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On Gleyber Torres and the endurance of eyewash

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Please, please, please stop carrying about “hustle.”

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

What’s your safety read? What’s the book or article you go back to over and over again, at the expense of newer things to read, even when you could probably recite every word by memory with your eyes closed and one hand behind your back?

One of my safety reads is a Ben Lindbergh piece from 2014 about Robinson Canó, who had just reported for spring training with the Mariners, after walking away from the New York Yankees, the only club he had ever played for. In eight years in the Bronx, he accrued almost 36 fWAR, had some truly elite, MVP-caliber seasons, and perhaps most important, once he became a full-time player, averaged 160 games a year. You did not read that wrong. From 2007-2013, Canó was on the field 160 times each season.

If the best ability is availability, Canó was the team’s best player, and indeed, one of the absolute best players in baseball. It’s one thing to put up a 149 wRC+ in 110 games, which is pretty much what Yankee fans have learned to accept from the Aaron Judges of the world. It’s another thing entirely to put up a 149 wRC+ in 161 games, which is exactly what Robby did while leading the Yankees to the AL East title in 2012.

And yet that piece, my safety read, focuses on a perception of Canó that some fans had. An idea that Canó was lazy, he didn’t hustle, he dogged it to first. Disregarding again the 160 games, the 130 or better wRC+, the Gold Glove caliber defense ... for a notable chunk of Yankee fans, Canó didn’t hustle and it’s better the Yankees let him walk.

The Lindbergh piece goes on to suggest that Canó left four singles a year on the table by not running 100 percent out of the box. Four singles. A rounding error in a 5.5-6 win season, the kind of season Canó would better for most of his peak in the Bronx. Yet certain fans, to this day, think the stylish, talented, Latin middle infielder with all the talent in the world was lazy because he didn’t run as hard as he possibly could on an atom ball to second.

Stylish, talented, Latin middle infielder, you say?

The parallels to Gleyber Torres aren’t perfect. Torres actually started with the Yankees a year younger, and through their first four seasons Torres has actually been slightly more valuable per 650 plate appearances, about three quarters of a win. Torres also plays a more important defensive position, although he arguably plays it worse than Canó played second. At the same point in their career, Torres has a career 118 wRC+, Canó a 109.

And yet, this week the big Torres story is he doesn’t hustle!

A weak tapper in the late innings of a freezing-cold (literally, below freezing) game in April set off an uproar among Yankee fans. Michael Kay lambasted him on radio, Yankee Twitter —always a dangerous place to go for ideas — wanted him benched, and all in all, Wednesday represented the likely low point in what’s been a bad start to the season for Torres.

Personally, I much prefer when hitters run hard on meaningless, sure-to-be-out ground balls:

Now, if that looks like I posted the same clip back to back, I didn’t. DJ LeMahieu just grounded out, a lot, in that game against Atlanta. He made five outs, didn’t reach base, didn’t drive a run in, didn’t even force a great defensive play to retire him. The only difference between either of those groundouts, and what happened to Torres, is DJ was out by 12 feet instead of 18. There is, in fact, no added benefit to being out by six feet less than another guy.

Hustle, broadly, is eyewash. Professional athletes, all of them, are the most insanely competitive people in the world. They are competitive to the point that it can be off putting to be around them — Sean Evans, the host of Hot Ones, has talked about how having pro athletes on his show can be dull since they approach nonsensically-spiced chicken wings with a single-minded determination that doesn’t make for the most fun interview.

Hustle, the way that Twitter and radio shows use the term, is a way for us to poke fun at athletes, to tear down the pedestal that our culture places them on. And, it should be re-iterated, “hustle” is often deeply rooted in where a player comes from, what his skin color is, and what language he learned to speak first.

The solutions to hustle are also eyewash. No team is better having Tyler Wade start instead of Gleyber Torres. Even the “meeting” between Torres and Yankee manager Aaron Boone is mostly for appearances — a manager that fans routinely lambast for not being intense or yelly enough (eyewash itself) did not pull a 24-year-old shortstop already feeling bad about his performance into his office and scream for 45 minutes.

Instead, the two of them talked about something, something that we’ll never know and is useless to speculate over, and the manager put his talented 24-year-old shortstop back in the lineup, and the talented shortstop, drove in a run and scored one. I am somewhat skeptical that Tyler Wade would have done that had Boone acquiesced to Yankee Twitter’s demand for a rage-benching.

There are very real criticisms of Gleyber Torres, and I’ve not shied away from making them. I think that there’s still very real untapped potential in his bat, that what’s stopping him from joining the vanguard of MLB stars like Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Fernando Tatís Jr. is the fact that he hasn’t been able to put up a 140 wRC+ season. I think his fielding mechanics are out of whack and might prevent him from playing shortstop full time at the MLB level.

But “hustle” is not a real criticism. It is a way for fans to project bad feelings about a broader performance into a meaningless, late inning at-bat. It is, all too often, a weapon that white power holders use to maintain power over non-white entrants in their institutions. It’s sometimes even a mask for a lack of ability or natural gifts — Dustin Pedroia “hustled” by diving to get a ball that he was too short to reach, and Canó was tall enough to shift over to. Not for nothing, max effort is why Pedroia played a grand total of 114 games in MLB after turning 33. “Hustle” may have gotten Pedy to the bigs, but it robbed him of a Hall of Fame enshrinement.

Hell, some players, thankfully, have realized that “hustle” is nonsense, and it’s better to keep yourself on the field than to get hurt trying to appease fans that will boo you the next time you strike out anyway. Aaron Judge has talked about taking it easier in the outfield this year, and Bryce Harper has continually scaled back his old 100 mph approach on defense. This is objective lack of “hustle”, but if it keeps MVP-level talent on the field for 150 games instead of 110, it does not matter.

There’s a lot going wrong with the Yankees. I promise you they all care. I promise you they don’t like the fact they are 8-11 heading into this weekend. I also promise you that being out by 12 feet instead of 18 feet is still being out. It doesn’t put pressure on the defense. Running 25 feet per second instead of 24 is not going to terrify Travis d’Arnaud into throwing the ball into right field, if d’Arnaud was that easily ruffled, he wouldn’t have made it to the majors.

Stay on the field, hit the ball hard, and for heaven’s sake get it off the ground. That’s what the Yankees are worrying about, and it’s what’s going to turn this season around. If they do all those things, the team isn’t going to need those four extra singles.