You Can’t Measure Heart, or David Eckstein Bows Out

The Orange County Register

In case you missed this news earlier in the week, David Eckstein is leaning toward retirement. He hasn’t officially declared yet, but considering Eckstein didn’t play at all last season — and he doesn’t seem too excited about the offers he has received — it appears that it’s only a matter of time.

Sooooo… does David Eckstein belong in the Hall of Fame? Don’t make me laugh. But if I were constructing a Hall of People-Who-Were-Important-To-Sabermetrics, Eckstein would be one of the first players I’d add.

I first became aware of Eckstein back in early 2008. When I say aware of him, I’m not saying that I didn’t know who he was. As an avid fantasy baseball player through the 2000s, I knew exactly who he was:  a middling infielder who was a last-ditch option if my starters got injured. He wouldn’t put up spectacular numbers, but he also wouldn’t tank your team’s average.

But in 2008, I learned that there was another side to Eckstein that I had never noticed before: David Eckstein, Cultural Icon. He was King of Grit. The Little Player Who Could. The Scrappiest Player You Ever Laid Eyes On. Sports writers loved him and waxed poetic about his positive traits. He played the game The Right Way. He always had a dirty uniform. His heart was so big, it threatened to consume his entire body.

Why did I finally become aware of this fact in 2008? That’s the year I started reading Fire Joe Morgan, a Hall-of-Fame-worthy baseball humor blog that thoroughly torched slipshod and lazy sports writing. And due to the nature of sports writing at the time, David Eckstein was one of their favorite targets:

David Eckstein is 4’10″ and appears to suffer from borderline albinism. Despite this, he is a mediocre MLB shortstop. After he throws the ball to first base, it looks like he needs to lie down from exhaustion. He also runs hard to first base, as most baseball players do.

Baseball analysts have interpreted this data to be somehow indicative of something more powerful than mere “tangible” baseball skills, perhaps residing somewhere deep in the (non-human?) DNA of David Eckstein.

In fact, a new wave of baseball genetic experts believes that there may be a mutant patch of genetic code on chromosome 11 in some major league ballplayers. In most cases, this causes True Yankeeism. Eckstein, they claim, was born with a mutation of a mutation; the resulting phenotype features not only acute and heightened True Yankeeism, but stunted growth and fair skin and hair.

In a weird sort of way, Eckstein was a huge part of my introduction to sabermetrics — and I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. He wasn’t merely a source of inspiration for deadline-crunched journalists; he was a rallying point for the burgeoning online world of baseball analysis. I’ve had many laughs at Eckstein’s expense, and those laughs helped inspire me to want to learn more about baseball — to look beyond the cliches and troupes, and to understand what makes baseball tick.

So as Eckstein retires, I owe him this: He actually was a pretty good ballplayer. For all the abuse we heaped on Eckstein, it was never about him; it was only because sports writers insisted on inflating Eckstein’s worth and making him out to be a superstar who single-handedly lead his teams to the World Series. Obviously this wasn’t true, but it’s also not fair that we hurled so much abuse his way.

If this truly is the end for Eckstein, he’ll finish his career with +19 wins. That’s nothing extraordinary, but during a 10-year career, that means Eckstein was an average major-league shortstop. He had two seasons where he produced at least +3 WAR — and despite the heckling over his bat — he was only 8% below average offensively during his career. He’s the 79th best shortstop since 1961, and he has nearly the exact same sort of career contributions as Craig Counsell (20.9 WAR).

Amazing? No, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a valuable player for his teams. Over his career, he made a total of $19.6 million. Yes, that’s right — Eckstein only made around $1 million/WAR over his career. Even though salaries have inflated since Eckstein started his career, that’s still an incredible return on investment.

Good luck to Eck, and thanks for the memories. I hope he ends up in a radio or television booth somewhere, since there are too few broadcasters who display that kind of heart and scrap.




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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


74 Responses to “You Can’t Measure Heart, or David Eckstein Bows Out”

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  1. SC2GG says:

    This article is a shining example of how even a short article meant to set the record straight can lead its readers on a spectacularly uplifting adventure. The article itself possesses all the intangibles that drive every Pulitzer Prize winning author’s much larger, more important works. It’s an unheralded part of a greater machine, but really, nothing is more responsible for an authors success than an article like this.

    It’s what heart can do for a writer. Heart and hustle.

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  2. Sup says:

    It’s amazing how a player can be anywhere from MVP quality to the worst player in the majors in the eyes of a person. Eckstein embodied this. It is definitely true though that in the end he was basically an average shortstop with a moderately below average bat and a slightly below average mitt, which ends up being average overall for a shortstop. I really really appreciated fire joe morgan for knocking down the terrible stuff that sports journalists write, but they do overreact as well. In the end, he was a cog in the machine of some good teams.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Eckstein got MVP votes in two different seasons, finishing 11th once. At least he was recognized for his contribution, not just his stats.

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  3. Weznoth says:

    I always thought the admiration over eckstein was because he was five foot nothing, 150lbs, and looked like a huge nerd but still managed to be a major leaguer for 10 years. That is why I looked up to him when I was a little kid when he was an Angel. He wasn’t some roided out muscle head like most were around 2002. He was somewhat inspirational. I don’t really remember reading articles about him being the best or single handedly leading anyone anywhere. But I was younger than. But honestly, I think he deserves admiration, not ridicule. It’s not his fault the media portrayed him as such. He was worth looking up to because of who he at least appeared to be. Just IMO. Obviously he was never the best.

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    • MC says:

      Yes I agree with you. I remember talking to my cousin, when he was playing baseball in junior high or 9th grade, something like that. He was telling me that all the kids on the school’s team were like 16-18 years old, 6’2″ and 200+ lbs.

      My point is how many kids are out there playing baseball who are told, “you’ll never make it”. The coaches (many of whom never accomplished anything as players themselves) look down at them, never give them a chance, etc.

      Eckstein was a WALK ON at his college’s baseball team. He wasn’t supposed to make that team, let alone the major leagues, let alone be a Major League All-Star. Look at what he accomplished at the major leagues.

      I do agree that he sets an excellent example for all the young kids, and he’s good for the game because he shows what baseball is supposed to be about.

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  4. Fan of home team says:

    If David Eckstein and Craig Counsell had a baby, it would be named True Grit.

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  5. Spencer says:

    In all fairness, he did have the highest WAR of any hitter on that 2002 Angels team and was just .1 behind Washburn for highest on the team. It was a team without superstars, but a case can certainly be made that he was their best player.

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  6. Robbie G. says:

    What percentage of all players categorized as “gritty” are not white? The disturbing subtext in conversations that you often are subjected to during a telecast about players who “play the game the right way” is the implication that non-white players succeed because of their “athleticism” whereas white players succeed because they are “smart” or “gritty” or “hard-working” or whatever.

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    • Josh says:

      I had the same thought recently when a writer mourned the Red Sox trading Scutaro because “he played the game the right way.” I’ve never heard anyone say that about Jose Reyes, despite him being small and fast. Eckstein and Scutaro are “scrappy,” Reyes is “exciting.” And I don’t remember ever hearing a writer attribute any non-white players with the leadership qualities they ascribe to Jeter, Varitek, or even Eckstein.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        I think Reyes is a pretty bad example for you to use, if you’re trying to act like everybody’s a racist. Exciting is better than scrappy. When they say Eckstein/Scutaro are scrappy, it’s because they get the most out of their limited talent. Reyes has a world of talent, so we don’t need to resort to ‘scrappy’ as a label – we have better words for him, like ‘exciting’, ‘great’, ‘all-star caliber’, etc.

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      • pierre says:

        vivalajeter- by implying that Eck or Marco get more out of their talent than Jose, you are making exactly the sort of assumption that Robbie G is objecting to.

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      • bzp says:

        Scutaro is Venezuelan. I don’t think he fits the traditional mold of a “scrappy” player any more than Reyes does.

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      • TK says:

        Willie Harris would be a much better example.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        Bro, I’m pretty sure Derek Jeter is ascribed some of The leadership qualities they ascribe to Derek Jeter.

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      • Big Baby says:

        You know Jeter is half black right?

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        Barry Larkin was called a leader his entire career. He is non-white as you put it.

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      • Dexter Bobo says:

        It’s not a black/white thing, it’s a dreadlock/non-dreadlock thing.

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      • B N says:

        @Pierre: Saying that somebody like Eckstein got the most out of his talent doesn’t imply that Reyes doesn’t get the most out of his talent. Reyes may well be getting the most out of his talent, with that being about twice as much total talent. Your reading of vivalajeter’s statements assumes a false dichotomy, that by stating one person is using their full talents then another person is not.

        With that said, Reyes has recently not been getting the most out of his talent due to injuries so even that would not necessarily have a racial connotation. People who are labeled as “getting the most out of their talent” may be more durable than the average player also. That is technically something different than grit though, as while Aaron Rowand was certainly gritty- his grit definitely got him injured enough that it’s unclear if lead to optimal use of his playing time.

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      • B N says:

        On the other hand, I definitely believe that sports writers use racial and cultural cues to select their superlatives. Otherwise wouldn’t guys like Rey Sanchez or Alex Gonzalez be called scrappy too? They both seemed to work pretty hard and weren’t exactly overflowing with talent but seemed to make the most of it.

        Instead, I believe Gonzalez is typically referred to as “slick with some pop.” Can’t remember what Sanchez was called, maybe that he had “hustle” but he wasn’t “scrappy” or “gritty” to my recollection. Gonzalez may be too tall to be scrappy, but Sanchez was a pretty small dude and with 15 HR and over 1.3k hits, I’d imagine he earned every one of them.

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      • gnomez says:

        I’m pretty sure I can remember Mike Shannon calling Rey Sanchez gritty.

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    • nate says:

      Let’s not forget about white NFL DL with their” high motors”

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  7. cpebbles says:

    Never forget, Jayson Stark proclaimed the Cardinals giving him a 3 year deal the worst contract of the 2004 offseason. Naturally, he earned the entire amount in the first year.

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  8. delv says:

    I honestly think there’s a bit of revisionism going on here. Eckstein was pretty hated on by the SABR community. The arisen appreciation of positional value makes it clear now that he was a solid player, but back when SABR-fans were more concerned with OBP and SLG as the best measures of a player’s worth, Eckstein was likely quite underrated by the community.

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    • BJ says:

      I agree. If anything he was underrated as the pendulum swung too far in the wrong direction. He didn’t get his due as a player when you look at his contribution on the field vs how he was compensated.

      As for perception … that’s hardly his fault. The guy is the nicest person you could ever hope to meet. He didn’t bring the attention onto himself. It found him because he was a great story.

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  9. Vin says:

    “So as Eckstein retires, I owe him this: He actually was a pretty good ballplayer. For all the abuse we heaped on Eckstein, it was never about him; it was only because sports writers insisted on inflating Eckstein’s worth and making him out to be a superstar who single-handedly lead his teams to the World Series. Obviously this wasn’t true, but it’s also not fair that we hurled so much abuse his way.”

    When I read this, I subbed Michael Young’s name in for Eckstein. Like seeing a few years into the future.

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  10. nate says:

    Is that photo doctored? He really isn’t that much smaller than everyone else, right?

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  11. Great write-up Steve. Did not realize that bit about the salary. It really puts an interesting and new spin on the matter.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      I actually don’t think its all that unusual. In addition to drastic $/WAR inflation, any average player should accrue millions in surplus value during his first 6 years. The $/WAR numbers we’re used to seeing are based on free agency.

      Check some players with similar careers. Adam Kennedy, Jhonny Peralta, Jerry Hairston, Marco Scutaro, Craig Counsell are all about $1M/WAR for their careers. Ronnie Belliard is at $0.77M/WAR.

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  12. Matt says:

    as a short guy myself, this guy is a hero. i was told i was too small to make it, and it sucks to know that theres nothing you can do to change that. even though I never played ball, seeing this guy, with my about my stature, compete with the perfect physical specimens of the MLB meant a lot to me.

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    • ngrimson says:

      MLB recognizes your demographic but now that they have Tim Collins the marketing dept. doesn’t have to force a team to offer Eck a contract.

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  13. rj says:

    I really appreciate this article, because as a Cardinals fan I can remember going through the exact same swing over the virtue of Eckstein as a Baseball Player. I definitely loved those FJM articles, but in time have come to realize that Eck actually did belong on the field.

    Over at vivaelbirdos, bgh did a great write-up of the same topic probably less than a week ago. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

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  14. Andre says:

    David Eckstein is one of my favorite players ever.

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  15. Curtis says:

    I miss Fire Joe Morgan. That is all

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    • Kyle K. says:

      Yeah, the world always needs more smug, self-important Red Sox fans who don’t know half as much about baseball as they think they do. Dumb sportswriters : Eckstein in his Cardinals days :: young baseball fans with SABR leanings : FJM. I’m not saying they weren’t ever funny or insightful, but good God were they overrated by some people.

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      • Ari Collins says:

        I don’t think they were overrated at all. They filled a role no one was really filling, a sort of Daily Show mockery of sportswriting. They were consistently funny and right on target.

        Ken Tremendous running multiple TV shows was the best thing that could have happened to lazy sportswriting.

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  16. ChrisFromBothell says:

    He was a professional ballplayer who basically looked like me. Well, what I could look like if I had kept fit in my teens. It sounds dorky to call him inspirational, but he really was one of those regular guy, livin the dream sorts of guys.

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  17. James says:

    Rhetorical question for fans of Parks & Rec and FJM – would you trade Parks & Rec (i.e., no more new episodes) for a FJM revival?

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  18. Jeffrey Gross says:

    This is why i blogged under the pseudonym “David MVP Eckstein” for so long

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  19. Choo says:

    Above all, I will miss Eckstein’s arm. Watching him charge a routine groundball as hard as any human (or marmot) could possibly charge a routine groundball – the desperation of a man with a flaccid marshmallow shooter attached to his right shoulder. Charming, inspirational and often hilarious. Little Eck.

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  20. TheGrandslamwich says:

    I never realized that fearsome Eckstein/Kennedy double play combo combined for 8.1 WAR for the 2002 Angels.

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  21. Wobatus says:

    He played well on a couple of championship teams. He was decent for a few years, with ups and downs, with relatively limited physical skills. He was better than average in occasional seasons at some key defensive spots compared to some of the best athletes in the world. He appeared to get the most of his abilities. Many don’t. The msm may have over-praised at times, although it’s not like he didn’t deserve some recognition. I think the snark-patrol made a much bigger deal out of him than the msm did. And the divide was less sabr than attitude and world-view, if not generational.

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  22. wobatus says:

    Google search results:

    David Eckstein scrappy: 47,200
    David Eckstein overrated: 70,600
    David Eckstein heart: 370,000 results.

    Likely half the latter in articles making fun of people saying he had heart.

    OK, so not exactly scientific.

    In a 5 year stretch from 2002-2006 played on 2 different championship teams, the Cards first in 24 years at the time and Angels only one.

    In that stretch he was 14th in ss WAR.

    He averaged 2.76 WAR per 150 games in that stretch. Averaged .73 UZR/150 over that stretch. A mid-level starting ss in major league baseball, boosted by a good 2002 season with the ws winning angels.

    He got worse after that but the plaudits kept coming from those that recalled the titles, the guy getting alot from his abilities. Hhe didn’t strike out much, maybe it wasn’t the heart but the eyes and hand eye coordination-off the charts I tells ya, or maybe, ya know, he choked up with 2 strikes. Eventually as he got worse the the jokes outweighed the plaudits. And sure, the jokes weren’t meant to be at his expense. But for a 19th round draft pick to have that career, pretty damn good.

    His family has a history of some rare kidney ailment and he I believe I recall will be donating one once he retires. He’s got more heart thatn you do, and I am sure will do more with one kidney than most could do with, well, more than one.

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  23. Clark Addison says:

    ALL SCRAPPY/HEART/GRIT TEAM

    (Help me out)

    C ?
    1b Matt Stairs
    2b Ryan Theriot
    SS Eckstein
    3b ?
    LF ?
    CF Richie Ashburn
    RF Pete Gray (too soon?)

    SP Jaime Moyer/RA Dickey/Jack Morris
    RP Kent Tekulve/Tim Collins

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  24. ezb230 says:

    I assume he’s leaning toward retirement because the wind is blowing real hard in that direction.

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  25. Dimitri says:

    I thought he was a mediocre player. Not at all sad to see him go.

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    • Wobatus says:

      From 2002-2006 he averaged 2.75 WAR and started at ss for 2 world series champions. If you are ever among the best 15 people in the world at anything, don’t let us know.

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