I was talking about Hunter Pence with a buddy of mine on Monday, and he said something interesting that I think warrants discussion here. “The fans here will love Pence,” he said, “because Pence is a ‘Philly Type of Guy.’ “ This is an interesting construct, this “Philly Type of Guy.” From what I understand, being a “Philly Type of Guy” is the proverbial lunch-pail type, a player who goes out and gives a good effort every day, is quotable and friendly toward media and friends, and seems like a solid character.
Don’t get me wrong, Hunter Pence is, or at least seems to be, all of those things. I’ve found him to be extremely entertaining, and I celebrate his presence in red pinstripes, but not for those reasons. I like Hunter Pence because he’s good at baseball and is helping my favorite team win.
The “Philly Type of Guy” argument bears an uncanny similarity to the “True Yankee” argument, a line of thought similar to what Bill James once called a “bullshit dump.” A bullshit dump is any excuse to override objective evidence (hits, runs, batting average, strikeouts, team wins, wOBA, WAR, xFIP- or whatever objective evidence you chose) so it fits with our subjective opinion. In this case, to borrow James’ construction, “clutch” is a bullshit dump. “Hustle” is almost always a bullshit dump. “Composure” is a bullshit dump. “Scrappy” is a bullshit dump. “Leadership” and “Good clubhouse guy” are often, but not always, a bullshit dump in terms of any substantive meaning.
Here’s the point: there’s no reason why subjective reasons ought not to influence one’s ideas about a player. If you’re choosing a guy to root for, getting his jersey dirty or similar criteria are as good a reason as any. But where that gets dangerous is when those subjective criteria influence analysis. In short, it’s okay to say “I like him because he’s a Philly Type of Guy,” but it’s not okay to say “He’s good because he’s a Philly Type of Guy.”
It’s a dangerous way to think for several reasons, even when it affects a player’s perception positively, and even if you’re only a casual fan who only goes to the ballpark because you like the smell of hot dogs and fresh-cut grass. And here’s why:
1) It’s intellectually lazy.
From a perspective of my own enjoyment, my two favorite members of this Phillies team are Antonio Bastardo and Jimmy Rollins. I like them for reasons that have almost nothing to do with their on-field performance. Bastardo I enjoy because the way he pitches has an excitement and intensity, at least in my own perception, that this team often lacks. Plus he’s kind of comically-shaped, and when he pitches, it gives me a reason to chant “Tony No-Dad” over and over. Rollins I love not because he’s a great defender who hits well for a shortstop (though he does), but because he’s emotional, flashy, and quotable. These are subjective opinions, and every single one of you has similar opinions about some player or another that may have nothing to do with on-field performance.
Now, if I’m going to make serious analytical statements about baseball or baseball players, I have to put these feelings aside. If I’m going to write or speak with any sort of normative strength about a player’s performance (i.e. “he’s good” or “he’s bad”), what I say has to be based in the objective, insofar as that’s possible. My subjective biases ought not to pass rhetorical muster, because they’re subjective. So if you try to pass your own preferences off as evidence, rather than gathering objective facts, you’re only exposing your own ignorance.
2) It’s Ideologically Inconsistent
As I said before, a “Philly Kind of Guy” is a lot like being a “True Yankee”, the argument by which Yankees fans blamed their best player, Alex Rodriguez, for their failure to win a World Series in his first five season with the team (aside: Oh, no, no World Series title in five years? You poor things! Let me get you some soup and a blanket!). Rodriguez, during the True Yankee debate, won two MVP awards, hit .303/.401/.573, hit 208 home runs, drove in 616 runs, and scored 596 more, on the way to collecting 34.1 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. In short, Rodriguez, in that five-year drought for which he was blamed, did far more to help his team win than any other Yankee by almost any objective measure.
So why did he catch so much flack? Because he’s funny-looking, and surly, and narcissistic, and frankly, because he’s a little creepy. And Yankee fans were frustrated by not having on a title. And Yankee fans liked Derek Jeter better. I’m okay with all of that. But acknowledging all those caveats is too taxing. So let’s just blame A-Rod and move on.
And let’s not just blame New York fans. Remember Donovan McNabb? He couldn’t come through in the clutch. He puked in the huddle in the Super Bowl. It’s apparently his fault the Eagles were outplayed by better teams in the 2002 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XXXIX, and that Andy Reid refused to get him a wide receiver for the first five years of his career or a running back for the last five, and that Jim Johnson‘s defense couldn’t stop the Cardinals after McNabb led a three-touchdown comeback in the NFC Championship Game in 2009. And it’s McNabb’s fault that Ricky Manning was able to commit second-degree sexual assault on Todd Pinkston without drawing a DPI flag in the 2003 NFC Championship Game.
The point is, it’s easier and sometimes more comforting to elevate bad players through false praise and lay blame on the best players rather than face the daunting fact that a team or a player has serious substantive weaknesses. If you really think McNabb had motivational or psychological issues that made him unable to win a Super Bowl, no Eagles quarterback tried harder or got dirtier than Doug Pedersen. But I didn’t hear anyone clamoring for his return.
3) It’s Subconsciously Racist
I hate to play the racism card, but the evidence is overwhelming. “Talented” has become a shorthand for a black or Latino player whose game isn’t polished around the edges, and “scrappy” is code for a white player who exhibits obvious effort but isn’t very good. The subconscious racism in our sporting vernacular is not my specialty, but before you come after me, read this and this and this. And this.
4) You Don’t Want Scrappy. You Want Good.
Doug Pedersen vs. Donovan McNabb. Pat Falloon vs. Eric Lindros. David Eckstein vs. Hanley Ramirez. Cody Ross vs. Manny Ramirez. It’s as close to empirically proved as it can be in sports that you want the “head case” or “lazy” talented player in almost all cases, rather than the “scrappy” player or the “gamer.”
Here’s the thing. I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, so I’ll admit that there are a few guys in professional sports who don’t give their all, or who have serious mental or emotional shortcomings. Mario Balotelli comes to mind, as does JaMarcus Russell. But here’s the thing: anyone with serious mental or emotional baggage washes out before we ever heard of them. Moreover, anyone who doesn’t work hard washes out before we’ve ever heard of them. There is almost literally no one in major league baseball, or the NFL, or the top level of basketball, soccer, or hockey, who doesn’t fulfill both of these two criteria: 1) he’s preternaturally talented and 2) he’s worked harder at his job than you or I ever will at ours. Michael Martinez, a man I’ve called a marginal major leaguer at best, is a phenomenally talented individual. Posting even a .600 OPS in the major leagues takes a level of talent and a commitment to one’s craft that defies the comprehension of mere mortals like you and me. When we talk about effort, we’re missing the point.
With that in mind, we come to the conclusion: a Philly Type of Guy is the same as a True Yankee, or a San Francisco type of guy, or a Nashville type of guy. It’s someone who is good at the game he plays, ideally leading to a championship. Chase Utley is that guy not because he gets dirty and gets hit by 15 pitches a year, but because he hits and fields his position like no one has since Joe Morgan. Cole Hamels is a Philly Type of Guy, in spite of whatever psychological conditions may have been ascribed to him by the WIP caller base, because he’s really goddamn good at his job and, as a result, led the Phillies to a World Series title. All the average fan of any team cares about, or ought to care about at any rate, is the result, not the personality.