Tim Tebow, Michael Jordan and What We Can Learn from Them

Maybe not all of us will admit to it, but I think many of us have been curious to watch Tim Tebow’s foray into professional baseball.

When I was in the Pittsburgh clubhouse in Bradenton, Florida, earlier this spring, MLB Network chose to broadcast a Mets’ game in which Tebow was participating. MLB clubhouses have become more and more like your area Buffalo Wild Wings location, with multiple, large flat-screens usually adorning their interior to help pass the significant amount of stagnant time players spend there.

On this day, I entered the clubhouse shortly after the Pirates made a call to the bullpen. (It’s standard practice in spring for a team to permit media following the removal of the starting pitcher.) Several Pirates lingered in the mostly vacant room, including reliever Tony Watson, who turned his attention toward a television.

“Is that Tebow?” Watson asked aloud.

Even major-league players are curious how Tebow performs. A large part of that interest is probably tied to celebrity. Tebow was an ESPN favorite. It was difficult not to be aware of him. And not many Heisman winners quit football to give baseball a shot. If this were Brandon Weeden, or another failed pro quarterback, making an attempt at a baseball career, few would be paying attention. But part of this curiosity, I suspect, is also tied to this question: just how far away is an elite athlete with no professional baseball experience — and far removed from his amateur playing days — from being a passable major-league hitter? Essentially, how does (a very athletic) man off the street perform when thrown into a professional lineup?

I think we can all agree that Tebow isn’t a prospect, that he’s not likely to have a major-league career unless the Mets are desperate for an attendance bump. Eric Longenhagen saw Tebow last fall and quickly dismissed him as a prospect. From Longenhagen:

The crowds he draws, which, aside from the parking conditions they create, have been generally harmless. Last night’s game in Scottsdale was an unusually crowded mid-week affair with most of the fans raucously cheering for Tebow in a setting that is usually quite bookish. It created a unique environment in which to watch baseball, that’s for sure. Tools-wise, Tebow takes big, fun, aggressive hacks and he has some bat speed and power but his hand-eye is lacking and his swing is very long in the back. Several times he swung through hittable 89-91 mph fastballs because he couldn’t get there in time to punish them. His routes in left are raw, he has a 40 arm and is an average runner underway but below average from home to first. He isn’t a prospect, but he’s been gracious with the media and patient with the fans and autograph lines. It was weird watching a baseball game in which fan excitement was most palpable during a semi-routine fly ball to left field and not when a Yankees shortstop prospect hit one 380 feet the opposite way.

But Tebow gives us a different context, a different lens with which to understand how difficult it is to hit at the professional level, let alone advance to the major leagues.

Tebow will be 30 in August and has all of 71 professional plate appearances. He slashed .194/.296/.242 in the Fall League last year. He owns a .167/.200/.167 slash time in Grapefruit League play this spring. That he’s recorded four hits in 28 at-bats might actually be considered remarkable.

Baseball is hard…

 

Baseball is really hard…

 

There really aren’t many comps for Tebow. Those that do exist might be encouraging except that none of them began a career at 29.

There is one interesting historical precedent, however. Tebow’s early performance should perhaps allow for a greater appreciation of the most similar experiment, which created an even greater media frenzy: Michael Jordan’s attempt to play major-league baseball.

 

 

Jordan and Tebow had similarly productive college careers. Each was a prominent contributor to a national-championship team, though Jordan was was able to achieve quite a bit more at the professional level in his given sport. But, inexplicably, after winning his third NBA title and having already won three NBA MVP awards, Jordan left the sport and decided to try his hand at professional baseball in 1994, signing a deal with the White Sox on February 7 of that year.

He spent the 31st year of his life with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, managed by Terry Francona. He hadn’t played organized baseball since his Laney High days in Wilmington, North Carolina. So his time away from baseball and status as an elite athlete were similar to Tebow’s. Tebow played just two years of high-school baseball back in 2004 and 2005.

Through one lens, that of strict baseball analysis, one views Jordan’s experiment as a great failure. He posted a .202/.289/.266 slash line, hitting three homers runs in 436 at-bats. He did steal 30 bases in 46 attempts, but that alone isn’t going to earn prospect status for a 31-year-old in Double-A.

But, in context, you could also look at it is as a great athletic achievement: essentially a man off the street (a very athletic man off the street) jumps into Double-A and hits .202, with 21 extra-base hits and a 22.9% strikeout rate. And remember that Double-A was Jordan’s first exposure to professional baseball. He didn’t enjoy reps in a fall league or winter league before diving in. Francona himself said he thought Jordan could have become a major leaguer.

“I think if he was willing to invest two more full years, and by that I mean 800-900 at-bats, I really think he would have found a way to get to the major leagues. I’m not going to sit here and say he’s going to be an everyday player, but in his first year in Double-A, after not playing for 14 years, he found a way to steal 30 bases, he found a way to drive in 50 runs. And I found out if you tell him no, he will find a way to make the answer be yes — probably more than anyone I’ve been around. He had so many raw tools, he hadn’t played in so long. I thought it was actually a miracle that he did what he did, and again when he went to the fall league, he got better. I’m going to guess if he would have invested a couple more years, I bet he would have found his way to the big leagues.”

Francona might have been a bit aggressive with his timetable. It typically takes even the best prep prospects at least four to five years to reach the majors. Even if Jordan had the requisite tools, the polish required would have put his debut age in the majors in his mid-30s. By that age, hitters are in decline, losing bat speed at a time when “visual acuity starts deteriorating.” So Jordan, and Tebow, never really had a chance. Even if they embarked truly in earnest, they began this experiment much too late.

Jordan and Tebow were and are curiosities but were never prospects. And while their baseball careers are likely limited to entertainment and media value, can we learn something from them?

Sure, it reinforces the idea that hitting a baseball, one thrown by a professional pitcher, is among the most difficult athletic endeavors in the spectrum of all of sport. Jordan and Tebow have demonstrated just how difficult it is to acquire such skill even for elite athletes. There is no substitute for time or reps in mastering this craft. There are no short cuts. While someone like Bo Jackson might seem an like exception, Jackson played college baseball at Auburn where he OPSed 1.364 as a sophomore. He never took an extended break from baesball. Rick Ankiel posted a career 91 wRC+ after giving up on pitching and returning to the game at 28 as an outfielder, but he at least had the benefit of experience in professional baseball and limited hitting experience in the game.

Tebow also had me thinking a bit about Rob Manfred’s focus on the “Play Ball” and “One Baseball” initiatives, which are inspired projects on which to focus. Attracting more young people to the game is key, they become future players and paying customers. I think it’s fair to say Jordan and Tebow chose the correct sports on which to focus, but retaining young athletes is as important as attracting them to baseball.

Hitting is perhaps a learned skill, tied to the idea of the 10,000-hour rule, as much or more than it’s a natural athletic gift. It requires years and thousands and thousands of reps to master. And with the costs of private instructors, equipment and travel ball, becoming an elite amateur hitter has become more and more expensive. Even elite athletes cannot take shortcuts to establishing the muscle memory and repetition that is necessary.

You can pick up other hobbies later in life. Jordan and Tebow remind us that you cannot pick up hitting a baseball.

We hoped you liked reading Tim Tebow, Michael Jordan and What We Can Learn from Them by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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I’m sure you were aware of it as you wrote it, but since Brandon Weeden played several years of professional baseball, it would be especially unremarkable for him to go back to baseball, compared to some other failed QB like RG3 or Vince Young.