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.