I’m Not a Player, I Just Crush a Lot: A Taxonomy of Statnerd Heroes

Note to Reader: If you’re in a rush or merely averse to reading, I invite you to skip bottomward without further ado. If you’re the sort of Reader who’s in the market for a prose style sweeter than candy, then read this whole thing like seventeen times.

The first thing you need to know is this: I love Mark Bellhorn so hard.

Bellhorn2I wanted him (i.e. Bellhorn) on the Red Sox while he was a Cub and then Rocky in 2003. I watched his Boston plate appearances with the sort of attention a young aristocrat such as myself ought to reserve only for Latin, opera, and the finer points of estate law. During the 2004 ALDS versus the Angels, I almost found myself in honest-to-goodness fisticuffs with another, much larger Red Sox fan at The Riviera in New York City when he (i.e. this monster-sized person I’m talking about) had the temerity to suggest that Bellhorn was somehow undeserving of his post as Boston’s second baseman. I thumbed my nose at the haters when Bellhorn jacked a donger in Game Six of the ALCS versus New York. I continued to defend his place on the Sox in 2005 even as his numbers made it very difficult to do so without the threat of physical abuse. To this day, I carry a Bellhorn (2003 Topps) card in my wallet for what I would describe as its “talismanic properties.” I am currently aware that he (i.e. Bellhorn) plays for Colorado Springs and is posting a park- and luck-adjusted line of .259/.364/.494. I still believe that he is of some use to an MLB club — as an expert on the catalog of REO Speedwagon, if nothing else.

Many would feel compelled to describe my feelings for Bellhorn as a “mancrush.” Excuse me while I take umbrage at that term. To have a crush implies a sort of puppy love, a feeling of intoxication. Pleasant, yes, but also fleeting. My love for Bellhorn, on the other hand, is as deep as and complex as the wine-dark sea.

Moreover, I think less than Mark Bellhorn himself, it’s the idea of Mark Bellhorn to which I’m irrationally drawn.

Which, allow me to pontificate on that.

Epicurus said of the gods that they are not the catty, bickering cadre of drama queens portrayed in Homer’s epics, but totally content beings upon whom we ought to meditate so’s to better understand how to perfect our own happiness.

greekgods_mediumI’m not sure I’d describe Bellhorn as perfect, per se. There have been certain days when his hair — so often the platonic ideal of “the wet look” — does not live up to the lofty precedent it has set for itself so far as Awesome Factor (AF)* goes. That said, there is something that Bellhorn has done perfectly — namely, to parlay a kinda limited skill set into a couple of really excellent major league seasons.

*A totally real metric, duh.

This is* Mark Bellhorn’s skill: to hit a ball very hard when it crosses the plate in an area approximately two baseballs wide by two baseballs tall, middle-in — and to play a decent, if not stellar second base while doing it. I remember Bellhorn taking pitches that other hitters — literally, any other major league hitter — would swing at**. Bellhorn? He’d just watch it go, almost always with an expression on his face — a cross between annoyance and boredom — that I remember my friends’ older brothers wearing when I was in junior high and they (i.e. the older brothers) in college. Bellhorn was the anti-Molina.

*Was? I had a hard time choosing which tense to use in re Bellhorn, on account of, like a deaf and/or senile grandparent, he’s still technically around but you wouldn’t say that he’s flourishing exactly.

**Unfortunately for me, the way I remember the situation is not entirely substantiated by the facts — at least not to the degree I thought. Bellhorn’s Z-Swing% of 64.0% was below the league average of 69.6% in 2004 but ranked only 32nd among the 162 players with at least 500 PAs. His Z-Contact% of 78.4% is more representative of the Bellhorn I remember. It places him ninth among the same group of players.

Bellhorn’s “patience” was less patience, I’d say, and more an acute awareness of his abilities. Knowing that he would almost definitely miss any offering not expressly located in his own personal hitting zone, he decided not even to acknowledge these pitches. Of course, with two strikes, he might take a cut so’s to give the impression of caring, but I always got the sense that it was more for show than anything. Luckily for Bellhorn, this sort of approach (i.e. the one where you “wait for your pitch”) is not such a bad one for hitters, especially those with some power. And it worked well for Bellhorn in 2004, during which year he posted a wOBA of .360 and a PrOPS of .254/.364/.425.

Such self-awareness is not peculiar to Bellhorn, either. If anyone remembers the Scott Hatteberg chapter from Moneyball, you’ll remember Hatteberg, commenting on his ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone, saying something like, “I just realized a long time ago that, if I swung at certain pitches, I wouldn’t be able to hit them hard.” Hatteberg continues by asking why you would swing at a pitch that you knew you’d just ground to the second baseman. Furthermore, he was confident enough in his contact abilities (regularly posting a Contact% of around 90%) that he didn’t mind hitting with two strikes. This perfect storm of innate ability and homespun common sense made Hatteberg a very valuable baseball player for a couple years.

There is something very elegant about this, about a player who, in being most authentically himself, in having an approach to baseball so informed by his approach to life, succeeds at baseball.

This is one type of player to which I’m drawn. And if it’s true what my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Terry once told me – namely, that I’m “not that special”* — then I’m guessing that a Reader or Two might have had similar inclinations.

*A real molder of young minds, that Mrs. Terry.

For some time, I’ve attempted privately to articulate exactly what sorts of players someone like me is drawn. Or phrased differently: for some time, I’ve recognized a peculiar tendency — in myself, among my statnerd friends — to develop irrational attachments to certain players. These attachments are not systematic, by any means, but they’re not entirely random, either. Always the players in question seem to gravitate towards one Type or another. What I’ve been unable to do is to put my finger on, in, on top of, or even athwart the connection between these players with any sort of satisfaction.

A TAXONOMY OF STATNERD HEROES

After a lot of very serious research — most of which involved something akin to “soul-searching” — I alighted upon what I consider to be at least something like a reasonable summary of Types. This is merely an attempt to make explicit what has more or less been said — like by Sky Kalkman, for example, when he says he roots for “smart organizations and underrated players.” I’ve made no attempt to suggest why the players belonging to these Types — to suggest why they warm the cockles of the statnerd heart. That project might be more appropriate for someone familiar with “science.”

The Statnerd Hero might very well be:

1. An MLB player whose advanced metrics (i.e. EqA, wOBA, VORP, UZR – really anything that attempts to improve upon AVG, HR, and RBIs) suggest greater production than is commonly perceived.

This is really the sort of player to whom the world was introduced by Bill James and made by popular by Moneyball. It could be Scott Hatteberg or Jack Cust or, more recently, defensive savant Mark Ellis.

No, it’s not only Oakland A’s on this the list.

2. An MLB player whose peripheral numbers (i.e. xFIP, PrOPS, tRA) suggest greater production in near future.

In 2007, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a more rabid J.P. Howell apologist than yours truly. Howell finished that season with a 1-6 record and 7.59 ERA, but his 4.25 xFIP (8.65 K/9, 3.71 BB/9, 46.1 GB%) suggested an excellent young pitcher. His 5.53 tRA for is less optimistic, but 1) I didn’t know that at the time and 2) that’s not really the point. The point is that, at the time, I was convinced of Howell’s excellence, even as public opinion differed.

3. Either an MLB part-timer or older (27 and up) minor leaguer whose production suggests probable success in expanded MLB role.

The Informed Reader will already know that Prentice Redman and Ruben Gotay‘s PCL numbers are currently off the proverbial hizzy. Redman is posting a park- and luck-adjusted line of .328/.375/.569 with Tacoma, while Gotay has a park- and luck-adjusted line of .294/.444/.480 with Reno.

Jeff Keppinger and Micah Hoffpauir have both filled this space, even if neither of them is playing all that well at the moment.

4. A younger (under 27) minor leaguer, but not top prospect, whose minor league numbers suggest success at the MLB level.

Mike Napoli, Mark Reynolds, even Curtis Granderson: despite strong minor league records none of these three was really ever a highly touted prospect in the way that a Mark Prior or Jose Reyes or even Homer Bailey was. Of course, “highly touted” is a bit subjective, but let’s pretend we all understand what I mean. Napoli was considered a bit of defensive liability and more of a placeholder for Jeff Mathis. Reynolds, if I’m remembering correctly, was called up to replace an injured Chad Tracy but was considered a low-contact guy without a real position. Granderson was regarded as doing a lot of thing decently but nothing real well. A current player in this mold is Cincinnati farmhand Chris Heisey, a former 16th round draft pick who posted a park- and luck-adjusted line of .315/.398/.538 in 238 Double-A ABs this year.

5. A player who demonstrates vigorously what Americans, quoting French poorly, call je ne sais quoi.

As FanGraphs’ own Erik Manning pointed out earlier today, pitchers such as Charlie Haeger and R.J. Swindle — those guys who reach a mostly successful end by unorthodox means — are heroic, too. This category is big enough to include top players, as well. Like, can anyone believe how compact Albert Pujols‘s swing is? And what about Javier Vazquez‘s curve?




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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


47 Responses to “I’m Not a Player, I Just Crush a Lot: A Taxonomy of Statnerd Heroes”

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  1. Nick says:

    A little late for an April Fools joke, isn’t it?

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  2. Nate says:

    Someone’s been reading his DFW.

    Enjoyed the essay, but am a little confused. Are you one of the aforementioned “Statheads”? Or is that a total non-sequitor from your Mark Bellhorn adoration?

    I also feel that it’s worth mentioning that Bellhorn doesn’t fit into any of the categories you listed.

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  3. Pat says:

    I assume some people won’t like this type of post because it isn’t using stats and trends to give us insight on performance. I, personally, am a little resistant to it for that reason, but I found myself reading the whole thing and enjoying it.

    Cheers.

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  4. Dan says:

    Fantastic.

    Incidentally, I totally have mancrushes on Scott Hatteberg, Jack Cust, and Mark Ellis.

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  5. dragonflyball says:

    The idea of Mark Bellhorn was a pretty good one, but I think what Theo Epstein was hoping for when he signed him was more like Adam Dunn.

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  6. Keegs says:

    Brief Interviews with Hideous Ballplayers?

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  7. Matt B. says:

    I’m partial to Todd Walker for odd-ball crushes.

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  8. RPMcSweeney says:

    This reminds me a bit of another treaty on the genealogy of love, Plato’s Syposium, which isn’t all that surprising ‘cuz, just like Diotima’s conception of love as a beggarly boy, Mark Bellhorn sleeps in doorways, and is a master of artifice and deception.

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  9. Tim S. says:

    I hope one day to admire the romantic loner who ignores the conventional OBP-centric wisdom and hacks at first pitches and sliders in the dirt.

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  10. Tim says:

    Love it. I’m an A’s fan and amongst my circle of A’s fan friends we regularly refer to Mark Ellis as the Best Player in Baseball (or BPIB for short). Partly in jest, partly serious. Point 1 definitely comes really close but it’s not just in the stats- it’s also appreciating the underlying value when watching the game itself. Watching Ellis glide effortlessly to his left to make a rangy play look routine. Watching Cust flex his iron will as he takes balls 2 inches off the plate to work the count full and then earn a walk after falling behind early in the count. There’s real beauty there and it’s all the more valuable because you can miss it so easily if you’re not paying attention. My wife and I recently got a pair of kittens and I was happy to convince her on the names Jack and Elly.

    Another note is that part of the factor here is a “diamond in the rough” designation. Cust/Ellis/Hatteberg were all acquired as essentially freely available talent. Amongst the Big Three Tim Hudson was always my favorite because he was the 14th rounder making good as opposed to the high profile picks of Mulder/Zito. On the current pitching staff there isn’t a single player more compelling than Dallas Braden for similar reasons (and his devotion to the town of Stockton scores extra points here) and I definitely love me some Brad Ziggler.

    Great column.

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  11. Bill says:

    Shouldn’t the statnerd hero always and forever be Brian Bannister?

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  12. Ben says:

    More nominees:

    Josh Phelps
    Jim Mecir
    Bobby Kielty
    Jeremy Affeldt (pre-bullpen)
    Rafael Soriano (pre-bullpen)
    Andy Sonnanstine
    Matt Murton

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  13. NadavT says:

    Ah, Bucky Jacobsen, we hardly knew ye.

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  14. Nick says:

    Who are you? You just started writing here and at THT, where did you come from?

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  15. gnomez says:

    Haha.

    How about ridiculously washed-up players?

    I’m still waiting for a Jeff Fassero comeback.

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  16. Shush says:

    Dumb. Bring back useful posts that teach me stuff.

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  17. mkd says:

    Sex Muscles Branyan!

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  18. Nick says:

    I was critical of your first post, but you’ve won me over here. Your description of your feelings toward Bellhorn in 2004/5 mirror mine 100%. As a Red Sox fan, he was bar none my favorite player on the 2004 team during the regular season, and when he suddenly turned into Mr. October en route to their first championship in 1000 years, it was too perfect for words.

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  19. Joel says:

    The one player I always recall have an irrational liking to regardless of context was Ryan Klesko. Maybe it was the fact that his name rules.

    Interestingly enough, looking at his B-R page he had a much, much better career than I ever remember him having. Would he be considered undervalued in his time?

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    • B says:

      There was definitely a period in time Klesko was very highly regarded in baseball. When he was in his mid-20′s on the Braves, he was definitely considered among baseball’s best young players.

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  20. toratoratora says:

    Oil can Boyd.
    Never knew why except he was a string bean of a pitcher who threw, and did, strange and bizarre stuff.

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  21. Pat says:

    I’ve had a Wily Mo Pena mancrush for quite some time, but I think it’s time we part ways. I always hoped the Pirates would get him and just give him a full season’s worth of playing time and just see what it would amount to.

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  22. Todd says:

    For what it’s worth, Mark was/is one of my closest friends since we were in 5th grade. I actually just took my 9 year old son out to Colorado Springs to see Mark for 4 days. Mark DOES still have game and for a (soon-to-be in a few days) 35 year old I agree that he could still add value to an MLB team.

    He’s a consummate professional…he’s never been on a stage that intimidates him…and literally every clubhouse he’s ever been a part of will agree that he’s a steady calm among the players which comes in handy during the playoffs.

    As you were willing to admit Carson, I’m a bit bias due to Mark being my friend but I too just LOVED watching Mark patiently take a good pitch to wait for what he knew was his perfect pitch. Did it result in him getting called out on a 3rd strike that was slightly off the outside corner, sure…but that’s an art that has been lost during the recent MLB trend to swing-at-anything-as-long-as-you-swing-hard philosophy.

    Bottom line, my son will forever be a Mark Bellhorn fan and I can only WISH that he develops half the level of baseball skill that Mark has realized during his career!!

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  23. Eric M. Van says:

    My favorite Bellhorn stat: in 2004 he struck out in 29.7% of his PA — except with a runner on 3B and less than 2 out, where he fanned 10.5% (the first one coming, IIRC, in late June or early July) while hitting .345 / .421 / .793.

    Which leads naturally to the crucial question is: if you take WPA (the ultimate measure of actual value, even if it’s less predictive that many other metrics) and adjust for PT and defensive position, and then add defensive value according to UZR and Plus / Minus, who was the MVP of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox?

    Actually, the answer is Curt Schilling. But how about among position players?

    I’ve asked this question of many intelligent Sox fans, and even after telling them they won’t get it with five guesses, they still don’t get it.

    Not Ortiz, not Manny, not Damon, not Varitek, not Mueller … aha! they chorus. “Kevin Millar? You’re kidding.”

    And of course it’s not Millar, either. Astute readers will of course have guessed the actual answer, as they already know the answer to the question “which Boston Red Sox had a higher OBP and SA in the WS than the alleged MVP Manny Ramirez while playing at the other end of the defensive spectrum, and furthermore had the crucial hit in the first and only contested game, and was therefore one of the easiest MVP choices in WS history?”

    That Mark Bellhorn could be the actual, true regular-season positional player AND World Series MVPs and get booed out of town the next year … only in Boston.

    (Todd, if you see this and pass it on to Mark, you might note that the author of this opinion is not just some Internet crackpot but one of Theo’s former baseball ops consultants.)

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  24. sheahilly says:

    Bellhorn’s success in the 2004 postseason was in some sense a representation of the triumphant of ‘new’ stats over ‘traditional’ stats in the mainstream. A majority of Red Sox fans wanted Bellhorn benched in the playoffs for Pokey Reese, only to later witness Bellhorn hit a homer in 3 straight games. Of course, they later boo’d him out of town, but don’t let that dim my glowing recollection of GODHORN.

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  25. Matt Sisson says:

    Swing and a pop-up….

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  26. Tom says:

    I think any Sox fan worth his salt loved Dinghonk.

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  27. StevieStats says:

    So many of my friends focused on all the things Bellhorn DIDN’T do well, that they couldn’t see all the things he did well. I even named my fantasy team Mark of the Hellborn in 2005. Love that guy, and his AF hair.

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  28. Roland says:

    Genealogy: A hay stack full of needles. It’s the threads I need.

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  29. May Brazeal says:

    Hello can I quote some of the content from this entry if I reference you with a link back to your site?

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