An Ervin Santana slider cracks off Travis d'Arnaud's bat and keeps a low bounce up the shortstop's side of the 5.5 hole. A few shortstops could range out to the outfield grass for a cutoff, but a throw to first would be futile. Besides that, d'Arnaud is hauling down the line like the hit-starved rookie he is. Instinctual logic and baseball's near-endless dataset both conclude, rightly, that this is a hopeless play. However, both ignore one key fact: Andrelton Simmons does not care.
On a ball most shortstops can't reach, Simmons actually ranges too far right, grinds to a slippery halt, falls flat on his butt, makes a backhanded stab to his left, transfers cleanly to his right, posts on one knee and unloads a screamer from the outfield grass to beat d'Arnaud by a micro-stride. It's a ridiculous play, and just one of many that places him in an subset -- throwback players forcing a reconsideration of how valuable they can be in the modern game.
Look at Simmons' hitting numbers with any critical lens and the conclusion is obvious: He's a time-displaced 1960s shortstop. The .692 OPS Simmons posted in his first full season works out to less than league average, even with the 17 home runs he popped, and nothing in Simmons' minor or major league history suggests that his ceiling is much higher than that. What's interesting here is how little it matters. The Braves have Simmons down as their franchise shortstop based mostly on the 24.6 UZR and major league leading 5.4 dWAR he put up in 2013. His total WAR for the year was 6.9, which means Simmons rates out as an All-Star based almost entirely on his defensive value -- he's the Ghost of Players Past, and he's not the only throwback.
Juan Lagares is even further out on the fringe of modern players. In 121 games last season, Lagares put up a 0.2 oWAR against a 24.4 UZR and 3.5 dWAR, which means he was borderline worthless at the plate and an elite player in center field -- I mean, look at this, it's stupid. However, Mets manager Terry Collins is deadset on "juggling" his two center fielders, despite having no demonstrable reason to give Eric Young regular playing time over Lagares (at least before Lagares injured his hamstring earlier this week). For as much as sabermetrics has done to diminish the old-school player archetypes, it seems Collins is ignoring data that bolsters the case for a straight-up old-school move.
While the debate is mostly dormant now, it's worth remembering that a defining knock on sabermetrics is its struggle to capture the precise value of defense. Metrics such as dWAR and UZR are hardly definitive, and have an infuriating tendency to spit out results that either don't align with reality or fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, but it would be ahistorical to assume that our mightiest baseball nerds have taken us as far as they can.
MLB Advanced Media's new field tracking system is the Holy Grail, capable of generating the enormous sums of raw data essential to sabermetric answers on defense, but the system's gradual rollout means those answers are still beyond the public's reach. For now, defensive metrics lack final authority, but team and fan alike could do much worse than weighing an honest eye test against those metrics -- especially when the metrics make a case for players whose value is obvious on sight, but hard to capture on paper.
And then there's Billy Hamilton, the great paradox.
He is, somehow, the Reds' everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter as a rookie who can't hit, get on base or throw. The entire baseball world is simultaneously rooting him on and writing him off, because he is the fastest baserunner anyone has ever seen. The dead horse is battered, but it must be said that Hamilton's hitting numbers have progressively worsened at every level of minor league ball, his 2014 slash line of .170/.220/.234 is just a bummer and he's still learning how to play center field, but who cares? Dude can fly.
There is the clip of him turning an opposite field single into an easy double. And the clip of him scoring from third on a 200-ish foot pop-out to shallow right field.
Oh, and he can get from home to first in 3.3 seconds, which is basically impossible. Getting a firm read on the value of a player becomes boring and very much beside the point when the player is an unprecedented version of the basepath demon. We're watching different games if the possibility of Hamilton terrorizing pitchers and catchers for the next decade doesn't register as The Dopest Ish. After a decade of on-base beef bros getting their overdue props, it's time for a 160 lb. spindle-squeak and some evil genius fielders to swing the weirdo pendulum back the opposite way.
Yes, baseball's throwback answer to #normcore does amount to modern-day riffs on players from the 60s you probably haven't heard of, but at least the stats add up this time. If nothing else, at least the asinine notion that sabermetrics would produce a cookie cutter generation of players will finally make its appointment with the reaper. However, the true value of baseball's throwback subset may be driving home the lesson that all of our assumptions are wrong and dumb. Progress at last!