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Hustle Hard: A lost advantage in an analytical age

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Little League coaches and gym teachers will appreciate this line of thinking

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

This week, I’ll be 35 years of age. While perhaps not yet “old man yells at cloud”, I can see it from here. Fortunately, for the most part, watching baseball produces the opposite effect in me. It reminds me of my childhood and gives me an outlet from the grind of day-to-day life. If I had to pick the one thing that bothers me most about watching baseball in the third decade of the third millennium, however, it would be summed up in a word: hustle. More specifically, the lack thereof on far too many occasions.

As youngsters, players are taught to always hustle when out on the field. “Hustle in, hustle out!” is a frequent refrain of coaches and gym teachers the world over. Even in the major leagues, hustle is often mythologized. Before Pete Rose was MLB’s hit king (or it’s pariah), he was “Charlie Hustle”. Here in Twins Territory, Nick Punto developed a cult following for his hustle in the field and on the base paths.

As someone who catches at least portions of almost every aired Twins game each season, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the wrong direction when it comes to overall hustle on the ball field. Just two years ago, Manny Machado (then of the Los Angeles Dodgers) was brazen enough to make the rather shocking “I’m no Johnny Hustle” statement. That admission somewhat floored me: a major league baseball player admitting he doesn’t hustle and still getting massive money afterwards? Not a “good look” for player or league, to be sure.

In a certain sense, I can see why hustle may decrease once major league status has been secured. For starters, there’s nowhere further up one can go. Also, once a guaranteed money contract has been achieved, it could become easy for a certain mindset of individuals to cut a few corners in that department.

But, the issue can further be examined in an almost analytical sense. Players from every nook and cranny of the field spend thousands of hours studying things like swing plane, spin rate, route efficiency, and the like. While a case could be made for this being a strictly individualist (“just trying to improve myself and/or get paid”) act, winning is a prime motivator in both scenarios. As such, it makes me shake my head when...

  • A batter, like Miguel Sano, launches a deep fly ball into a gap and barely makes it to second when he should have been standing on third.
  • A fielder, like Eddie Rosario, who loves making splash plays and has a cannon for an arm, regularly “clanks” between 1-4 balls each year simply out of nonchalance.
  • A pitcher, like Kenley Jansen in the recent World Series, spends all season perfecting his mechanics and “stuff”, then becomes a flat-footed observer (not backing up home plate) on the biggest stage.

It simply boggles my mind at times that players will spend so much time unearthing minuscule edges over the competition, yet often neglect the ones that are right in front of them. As the old saying goes: it takes zero talent to hustle.

All of this is to say that when I observe a player like Jake Cave, for instance, it puts a smile on my face. Every time he taps an easy grounder to the infield, he’s busting it down the line. In the outfield, his hustle actually gets him in trouble sometimes because it’ll put him juuust close enough to think he has a chance to make a spectacular play—then he doesn’t. I’ll take that any day of the week, however, over the player who jogs after a ball in the corner, assuming it’s an automatic double so why “waste effort”.

Maybe all those gym teachers and volunteer coaches were right—even in a sports environment dominated by number-crunching and scouring for infinitesimal improvements, the simple act of hustle goes a long way towards deciding who wins and who loses.

Poll

Trying to put aside generational bias, do you think hustling is a problem in baseball at the moment?

This poll is closed

  • 82%
    Yes
    (96 votes)
  • 17%
    No
    (21 votes)
117 votes total Vote Now