Hustle Is a Skill: Some Ancient Notes on Baseball

One of the finely bound tomes to which I appeal more often than the many other finely bound tomes in my impressive collection is Epictetus’s Discourses. Epictetus, a Stoic who thrived in the early second century AD, unsurprisingly trumpeted those virtues prized by Stoic philosophy — in particular, the ability to make decisions which would free one from the shackles of painful emotion. The particular joy — or at least one of the joys — of reading Epictetus is his voice, which is kinda a cross between Oscar Wilde and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, if you can imagine that.

In a passage I’ve just recently read, and which I’ll share with you post-haste, I think Epictetus has something to offer those of us who concern ourselves with player valuation — especially when it comes to assessing some aspects of a player’s “true talent.”

I’ll establish the connection more substantially on the other side of the quote.

First, wisdom:

People are ready to acknowledge some of their faults, but will admit to others only with reluctance… Shyness, they will concede, saying, “I’m a bit timid, I know; but I’m nobody’s fool for all that.” Hardly anyone admits to a lack of self-control, no one at all will admit to being unjust, few will say that they are nosy or envious, but most will allow that they are liable to feel pity.


In general, where people are led to acknowledge a fault it is because they imagine there is something involuntary about it. So it is with shyness and pity. Even if they confess to a lack of self-control, love is usually blamed, to gain sympathy for something supposedly beyond out control. Injustice, on the other hand, they don’t consider involuntary in any sense. But jealousy, in their view, has an instinctive air about it, so they will own up to that, too (II.21).

A moment that caused something of a ruckus within the baseballing community this past season occurred in mid-May when, after misplaying a ball and literally kicking it into left field, Marlin shortstop Hanley Ramirez jogged leisurely after the rolling ball, thus playing what should have been a single into a three-base hit. (See video here.)

It’s the sort of moment that allows sportswriters to wax indignant, something which occurred en masse after the incident. The prevailing notion was that Ramirez should’ve run harder after the ball. Nor is it my intention to argue anything differently. Even for we readers of FanGraphs — i.e. the sort of fans who’ve never watched a game and communicate with the world only by means of an interminable series of 0s and 1s — even for us, the play was mostly a bummer to watch. Certainly, it represents one of the rare instances in which the home viewer can honestly say, “I would’ve done a better job there than that super-talented professional athlete.”

The flaw in that assessment, however, is the presumption that all Ramirez had to do — all any loafing athlete would have to do — is just “try harder.”* It’s a case, I’ll submit, where we spectators aren’t correctly distinguishing — as Epictetus advises — between voluntary and involuntary traits.

*Note: I recognize, as was mentioned at the time, that Ramirez might have been feeling the effects of injury. This isn’t intended to be an attack on Ramirez per se — or any one player, in general.

The capacity or desire to compete (conspicuously) at max effort is almost definitely closer to an involuntary trait than we generally acknowledge. By “involuntary,” in this case, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s hereditary — although that’s possible, I guess — but just that it’s more closely tied to a player’s identity than we might otherwise think.

Frequently, you’ll hear a fan say of an athlete — as I recently heard a co-worker say of Randy Moss — “If he just tried harder, imagine how good he’d be.” Perhaps that’s true, but consider how less often we hear people say of David Eckstein, “If he were just bigger and stronger and faster and better, imagine how good he’d be.” Because we view all those things as involuntary, it never occurs to us that Eckstein is expressly lacking those traits. Furthermore, it’s possible that Randy Moss is great because of his approach to the game. Likewise, Hanley Ramirez: perhaps the same impulse that led him to jog after the ball in left field — whatever quality that is — is also something that’s aided his excellence in some other way.

You might see how quickly this could become a racial issue for some — and it’s a concern raised both by Rob Iracane of Walkoff Walk and Junior of Fire Joe Morgan, whose respective thoughts on the matter I endorse.

Mostly, the virtues we speak of in sport — of hard work and self-discipline and sacrifice — are the exact same virtues which define the Protestant Work Ethic, an ethic that Max Weber has argued convincingly as being a defining one in the formation of Northern European and United States-ian societies.

For players from Latin America (or Southern Europe, if they actually did come from there), where the Protestant Work Ethic has had less influence, it’s likely difficult to understand — initially, at least — the fascination that sporting commentators and fans in this country have with grit and hustle and sacrifice. Much the same could be said for American players who grow up in marginalized communities. Had these same players grown up in a Midwestern hamlet, though — or, say, punted for frigging Nebraska — they might appear as second nature.

But to reduce this to a question of political identity in any of its forms would be to miss the forest for the trees. The point is that any number of things could influence the formation of this trait. That’s not really our concern. Our concern is, when looking at a player, accepting the entire package and not, as my co-worker does, regarding some qualities as “decisions” on the part of the player.

The benefit to this way of thinking is that it allows us to adjust, however slightly, the way we evaluate a player. If we say that, just as there are people with excellent hand-eye coordination or outstanding vertical leaps, that there are also people who, for whatever reason, possess a greater capacity for hustle — then perhaps we can use that to our advantage. Of course, “measuring” hustle might not be particularly easy, (even if the good men of Royals Review have tried), but to that problem I say: this is why I’m the 17th-best writer at FanGraphs.

Finally, some other questions. Is this something that we could ultimately measure in runs per season, or something akin to that? Is capacity for hustle something that, like plate discipline, could improve with age and maturity? Are there other traits that we might begin to understand less as choices by, and more as facts about, about a player?

Answers to all these questions and more exist, I can assure you, somewhere in the shadowy future.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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11 years ago

I really enjoyed this. It’s really “outside the box” and it’s certainly something worth pondering.

As a Cards’ fan, I notice that there are many other Cards’ fans who routinely dog Albert Pujols b/c he doesn’t run hard to first on every ground ball he hits. The reason he doesn’t is that he’s mindful of the possibility of pulling a hamstring and, in years past, it’s been b/c he was dealing with a lot of pain as the result of his having plantar fascitis. Still, with all Albert does, do we really care if he’s out at first by 1 step or 4 steps.

It sort of came to a head during 1 game this past season when there was a bad throw to first or the first baseman bobbled the ball and, if he had been running 100% the entire way, he might have been safe.

And, of course, La Russa has some sort of mystical infatuation with people like Eckstein, Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker, Aaron Miles, etc. Guys who aren’t that good but always “give 100%!” And he doesn’t seem to care for those who “appear” not to — Rasmus, J.D. Drew, for example.

11 years ago
Reply to  chuckb

You mention LaRussa and Rasmus and J.D. Drew, who don’t come from marginalized or latin american countries, which I think kind of makes the idea that this is some kind of political or protestant work ethic bias kind of funny. I have heard lots of players mentioned as lazy who I don’t think to myself, well, he comes from a marginalized community or some other code speak. Ben Grieve got the label, Kevin McReynolds, Drew. Piazza was knocked for not hustling out flyballs. And there are latin americans and blacks who are known as hustle guys, who made it despite not having the uber-talent of a Drew, or Barry Bonds. Alex Cora, gritty future manager, etc.

I understand the desire to maybe divorce the concept of “hustle” from making a judgment call on someone’s voluntary behavior, or their “nature.” But I think to a degree that’s a fool’s errand. Very few people are not going to realize that Hanley Ramirez MAY have had it very different growing up than J.D. Drew. Then again, Barry Bonds (who i don’t recall referred to as lazy) likely had it a bit easier growing up then, say, Dizzy Dean did. Regardless, we know people are influenced by their backgrounds, personalities etc. Dave Eckstein hustles. hanley ramirez sometimes doesn’t. Hanley is a better player than Eckstein. None of these are controversial statements. Guys that have the same physical talent (as opposed to some type of “mental” talent”) as Eckstein that don’t hustle are weeded out fairly early. And i think Eckstein wouldn’t be so well-rememebered if he hadn’t put up a near 4 WAR season for a championship team, and was above-replacement value for another.