For some reason,* I’ve been thinking about Jermaine Dye recently. And since the Twins starting a big series against the White Sox, one that has the potential to bury them (or the Twins), let’s go ahead and talk about Jermaine Dye. Everybody knows he’s quite the hitter, but that he looks as awkward in the field, a la Delmon Young. On the other hand, I’ve always thought he was a pretty good defensive right fielder.
* If you read the comments, you may know the reason.
Why in blazes would I think that, I can hear you asking. Well, I think it has a lot to do with how sports memories are created. And I don’t know if that actually works very well for baseball. I know you don’t know what I mean, so … let me try to explain.
Despite the fact that I live in Chicago, I rarely watch White Sox games. I really only watch them when a) the Twins are playing them, or b) when I see that they’re getting their doors blown off by the Yankees or something and I want to enjoy a little schadenfreude. As a result, my day-to-day exposure to Dye is limited. I only see a few of his highlights on Sportscenter all season, and I see him play about 20 games.
And what I see him doing is blasting home runs into the upper deck, over and over. I see him winning games in the 9th inning — one of my lasting memories of US Cellular field was a game I attended in 2006, Santana vs Contreras. Johan pitched that day, and pitched pretty well, and it looked like the Twins were going to win it. Dye hadn’t done anything all game, but he came up against Joe Nathan, in the 9th inning, with the Twins up 7-5, and a man on base. I was in the upper deck, down the third base line, but even from their I could see Dye’s brow clenched in the way it does when he’s concentrating, that look I’d seen dozens of times in the two years it’d been since he came to the White Sox. I knew, at the same time as everyone else in the stadium, that this man was going to do it. That Joe Nathan was not going to get him out. That the game would be tied, and that the White Sox would go on to win.
Soon, he blasted a monster home run that I’m pretty sure landed somewhere in rural Illinois. I was devastated. Also I was ridiculed by the drunken White Sox fans surrounding me. The moment is seared onto my brain. This is a sports memory. This is, I think, how they are formed. They’re just instants, single moments, snapshots in time that live on in your head when you close your eyes. It kind of faded into the background that the Twins ended up winning that game in extra innings — I didn’t even remember that until I looked it up. It was that moment when I knew Dye would get a clutch hit, that Nathan would blow that save, when I knew as well as 30000 White Sox fans that the Sox were going to beat the Twins that day.
And it seems like Dye does that to the Twins all the time. He’s getting big hits and making diving catches in the outfield. It seems like every time a Twins player rips one into right field, and I lean forward thinking this is going to be the big hit we need to break the inning open, and Dye is moving like molasses out there, and dreams of the ball clattering around in the corner and turning into a triple dance through my head — and then he explodes forward, dives or slides with his glove extended, and the ball invariably finds its way into his glove. Jermaine Dye is a good fielder, right? I mean, he gets to balls that it sure doesn’t look like most outfielders would get to.
In 2006, he was -22.5 runs defensively. In 2007, -21.6 runs. In 2008, -19.4 runs. In 2009, he’s been -14.5 runs so far, with some time to build on that. Jermaine Dye is a bad fielder. I have to reconcile the fact that it seems like he’s always making a great catch when I’m watching with the fact that, when I’m not watching, he apparently can’t field his way out of a barn.* I don’t fully trust the defensive metrics, but they never say a good defender is giving up 2 wins per year with the glove. That’s just horrible defense.
* Does that newly invented idiom work? I think it doesn’t. I doubt I’ll use it again.
And it’s not a fluke — it’s been going on for four years. This is his skill level. Is it possible that he actually fields better against the Twins than against other teams? Maybe, I don’t know. I don’t know of any stats that measure something like that — UZR or UZR/150 vs opponent? If someone knows where to find that, I’m in.
But this, I think, is why sports memories don’t work in baseball. You see someone do something great in a big moment, and it’s a coincidence. You see him do it three or four times, though, and he’s a clutch player. At least in your mind — if you’ve seen the scores and scores of times he’s failed in those situations, you might not think he’s “clutch.” You might not even believe in clutch* any more.
* Albert Pujols’ OPS in “late & close” situations is 1.047 — that’s amazing! He’s a clutch player! Except that his overall career OPS is 1.055 … he’s the same hitter all the time.
That’s the thing, though. Baseball is a game of failure. Even the best players, like Mauer and Pujols, fail all the time. ESPN shows the times Pujols blasts the grand slam, or hits the walkoff home run — but he’s a transcendent star, so they don’t show the times he pops out in those situations. Nobody succeeds every time in baseball, nobody.
I’m talking about hitting right now when I’m discussing clutch players — there’s no stat for “late & close fielding,” or anything like that. And nobody really even considers it possible, right? When someone turns a key double play to end a threat in the 9th, is it a clutch fielding play? When Torii robs a game winning homer, is it a clutch fielding play? You never really hear about that. But what I’m really trying to get at is that baseball is not really about these moments. I mean — it’s nothing but these moments, it wouldn’t be baseball without these moments, you wouldn’t love it without these moments.
The thing is, baseball is a lot more than those moments, though. If you had a guy who only performed in the big moments, you wouldn’t have a very good player; you don’t get to bat with the game on the line every day. In addition to all the big moments, there are a lot of small moments. Millions of them, really. And each player builds his value, just a little bit, in each one of those millions of moments. Sometimes he does well and his value goes up — other times he does poorly and his value goes down. You can’t tell by looking at one game which players are good — how many times has Punto got a couple of hits while Morneau goes 0-4 with 2 K’s? You can’t tell by looking at a month. You can’t really even tell by looking at one year.* It takes more time that that to put all these little moments together and try to figure out how good a player actually is.
* Is Punto a .290 hitter like in 2006, or a .210 hitter like in 2007? Is he a .284 hitter like in 2008, or a .213 hitter like in 2009. My answer: No. And yes. It’s baseball.
I said this in the comments, but I know a lot of people don’t read those, so I’ll bring it to light here. (Even though I also know a lot of people don’t read this far down into my posts.)
The game is a lot larger than that one at bat you always daydreamed about when you were 10, win-or-lose in this moment. And in your dream you always win, and you idolize the players who do it in real life, who win the games at the end, who hit when it “counts.”
But you’re not 10 any more, and it always counts. Do you get hyped up more than ever for every at bat, like it’s football? Or do you relax more than you used to, accepting the games where we lose at the end because someone failed to come up with a hit in the 9th — perhaps realizing that they turned a key double play in the top of the 9th that even got us to the situation where we could win or lose in that particular at bat? Or do you just continue to “ignore” (not the right word, probably) most of the game and focus highly on those win-or-lose moments, staying a casual fan?
It’s each person’s choice. And there’s no wrong answer. But I feel like when you’re talking about who’s the worst player, you’re talking about their “value to the team.” And a player’s value is a whole lot more than a counter of the times they came through in the 9th inning.
So, yes. The big hits are the ones you remember, the moments that stick. I guess maybe that’s what defines a great player — someone you remember forever is someone playing in a lot of those highlight reels in your head. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that, and I think the beauty of the game is just that. All those tiny, meaningless moments. Every single day. All spring, summer, and fall.
Was this really about Jermaine Dye? Of course it was. But even more, it was about all the players.
Maybe now, just maybe, when you’re in the comments section talking about how badly Nick Punto sucks, you’ll have a better idea of where I’m coming from.1 comment