By In Baseball

A Little Bit Above Normal

Here’s a quote about outfield defense from Torii Hunter at his reintroduction to Minnesota press conference:

“Eyes (are) your judge. I think whoever believes in that sabermetrics stuff never played the game and won’t understand it. There’s no way you can measure playing outfield. Only eyes can do that. … I’ve dropped off — I’m older — but not much. When you set the bar so high, and you’ve played the outfield as I did when I was younger, and you do a lot of different things (you hit for power) if it drops off just a little bit, they say, ‘Hey this guy’s done.’ No, I’m not. I might be just a little bit above normal.”

According to St. Paul’s Mike Berardino, he then shook his head and laughed.

“Man,” he said. “That was cocky.”

There’s an awful lot in that Hunter quote, but I don’t want to rehash the tired stuff about whether you can quantify defense or what it even means to measure stuff “with your eyes” or how people who believe in that sabermetric stuff are like D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s parents — they just don’t understand. There’s something else in there, something sort of sweet and vulnerable and emotional, even if Torii Hunter himself doesn’t realize it.

It’s damned hard to grow old in baseball. Or, if you prefer, it’s just damned hard to grow old.

Consider batting average for a moment. Don’t consider how useful a statistic it is or how it compares to on-base percentage or any of that. Just consider batting average on its own terms — it is figured by dividing hits by at-bats. Yes, there are some complications to determining what is a hit and what is an at-bat, but generally speaking this is about as simple as baseball rate statistics get.

Now, look at Willie Mays’ career.

He hit .347 when he was 27 years old.

He hit .314 when he was 31 years old.

He hit .317 when he was 34 years old.

He hit .289 when he was 36 years old.

He hit .271 when he was 40 years old.

He hit .211 in 66 games in his final year at age 42.

Here’s the thing: Mays knew HOW to hit a baseball throughout his career. If anything, he knew much much MORE about hitting a baseball when he was 40 than when he was 27. He had seen many more fastballs, many more curveballs, many more sliders. When he was 27, he had not yet faced Koufax at his best, Gibson at his best, Drysdale at his best. At 27, he had never even played Major League baseball on the West Coast. He learned so much baseball through the years — so much about hitting, so much about how to read a pitcher, so much about how to deal with the environment, so much about how go with the pitch, so much about everything.

If there had been no such thing as batting average, or any other useful offensive statistic, Willie Mays at 42 would probably have understood he wasn’t QUITE the player he had been when he was young. He would have understood that his body simply didn’t react the way it once had. But I suspect his mind would have told him again and again: “You make up for it by knowing so much more.” I suspect he would have seen himself as a good and useful hitter — or as Torii Hunter says: “A little bit above normal.”

The .211 batting average, though, that was a bucket of ice water that could not be disregarded. For 125 or so years now, batting average has always been there to throw that cold water on old hitters. Batting average is powerful, unambiguous and it glares like the noontime sun.

This is what fascinates me about baseball defense. We still don’t have defensive numbers that are widely accepted. When Torii Hunter scoffs at sabermetrics, he still has a large audience within baseball that nods along. And, truth is, many people who are steeped in sabermetrics have real problems with most of today’s defensive statistics like UZR or Defensive WAR or the Dewan Plus/Minus. I think we will have a deeper discussion about all this when talking about Gary Sheffield’s Hall of Fame case.

But, beyond the statistic, there is the mindset. Torii Hunter knows more about playing baseball defense than just about anybody in the entire world. He was a breathtaking centerfielder for years, both by the numbers and by the eyes. He stole home runs, and he snagged singles from the grass, and he threw out more than 100 baserunners over the years. He was a joy to watch … and inside his own mind he had to feel like he was learning something new all the time, learning angles, learning positioning, learning the sky, learning the wind.

Now, he’s 39 and he has a doctorate in defense, he’s the poet laureate of defense, he probably knows more about how to play the outfield than any two guys combined in the game today. And the question remains: What does all this knowledge mean? What can you do with it? When it comes to hitting, we know exactly what it means — Stan Musial hit .255 his last year. Babe Ruth hit .181 in 28 games at the end. Derek Jeter hit .256. Ichiro has not hit .300 either of the last two seasons, though his mind is one of a batting wizard. No matter how much knowledge you have, in the end, it won’t catch you up to the fastball.

But what about defense? Can positioning and anticipation and a thorough understanding of the game make a declining older player useful in the outfield? Those disputed numbers we do have decisively say, “NO!” In fact the numbers say that players peak and decline EARLIER on defense than they do as hitters.

But, per Torii Hunter, we’re not talking numbers. We’re taking the eyes. We’re talking the mind. We’re talking the heart.

“I might be just a little bit above normal,” Hunter says, and to me there is just something touching about those words. Torii Hunter is 39 years old now, and he is still at this crazy game. He has found ways to keep contributing offensively in his winter years — back to batting average, his only two years of .300 batting averages came at ages 36 and 37. He can still hit the ball with some authority.

And the defensive numbers that show him to have fallen dramatically (Dewan had him a dreadful 18 runs below an average right fielder last year)? Well, he just doesn’t buy them. Numbers never played the game. Torii Hunter’s mind tells him that he may no longer be supernormal out there, but he’s certainly better than normal. His mind, like most of our minds, will not be persuaded otherwise.

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46 Responses to A Little Bit Above Normal

  1. Jake says:

    Can anyone who has watched enough of Torii Hunter the last couple years back up this claim? No UZR, no dWAR, just the eye test.

    • Ed says:

      I don’t think it’d even be possible to know without having actually attended the games rather than watching them on TV. If you’re watching on TV, you often won’t even see the fielder until he’s already moving towards where the ball is going. You’d need to be able to see where he was positioned before the ball is hit, how quickly he started moving, etc.

    • the_slasher14 says:

      I’ve never forgotten watching Duke Snider in 1963, his year with the Mets. I’d been watching him since 1950, patrolling center field with fluidity and grace. He had the gift that the great outfielders have — he would read the ball off the bat and race to where it was going to come down. Willie Mays was better at that, but not by much.

      In 1963, he was in left field in the Polo Grounds, and on one play a batter mashed a long drive way over his head and Duke turned and raced back, holding his arms high in front of him as he ran. It took me awhile to realize why he was doing that (and I saw him do it again later in the same game). He didn’t KNOW where the ball was going to come down, and had his glove up on the odd chance that it might catch it. The ball actually landed at least 30 feet past him.

      The play wouldn’t have done anything — in either direction — to affect his UZR or whatever measure you used. But the eye test told me — the Duke was cooked.

    • Jason says:

      I’ve watched no fewer than 130 Tiger games since 2006 and his 2014 defensive performance was atrocious with 2013 only being slightly better. I don’t necessarily understand all of the Sabremetric stuff, but I’m a scientist by trade, so I’ll give the advanced stat guys the benefit of the doubt over the eye-test guys every day of the week. Anyone who says Torri passes the eye test as far as defense is concerned needs some very strong corrective lenses.
      Even our homer announcers who would gleefully talk about Brandon Inge’s athletic ability while glossing over his .185 BA would occasionally remark about how “Torii isn’t what he used to be” in the field. One has to reach a level of ineptitude rivaled by few of his current contemporaries to get that kind of critique by our announcers.

  2. Joe, you are getting old, but your writing is still way above normal.

  3. mwarneridx says:

    Who are you going to believe, Torii Hunter or your lying eyes? 😉

  4. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Actually, fielding is exactly where the “eye test” is least reliable. You see a batter swing late on three straight fastballs, and the eye “knows”, at least in that instance, that he’s failed. You see a pitcher give up four runs in an inning and your eye tells you the same thing. But when you see a ball split the gap and roll to the wall, does your eye tell you that a better outfielder would have caught up with it and held the batter to a single? Not usually.

    Worse still, fielding is the area of baseball most subject to confirmation bias. Some day this spring, Torii Hunter will make a diving catch and he’ll boast after the game that he’s still got the magic. And he’ll probably believe it, too. Meanwhile, the Twins will give up a few more runs than they should, and everyone will blame the pitchers.

    • I think watching a player day in and day out, the eye test can still work. It sure did with Jeter, with the two very slow steps and fall down (dive) routine. “Pasta diving Jeter”. Also, Andrew Jones had an uncanny ability to somehow read the ball off the bat, take the right angle to the ball and make ridiculous catches. As he aged (and got fat) he still had a pretty decent first step. But he’d not get to fairly catchable balls in front of him and in the gaps. Then you could see the confidence go. Balls he’d instinctively charge in his prime, he’d hesitate more, and often let the ball drop, take the safe route. I don’t watch Torrii Hunter much, but I also don’t see him on Sports Center highlights much either.

  5. thoughtclaw says:

    I don’t think anyone can reasonably blame Torii Hunter for believing these things about himself, or for saying them out loud. The fact that the evidence available shows he’s very obviously wrong is not going to be enough to change his mind, nor would it change most people’s minds about themselves. And really, does it matter that Torii Hunter thinks he’s a better defender today than he really is? He’s not the one filling out the lineup card.

  6. Joe O. says:

    I played baseball at the college level, coached at various levels for many years, and watch a lot of professional baseball. When it comes to defensive play, I suppose I’m still much more of a “eyes” guy than a “numbers’ guy. I have no problem with advanced defensive metrics and find generally that they align with my eyes whenever I bother to look at them closely. With respect to defensive decline over the course of a career, both measures tell the same sad truth, which is that for the average player it begins relatively early and progresses steadily. As they say, “you can’t cheat father time”, and as far as I know this proverb has never been disproved in the world of sports, other than on very rare and fleeting occasions. That father time should come calling earlier in baseball with defensive play should come as no surprise as defensive play requires more overall athletic ability than offensive play. Sadly, my memories of some onetime very good to great outfielders, such as Dawson, Bonds, Griffey, Jones and Ichiro have been tarnished by their low level play (when compared to their primes) towards the end of their careers. When reading Tori Hunter’s somewhat delusional comments regarding his own defensive abilities relative to both his younger self and his current peers, another proverb comes to mind: pride cometh before the fall.

  7. Asdf says:

    As a Tiger fan, I’ve watched a lot of Torii over the past two years, and really enjoyed having him on my team, but he has been one of the worst defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen. I still love him and wish him the best though.

  8. Ed Bast says:

    Can somebody clarify this for me: aren’t defensive stats derived from the so-called eye tests? I thought that the Dewan system was based on people literally watching every play.

  9. Alejo says:

    Dear Blogger,

    Could you write a post about state-of-the-art defence quantitation?


  10. Jeff A says:

    I know this is a silly argument to make (maybe especially here), but it still shocks me that there are people who give no credence whatsoever to sabermetrics and numbers. I mean, Torii, c’mon brother.

    It’s like wealth – we see people driving around in brand new luxury cars, living in nice (expensive) communities, wearing designer clothes and all the related accoutrements. Passes the eye test! Must be wealthy! All those finance guys who talk about debt-to-income ratio and reinvestment of capital gains and bank account balance – they know nothing of wealth! Does it pass the eye test? *That’s* the question.


  11. KHAZAD says:

    I remember playing tennis at age 40, something I still did regularly. Your ability to get to balls deteriorates in your 30s, but it does it little by little, and you don’t always notice the difference. I remember getting frustrated at a ball I didn’t quite get to, and jokingly saying to my regular tennis partner “5 years ago I would have gotten to that.” He told me with complete seriousness that 5 years ago I would have hit a solid return on it, maybe a winner, and I would have gotten to the ball still a year or two ago. When I thought about it, I realized he was right. I was still playing just as frequently. I was in the same, perhaps even better shape, at least on the surface. I was a smarter player, better at placing shots and putting the right spin on shots that I set up for. But the 35 year old me would have beaten me easily anyway, and the player I was from 26-30, even with all the unforced errors I had in those days (that I didn’t have anymore), would have beat the crap out of the 35 year old without breaking a sweat.

    The aging thing is insidious. You feel like you are getting better. You feel like you can do the same things. You still don’t look old in your late 30s. But it is all an illusion. Nothing stops the aging and deterioration of your skills. You can be in denial, as Torii clearly is, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. For him that reality is that over a decade ago, (Hunter’s all star catch against Bonds was 12 and a half years ago) Torii was an elite (perhaps even THE elite) centerfielder, and now he is a liability at a corner outfield spot and really more a DH type.

    The age train implacably rolls on, and who of those of you who were actually adults in 2002 are the same as you were then? The answer is none of you, and Torii is no different than the rest of us. He just has farther to fall.

    • nightfly says:

      Absolutely this. In our rec hockey league, there are plenty of 30+ guys, some of whom play with their adult sons in the same league, and they all keep up rather well, but that’s because the level of play isn’t really close to elite. And even then, the running joke is that the other team keeps getting younger. All of us old farts complain good-naturedly about having to chase kids in their early 20’s around the rink.

      When I see an older athlete still contributing on a professional level past 35, I am always astounded. It’s darned hard to keep putting in the work all the time just to lose as little ground as possible.

  12. Jesse Barf Field says:

    Sooner or later, every fielder in the game will have a GPS fob or a Fitbit or other token on their jersey at all times. We’ll be able to put numbers around reaction time, top speed, path to the ball, how far a shortstop can jump to snag one out of the air… loads of stuff. It will generate data that we can do something with, starting that season. Fielding stats will become as inarguable as batting average. Fielding stats will be poured over. It will be pretty cool.

    For now, the process used is silly. And it is even sillier to attach a fielding component to WAR for guys who played in the 1920s. Baseball can facilitate real fielding stats with real tracking at any time. I hope they do so soon.

    • Marco says:

      “For now, the process used is silly.”

      Dave Cameron addressed this just today:

      “….defensive metrics certainly are not perfect. But there’s a big divide between imperfect and useless”

    • Nick says:

      They’re already doing this. MLB Advanced Media started tracking and compiling precise data this season. I don’t really have concrete ideas about what they’ll do with all the info or if it will be made public, but it’s shared with all 30 MLB teams (as MLB AM is owned by the league). Deadspin posted something about this ages ago when MLB announced they’d be doing this.

      You can be damn sure the Twins know exactly what they’re getting when they signed Hunter.

      • Breaker says:

        I’d disagree here. You can certainly argue that the Twins have access to all the data and should know exactly what they’re getting when they signed Hunter. But being a lifelong Twins fan, I have less and less faith in the organization by the day. I’m not aware of another organization in MLB that relies more on the “eye-test” and on “gut-feel” in direct opposition to statistics than the Twins.

        I hope I’m wrong…

    • Gestge says:

      Great post. “Silly” is a pretty good description of defensive statistics, and applying them to old-timers is the silliest part. According to Baseball Reference, Rogers Hornsby was worth 3.5 WAR in 1917. That’s 1917. You know, a good 35 years before there is any video at all of baseball beyond newsreel clips. And yet Baseball Reference pretends like they can measure with accuracy Rogers Hornsby’s defensive WAR in 1917.

  13. Brian24 says:

    I play quite a bit of soccer. I will never forget the first time I realized I had lost a step. I was around 40 at the time. At some point during a game, the ball came loose not far in front of the opponents’ goal. I had a clear path to the ball, I could see where the closest opposing player was, and I instantly knew that ball was mine. I ran towards it…and the other player’s foot kicked it away, right as I was reaching for it.

    I was more confused than anything else. I KNEW I should have had that ball. I soon realized, after many more such experiences, that my brain was making calculations based on a quickness that my body no longer had.

    That was 4 years ago. I still play a lot, and I’ve gotten used to automatically downgrading my brain’s calculations. If a ball looks like it will be close if I go for it, I hang back and defend. I know that my brain can no longer be completely trusted to judge how fast I can cover the distance.

    • The boxer Joe Louis said almost exactly the same thing when he said that as he aged, he could still see the opening through which he could punch his opponent out, but his fist could no longer get there in time.

    • Phil says:

      I play soccer, too and am a few years older than you. One of the things I noticed when I started playing again at this age was how there were times my mind knew what to do, but my body couldn’t execute.

      • C-Dog says:

        I played rugby into my 40’s. My ex-wife quit going because she didn’t want to see me get hurt. I told her no problem…by the time I get to the ball it’s gone somewhere else.

  14. Marco says:

    Same story here, with slight variations.
    Age 37, basketball
    I’m a member of the local college gym, and play pickup basketball with the college kids. Like Brian, I’m actually surprised when I get out jumped for a rebound or can’t quite turn the corner on a drive. It’s a strange feeling.

  15. tangotiger says:

    The eye test:

    And note that there is a halo effect, where the fans are in denial for a year or two before reality sets in.

    Fans were still high on him in 2012. They thought he was average in 2013, and they turned on him in 2014.

  16. Brad says:

    Age didn’t slow Barry Bonds down.

    • Cliff Blau says:

      Sure it did. When Barry Bonds was 25, he stole 52 bases. When he was 33, he stole 28 bases. When he was 39, he stole 6 bases.

      At 25, he was 28 runs above average in the field. At 33, he was 10 runs above average. At 39, he was 8 runs below average in the field.

      • KHAZAD says:

        Even more interesting to me is his attempts. Using his singles + walks + HBP, I came up with the number of times he was on first base in different eras vs. the number of times he tried to steal. (I realize that many times there would be someone on second blocking him, but for a large sample size that would be close to a constant percentage)

        From 21-25, he attempted a steal 28.3% of the time, from 26-30 22.8%, from 31-35 16.4%, and from 36 on it was 3.5%.

        Regardless of the steroid factor, there are some ballplayers that still have the hit skill into their late 30s or even into their 40s. If your eyesight holds up as a hitter, you can repeat the motion a little bit longer, and your decline may be more gentle in that area, a bit steeper than a professional golfer’s. Fielding is speed in short distances, reaction time, first step, and range. A bit more like (But a little less steep than) Tennis, where a 30 year old is a dinosaur.

  17. wendell says:

    I still play half court basketball at age 67. We have a player that is currently 77 and still plays. He chased a ball that was going out of bounds the other day and almost got it. He turned and in frustration told us that he would have had it when he was 75.
    Father time doesn’t stop declining at age 40 or 50.

  18. UrbanShocker says:

    Another Tiger fan here. 1st half of 2014 he was dreadful in RF. Second half he got up to pretty bad. A few balls got under his glove where he couldn’t or wouldn’t bend over all the way. Second half he seemed to clean that stuff up and he was just old and slow. Could still swing the stick, however.

  19. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Sure, the eye test may work for an extreme case like Andruw Jones, who was, in his prime, one of the greatest outfielders ever. It also worked pretty well for guys like Greg Luzinski and Dave Kingman, albeit in the opposite direction (do we even have outfielders that bad anymore?). But Derek Jeter won five Gold Gloves due entirely to the eye test. People who watch baseball for a living were taken in by his signature jump throw and his relative lack of errors (can’t bobble ’em if you can’t reach ’em). “Pasta diving Jeter” is far from a unanimous critique, even now.

  20. D.A. Rosenthal says:

    Ask a birdwatcher. The ears go first, declining from the high herz until those treetop kinglets disappear. An outfielder relies on his ears to gauge the initial conditions of the batted ball; the quality of his jump depends on those higher frequencies which cut through the ambient noise and dopplerize his intuition. When it’s gone, all your intuition becomes guesswork.

  21. MikeN says:

    These drugs just make me heal a little bit faster.

  22. Shagster says:

    It would seem to me that measuring a young pitcher against an old hitter doesn’t tell as much about knowledge, as an old hitter against an old pitcher.

    Can you measure a hitter knowledge against his pitching contemporaries knowledge? Does one fall off so much faster than the other, that paralells can’t be drawn about value of knowledge?

    Who are the anamolies? HoFers?

  23. tombando says:

    I use a walker to climb the Alps every other month. You can’t get up there nearly as well with it at my speed but you do have those neato wheels on the bottom which enable the descent and then some.

    Back in the day, though lemme tell ya, I pogosticked up the Shmatterhorn in 34 minutes. And that was with a St Bernard on my back. Aging Smaging. You can toboggan down on their drool.

  24. Robert Kent says:

    I was never way above the rest in anything, but I was probably above them in some things. Now, I’m just old and I’m not even average at things like getting dressed. It’s inevitable, but it sure as h— isn’t fun.

  25. John Leavy says:

    Obviously, time catches up with all of us, and a 35 year old athlete simply can’t do things a 22 year old athlete can. Torii Hunter can’t catch fly balls he once would have run down easily. No matter how many skills he’s picked up and how many tricks he’s learned as a crafty veteran, he’s never going to be the fielder he once was.

    That said,don’t discount the value of those skills and tricks. Back in the late Seventies, even though Carl Yastrzemski had definitely lost several steps, I still hated to see him in left field when my Yankees played the Red Sox. If Lou Piniella hit a hard drive down the left field line, Yastrzemski seemed to know exactly how to play it off the wall. He’d field it perfectly, whirl around, make a perfect throw to second and Lou would just have a long double. On the other hand, if the much younger and faster Jim Rice was in left, Piniella would have a standup double.

    It’s not as if Rice was a TERRIBLE fielder. He didn’t make an error, after all- he just did what MOST left fielders would have done. But the difference between a man on first and a man on second is HUGE. If Yastrzemski turned doubles into singles on a regular basis, he was doing something VERY valuable that (forgive the cliche) “didn’t show u pin the stats.”

    • j0hnj0hn says:

      ”If Yastrzemski turned doubles into singles on a regular basis, he was doing something VERY valuable that (forgive the cliche) “didn’t show u pin the stats.””

      It would be a shame if that’s the case, but fortunately it isn’t. Defence, as calculated by fangraphs, incorporates arm strenght, but also how players play balls in different parks, and even include the speed of the runner/hitter (and a bunch of other things). Defence stats aren’t perfect, but they try their best to quantify every single aspect of defence.

  26. A couple of related/unrelated thoughts:

    1. Red Smith (the patron saint for Joe and others, I’m sure, and we should all rise at the mention of his name) said that another sportswriter, Leonard Koppett (a real numbers guy ahead of his time, by the way), once said the first thing to go isn’t the legs, it’s the enthusiasm. He meant, perhaps, more so for sportswriters than for players, but I wonder how much of that is factor too–not to the degree that eyesight or physical ability declines, but I wonder.

    2. I think Arnold Palmer once said that the problem with getting older as a golfer is that you lose your putting stroke because you can’t stand as still as you did when you were younger–the legs go. In other words, other sports have the same issues, but are there ways to quantify it? You can say, Tom Watson challenged for some championships, but fell back in the end. Could he sustain his old ability for one round or two or even three but not for the full four?

  27. ben says:

    Given Hunter’s statement that people into sabermetrics don’t understand baseball, and his treatment of that reporter, I personally don’t find his words touching at all. He seems arrogant and unable to face reality.

  28. Bebek says:

    Well, nobody would regard Hunter as a poor defensive outfielder, but it is certainly clear that he isn’t what he used to be defensively anymore.

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