By his expression, Tim Anderson thought the question odd, which, given the context, it was. He’d been asked about his personal statistics while nearing the end of a 60-game season played in, around and through obstructions and complications, and then how he viewed them as compared to a real season. A normal season.
He narrowed his eyes. He discovered something in the distance that held his gaze. Maybe he repeated the question to himself.
How do I feel about my stats this year?
He returned to the conversation still, as far as he knew, a .373 hitter at the time, and a defending batting champion.
“Happy?” he offered, slow and suspicious.
“I guess?” he added, as though he might require a getaway.
Then, as it became apparent this was not a trap, he continued apace.
“Yeah, ’cause I did that,” he said, now maybe a touch defensive. “Man, I did that. These games still count. Let’s not get confused. I do go out there every day and compete against top pitching. So, whether it’s 60 games or whether it’s 162 games, let’s not forget that you are competing at one of the highest levels. And that’s not easy to do.”
And that was what he had to say about that.
On the subject of personal statistics and their owners, there are two types of conversations that follow — one when those statistics remain in play and the other when the statistics are final and therefore seared irrevocably into their souls.
It being September and there still being a few games to play, some personal statistics and their owners await a miracle. The rest wish you’d stop asking and just go away, because there are no questions that will be of any assistance, only questions that may foul perfectly good juju.
Either way, owners — and, really, with time left most would view themselves as renters — would say that addressing personal statistics when they are not final can only bring trouble.
Even in a freak of a season that has come with postponements for a killer virus, false positives for a killer virus, social unrest, rain, a hurricane and smoke, that has seen games in Buffalo and home games on the road (along with road games at home), that has seven-inning baseball games and unearned double-ish things, that is all of two months long, a man’s statistics are a man’s statistics, ’til death do they part, unless they can be reasonably rationalized away.
That means, for the moment, in terms of batting average alone, 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger is a .231 hitter and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich is a .215 hitter, every bit as much as Donovan Solano is a .337 hitter and Jeimer Candelario is a .307 hitter, with a week to go. By WAR, among the worst players on the field have been Gary Sanchez, J.D. Martinez, Gregory Polanco and David Dahl. Among the best: Trent Grisham, Ian Happ and Teoscar Hernandez, which is not to say these are not good players, as they certainly are, and yet every scout’s favorite maxim is that players should not be wholly judged in April or September. August counted as April and half the season is in September.
One day soon, those numbers will indelibly fall under the category known as “2020.” That is the season, grubby as it was, and it’ll get an entire line by itself. Those are the statistics, for better or worse. Anyone who lived it, played it, will know what it was and adjust for, well, stuff. In every sense, baseball included, 2020 was less than ideal, and most showed up and did the best they could and a few — many of them baseball players — would have to put a batting average (among a hundred other numbers) next to it. Or an ERA. Or a winning percentage. In lieu of a dull ache, ballplayers get a number.
How they feel about that would be entirely up to them. And, of course, might depend on the number.
‘I earn all my failures. And I earn all my successes.’
Years ago, a very talented and confident big-league ballplayer revealed to me that — good or bad — he wore his batting average like a tattoo on his forehead. In the clubhouse, on the field, at home, in restaurants, in coffee shops, at newsstands, he believed people saw the batting average before they saw him. Here comes ol’ .224. Here comes .325. In the worst of times, he assumed the cab driver was polite enough not to mention it. In the best, that nobody spit in his food because he was raking.
Presumably, not all players are like that. Also, some are. What the baseball season — most of them — provides is clarity. Over six months, you are what your numbers say you are, give or take horrendous luck and injuries and a dopey manager who does not understand why you should not be hitting seventh.
So what’s a pitcher to do with 11 or 12 starts? A batter with 230 plate appearances?
They get small. Or, in 2020, smaller. They abide by distancing protocols, they roll out their achy backs in their hotel rooms, they tend to their swings at appointed batting cage times, and they chase the routine that is anything but. Then they live with the results, best they can, and either hope it lasts or the cab driver is uncommonly kind. You know, if they were allowed in a cab.
So, said Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who has 12 home runs and a .215 batting average, “Today’s the only thing that matters. Pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, whatever’s in front of me at that moment, that’s the only thing that should matter. Whether you look at a 162-game or a 60-game season, yeah it’s a bigger sample size in a normal year, but at the end of the day it should be, for me, it should only be day to day, worry about who’s on the mound, who’s in front of you and what you gotta do to help your team win that day.
“So, whatever they are at the end of the year, I earned that. Whether it’s a good year or bad year, I’m the only one that’s in the box. I’m the only one that’s on the field. I earn all my failures. And I earn all my successes.”
Alonso is an earnest young man who has a nice feel for accountability. Like him, many players seem to have slid into a team-first mentality, which may or may not have existed before, or at least not to the degree it would in a two-month frenzy of baseball games and spit tests.
Statistics are where the money is, where the playing time comes from, where the service time accumulates and where the ego feeds. But, as Josh Donaldson noted, nobody’s setting any records in 2020, unless it’s for hugs successfully avoided.
“I think for some people they’re putting more significance on at-bats,” he said. “The gravity of the games is more. The fewer at-bats throughout the course of the season to some people mean more, so that can kind of have a negative impact.
“The positive side of it is, nobody’s going to go out here and hit 40 homers,” he said. “It’s not always about hitting home runs. And maybe you see some guys trying to shorten up, take a single, move a guy over because getting that run over means that much more. Not to say that doesn’t matter in a 162-game season, but I just think there’s a change of focus because it’s such a shorter season, it’s more playoff type of baseball. Where every game holds a significant amount of importance.”
Injuries and 2020 have limited Donaldson to 25 games, during which he’s hit six home runs, batted .243 and mussed up one umpire’s workstation. His on-base and slugging percentage are near career averages, which is the important thing, and besides there are few truths to be had over 25 games. There are a couple more to be had over 50 or 60, but not many, and then in the bigger picture a .500 record is probably good enough to make the playoffs, at which point everybody’s at .000 (or 0.00) again, teams and players.
“This is one of the more trying years I’ve ever played in my entire career,” said Josh Tomlin, veteran right-hander for the Atlanta Braves whose 4.84 ERA is a run higher than last season’s. “And I’ve been on some bad teams. I’ve been on one of the best teams in the American League. We were one of the best teams in the National League last year. But, yeah, absolutely, this season is one of the more challenging seasons we’ve ever had to go through from a lot of different standpoints. So, to be able to go out there and put up numbers in a season like this, it could be difficult. There’s a lot of different ways of looking at it. The adrenaline the guys get. How hitters react when the crowd reacts. How a pitcher might overthrow when the crowd reacts. Or getting booed. There’s a lot of different things that go into it. We don’t have any of that stuff around. So it’s new for everybody. The hotel situations. The food situations. There’s a lot of different things that go into it this year that’s hard to quantify, but, you know, for as challenging a season as it is, for guys to come out here and perform and show up is pretty impressive.”
Mike Trout, again on the MVP short list, shrugged, noted the endemic hardships, used the word “crazy” a few times and concluded, “You’re still going out there and playing a season. Well, not a full season. But you’re still playing games.”
Said Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, whose team will have spent every inch of these two months in ghastly irrelevance: “Man, I’ll say again, we’re professional baseball players. We all want to have success. You want to go out there and compete. I don’t know of any player who goes up to that plate and wants to make an out.”
When stats feel smaller
While 60 games might hardly seem like a season, the St. Louis Cardinals might not play even that many. Whatever individual statistics they post — Paul Goldschmidt is having one of the best “seasons” of his career, Adam Wainwright apparently is spending a lot of time with teammate Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Matt Carpenter is a hot week away from .200 — will have survived a COVID-19-related first month in which they spent more time staring at the walls of their hotel rooms than they did on the field.
So, they show up, play all their doubleheaders, and if somebody wants to count up the numbers, they’d be free to have at it.
“I try not to look too much at stats in general,” Cardinals utilityman Tommy Edman said. “And, obviously, given the fact this is a shortened season, there is the potential for there to be a small sample size, and to be skewed by a small sample size. So, I think stats are a little bit more irrelevant this year. … It’s not something that’s as important, I feel.”
Maybe, too, it would be natural to put individual statistics in a place that’s more, let’s say, healthy. The baseball season is happening in the same world as everything else. They get newspapers there.
“Some people have family problems,” Miami Marlins left fielder Corey Dickerson said. “My grandfather passed away. I’ve had some family issues. I haven’t seen my family since, shoot, the week before the season started. I have two kids, one on the way. Those things weigh on players. We’re humans. You know, we’re not machines. But, statistically, when it comes down to this point, for me personally I try to just have fun. How close we are, it’s just do whatever you can to make it to the playoffs. Do whatever you can to help today. Even if it’s a walk, score a run, you’ll be glad you looked at it and went about it that way than to worry about your own numbers.”
He grinned and described an environment in which he stands alone in the outfield. Any sounds he hears are push-button generated, unless he were to wear a mask, and then he could listen to himself breathe. That’s a lot of time to think about the bad at-bats, the good at-bats and whatever else might occur to a guy in the summer of 2020.
The games are played there, too, where they don’t necessarily keep statistics, or not the ones you’d take into arbitration anyway. So, the game is different for the moment, and it is difficult, and the judgments will in retrospect be forgiving. Do they like their stats? Well, that depends. Do they believe in them? That depends too.
What day is it? And what are they hitting?
“So let’s not take this for granted that I’m hittin’ what I’m hittin’” Tim Anderson said, then grinned. “I need a little respect.”
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