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

Posted By Carson Cistulli On August 18, 2009 @ 1:59 pm In Daily Graphings | 49 Comments

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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