It’s not THAT the D-Backs traded Upton, it’s why they did it. (AP PHOTO/MATT YORK)
Justin Upton is a very, VERY good baseball player.
Both statistically and by good ol’ eye test analysis.
This is not a matter of debate, even with an “so-so” 2012 season where his offensive numbers took a dip from “Great” into “Above-Average” territory for the first time in his young career. He’s also twenty-five years old… and an multiple time All-Star.
He’s really good at baseball.
This is a player you build your team around. Young, gifted athletes with keen ability to translate their talents into production. He’s also set to be paid at a reasonable amount for a player of his caliber, making ten million this season and fourteen each for the next two. He’s controllable through to age 28, where he’ll draw a lot of interest from around the league, but until then, he’s under contract for some of the best years of his life.
So, it should be no surprise that a team would trade him off because they don’t like the fact he makes it look easy, right? Okay, that’s not entirely fair to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They are within their rights to cash in on their assets in order to restock for greener pastures. Certainly, Upton gets you the most bang for your trading buck. Towers is doing the right thing by trading Upton. He’s just trading him for the wrong reason.
I blame whoever translated the terms “grit,” “hustle,” and “heart” into a baseball context for that.
It seems that Mr. Towers has fallen for the old siren-song of the “Good Hustle” player archetype. These are guys that make what they do look very hard. By our eyes, they’re labouring for every ball that comes their way or through every pitch like it’s their last attempt to make an impact on anyone’s lives. The problem with falling for these players is that they usually aren’t that great.
Don’t shoot me just yet. Some talented players have ample ‘hustle’ in their game. Derek Jeter, for as much as I’ll deride him for being an entirely uninspiring defensive shortstop, works hard to make plays and backs it up by being a useful hitter to boot. Brett Lawrie is extremely gifted at third base, despite his relative inexperience at the position, and we’ve seen him on numerous occasions risk injuries to get an out. For christ sakes, Pete Rose was nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” for his rough and tumble style of play and he’d be a hall of famer right now if he could get along with anyone in the MLB right now.
But, the sad truth of the matter is that, a lot of the time, we label a player with the “hustle” archetype because he lacks ability. Be it in one aspect or several, they have flaws that they have to make up for with trying REALLY hard. These players are usually role players, having their weaknesses hidden with hitting platoons, defensive substitutions, and the like.
When a player is working harder than normal, people take notice. When that player plays above his means for a certain time, he’s is usually met with more money than he’s worth. When his play regresses back to the norm, people complain about him being overpaid. We’ve seen this cycle ad-infinitum and few in places of power ever seem to get it.
As a Blue Jays fan, I was witness to the recent “Hustle and Heart” era that lived in Rogers Centre. The team was promoted as gritty, hard-nosed underdogs. They were a team that had plenty to prove and less resources to prove it with than their AL East brethren. They didn’t have the talent, but they would catch anyone sleeping on them with their insatiable desire and a never-say-die attitude. They were a team that maybe, if they hustled real hard and clapped their hands reeeeeeeeal fast, their Tinkerbell-like hopes of a playoff birth would spring to life and everyone would be happy.
None of it happened. None of that ever came close. Those teams might have hung in there in different divisions, but they were always afterthoughts in the AL East. They were oft out-played on good days, out-matched on bad days, and decidedly average in the win-loss column. In retrospect, I hated those days. Those days where my team couldn’t do jack all against the big boys and squeak into the big time sucked hard. I don’t want those days back. I like that we’ve seen the embrace of talent that makes things look easy. We’re going to see, as Manager John Gibbons put it, a “contention-type team” that’s made up of actual contention-type players and less spare parts that were all the team could manage to pull in during the offseason. I AM SO GOD DAMNED PLEASED with the idea that this team has all the makings of being a top dog again.
That brings me back to Upton, Towers and the trade.
Justin Upton is talented and he makes things look easy. He doesn’t crash into the walls or sprint after balls like a madman because he doesn’t have to. He can position himself well to get to fly balls with relative ease. He doesn’t burn up the basepathes because his long strides get him there as quickly as a “gritty” guy scrambling like he was being chased by Rottweilers would. He isn’t intense during an at-bat because he’s got his game plan down to a simple science.
This is a man who needs not make things look hard because, to him, it isn’t. In fact, it’s quite easy.
Kevin Towers has traded Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves for a package that he found acceptable. That is fine.
Kevin Towers believes that his recent outfield acquisitions, Jason Kubel and (epitome of a hustle-type player going above his means for a time and destined to come back down to earth) Cody Ross, made the makes-it-look-easy type Upton expendable. Questionable, but it’s his team so whatever.
Kevin Towers, for whatever reason, has begun eschewing talent from his club in favour of “hustle and heart.”
This way madness lies.