One of baseball’s most interesting unsolvable questions is how much a player can truly learn during the course of his career. We know that dozens of players come into the minor leagues every year, many with similar levels of raw ability. Some get out of A-ball; most do not. For many that fail, it may be the case that they’ve already peaked, that whatever athletic ability they had reached its greatest extent in high school or college, and cannot be pushed further. Others not only have a higher ceiling, but through practice, repetition, and aptitude, they are able to get an extra something out of whatever nature gave them. Think of Ted Williams, obsessively taking batting practice, or Tony Gwynn and his videotape.
Yet, had they not had the ability to learn, they still would have been very, very good. It is impossible to say just how much improvement their dedication earned them-a five percent bonus? Two percent? One? Unlike going on a diet or quitting smoking, we know that being a successful ballplayer is not just a question of mind over matter. You have to have the strength, the speed, and the eye, or you’re not going to succeed. These things can be improved if you have them to begin with, but they cannot be learned.
One area where we often hear that players can learn is in the area of plate judgment. You probably hear it at least once a game from your local broadcaster. “If only Denny Baszinski could learn to lay off the high fastball,” the play-by-play man might say. “Randy Russell has to make up his mind that he’s going to take a pitch or two instead of hacking at everything.” Yet, these expressions might be wholly unfair. They presume that an Alfredo Griffin, Shawon Dunston, or Rob Picciolo has made a conscious decision to be a hacker, and that with a different attitude they could be, if not as selective as Williams or Frank Thomas, at least 50 times per year. Bill James has often used the word “intelligence” as a synonym for good plate judgment. This may be presumptuous. It might not be that these players are too “baseball stupid” to walk, but instead a case that they just can’t, in the same way that most of us cannot hit a major league fastball, or a minor league fastball. Or a fastball.
You can go in circles with this kind of reasoning. Robinson Cano is as impatient a player as there is in baseball, yet just a couple of weeks ago he took three walks in one game twice in a 14-game span. Sure, one of the walks was intentional, but knowing Robbie, he wanted to swing-it does happen, as in the ninth inning of this game, when Joe Ferguson, actually a fairly patient hitter, trigged a brawl by singling on a wide one from Tug McGraw. More seriously, we’ve seen Jose Reyes become more patient without taking more pitches, which suggests that a ballplayer really can learn, if not to keep his bat on his shoulder, then at least to have a better idea of what he’s swinging at.
Before last season, the Mets brought in Rickey Henderson, owner of 2190 career walks, to coach Reyes on selectivity. Henderson is with the club now as well. The lessons both did and did not take. In 2005, when Reyes walked just 27 times in 733 plate appearances, he saw 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. Last year, when he doubled his rate of walks per plate appearance, he saw 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. This year, having improved his walk rate still further (helped somewhat by 12 free passes), Reyes is seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. He’s not any more patient than he ever was, but he’s doing a better job of picking his pitch and doing something good with it. Whether this came about because of Henderson’s teachings, or because a 24-year-old Reyes is better able to access his gifts than the 22-year-old Reyes could, or some combination thereof, is unclear.
The indeterminate relationship of Henderson’s presence and Reyes’ improvement brings to mind outfielder Augie Galan and his own relationship with a younger infielder. Galan isn’t much remembered today, but he was a star for the Cubs in the mid-1930s, particularly in 1935 when he was the leadoff man for a Cubs team that won 21 straight games in September to steal the pennant from the Cardinals. Galan was a switch-hitter with speed, patience, and power. Galan would have been a star in the 1970s or ’80s, with a game that was a bit similar to that of Roy White or Von Hayes. In 1935, his best year, he batted .314/.399/.467, knocking 41 doubles, 11 triples, and 12 home runs. He led the NL in runs (133) and stolen bases (22), and was second in walks with 87.
Galan was the first player in major league history to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game (on June 25, 1937), and between his speed and what seems likely to prove to be a propensity for hitting fly balls, never hit into double plays. That’s not mere hyperbole. If you look at Galan’s 1935 line, you will note a zero in the GIDP column. That’s not because the number wasn’t recorded (the league leader was Hank Leiber of the Giants, with 20); Galan simply didn’t get doubled up that year, though oddly enough he did hit into a triple play that April. He was a perennial top-ten finisher in the walks category, twice leading the league with totals over 100.
While Galan was playing in Chicago and later Brooklyn, a future big leaguer named Billy Martin was growing up in Berkeley. During the offseason, Galan and other big leaguers from the area would practice together in the local parks and play pickup games against the local semipro talent. These were public events, and Martin tagged along, eventually ingratiating himself to Galan. A cheerful, good-natured man, Galan would tutor Martin and other neighborhood kids, “on basic things that kids just don’t know.” Martin was a scrappy kid who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Galan thought he recognized a kindred spirit-he himself had fought his way to the big leagues despite a permanently deformed throwing arm, the result of a childhood injury that had never properly healed. (The bad arm would make Galan a left fielder despite his center fielder’s speed, and eventually force him to give up switch-hitting.)
Galan would stay in the majors until 1949, at which point Martin was just a year away from the bigs after playing for Casey Stengel‘s and then Charlie Dressen’s Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. The same scrappiness that impressed Galan made Martin beloved of Stengel, but Martin wasn’t a very good player. Very little of Galan rubbed off on him. Galan was easy-going; Martin started fights. Galan was one of the more patient players of his day; Martin was impatient, walking just 188 times in 1021 career games and posting a .300 career on-base percentage. Galan’s personality and strong secondary skills meant he was able to play past his prime; once Stengel ceased protecting him, Martin became a baseball nomad, playing for seven teams in five years, feuding with his managers, only to be forcibly retired at 33.
Perhaps in teaching Martin the “basic things,” Galan never mentioned plate judgment. Maybe Stengel, who took over for Galan, didn’t either. Perhaps they did, but Martin incapable of absorbing their lessons, never learned to take a pitch. Was it a lack of physical skill? Was it a personality flaw that rendered itself in aggression in all phases of his life? Was Galan a lousy teacher? Martin would become by some measures one of the most successful managers of all time; he was certainly not a stupid man.
Martin’s personality is as open a book as that of anyone in the history of baseball, and was probably both incapable and uncaring. Being impatient was not a choice for Martin, but a quality he was born with, one that was then reinforced by the events of his life and his own personality. We have learned that a fat man can pretend to be thin-those predisposed towards being heavy can lose weight but must fight a constant battle against their own biology lest they revert-and that people can suppress all sorts of inborn inclinations, often at the expense of their own happiness. An impatient ballplayer, though, cannot pretend to work the count. He cannot see what Ted Williams saw, and as such, is beyond our right to criticize-for if nature endowed these players with only limited vision, then it is not for us to say, by calling them unintelligent, that they have failed to get more out of their skills than was in fact possible.
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