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August 29, 2012
First, an exercise. Get a piece of paper and a pen, or a pencil, or if you can’t find a pencil prick your finger and write with your blood. Or just type it somewhere, but don't get blood all over. Rank the following 10 players by how much you think they hustle:
Thanks. Put those aside.
There are plenty of problems with talking about hustle, one of which might or might not be that we reveal our cultural biases in who we describe as hustly. But the root of the problem is that the word hustle, as well as the act of hustle, is vague. Its meaning is subjective. Its value is unmeasurable. Its application is loaded. It’s just not a very descriptive word, and broadcasters should avoid descriptive words that aren’t actually descriptive.
I generally think of broadcasters using hustle in one of two ways. A player runs hard even though he gets no benefit from it. Or a player runs hard when there is a clear and direct benefit to it. In the first case—like running hard to first base on a walk—well, I suppose it’s hustle, but it’s false hustle. It looks good (or it looks silly), but it’s usually sound and fury and show. (When you hustle, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to hustle standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.)
In the second case—a player who goes to second on a wild pitch that barely escapes the catcher's zone, or turns what looks like a single into a double—it’s not so much hustle as running hard when there is a clear incentive to run hard. A hustle double is usually no such thing; it’s merely the baserunning equivalent of a diving catch. It’s the athlete, outstretched, taking what’s to be taken by a small margin. It’s heads-up, and it's a beautiful thing, but it’s not hustle. Neither of these is hustle.
Hustle implies something else. It suggests that there is a reward, but that the player or person is willing to expend a disproportionate amount of energy compared to the reward. To make an analogy: it's like the difference between a hustle double, sprinting to first on a walk, or... wait, that's the exact thing I just described. All my analogies are about baseball.
It really is worth talking about hustle. It’s worth it because there are marginal gains that players can pick up if they run like they gettin’ chased with no shoes on. Gains that are rare enough that players can talk themselves into not hustling. Baseball players truly do have a choice to make. And not to turn into a scold, but I, as a fan, really do value the ones who choose to run. Because a guy who is jogging down the line when this happens
bums me out.
Hustle is basically unmeasurable. But it won’t be forever, and if you had enough time, you could measure it now. The GIF above, the one with Pablo Sandoval, shows a situation that perfectly captures hustle or lack of hustle. A groundball to the left side of the infield requires the defense to perform three distinct acts cleanly: catch the ball cleanly, throw the ball accurately, catch the ball cleanly. On a routine play, a major-league infield will generally perform all three acts easily. Most of the time, running hard is a waste of time. But three acts! Three different places for them to screw up, and sometimes they screw up, and seriously there’s nothing more frustrating than watching your favorite team hit a groundball, hoping against hope that the other team will botch it, seeing them miraculously botch it, and
your guy is jogging along the line. I’m not saying boo that guy. I’m not saying bench him, or trade him, or don’t sign him for seven years and $100 million. Every player has strengths and weaknesses, and some players’ weakness is they jog to first base and lose a couple chances a year to reach first base. The point is just that some players’ strength is that they run hard, every time, and gain a couple chances a year to reach first base. And it should be okay to mention that, if only there were a way to say it without just saying it.
So here’s how I think we do it: take a player’s home-to-first time on an infield hit. We know that’s a player running hard, and that gives us a baseline for how fast he can get down the baseline. It’s not perfect; the type of swing he takes affects how quickly he gets out of the box. (For this reason, exclude bunts.)
Then find the same player hitting a groundball to shortstop or third base. Not to first base, because there’s only one act that must be completed successfully on a grounder to first base, and so really, don't bother. Not to pitcher, because the play is simply over too quickly. Not to second base, because grounders to second aren’t quite competitive enough. Just shortstop and third; plenty of time for a mistake to happen, plenty of time for a hustler to at least try to put pressure on the defense, plenty of time for a non-hustler to lope.
Then compare. The time on an out, divided by the time on the hit. That’s the hustle index. A good hustle index is 1. Same time, every time. That’s how you avoid these plays
that make me so mad.
To get a fair number, we probably need dozens of times for a player. We probably need official times. We don’t have those yet, but I’m willing to bet within a few years we will. Major League Baseball, to its credit and to our benefit, seems intent on taking every element of scouting and recording it at microscopic levels. I bet within a few years home-to-first times are just part of FIELDf/x or RUNf/x or some f/x. Then we’ll do this.
For now, there’s the unreliable but fun way to do it, and that’s what I did. I timed all 10 contested infield hits on Sunday, contested meaning there was a throw to first. Then I found the first grounder to shortstop or third I could find for the same runners, excluding plays that were quite close. We're talking about only one example of each type of run here, so the results are so far from conclusive that they’re pointless, and, again, the times really are affected by swing*, and timing varies from timer to timer, and I'm not the most reliable timer, but they’re fun. They’re fun for me. Maybe they’re fun for you. Take out the rankings you made at the beginning of the piece. Here are the actual rankings, with each player’s hustle index:
1. Starlin Castro: 0.97
Does this list look anything like your list? I bet no!
*which is how Castro can actually be slower on the infield hit