Lying down on the field might warrant a little criticism, but failing to run out routine grounders doesn't. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
So apparently Jimmy Rollins didn't run out a ground ball two games ago, and this is something he's done on several other occasions over the past few years. If you're one of the outraged, outraged fans who's been calling into talk radio or posting vitriol on the Internet since then, here's a question for you: Who gives a s**t?
News flash: Running out grounders has virtually no impact on the success of a baseball team. This is not entirely a matter of opinion. It's also a matter of fact, demonstrable through the application of simple math. Over a 162-game season, Jimmy Rollins will hit about 220 grounders. That's his career average per 162. These grounders can be divided up into five different categories: (1) Solidly at infielders or the pitcher. (2) Solidly between infielders. (3) Solidly into the left field corner. (4) Solidly into the right field corner. (5) Miscellaneous choppers, dribblers, rollers, etc.
Most of the grounders will fall into categories 1, 2, or 3. And I'm going to posit that at the major league level, at least 98% of the time, it doesn't make any difference whether you run these balls out or not. 98% of the balls in category 1 are going to be outs even if you bust it out of the box. 98% of the balls in category 2 are going to be singles even if you jog out of the box. 98% of the balls in category 3 are going to be doubles even if you jog out of the box. Whether you run only matters if you're in categories 4 or 5.
Does anyone genuinely disagree with anything in that last paragraph? If not, then we're on the same page. Can anyone think of an instance where Rollins failed to run out a grounder in categories 4 or 5 (because I can't)? If you can't name one either, then we're still on the same page.
If we're not on the same page, we can discuss that further in the comments. But if we are, that means we agree that the subset of affected grounders per season maxes out at around 200, and their outcomes are predetermined and unchangeable 98% of the time. So what are we talking about? Three extra singles and one extra base per season? About .006 points of wOBA? How silly is that?
On the other side of the ledger are the facts that Rollins is 33 years old, he's had a few leg injuries in his career, and his backup is Michael Martinez. That means that there's a non-negligible risk of injury whenever Rollins plays, and that the harm to the team of any Rollins injury would be immense.
Of course you can't play the game in constant fear of injury, no matter how badly it would hurt your team. That would be counterproductive. But you can and should and are in fact duty-bound to avoid any injury risk whenever the payoff from taking that risk is too small to be worth it. Three extra singles and one extra base over the course of 162 games is too small of a payoff to be worth it.
So why then are so many people so incensed by Rollins' crime from Wednesday's game? There are multiple possible answers to this question, but here's one: it's because those folks remember being taught in little league to always hustle, it was instilled in them as being an inviolable ethical principle, and it offends them on a non-rational primordial level to see that principle defied. And you know what, I'm all for teaching little leaguers to always hustle. And yet - call me crazy - I tend to think there may be a few crucial differences between little league and the major leagues that might cause a given action's ethical implications to differ depending on which context one happens to be in. For one thing, despite what some nutso parents seem to think nowadays, winning games is not a primary goal of little league. The primary goals of little league include things like teaching obese children how to give effort when they don't feel like it, which is why effort is so prized regardless of how much it actually helps you win. For another thing, little league infielders have a tendency to make a s**tload of errors, so running out all your grounders will actually help your team a lot. The majors are not like that. Winning is the primary goal when you play major league baseball, and major league infielders do not make many errors on routine balls. Since the effect on wins and losses is what a player's actions should be judged by, and since the effect of a player failing to run out routine grounders is pretty minuscule, that player doesn't deserve the same type of scorn that you would naturally heap on your ten-year-old son.
Oh, but some might argue, what about all the intangible ways you hurt your team when you don't run out balls? By giving insufficient effort, you de-motivate your teammates and poison the clubhouse atmosphere, right? There's a term for arguments like these, and its initials are "B" and "S". Just because you want this to be true because it validates your interpretation of baseball as a giant morality play doesn't make it so. You need facts and evidence, and there are none.
This is not to say that effort doesn't matter in baseball. Of course it matters. It matters when you're doing your cardio, and lifting weights, and watching your diet, and studying video, and taking swings in the cage. That stuff matters a lot. But none of it is visible to fans, talk radio hosts, or bloggers. The things you can see are so insignificant compared to the things you can't see that attempts to evaluate a player's work ethic are almost always futile. And in any event, the results of a player's work ethic show up in his stats, so it's not as if effort and stats are analytically separate categories. If the effort is there, it'll show up in his production. If it isn't, then it won't. Either way, it's baked into the cake. What counts are the numbers.
The only real benefit from running out routine grounders isn't helping your team win games, but helping your own individual P.R. Pete Rose got a lot of praise for running hard, but that's not why he was a great player: he was a great player because he was a great hitter, and the ostentatious "hustle" was really just for show. Not that there's anything wrong with being a showman - baseball is a form of entertainment, after all, and giving people what they want to see is a legitimate way to entertain them. But if Jimmy Rollins doesn't care to play that game, that isn't a reason to criticize him. It isn't his job to make real-time instructional videos for your kids. His main priority is helping the Phillies win, and it's pretty clear from his stats that he is still good at that. And that's all he should be judged by.