When is playing for your own stats acceptable?

One of the tenets about sports that gets beaten into our heads from a very young age is that you play for the team, not for yourself. We celebrate the players who we perceive as ignoring their personal gain for the team–the guy who advances the runner or lays down a sacrifice or throws innings at the expense of his ERA–while sneering at the guys who put up numbers for losing squads. The endless debates between statheads and insiders can be reduced to this difference, one side measuring value and the other insisting that the numbers don’t tell you what a player really does to help his team win, because statistics aren’t really connected to success.

I’m thinking about this today because of what we saw last night. With his team holding a 4-2 lead in the seventh inning, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter came to the plate, runner of second, one out. Jeter entered the game with a 25-game hitting streak, but had yet to connect on this night. Craig Hansen quickly ran the count to 3-0, opening the possibility that Jeter would draw a free pass and, given the score and inning, not get another chance to extend the streak.

Jeter would have none of that, though. Even though Hansen’s 3-0 pitch was likely ball four, outside and possibly low, he took a swing at it and grounded weakly to first base. The runner ended up stranded, and the Yankee bullpen eventually gave up three runs in a 5-4 loss. The play was a fairly crtical one in the game; the difference between first-and-second with one out against runner on third with two out is more than half a run, and a walk there might well have stoked a rally that would have put away the game.

Let's be very clear about this: Jeter was swinging to extend the hitting streak. He took an 0-2 hack on a 3-0 pitch that was likely ball four. This isn’t Jeff Francoeur or Angel Berroa here; this is a disciplined hitter who might well be the most valuable player in the American League this year. In fact, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller had spent a couple of innings at the start of the game discussing that possibility in the context of a larger discussion of what constitutes "value," going so far as to read the voting guidelines for the award. As there is in any Yankees telecast, there was praise for Jeter as a player who is a winner, who does the little things, etc.; what there wasn’t was any discussion, at all, as to the merits of his chasing ball four on a 3-0 count for no reason other than personal advancement. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened had another player, a less popular one, one not anointed by the baseball press, taken the same tack in trying to extend his hitting streak.

It was hard for me to not think about Mike Cameron. Back in 2002, Cameron hit four home runs in his first four at-bats in a game against the White Sox. He was hit by a pitch his fifth time up, and then went to 3-0 in his final AB. Despite it being a 15-4 game, and despite his chance at immortality hanging in the balance, Cameron took the 3-0 pitch. I gained a lot of respect for Cameron in that moment, and I think it’s an interesting contrast to Jeter’s seventh-inning hack last night.

Let’s be just as clear about something else, though: this game was completely meaningless. The Yankees have locked up the division title, and the Red Sox have no chance to advance to October. In fact, I think last night’s game–and the way Joe Torre has managed his team over the last three weeks–is a significant blow to the "This Time it Counts" crowd. Despite home-field advantage in two rounds of playoffs being in play, Torre has rarely played a full lineup, and he’s managed his bullpen in spring-training mode. Mike Myers was allowed to face five consecutive right-handed hitters in a close game last night, and that’s pretty much an announcement that you just don’t care enough to walk the 120 feet to the mound to make a change. Torre is blatantly unconcerned with having home-field advantage next month; he’ll likely end up with it anyway, but he hasn’t managed the last few weeks as if that were a concern. If it doesn’t matter that much to a man who’s directly affected by it and can pursue it, then it really doesn’t make the All-Star Game that much more interesting, either.

Does the lack of meaning of last night's game change things? Is it all right to pursue individual achievements once the team’s goals have been accomplished? Perhaps, although I’m sure I’ve read disdainful comments over the years about teams larded with players who, while playing out the string, were playing just for their numbers and not for the wins and losses. I think about Randy Johnson, whose 20-win season in 1997 is as legitimate as Will Carroll’s endorsement of hair-care products. In the 161st game of the year, with the Mariners having locked up the AL West, the 19-4 Johnson was inserted into a 7-2 game in the fifth inning and threw two innings of shutout relief. By game’s end, the scoring rules dictated that he be given the win, and forever branded "20-game winner." It was an appalling exploitation of the rule book, and both Johnson and Lou Piniella should have been embarrassed by their parts in the charade.

Records gain their legitimacy not from being chased, but from occuring in the natural course of games, seasons, and careers. The primary goals are wins and championships, and if individuals achieve great things along the way, that’s to be celebrated. For all the rewriting of history that has occurred with respect to Mark McGwire’s 1998 season, I thought his march to 70 home runs was sullied in the moment by the way Cardinals’ opponents treated him. With the Cardinals long out of the race and playing mostly teams in similar straits, pitchers all but grooved BP fastballs to the best hitter in the league; McGwire had by far his lowest walk rate in September of that season, and teams essentially stopped walking him intentionally. The pursuit of home runs wasn’t part of a season, it was the event itself.

For similar reasons, Pete Rose’s all-time hits record will always be a little tainted; Rose was able to keep playing solely to keep pursuing the record during a three-year stretch that would have cost any other player his career. The lineup-card machinations that allowed Lou Gehrig to continue his consecutive-games streak, or for that matter, the months of batting .180 with no power that Cal Ripken Jr. put up while pursuing Gehrig’s mark; these things detract from the records set, because they show that the record, and not the game of baseball, was front and center in that moment.

Was Jeter wrong to take that 3-0 hack? There’s no definitive answer, but I think the question deserves a bit more consideration than it got last night.

Thank you for reading

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