Inside Mr. Met's Head

June 4, 2010 1:22 PM

Shut Up About David Eckstein

Picture 79.pngThe most terrible thing about sports journalism has been the obsession with intangibles. You know, the guys who may not be blessed with any sort of real talent but somehow make it up to the Bigs with their "heart", "scrap", and "grit." These are the guys who "play the game right" and get their uniform all dirty. The media waxes poetic because these guys sacrifice their bodies on every play. For some reason, people have issues making a distinction between a dude who jumps head first into the stands and someone who is actually talented at baseball.

Enter David Eckstein. David Eckstein is the 5'7 infielder sports writers cannot shut up about. We've been going on like ten years of awful Eckstein articles. There is an obsession with his work ethic, his heart, all the things that don't necessarily translate into actual baseball ability.

Don't tell Mark Simon of ESPN New York this. Simon, a writer for the awful ESPN New York recently took the time to tell us a tale about a guy who plays the game right.

Today is one of those days about appreciating what you don't have.

I don't have the time it took me to write this rant anymore. I'd appreciate it if I had it back.

In Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's case, that means not complaining about what could have been, and accepting what was: imperfection.

Nice. Tying current events into the introduction. Yet for the purpose of the article, this point will be completely irrelevant and forgotten by the end. A lot like what Armando Galarraga's perfect game will be in ten years.

In the case of a Mets fan, it's about Padres second baseman David Eckstein

Wait, why am I appreciating David Eckstein because the Mets don't have him? Is this some kind of Wally Backman-esque backwards "the Mets need more character guys instead of prissy superstars" argument?

We get it. He tied the game last night. Does this fact deserve it's own awful article? Of course it does!

Eckstein is one of the reasons why baseball is such a remarkable game -- that someone of his size can compete with the sluggers and the giants who are best known for other skill sets.

Except Eckstein isn't really competitive with anyone. For the majority of his career, he's been hovering around replacement level. I admit, there's a couple years where he's been good. I'm talking about 2002 mainly, when he played plus defense (4.2 UZR/150) and had the second best OPS of his career, but he's never come close to recreating those numbers since.

This year? He's having a bit of a resurgence, hitting .287/.343/.379, his best offensive numbers since 2007. His defense? A completely unsustainable 27.6 UZR/150.

I know that there have been many columns written about appreciating Eckstein's grittiness. Some may choose to mock that treatment. Others can appreciate it. We can co-exist.

Sorry Mark, we can't. The little "I wrote a stupid article please don't make fun of me" interjection won't save you. I'm still going to mock you for writing this article because it's stupid. 

Earlier this year, Eckstein homered, and I sent Jayson Stark a note that this made Ecsktein the "Post
-Joe Morgan Era Little Guy Home Run Champion."

Here's the unwarranted comparison to a Hall of Famer. Morgan hit 268 home runs in his career. Eckstein has 35. Eckstein has a career .706 OPS in his 10 year career. Morgan had a .819 OPS in a 22 year career.


Translation: Eckstein's 35 home runs are the most by any player, listed by as being 5-foot-7 or shorter, since 1985 (one better than Warren Newson

And what a superstar Warren Newson was! In his enthralling 8 year career, Newson had a .775 OPS. Which means that he was still more valuable offensively than David Eckstein. Seriously, when you're comparing a player to a dude who was out of baseball by the age of 33, the player in question probably isn't very good. When the dude who was out of baseball by 33 is actually better than the other guy, you probably shouldn't be writing articles about him.

Yesterday, with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, I confirmed something else about Eckstein that I found remarkable. It explained why the thought crossed my mind, one out from a Mets win, "I wonder if they should walk him."

Yes the Mets should walk a dude with a career .706 OPS. In a high leverage situation. With the overpaid dude with funny goggles on the mound. The Mets should walk David Eckstein with the game on the line.

Players a team should walk late in games if they have to: really anyone with an OPS over .900.

Players a team should never walk in any situation: the pitcher. David Eckstein.

I've worked at ESPN for eight years now, and what I saw in yesterday's Mets game, with Eckstein getting the tying hit with two outs in the ninth, I felt like I'd seen many times before.

You probably have. Every baseball game has a game winning hit.

Wednesday's game-tying hit marked the seventh time in his career that Eckstein came to bat, with his team one out from defeat, and did something that either tied the game, or put his team in the lead.

Two active players have done that more times than Eckstein has- Manny Ramirez
and Aramis Ramirez each have eight such RBI to their credit. Ichiro Suzuki also has seven.

That's pretty good company.

This is the epitome of cherry picking statistics to make a point to compare a worse player to better ones. Do you know what the difference between a game tying or game winning hit with zero outs, one outs, or two outs is? It doesn't make a bit of difference. David Eckstein is not a better baseball player because he has tied or won a game 7 times.

More importantly, if you look at his "clutch" splits, they're basically in line with his career averages. There's a slight increase in OBP here, slugging there, but it's not a substantial difference. So it's not even like he's some late game superstar - he's remarkably average even in high leverage situations.

What Eckstein did against Rodriguez, he's also done against Mariano Rivera
. His first such RBI was a two-out in the ninth game-tying single against Rivera on August 26, 2001. The Angels would win in 10 innings.

He got a hit off of Mariano Rivera? Build the bust in Cooperstown now!

What Eckstein did against Rodriguez, he did twice last season. The first time, on May 21, he did it the best way he knows how -- getting hit with a pitch from Giants closer Brian Wilson to tie the game with two outs. The Padres would win that game when the next batter, Scott Hairston, got a walk-off single.

That's all well and good but again, why is this at all relevant? Eckstein continued the game. This doesn't make Eckstein any better of a player all because he tied the game.

Seventeen days later, he'd hit an improbable game-tying three-run, two-out in the ninth home run off Diamondbacks closer Chad Qualls. The result of that -- the equivalent of another game. The Diamondbacks prevailed in 18 innings. They were lucky they didn't have to face Eckstein in that 18th inning.

I'm absolutely certain that the Diamondbacks were quaking in their boots over a dude who had a .646 OPS that season before he hit that home run.

Arizona would be Eckstein's victims again this April 16th, when he hit a game-tying, one-out-from losing double against Juan Gutierrez. Two batters later, the Padres won on a Chase Headley walk-off home run.

Once again, Mark Simon has elicited a hearty "who freaking cares" from me.

Check out this stat, compiled thanks to Baseball-Reference's Play Index

I always worry when I read an ESPN analyst say "check out this stat" because you know it's either a) irrelevant b) misunderstood c) RBIS AND DINGERS

Eckstein has come to bat 29 times in the ninth inning or later in a regular season or postseason game in the following situation.

If you guessed A, congratulations!

* One out from defeat

* Opportunity to tie game (one-run down, or representing tying/winning run)

He's succeeded in either extending the game, or putting his team ahead, with either a hit, walk, or hit by pitch 13 times. That's a 45 percent success rate. Wow.

I don't have the full statistics (because you need to pay to view B-R's Play Index fully) but I know for a fact that a 45% success rate in an extremely small sample means absolutely nothing.

Unless, of course, you're Mark Simon and you're writing a dumb puff piece about David Eckstein. 

The Mets got him once. In the now-forgotten Game 6 of the 2006 NLCS, he grounded out with two on to end a 4-2 Mets victory. They were fortunate.

I bet the little guy really wanted it, too.

The last six times that Eckstein has been in that spot, he's succeeded in five of them. That's 83 percent success. Double wow.

Five out of six times! Wowee!

Aaron Small won 10 games in a row for the Yankees. He's out of baseball now! Emilio Bonifacio of the Marlins hit like .750 the first week of the season last year. Now he's in AAA!Small sample sizes for everyone! Just cancel the season and crown the Padres the NL West champs! What do you mean there's still like four months left to play?

Think of how nervous you would be in that situation.

I get nervous sometimes when I play Beer League softball. Can't imagine what it's like in the Bigs!

I can remember being in that spot in Little League. I was terrified. And not surprisingly, I didn't succeed.

Not surprisingly, it was probably because you weren't very good at baseball.

Eckstein is the master of that situation. He owns it. The pitcher might be afraid. But he isn't.

David Eckstein is a professional athlete. His job is to play baseball full time. He is not a Little Leaguer. Little Leaguers are deathly afraid of 40 MPH fastballs. Professional athletes are not.

I imagine that there were times in Little League that Eckstein heard what I did. "That kid's an easy out."

No, probably not. Rest assured that if he made it to the major leagues he was probably pretty damn good in Little League.

I was. He wasn't.

This is why you're a terrible sports writer for ESPN New York and not an overrated professional athlete.

In my job, I've had a number of conversations with former major league pitchers, some of whom have had pretty good careers. To a man, they speak of how the Ecksteins of the world had great success against them.

I originally freaked out over the "to a man" part but it turns out I'm just uneducated. You win this round, Simon.

Why? Because they'd get cocky and think they could just blow the little guy away, or finish him off with ease.

That's what she said.

All because a pitcher underestimates a hitter doesn't mean that the hitter necessarily a good baseball player. How does "some pitchers think a short dude can't hit and they might be wrong" lead to the assumption that Eckstein is a good baseball player?

I can see Socrates now, teaching his students logical fallacies:

Major premise: David Eckstein is short.
Minor premise: Major League pitchers underestimate short players
Conclusion: David Eckstein is a good baseball player.

Someone pass me the Hemlock.

But they would forget that Eckstein was in the game for a reason. He's a player who gets the most out of everything he's been given.

Maybe part of the reason why some pitchers have difficultly with Eckstein is because his strike zone is microscopic due to his small statue. Do you think Mark Simon even considered this? Nahhh.

He's a small dude who plays barely above replacement level baseball. He has to have talent in order to be playing in the major leagues. How does this make him special in any sort of way?

Mugsey Bogues was 5'3 and starred in Space Jam.  This makes him infinitely cooler than David Eckstein will ever be.

A colleague and I had a conversation about strikeout king Mark Reynolds, and how he's in the major leagues because he has certain things that he does very, very well. He knows his role, tries to fulfill it, and doesn't apologize for his shortcomings. Eckstein does the same in a completely different way.

All baseball players "have certain things that they do very well" or else they wouldn't be in the Major Leagues. Once again, how does this make David Eckstein a noteworthy baseball player?

Eckstein's in the major leagues because when he takes a swing at a pitch, he makes contact with it, at least so far in 2010, 95 percent of the time. That's a great contact rate. It's why he never whiffs.

95% contact is great, sure. And 95% sure sounds like an impressive number, doesn't it? But what does it really mean? Eckstein only swings at 55% of pitches in the strike zone. Just to compare, Luis Castillo has a 97% zone contact percentage. He swings at 49% of pitches. If Simon wasn't too busy erecting a short bronze statue for Eckstein, he'd see that a 95% contact rate is not impressive when you're barely swinging at anything.

On the other hand, the aforementioned Mark Reynolds, swings at 20% more pitches in the strike zone. Eckstein actually swings at just as many pitches outside of the strike zone as Reynolds does.

So back in reality, Eckstein isn't any more patient than anyone else - he just doesn't take the bat off his shoulder.

And in the toughest situation in baseball you can imagine, he's able to hold steady, focus in on the moment, and help his team try to win, as well as anyone in the game.

Mark, ESPN doesn't pay by the cliché.

I've followed Eckstein peripherally for awhile now. He and I are the same age (born 11 days apart), and about the same size (I'm 5-8 1/2).

I'm 6'4 and 23 years old. I don't compare myself to Ike Davis.

When he's in the batter's box, he looks like me.

Poor guy.

Eckstein played minor league baseball in Trenton, N.J., when I lived and worked in that area, and I recall being impressed by his prowess and determination even then. He's gone on to win two World Series and was the MVP in one. Eleven years later, I'm still impressed. Especially after Wednesday.

Eckstein was the MVP of that World Series because he played well during a short series. That's it. That doesn't make him a superstar. The Angels and Cardinals did not win their World Series Championships because of David Eckstein.

Eckstein has become the sports writer puff piece God. We all know he works hard. Admirable. Some people like him. Other people don't. He's an average guy! He's so short and adorable!

Who cares?

I honestly wonder if David Eckstein is tired of being patronized by sports writers who spend thousands of words imagining themselves in his shoes. I know I would be.

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