Blue Jays, Baseball and the Elusive Hustle

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Tuesday, August 25.  Blue Jays at Texas.  Top of the 9th, score tied 5-5.  Two out, Tulo on first, Revere on third.  Josh Donaldson up.

Josh hits an easy grounder to Adrian Beltre at third base.  You know, the four times Gold Glove winner, four times Fielding Bible winner, lifetime UZR/150 of 13.8 over 16,000+ innings Beltre.  THAT Adrian Beltre.

So what does Josh do?  This has to be about as sure an end-of-the-inning as you can get, right?

Josh runs full speed to first, not hesitating a moment out of the box. Beltre may or may not have been startled by JD’s effort, but in any case, he throws wide, pulling Moreland off the bag.  Josh makes it to first, Revere scores.  Jays win the game 6-5.

Flash forward to September 1.  Cleveland at the Jays.  Bottom of the second, Jays up 1-0, one out.  Dioner Navarro hits a slow hopper to Cody Anderson and starts running to first at what could charitably be called a jog.  Anderson’s throw pulls Santana off the bag at first.  But Navarro is so far from the bag, Carlos is able to recover and record the out.

Some would argue that Dioner was right and Josh wrong.  A player like Beltre probably makes that play 99 times out of 100, and running that hard to first could result in a pulled hamstring or twisted ankle.  Or, if the inning ended there, Josh could be winded and his play in the field in the next inning could be affected.

“Respect 90 … going to make daily push for our players to respect that distance .. run hard for 90 feet, and the respect will come back to you – Joe Maddon

Others (raising hand) would disagree.  We feel that a player should give full effort on every play, except where by doing so the player is assuming unusual risks (I was holding my breath when Josh went into the stands on June 24, but trying to keep Marco Estrada‘s perfect game bid alive was a good reason).  This is not limited to running hard to first, but includes things like running out fly balls and would-be home runs (it is painful to see a missed catch in the OF only result in a batter on first, because the batter basically watched the play from the batter’s box).  My view is that when an opposing team knows that they will pay for any mistakes, it increases the pressure.  And if a team can even get (or prevent) a single base with hustle in every close game, it can have a huge impact over the length of the season.

Joe Maddon, ex-manager of the Tampa Rays and now managing the Cubs, has taken this philosophy one step further.  He has had “Respect 90” painted on Field 1 of the Cubs Complex, and has made it the Cubs’ motto for 2015.   And – in Maddon’s mind – it goes beyond the run to first.  As he said,

"If you can get a baseball player to run hard to first base and he respects that 90 feet, then that will permeate the rest of his game in a positive way. I think it’s that simple, i.e., why Andrew McCutchen became my favorite player a couple years ago. We’re playing in Port Charlotte at 10 o’clock at night. In the ninth inning with two outs, he hits a routine ground ball to shortstop. And beats it out. What does that say to the rest of the Pirate organization?"

Some would argue that it is inappropriate to ask superstar players to run out low-probability plays for reasons other than injury.  It makes them look foolish, as if they don’t know that the play will likely result in an out.  Or they look less “cool”.  Some would even argue that a team with this expectation would alienate their stars and become an undesirable location for premiere free agents, who would feel “disprespected”.

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My own view is that this is an expectation issue.  When a MVP-calibre player like Donaldson pushes hard every play, it should establish a baseline for the other players.  A new player joining the team would soon become aware of these standards, and the process would become a virtuous cycle.  The gains from this extra effort might well be marginal, but remember – the Jays have lost 20 games so far in 2015 by a single run.

The bottom line?  I am unquestionably optimistic and very likely naive to expect a team to play every game with this level of urgency.  But, even putting aside the impact of hustle on a team’s won-loss record, I find intelligent, motivated baseball far more enjoyable to watch.  And enjoying the game is, after all, the bottom line.

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