Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Love week: True Grit

By Bill

This week, TCM and I are ignoring all the horrible things we could be complaining about these days and trying to keep things light and positive. Here's the first installment, here's the second.

"Gritty," thanks largely to the brilliant Fire Joe Morgan, is probably the most hated word in the English language to people like you and me. That or "scrappy," or "Plaschke."

I have a confession to make, though: I love gritty players. Not the little white guys who journalists like to praise because they get their uniforms dirty, provide good quotes and have no discernible baseball-related skills. Rather, I mean legitimately good players, who legitimately help their teams in tangible ways, who may or may not be media darlings or even speak English, but who also happen to be the all-out, max-effort, self-sacrificing types. Who crash into walls, play whatever position they're asked, have valuable but particularly unglamorous skills, play (well) through pain, and so forth. And maybe some of it is show -- I do tend to believe that almost all players are "max-effort" guys, or else they'd never get to the majors -- but so what? A lot of the fun of baseball is show.

So here's my own personal top ten list of gritty scrappiness:

10) Darin Erstad.
Hear me out here. Erstad, until David Eckstein overtook him, became the poster boy for mediocre players whose qualities were blown way out of proportion by the media because he hustled, got his uniform dirty, was a team player and a good quote, etc. It was for all kinds of stupid reasons. In particular, the media couldn't mention often enough that Erstad was a former collegiate football player (a punter, which I think is actually roughly the least-gritty position in all of sport).
But that was late in his career. Here's the thing: Erstad was not by any means a bad player, and at his best was legitimately very fun to watch, for scraptastic sorts of reasons. Erstad put up 27.8 rWAR for his career, about what Carl Crawford currently has, and had individual seasons of 7.7 and 6.0. He was a phenomenal defensive outfielder -- he put up eye-popping numbers by the advanced metrics and really was the type to go crashing into walls. He had power as a young player, wasn't a hopeless free-swinger, could steal a base, and didn't even complain when the Angels -- inexplicably, inexcusably -- moved the AL's best center fielder to first base, the game's easiest position (and likely dragging down his overall career value). Erstad really was a scrappy, exciting sort of player. For a while. It just has nothing at all to do with his being a vocal leader, or the fact that he used to drop-kick footballs.

9) Cristian Guzman.
Bear with me again. For only one season, really -- and not even a full season -- Guzman was one of the grittiest, scrappiest players you'll ever see. In 2001, at age 23, he suddenly came into his own and was the rare really incredibly fast, really pretty smart ballplayer, which is just about the most exciting kind. His energy and effort seemed to pretty much carry the first good Twins team in almost a decade. He was never a basestealer, but he was a triples machine in those days, and I'll never forget the one game, in the 9th or 10th inning, in which he beat out a bunt single and the opposing team, (presumably) rattled by his speed, proceeded to throw the ball all around the park, allowing Guzman to come all the way around the bases on the play and score the winning run. That's the kind of "hustle" -- the kind that shows up in the stats and standings -- I can really get behind.
On July 12, Guzman was hitting .308/.345/.504, and the Twins were in first by five games; then he got hurt, missed a month, and hit just .289/.318/.408 the rest of the way, the team fell (way) out of first, and Guzman never really got that magic back. For that most-of-one-season, though, Guzman was the player most of the media really wished David Eckstein was.

8) Ichiro Suzuki.
Ichiro! seems way too graceful to be scrappy, but is that right? Should those things be mutually exclusive? Ichiro is, or was, one of the most resourceful players in the game. He was a master of the infield (or just-through-the-infield) single, but he could turn on one now and then when needed (I never really bought the whole "he could hit 20 homers if he wanted to" thing -- if he could and chose not to, that was really kind of awful of him -- but he did have some power when he decided to turn it on). He was blindingly fast and daring on the basepaths and in the field -- even if he rarely crashed into walls or dove; he just didn't need to -- and took a lot of chances in showing off his incredible arm, often with great results. He's gritty and graceful, dammit. It can happen.

7) Mark McLemore.
McLemore more or less fit the stereotypical gritty/gutty/gamer profile, except non-white and rather soft-spoken. He was a useful guy to have around, too, roughly a two-win-a-year player from 1993 to 2002 despite occasionally being relegated to part-time duty. He'd take a walk, steal a base, and he'd play all over the diamond (he logged significant time at every position except first, pitcher and catcher). He was a big, surprise contributor to Ichiro's fabulous 2001 Mariners, with a .384 OBP and a career-high 39 steals in 46 chances (and 3.6 rWAR) while spending time at six positions and DH.

6) Albert Pujols.
Who's got more grit than Albert Pujols? The best player in the game, he'll slide over to 3B for the first time in close to a decade if his manager asks him to. He does it all for you: hitting, defense, heady and aggressive baserunning. A couple times he's decided he wanted to steal a bunch of bases, just because, and has gone 16-for-18 and 16-for-20. He even plays field general, calling, rather infamously now, his own hit-and-run plays. Dude's as gritty as he is great. It's probably not that that makes him so fun to watch -- I'd venture a guess that it's actually the whole best-hitter-in-the-world thing -- but it can't hurt.

5) Julio Franco.
Broke into the league as a light-hitting shortstop at 23, became a dynamic, superstar-level second baseman by 30, then a Paul Molitor-type, gap-power DH after some injuries at 33. Looked done at the totally normal age of 38, managing just one MLB plate appearance (and his only appearance in leagues organized enough to show up on Baseball Reference) between ages 39 and 41...then came back at 42 as a pinch hitter, first baseman and DH, hanging on in the MLB until 48 and in pro baseball through age 49. And those, of course, are his published ages; there's some speculation he might be older than that.
People like to say that statistics can't measure heart, but "26 seasons" is a statistic -- that's the distance between his first big-league game and his last, though he only actually appeared in MLB in 23 of them -- and I think it does a pretty good job. When you consider how well Franco persevered through the various transformations in his style and abilities, and through multiple, whole years spent out of the game entirely, I think Franco's pretty close to as gritty and hearty as they come.

4) Jason Kendall.
It's a bit hard to remember now, but from 1996 through 2004, Kendall could just about do it all. His game was a lot more like a superstar middle infielder's than a catcher of any stripe; he hit a lot of singles and doubles and even a few triples, and stole some bases. He's on this list primarily for two reasons, though: (1) he was particularly adept at getting hit by pitches, a totally valid way to get on base and help your team (and certainly the grittiest way); and (2) he played almost every game. He averaged 150 games played from 2000 to 2005, only three of them (with the A's in '05) as a DH and only 27 more (as an outfielder in 2001) as anything other than a catcher. He did pinch hit in a few of those games, but still. Eight times in his career, he started at least 140 games at catcher.
Now, you might argue that that very aggressiveness, recklessness and every-day play contributed to the injuries that transformed him very quickly from the star he was through 2004 to the barely-adequate journeyman he was from 2005 through 2010, and I couldn't very well disagree. But those qualities made him a lot of fun to follow and to watch, and made him (in my opinion) the starting catcher on the gritty-and-scrappy team of my lifetime. (Him or Carlton Fisk, but my memories there are shaky.)

3) Brad Radke.
You never hear these buzzwords applied to pitchers, except to Nolan Ryan -- and his is more of a John Wayne type of grit than a Joe McEwing type. Pitchers with the slight frames of the stereotypically gritty position players are "professorial," or have "guile," or are otherwise ridiculously and unfairly compared to Greg Maddux. I guess it's the fact that they're not out there every day, in the trenches with the boys and all that. Can't lead with your effort and hustle if all you do is go stand on the mound every five days.
And Brad Radke was the anti-Ryan in a lot of ways -- quiet and unprepossessing, slow to anger, far from overpowering -- but man, was he a tough son of a Wisconsinite (or, presumably, of two Wisconsinites). From 2004 to 2006, aged just 32-34, it became increasingly clear that Radke's arm -- whole body, really -- was breaking down. Every start brought just a little more misery out of him than the last. By the end of it, one good line drive back to the box might've just torn his arm clean off. But he persevered, and was a key part of the Twins' 2004 and 2006 division winners. I don't normally give extra credit for playing through pain, but that's because it often hurts your team's chances. Radke remained effective, putting together an All-Star quality year in 2004 and solidly above-average performances in '05 and '06. In '06, with his strikeout rate the lowest it had been since his rookie season and his walk rate his highest in the past six years, it was clear he needed to hang it up. But it was just blindingly obvious by then that he was in pain with every pitch, and without the 162 average-ish innings he nonetheless willed himself to give the team, they certainly don't win the division (which they stole from the Tigers on the last day) and might find themselves, come September, in a much tighter race with the White Sox and others for the Wild Card. If pitchers can be gritty, Bradke was gritty.

2) Rusty Greer.
Greer (nĂ© Thurman Clyde) was a more consistently good version of Darin Erstad, in that while on the field, he had absolutely no regard for his personal health or safety. I'm surprised he didn't get hit by more pitches, but I guess that was just his swing style. He did everything else -- hit for average and a little power, got on base, ran the bases well (and aggressively). But it was his defense in the outfield that set him apart; he wasn't a particularly good fielder by the metrics, but he was as good/passable as he was, it appeared, solely through giving absolutely everything he had on every play.
Like Erstad and Kendall, he probably would've made it farther if he'd given a little less -- let a few extra balls drop in in exchange for another couple seasons under the lights. As it was, Greer wore himself out by age 31. Up to that point, he'd actually been pretty durable, but injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to 113 games between ages 32 and 33, in 2001 and 2002, and he was out of baseball for good after that.

1) Tony Phillips.
Keith Anthony Phillips' fielding stats are impossible to read, because he simply played wherever his team had a hole to fill. He played every position but pitcher and catcher in his career, sometimes all within the same season. He had ten seasons in which he saw time at at least five different positions, and only four times did he play 100 games at the same position. And those were different positions: he logged over 100 at SS in 1983, 3B in 1990, and LF in 1994 and '96 (interestingly, 2B is his primary position by career games played, but he never appeared there more than 90 times in a year). He wasn't particularly adept at any one position, but also didn't embarrass himself anywhere.
And Phillips' style of play was a particularly hard, hustling, effective style; he became great at getting on base, largely through the walk (.374 career OBP and .396 during his 1990-97 peak), and managed to score a whole lot of runs. His aggressiveness cost him in the basestealing department (he made nearly 300 attempts despite just a 61% career success rate), but, hey, it's all hustle, and he was an excellent player anyway. He was also injury-prone -- that's a theme on this list, if you hadn't noticed -- but when he was on the field, he was a joy to watch.
Completing the grit trifecta (the first two elements being his versatility and his hard-but-effective style), Phillips, like Franco, is tenacious. He hasn't played in the majors or any affiliated league since 1999, but in 2011, aged 52, Phillips played third for the independent Yuma Scorpions (and hit .269 with 12 walks in 24 games). Yeah, they're kind of a publicity-seeking joke (same team that hired Jose Canseco as manager and brother Ozzie as his bench coach), but playing pro baseball at age 52 gets you grit points in my book, regardless.
And: while playing third base, he started a brawl with coach Mike Marshall. At age 52. If that's not scrappy, I don't know what is.

If it seems like this list is kind of all over the place, and that the standard I'm applying is something of a moving target, that's because that's all totally true. These words (gritty, scrappy, heart, guts, etc.) aren't entirely without meaning, but they're nebulous enough that they allow the user to basically just use them to pump up guys he or she likes: to the mainstream media, physically unassuming guys (who often might remind the writer of himself a little bit) who give great copy; to me, good players whose style of play makes them more fun to watch.

But either way. The guys above are what "gritty" and "scrappy" mean to me, and are ten of the reasons why I really love baseball.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

You had me until Albert Pujols. Gritty, scrappy players run full out on the bases and run hard to first. Pujols almost never hustles after hitting a grounder. Just ask Bob Netherton (@throatwarbler).

You don't like Pedroia? He should be at the top of the current list.

Your word verification for this comment was, "Palmast." Kind of made me tee hee at your expense.

Bill said...

I don't buy for a minute that Pujols doesn't hustle. He was noticeably slowed in the playoffs (and probably for more of the season, but I wasn't paying attention), but that's age or injury, not lack of effort. He's always seemed to run about as hard as he's able when I've watched him.

Bill said...

And on Pedroia, he's scrappy by my definition, but not a top-ten sort of scrappy. I think he gets his grit-cred based mostly on the same factors Eckstein does -- short, white, a hell of an interview. He happens to be a much better player than Eckstein, but that doesn't move him up in the "true Grit" department. He does have the aggressive baserunning and all that, so he'd be close to being on the list. But Chase Utley (who I had on my initial version of the list) would be in front of him.

Dan Hennessey said...

I think you've severely undersold Albert Belle.

David said...

Dang! I was gonna say Utley. Oh well.

Anyway, Bill, AWESOME list! You for sure had two of my all-time favorite "gritty" guys: Radke and Kendall. They would be 1 & 2 for me, but then I didn't start watching baseball until the mid-1990s.

Another thing about Radke: from 1996-2005, he started 30+ games every year but one (2002, when he started 21). He made 321 starts in 10 years. That's just incredible. And, in 1995 and 2006, he started 28 each year. The guy basically pitched every fifth day for 12 years, only missing a handful of starts. A total of 377 starts in 12 years (a little over 31 per year) is awesome. After his very first game (his only as a reliever), he was as reliable as they come. And that was for some TERRIBLE Twins teams, who basically didn't have ANYBODY short of Radke. I loved the guy (as a fellow Wisconsinite), and I hope the Twins do something to honor him one day (not a jersey retirement, necessarily, but something nice, like a Brad Radke day at the park or something). Definitely gritty, in every sense of the word.

Baseballpaul said...

What about Nick Punto? Dude even lucked himself into a WS ring this year with the Cardinals. Punto and Pujols, two big reasons the Cardinals won the WS, well at least one of them was a big reason and I think we know who... PUNTO.