A Little Bit Above Normal

Here’s a quote about outfield defense from Torii Hunter at his reintroduction to Minnesota press conference:

“Eyes (are) your judge. I think whoever believes in that sabermetrics stuff never played the game and won’t understand it. There’s no way you can measure playing outfield. Only eyes can do that. … I’ve dropped off — I’m older — but not much. When you set the bar so high, and you’ve played the outfield as I did when I was younger, and you do a lot of different things (you hit for power) if it drops off just a little bit, they say, ‘Hey this guy’s done.’ No, I’m not. I might be just a little bit above normal.”

According to St. Paul’s Mike Berardino, he then shook his head and laughed.

“Man,” he said. “That was cocky.” There’s an awful lot in that Hunter quote, but I don’t want to rehash the tired stuff about whether you can quantify defense or what it even means to measure stuff “with your eyes” or how people who believe in that sabermetric stuff are like D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s parents — they just don’t understand. There’s something else in there, something sort of sweet and vulnerable and emotional, even if Torii Hunter himself doesn’t realize it.

It’s damned hard to grow old in baseball. Or, if you prefer, it’s just damned hard to grow old.

Consider batting average for a moment. Don’t consider how useful a statistic it is or how it compares to on-base percentage or any of that. Just consider batting average on its own terms — it is figured by dividing hits by at-bats. Yes, there are some complications to determining what is a hit and what is an at-bat, but generally speaking this is about as simple as baseball rate statistics get.

Now, look at Willie Mays’ career.

He hit .347 when he was 27 years old.

He hit .314 when he was 31 years old.

He hit .317 when he was 34 years old.

He hit .289 when he was 36 years old.

He hit .271 when he was 40 years old.

He hit .211 in 66 games in his final year at age 42.

Here’s the thing: Mays knew HOW to hit a baseball throughout his career. If anything, he knew much much MORE about hitting a baseball when he was 40 than when he was 27. He had seen many more fastballs, many more curveballs, many more sliders. When he was 27, he had not yet faced Koufax at his best, Gibson at his best, Drysdale at his best. At 27, he had never even played Major League baseball on the West Coast. He learned so much baseball through the years — so much about hitting, so much about how to read a pitcher, so much about how to deal with the environment, so much about how go with the pitch, so much about everything.

If there had been no such thing as batting average, or any other useful offensive statistic, Willie Mays at 42 would probably have understood he wasn’t QUITE the player he had been when he was young. He would have understood that his body simply didn’t react the way it once had. But I suspect his mind would have told him again and again: “You make up for it by knowing so much more.” I suspect he would have seen himself as a good and useful hitter — or as Torii Hunter says: “A little bit above normal.”

The .211 batting average, though, that was a bucket of ice water that could not be disregarded. For 125 or so years now, batting average has always been there to throw that cold water on old hitters. Batting average is powerful, unambiguous and it glares like the noontime sun.

This is what fascinates me about baseball defense. We still don’t have defensive numbers that are widely accepted. When Torii Hunter scoffs at sabermetrics, he still has a large audience within baseball that nods along. And, truth is, many people who are steeped in sabermetrics have real problems with most of today’s defensive statistics like UZR or Defensive WAR or the Dewan Plus/Minus. I think we will have a deeper discussion about all this when talking about Gary Sheffield’s Hall of Fame case.

But, beyond the statistic, there is the mindset. Torii Hunter knows more about playing baseball defense than just about anybody in the entire world. He was a breathtaking centerfielder for years, both by the numbers and by the eyes. He stole home runs, and he snagged singles from the grass, and he threw out more than 100 baserunners over the years. He was a joy to watch … and inside his own mind he had to feel like he was learning something new all the time, learning angles, learning positioning, learning the sky, learning the wind.

Now, he’s 39 and he has a doctorate in defense, he’s the poet laureate of defense, he probably knows more about how to play the outfield than any two guys combined in the game today. And the question remains: What does all this knowledge mean? What can you do with it? When it comes to hitting, we know exactly what it means — Stan Musial hit .255 his last year. Babe Ruth hit .181 in 28 games at the end. Derek Jeter hit .256. Ichiro has not hit .300 either of the last two seasons, though his mind is one of a batting wizard. No matter how much knowledge you have, in the end, it won’t catch you up to the fastball.

But what about defense? Can positioning and anticipation and a thorough understanding of the game make a declining older player useful in the outfield? Those disputed numbers we do have decisively say, “NO!” In fact the numbers say that players peak and decline EARLIER on defense than they do as hitters.

But, per Torii Hunter, we’re not talking numbers. We’re taking the eyes. We’re talking the mind. We’re talking the heart.

“I might be just a little bit above normal,” Hunter says, and to me there is just something touching about those words. Torii Hunter is 39 years old now, and he is still at this crazy game. He has found ways to keep contributing offensively in his winter years — back to batting average, his only two years of .300 batting averages came at ages 36 and 37. He can still hit the ball with some authority.

And the defensive numbers that show him to have fallen dramatically (Dewan had him a dreadful 18 runs below an average right fielder last year)? Well, he just doesn’t buy them. Numbers never played the game. Torii Hunter’s mind tells him that he may no longer be supernormal out there, but he’s certainly better than normal. His mind, like most of our minds, will not be persuaded otherwise.