December 26, 2012
Why the Best Talent is Boring
At the Trade Show during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, I was talking to a well-known baseball talent evaluator who writes for another publication. I can’t quite remember the exact subject of the conversation. We may have been talking about some college players he was high on. We may have been talking about Joe Dillon, who was standing a few feet away from us behind the D-Bat table (he’s now part of that company). Dillon was a classic career toiler, amassing over 4,000 minor-league plate appearances, scraping together a couple hundred big-league at-bats over four seasons, doing a stint in Japan, and losing an entire season—the one that would probably have given him his best chance at establishing himself in the majors—to injury (he officially retired). Only will and determination got him back in the game and another decade in uniform.
With Dillon and all he represents lurking behind us, the general subject of prospects—which was certainly the matter at hand, since that is always the only and ultimate topic of conversation when you’re talking with a talent evaluator—took on a somewhat fraught condition. The talk had probably moved into Guys Who Make The Most Out Of Their Limited Abilities, or perhaps into The Mental Aspect Of The Game and how that is as important as physical tools, or maybe it was more specifically about a particular player who could, would, or did manage to succeed despite a limited apparent ceiling. What I do recall, very distinctly, was the shot this evaluator fired across the bow. Actually, it was more like a smart bomb, a way to end the conversation right then and there with a strongly-worded salvo.
“I like talent,” he said.
He went on to elaborate, an impassioned rant gathering around that declaration, although nothing further was necessary. Those three words functioned as a concise manifesto. To a certain kind of baseball eye, nothing but talent really matters. Nothing else is pleasurable to watch. Nothing else is worth writing about. The 20-80 scale measures visible talents, nothing more.
It’s true. And let me fire my own shot across the bow: it is also a little boring. Talent is boring because it’s unassailable, uncomplicated, incomprehensible. The inscrutable means by which talent is made—“God-given,” if you like—has in it something alienating, is surrounded by a shroud of inarticulable giftedness. I once asked a ballplayer about his 80-grade speed, and he shruggingly called it “an inalienable tool.” He was just really, really fast. He didn’t know why, or how. He just tried not to do anything to endanger that tool, nothing more. The conversation about his wheels ended right there. What else was there to say?
I once had a writing professor who encouraged us to read bad books. You can’t really learn anything about writing, he said, by reading only flawless prose. The means of manufacture of the very greatest writing is impenetrable for most of us. The best you can do is write bad imitations of it. Perfect books are not models of instruction. They are unique summits that can’t be re-climbed. I learned how to write plays from reading obscure, sometimes shoddy, often rule-violating pieces by the American avant-garde of the 1980s. No one produces those plays much these days. They’re full of astounding moments that arise out of muddy and misshapen dramatic bedding. You can see the holes, you can see the technique, you can see where better choices could have been made. That teaches you to try to do it better yourself.
It was illuminating, even enthralling, to read Doug Thorburn’s recent unpacking of Greg Maddux’s mechanics, which were breathtakingly clean and repeatable. Thorburn points out early in his article that Maddux’s reputation as a pitcher who succeeded mainly on smarts and guile, while not unearned, is deceptive (as were Maddux’s pitch movement and sequencing): “the prevailing wisdom tends to overlook the raw talents that he brought to the mound.”
Right. And there is a great kicker at the end of the piece, an embedded video fragment in which Craig Kimbrel mimics Maddux’s delivery. (The full video also includes Kimbrel’s imitations of the deliveries of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz: recommended, although the one that MLB.com played for me afterwards, Andrew McCutchen’s impersonations of Tom Cruise, is not. Ugh. Why do athletes listen to people who tell them they can act, sing, or even project charisma? The overwhelming majority of athletes are not the least bit interesting when they’re not engaged in playing their sport. If I were Drew Brees I’d fire my manager for failing to keep me from agreeing to this.)
What’s great about Kimbrel’s imitation of Maddux’s delivery is how awkward he looks doing it—he even apologizes beforehand. Better still, right at the end, Miguel Batista, who has been watching Kimbrel, imitates Kimbrel’s mechanics, including the pronounced leg-sweep with which Kimbrel completes his follow-through.
“My leg does not come up like that,” Kimbrel objects, laughing.
“Watch yourself,” Batista replies.
Maybe it doesn’t come up quite as high as it does in Batista’s version, but his imitation of Kimbrel isn’t wide of the mark. Kimbrel’s reaction is strong enough to suggest that he himself is unaware of his motion. He knows he’s got the hanging arm as he leans in for the sign, but once the motion begins, talent takes over—talent in the sense of ingrained, little-considered giftedness. In the same way, many great writers with strong, immediately recognizable styles (e.g. Hemingway) aren’t much aware of their writing as having any style at all: they’re just doing the thing they do, writing the way they can’t help writing. You could probably point out to them how their syntax or language works and find them nonplussed. It would be fun to watch Craig Kimbrel try to do a Craig Kimbrel imitation.
This is not to say that the greats need to make no adjustments. Randy Johnson, also profiled by Thorburn, was a constant tinkerer. But Johnson’s distinguishing characteristic was his freakish height, which was what allowed all the tinkering to take. His main weapon appears to have been his deep release point, enabled by that 6-foot-10 frame and its long, long left arm—an arm which, basically, was never injured despite extreme stress: also an “inalienable tool.”
Of course I am overselling all of this a little bit. Kimbrel grew up a Braves fan imitating Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz in his backyard. He found his gift by mimicking others’, which is pretty much how you learn to write, too. (I’ve had countless students worry at me about “finding my voice,” which is about the last thing any writer should bother with.) Athletes at the highest level do work hard, very hard; even Manny Ramirez, the most apparently effortless hitter I’ve ever seen, was reported to be getting after it every day and practicing his “craft.”
The thing is that guys like Johnson and Ramirez have the genes to turn the effort and the hours into Cooperstown-caliber numbers. Other guys can work just as hard and never even make it to the majors. Most ballplayers don’t have that All-Star-grade gift, be it Hank Aaron’s wrists, Miguel Cabrera’s balance, or Ozzie Smith’s glove. Most ballplayers squeeze their careers out of skill sets that are not unique, not 80-grade (or even 60-grade). Most guys are Joe Dillon—if they’re lucky. And those are the guys who are interesting to write about. Maybe that’s only because Triple-A is dominated by them, players trying to cut a diamond life out of their rhinestone makeup. And maybe it’s only the effect of Christmas—that day of gifts, most of them disposable, most of them ultimately inutile, most of them forgotten or discarded or exchanged soon after they’re received—that casts doubt on the notion of true giftedness, true worth. But for the writer, especially the one who is also a dramatist, the excitement is not watching Miguel Cabrera ruin a good pitch (again!); the excitement is watching 5-foot-8, 165-pound, 28th-round draft pick Sergio Romo strike him out—without even using his talent-pitch, that slider—to win the World Series.