hander. The section is in the back of the stylebook, entitled SPORTS GUIDELINES. Keep it with you at all games.

QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS AFTER THE GAME

As you review the following questions, make sure you realize your approach is as important as the questions you ask. “Every human being is different, so my approach is different with each individual,” says Kovacevic. “Some respond best to a joke or even a jab. Some prefer it serious.”
■ Ask players what they were thinking (during a key point in the game)?
■ Ask players to comment on the opposing pitcher.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ Ask managers/coaches to explain reasons for recent trends. (Do you know what has caused your pitcher to struggle recently? Do you know what has caused your shortstop to go on a hitting streak lately?)
■ Ask how the team has played recently.
■ Ask catchers about their pitchers – specifically about ball movement, mechanics and location.

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