When They Say He’s Got That Dawg in Him, This Is What They Mean

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Language barriers typically involve speakers of two different languages, but barriers can also exist between people who speak the same language. The evolution and expansion of language over many centuries and cultures provides a googolplex of options for communicating a given message. That’s why I’ll never understand how we settled on referring to an effective pitcher as having “good stuff.”

With oodles of options for depicting our day-to-day experiences, it makes sense that our diction be dictated by the shared jargon of our peers. Gamers have their n00bs and POGs, literary types their dichotomies and postmodernism, coders BSODs and buffer overflows. But beneath the glittery phrasing is almost always a nugget of substance anyone can relate to. Programmers teach computers to solve problems in terms of zeros and ones, while authors use binaries as metaphors to explore opposing forces in their characters lives, and gamers wage the battle between good and evil in their ever more challenging boss fights. We use different words, but we share the same notions.

Sports, like language, provide an opportunity for connection and community, but as there must exist opposition in all things, they can also divide and exclude. As analytics became increasingly present in baseball, an antagonistic relationship developed between the old school and new school baseball thinkers. The dynamic between the two groups is perhaps best depicted using a meme:

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The Two Guys on a Bus meme format works by taking a broad population and cleanly splitting it into two groups. It further implies one subset of the larger group is “good” (the one assigned to the man smiling contently as he gazes out the window), while the other is “bad” (the one assigned to the man slouched in his seat, looking as though his dog just died and he’s worried that whatever befell his pet is coming for him too).

This two-category labeling system is easy for our brains to process, and it’s nice to imagine that the world really does work in this black and white manner. Processing context and nuance is exhausting. Our desire to feel less like the world has run us over by a bus leads us to the bus meme, to binaries, to good/bad, right/wrong, us/them.

A researched take on every issue isn’t always necessary; sometimes meme-level analysis is sufficient. But sometimes, it’s worthwhile to understand the folks sitting on the other side of the bus. Maybe then we can realize we’re not the bus meme at all. We’re actually the Predator Handshake meme. Unfortunately, the way we use language and our affinity for binaries and distilling the world into memes keeps us from joining the hands attached to our extremely buff arms.

The “advanced stat nerds” and “that boy nice watchers” needn’t exist in a binary; the “enjoyers of baseball” category is wide enough to accommodate everyone. One factor currently preventing fraternization between the groups is the distinct lexicons they use to speak about the game. The two factions perceive one another as operating with fundamentally different ideas about how the game works. While disagreements on the fringes do exist, the two groups generally value similar things, but employ different words to talk about them. Methods of expression divide us more than any divergence of baseball philosophy.

In an effort to connect the traditional ball-watchers and the new age data-analyzers, let’s illuminate some common values by looking at examples of the way the two camps use different methods of expression to convey the same ideas. On the statistical, data-driven side, we’ll draw from existing metrics, and even cook up a new one — that’s what nerds do when none of the current numbers measure quite what they seek to know. On the side where a trained eye and feel for the game tell the story using an ever-evolving slang, we’ll pull in some popular jargon with explanations from current big leaguers who were kind enough to humor me during a visit to T-Mobile Park before the All-Star break.

Exhibit A: “He’s Him” vs. The Baseball Savant Sliders

“He’s Him” has a few variations: Himothy, Himmy Johns, Himmy Neutron. At its roots, the capital H in “Him” suggests a nod to the biblical practice of capitalizing pronouns when they refer to Jesus Christ. In referencing Jesus, the lord and savior of the Christian faith, those dubbing an athlete Him invoke savior-like qualities in the player. Christ, the alpha and omega, serves as an example of what it means to be perfect in every way. Therefore, I have to believe that if Jesus had played baseball, he’d have been a five-tool player.

When I asked Bryce Miller what type of athlete the “He’s Him” designation calls to mind, Miller pulled a couple of examples from other sports. “Kobe [Bryant]. Kobe was Him. [Tom] Brady. Anybody at the top of their game.” Bryant’s aptitude for scoring leads his basketball resumé, but in addition to his MVP award and 18 All-Star appearances, he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team 12 times. In 2001, Bryant’s longtime coach, Phil Jackson, who also coached Michael Jordan, described Bryant as, “The best that I’ve ever seen a player of mine play with an overall court game. I’m asking him to do so much, and he’s accomplishing it […] Kobe has to set up the offense, to advance the ball, to read the defense, to make other players happy, and he’s doing a great job of that.”

Similarly, Brady was known for exploiting every possible edge. Even in areas of weakness relative to his peers, he went further than most to maximize his available resources. Though not the type of mobile quarterback trending in the NFL recently, Brady famously employed the TB12 method to reach peak athletic form. (And though the method itself may not have had much to do with it given its shaky scientific foundations, the level of intensity required to adhere to the plan demonstrates his devotion to the cause. Imagine going years without tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, or cheese.)

Both Bryant and Brady exemplify complete players at the peak of their game. For those taking the classic approach to player evaluation, “He’s Him” signifies a player with multiple elite skills.

For those using data to evaluate players, Statcast provides a direct way to measure players’ tools and in turn understand how they stack up against the rest of the league. A player’s Baseball Savant page provides a summary of his profile in the form of several slider graphics. Using both shading and position along a horizontal axis, the sliders depict the player’s percentile ranking relative to the rest of the league with respect to the given metric. Tooled up players will exist at the extreme ends of these sliders, like the Himmy Butler shown below. He boasts a higher hard-hit rate than 95% of the league and a lower chase rate than 89% of the league. (His identity is shared below, so stop scrolling if you’d like to guess first.)

Percentile rankings for a player's baseball metrics

The Savant-provided stats encapsulate the five tools pretty well, but to more specifically target each one and lock in on a player’s ability over his results, I calculated 2023 percentile rankings for xBA, xISO, Barrel%, HardHit%, OAA, average velocity on throws, and fielding runs. All in the name of identifying some candidates for Him-ening. Four players land in the top third of the league across all five tools: Julio Rodríguez (whose sliders are pictured above), Bobby Witt Jr., Mike Trout, and Michael Harris II. No super surprising names here. You know a Him when you see one.

Exhibit B: “That Boy Nice” vs. 5-Star Catches and OAA

The aforementioned That Boy Nice Watchers partially inspired this article, so examining exactly what “that boy nice” means is a necessity. Again, I sought player input on the phrase’s definition. According to Jarred Kelenic, it evokes, “[S]omeone that’s got some swag to him. And it’s flashy.” And when it comes to usage, Miller said he would say it after a specific play, “[S]omething with a little swag behind it.” So the “That Boy Nice” moniker goes to players who make swaggy, flashy plays.

The nerds behind Statcast call those flashy plays 5-star catches (outs converted on fly balls with a catch probability of less than 25%), and more generally, defenders with swag are going to rack up OAA quickly, not needing as many opportunities as their peers because they’re getting credit for making tricky plays.

Only 34 qualified players have made even one 5-star catch this season. Of those 34, 10 fielders have reeled in two 5-stars, and just four players have amassed three. Akil Baddoo, Esteury Ruiz, Jose Siri, and Corbin Carroll are the Nice Boys with three 5-star catches. Carroll earned his on 25 chances, while both Ruiz and Siri needed 17 chances, and Baddoo managed the feat in 15 opportunities. Watch the play below and try to catch yourself before you impulsively whisper, “Ooh, that boy nice!”

To quantify which infielders are doing it up Nice, we have a couple of options. First, since OAA is calculated based on the likelihood of an average fielder making the play in question, fielders who accumulate gaudy OAA numbers without needing a bunch of innings to do so must be committing acts of fielding wizardry. When considering OAA per defensive inning played, the leaders in the clubhouse are Dansby Swanson and Ke’Bryan Hayes. To check our work, Baseball Savant provides fielders’ actual Success Rate and Estimated Success Rate based on historical outcomes for similar batted balls. Defenders with a Success Rate above the Estimated Success Rate are making plays no one would expect the average fielder to make. Players with more than 10 OAA and a Success Rate at least 4% above the estimation? Kevin Kiermaier, Swanson, Thairo Estrada, Bryson Stott, and Maikel Garcia. Them Boys Nice.

Exhibit C: “Got That Dawg in Him” vs. A Stat I Made Up

In the two days I spent in clubhouses talking to players for this piece, I heard the word “dawg” used approximately 83 times, not including the times I walked up to players and asked them what exactly they mean when they say it. In the baseball player word cloud, “dawg” takes up more space right now than shove, bomb, or filthy. But again, what do players actually mean when they say a teammate or opposing player has that dawg in him?

Like Miller, Taj Bradley and Tyler Glasnow found it easier to throw out examples. Bradley went with Draymond Green. “He’s a competitor, y’know. Competing no matter what.” Glasnow chimed in and added Damian Lillard, a consistent shooter, whose signature moment came during a playoff game in April of 2019, when, after hitting a 40-foot buzzer beater to send Portland to the second round, he hit the cameras with a stone cold stare as his teammates celebrated around him. The look went on to be memed into oblivion.

Luke Raley also drew on an example, but rather than looking to another sport, he simply looked across the clubhouse and, with a smile wide enough to justify a Cheshire Cat comp, declared, “That’s what B. Lowe is,” referring to teammate, Brandon Lowe. Seeming to realize that might not be the most intuitive example, he elaborated, saying it’s, “Somebody that’s got a lot of fighting passion, and somebody that you want up in big situations.”

Regardless of Raley’s bias toward his teammate, a common theme runs through these quotes. A dawg competes no matter what and remains unbothered even in big situations. This sounds a lot like the description of clutch, a concept famously difficult to quantify (which isn’t the same as saying it doesn’t exist). Instead, I’d like to focus on an adjacent concept. Rather than comparing outcomes in high-leverage situations to a player’s norm (the standard approach for attempting to quantify clutchness), let’s compare how players do their jobs in high-leverage situations versus low-leverage situations. To do that, we’ll look at their approach and the characteristics of their actions to focus on what the player controls and avoid some of the randomness introduced by tracking outcomes in small samples.

For hitters, I compiled a batted ball and plate discipline profile composed of GB%, FB%, Pull%, Oppo%, HardHit%, BB%, and K%. Then I compared each batter to himself in high- and low-leverage situations, with the goal of determining whether or not he’s the same guy when the pressure is on. After setting a cutoff of at least 40 PA in each leverage scenario and requiring a wRC+ of 120 on the season (no one I talked to explicitly said players need to be above average in order to have that dawg in him, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption), I used Euclidean distance to measure the similarity of each player’s high-leverage rate stats to the same stats amassed during low-leverage PAs.

By the logic outlined above, the top four players who stay within themselves, even when the heat is on, are Ketel Marte, Will Smith, Nathaniel Lowe, and Mookie Betts. These players have turned in similar rate stats with respect to batted balls over the last several seasons, so it tracks that their steady Eddie tendencies would translate to a variety of game scenarios even as their results have at times varied. As the famous saying goes, “Leopards don’t change their spots, and dawgs don’t change their hitting tendencies.”

On the pitching side, I applied the same concept (comparing low-leverage numbers to high-leverage numbers for a subset of stats), but I focused on pitch characteristics. After setting a PA minimum of 20 and requiring an ERA- no higher than 80, pitches of the same type were compared using velocity, vertical and horizontal movement, spin rate, and extension. Each pitch type’s similarity to itself in high- and low-leverage scenarios was then weighted by usage and averaged with the rest of the pitcher’s arsenal to get his overall similarity measure. As with hitters, the idea was to identify pitchers with the ability to stay consistent regardless of the situation by looking at the aspects of their performance where they exercise the greatest control, rather than trying to find a signal in noisy results.

Based on this methodology, the pitchers with the pitches that come out the same whether the score is 10-0 or 0-0 are Zac Gallen, Logan Webb, and Blake Snell, all of whom have posted strong numbers this season. If these guys are phased by a bases loaded, no-out situation, it doesn’t come through in the way they execute pitches. They’re not over-excited poodles. They’re dawgs.

People like baseball for all sorts of reasons. Some like to get all mathy about it. Others like to sit slack-jawed in awe of the raw athleticism. Neither approach carries a moral or intellectual superiority, nor do they have to be at odds with one another. It can have a real “Jocks are from Mars, nerds are from Venus” feel to it, but that’s more because we alienate one another by shouting our points using different languages. But we’re not aliens. We’re humans who like baseball. And we get to choose whether we use our words to unite or divide.





Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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jacksiemensmember
5 months ago

I’d say that most of these are more closely aligned with a players aura and production in big moments that go beyond how leverage is calculated. The first graphic isn’t saying ones better than another, but that it’s more enjoyable from a fan experience to focus on intangible details rather than referencing sabermetrics. I’m entirely invested in sabermetrics, but when I choose to stray away from them (to a degree) when I’m watching my favorite team. In general though, these phrases are much more applicable to a sport like basketball, where the game isn’t as obviously quantifiable.