In the 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract, James issued one of what would soon to be many insightful baseball maxims: “Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above the average player, there are probably twenty players who are 10 percent below average.”
This means a couple of things are also true. It means that there is basically one player at the top, and his name is Mike Trout, and that should be a testament to his greatness considering the above statement and the fact he hasn’t changed that position in a good half-decade.
The second thing is that if talent is truly a pyramid, then the further you go down the rungs of success, you eventually get to “regular person.” The best way to show this is by showing hitting talent for pitchers, which, according to Ben Lindbergh, also is evidence of talent pool expansion among non-pitching hitters:
This is where we start getting into territory where I’d say that fans like to snicker. You know the drill; go on Twitter when a player doesn’t do well, or re-injures themselves often, or doesn’t hit in the clutch. The reason why we generally knee-jerk this way is because it comes down to one, simple fact: we know we’d play like trash if we were a big leaguer.
If I were to play in the big leagues now I can guarantee you I’d make a fool of myself, strike out every day, and then disappear into sadness and obscurity. At a base level, baseball for bad players is soul-crushing, watching every dream you had in your sentient life just being totally flushed down the toilet.
Yet it’s totally possible you can run into one; even the -20 wRC+ pitchers hit a dinger once in a while; hell, consider and think hard about why Bartolo Colon hitting a home run was so exciting. It’s literally a reminder that if you were to bat enough you could probably hit a home run eventually and that you would totally gloat about it.
We’re not talking about Colon here but the fascination of the month has largely focused on Chris Davis. Davis, who was actually one of the best sluggers in the game very recently, was dominant so recently that a baby born during his 47-home run season wouldn’t even be heading to kindergarten; and yet, he just yesterday broke an 0-for-54 hitless streak stretching back to last season.
What a cool moment. He asked for the ball after the play and his teammates awarded him with a raucous applause, which is exactly what you would do if you got a hit in the big leagues. It’s not sad; it’s not depressing—it’s life and it’s baseball. He got to be one of the best hitters in the game, make his money, and he’s had the unfortunate luck of sliding down that pyramid closer to us normal folks, and yet three things are still true about his season:
- He is still better at baseball than you
- His exit velocity has been higher than last season
- His expected batting average is higher than last season
Not only does this game sometimes crush you with poor performance and decline, but sometimes it’s just plain bad luck. For a stretch like this to even be possible, it required a few plays to go horribly wrong. The first was against Toronto on April 3rd, when he hit a seemingly routine liner to Billy McKinney:
Seems pretty normal, except it was hit at 105 mph, the only issue being it was directly at the right fielder. Then there was a routine groundout against Chad Green and the Yankees on April 6th:
A lot of first basemen would fumble it, or it would bounce off his glove, or would skip just down the line, especially at 100.2 mph.
Davis had the unfortunate luck of hitting this ball straight to Robbie Grossman off of Yusmeiro Petit on April 8th...
...and had yet another unfortunate incident of being robbed by Ramon Laureano on the 11th, on a ball that was hit 105 mph:
Does this mean Davis, a hitter with a -18 wRC+ is “good” by major league standards? Of course not. But an actual .146 wOBA is quite different than his xwOBA of .265 (in this aesthetic sense, both are in reality below replacement level), and it highlights the fact that this odd, odd occurrence has just as much to do with luck as skill, just as it would be with a hitting—as opposed to hitless—streak.
Which is why people people find all of this fascinating: it’s both heart-breaking and pretty hard to believe, but also wrapped around the internal embarrassment of thinking about if they were in that situation, which is what sports are all about.
We collectively put ourselves, and subsequently our identity, into people we wouldn’t otherwise care about, and hang our hats on their performances, even if this one was much more negative. Even though Davis has fallen a ways down the pyramid, it’s only proof of how ephemeral being near the top really is, or how that may also be the case for our own little personal pyramids of skill, or in aging and life in general.