hWAR: The Value Of Hustling

The vast majority of baseball games are determined by the team that better executes on the mound, in the batter’s box, or in the field. However, sometimes a game is decided based upon one player’s hustling. Lee Gregory looks at plays made by Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Daniel Nava and Derek Jeter which leads him to wonder why all MLB players are not consistent hustlers.

All games are the culmination of every play, every action that occurs from start to finish. As we all know, some plays mean more than others, and often the outcome hinges on that one moment, that one choice, that one action. These can seem fairly inconsequential at the time, their full impact only becoming apparent as the rest of the game plays out. But hindsight can be a wonderful thing, and when we reflect on these plays they can illuminate a particularly beautiful aspect of a particularly beautiful sport.

The Red Sox’ 1-0 win over the Rays on April 21st pivoted around one such sequence of events. On a fairly routine grounder back to the pitcher, Mookie Betts took off from first (a certain out at second), and managed to disturb Rays’ 2B Ryan Brett just enough that his throw eluded Logan Forsythe at first. What could have been an inning-ending 1-4-3 double play turned into an error, allowing Ryan Hanigan to come around from second with what would be the game’s only run:

In this moment, Betts exemplified the essence of what we call “hustle” – playing flat out in situations where the extra effort exerted is highly likely to be spent in futility, for the fraction of a chance that maybe, just maybe, this time it might matter.

I have always been drawn to such moments. Perhaps it is because when I played, “hustle” was pretty much all I had. I am short, not especially fast nor strong of arm. I made contact at the plate, but my most powerful drives rarely cleared an outfielder’s head. But my dad taught me to always hustle, and in doing so those weak grounders to shortstop sometimes turned into infield hits. And that overthrow on the steal of second did not end up with a runner on third because the little guy backed the play up from center. Just a couple of years ago, I was part of a 1-7 inning-ending double play. You will have to use your imagination, but hustle was part of the equation.

The astute observer can find such actions in almost any ball game. They are almost always meaningless, but I find them beautiful nonetheless. For instance, just watch Dustin Pedroia on any bases-empty grounder to the left side – you will see him flash through your field of vision as he sprints to back up first in the event of an overthrow. There is part of me that says we should not marvel at such actions. They should be more commonplace. In fact, on one level it is incomprehensible that every multi-million dollar athlete being paid to play a game does not hustle each and every play. It costs absolutely nothing other than a few ergs of possibly wasted energy. And every once in a while it wins a ballgame:

For me, one of the most beautiful moments of the 2013 World Series came on the final play of a Red Sox loss. We know it as the infamous “obstruction” play, where Allen Craig tripped over Will Middlebrooks on Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s overthrow (his final act in a Red Sox uniform by the way) and was awarded home plate and the winning run. The beautiful element that is almost universally overlooked is Daniel Nava’s backup of that throw. Think about it for a second. That play began with one out, runners at second and third and a ground ball hit to second base. Nava in left field could have pulled up a chair and a bowl of popcorn and watched. Instead he bolts to the left field line and is there when Salty airmails it past third. No way Craig is expecting that – he must have been the most surprised guy in the house when the ball beat him to the plate:

The poster child of hustle plays is, of course, St. Derek of Jeter for his backhand flip in the 2001 ALDS against the Athletics. Fans everywhere marveled at that play. I did too – still do, despite my loathing of all things pinstripe. Maybe the one person who did not so much marvel as smile in satisfaction is Rod Delmonico, who coached the Tennessee Volunteers baseball team from 1990 to 2007. Delmonico authored one of my favorite books of all time, a slim paperback volume innocuously entitled “Defensive Baseball”. In it, Delmonico diagrams numerous baseball situations and indicates the proper rotation of each and every defensive player on each play. While the “Jeter” situation is not diagrammed explicitly, it reflects the spirit of Delmonico’s teaching, which echoes that of my father and other coaches back to little league:

This boils down to one directive: “Get someplace where you might be useful – fast!”. That is what Derek Jeter did and what Pedroia and Nava still do. That is what EVERY player should be doing on EVERY play – offensively or defensively. But they do not, do they? I am still baffled by why the hell not. All it takes is a little situational awareness and some heart. When you are playing a game at its highest level, that does not seem to be beyond reasonable expectation.

It would be interesting to try to quantify a player’s “hWAR” – the number of wins above replacement contributed by hustling. More elusive than defensive metrics, I imagine, but as we have seen with pitch-framing, sometimes little things, often overlooked, can make significant contributions to team success.

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