Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brett Lawrie and 'playing the game the right way'

When the Oakland A's Eric Byrnes finally managed to stick with the big league team in 2003, it was with some serious concerns about his durability. Sure enough, Byrnes did a lot of The Right Things: when Fangraphs last deemed him worth writing about - in 2010 - they noted that he was both beloved and mocked for his "grit", and even his Wikipedia page notes that he was known primarily for his "hustle". Which is to say that he demonstrably tried really hard.

Byrnes, making a play on a routine fly ball. Because that's just how he rolls.

Of course, pushing yourself and hustling non-stop can certainly be a bad thing. (On a personal note: I play really hard, and I only play rec-league softball. Last year, I pulled my rib cage; the year before, I broke a bone in my foot.) Those concerns - made prophetically by scouts and analysts during his breakout in '03, when he was still hitting .350 and leaping for every ball in the outfield - had mostly to do with the fact that he tried too hard, played too recklessly, and couldn't last an entire season. And they were right: Byrnes hit .334 and was 50% better than league average on offense - according to Tom Tango's wOBA - in the first half of the year, which is superstar-calibre hitting; he hit .146 and was 50% below average the rest of the way, which probably isn't even deserving of a spot on the bench. (Though the split isn't as extreme over the length of his career, it remains: his best months were May and June, where he was about consistently about 10% above-average, and his worst were August and September, where he was about 25% below.) As for his durability, he would only once play more than 143 games, and in the eight years between his breakout and retirement - he retired at 34, which is very young for a once-star player with speed and fielding skills - he only averaged 120 games a year, or about 75% of a full-season.

But Brett Lawrie's name appears in the title of this post, doesn't it? And here I am, wasting hundreds of words on Eric Byrnes.

Now, granted, I haven't watched every Blue Jays broadcast so far this year. But when I have, one of Pat and Buck will inevitably make reference to how hard Lawrie plays - often invoking the cliché of "he plays the game the right way". And if you're really lucky, they'll say it repeatedly!

I would ask "what the fuck does that even mean?", but that would be disingenuous - because I do know what it means, and you know that I know what it means, if only because I just went through that whole Eric Byrnes story. (Also, you probably know what it means!) What it means, even if they're incapable of clearly articulating this, is that he runs hard on every ground-ball, he dives for everything remotely near him, and he slides hard into every base. Just like Eric Byrnes.

Lawrie, following an intentional-walk. Seriously, you should see this guy run out a ground-ball.

I actually have a surprisingly clear memory of Lawrie's first Major League triple. He hit it at home (against the Angels - I had to look that up) and it could have easily been a stand-up, because he's that fast. But, because he was probably too pumped up to notice that there was no play, he dove into the base, head-first and hard. Which seems pretty innocuous, but - and maybe you shouldn't take my word for this, because Lawrie has about 10x the pectoral muscle-mass that I have - holy shit, does sliding on your chest across dirt ever bang up your body. It was completely unnecessary. And it certainly wasn't the only time he's done it without having to.

And while all this might sound laudable, it really isn't. It doesn't actually make sense for an MLB player to run their hardest on every grounder, because 99% of the routine ones will be fielded, thrown, and caught cleanly. Likewise, it may make sense to ease up on fielding a difficult ball in a low-leverage situation, or choose to slide feet-first rather than the considerably more dangerous (but more controllable and possibly faster) head-first. Injury is probably the most important factor, here, (lemme say it again: Eric Byrnes) but common sense should come into play, too - don't use all your bullets unless/until you need to. Because, make no mistake, your body only has so many dives, slides, and full-speed sprints locked inside of it.*

But back to "playing the game the right way", and the full implications of what it means to say that. David Savran once wrote that masculinity is an accomplishment, but a particularly masochistic one - a constant struggle to measure up to an impossibly high standard, one where your failures and their accompanying pain are themselves the mark of normative manhood. It's not about "mastery" but "the act of being subjected, abused, even tortured". (I think there's space, here, for a totally different but entirely interesting discussion about why we like to celebrate the plucky guys who live on the fringe and hate/resent the guys who make it look too easy.)

So, part of what it means to "play the right way" is, in fact, to subject your body to unreasonable amounts of stress and risk injury - and to prove your worth and suitability through the accumulation of injuries. And while his career ended early, this style of play ultimately proved to be a pretty good investment for Eric Byrnes. How's that? Well, he parlayed his best season and reputation for grittiness into a $30 million contract, a contract that he would never come even close to making good on. But, obviously, what's good for your masculine credibility is bad for your body. (And bad for the team.) It would just be nice for the people within baseball, cheering on the masochism, to acknowledge that more often.

* I realize that this might sound contradictory or hypocritical, because in my first live-blog I criticized Pat Tabler for suggesting that guys "concentrate more" when the game is on the line. But this isn't a concentration thing - if anything, it's the opposite, because I'm saying that players like Lawrie lose their concentration and seem to let their adrenaline dictate their pace of play.

No comments: