Why you should care

Because sometimes not looking the part is exactly what the part requires. 

Most sports fans have asked the question, even if they don’t raise it out loud after several drinks at a sports bar. No, not whether San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh appeared on an episode of Saved by the Bell (he did), but rather whether baseball players are athletes in the true sense of the word. As baseball fans gear up for the start of playoffs on October 1, it’s time to air out the issue.

Let’s bring out Exhibit A: Have any of you baseball-player haters out there ever seen Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Matt Kemp’s workout regimen?

Still not convinced? Sure, it may only be one example, but baseball players play over 180 games in seven months. Could you do that?

Matt kemp Baseball

Matt Kemp of the Dodgers singles in the fourth inning during Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in 2011.

Source Denis Poroy/Reuters

Consider Exhibit B: Many major-league baseball players were star athletes in other sports in high school and college before opting for the diamond. Did you know, for instance, that the New York Yankees’ doughy, 305-pound pitcher CC Sabathia turned down a football scholarship to play tight end for UCLA? Or that the Twins’ all-star catcher, Joe Mauer, was an all-state basketball player in Minnesota? Or that Kemp and his teammate Carl Crawford were recruited to play college basketball at Oklahoma and UCLA, respectively?

Many major-league baseball players were star athletes in other sports in high school and college before opting for the diamond.

OK, so we’re still arguing by anecdote, and no one appreciates the fruitlessness of that more than baseball fans — which explains why we rely on advanced analytics to evaluate player performance in baseball more than in any other sport. Thanks to advanced statistics like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), baseball fans can readily compare the relative value of players, even across different eras, by using a performance benchmark: the statistical performance of a marginal, “replacement level” player.

And while we’re still waiting for the next Nate Silver to develop a metric for comparing the relative performance value of players across major team sports, there may be a crude but straightforward way to skin the cat of relative athleticism. Which brings us to Exhibit C: Adam Jones, center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles.

When asked how baseball players shape up as athletes, Jones, a three-sport star in school who didn’t pick up a bat until he was 12, told ESPN: “I’ve told players from other sports, ‘We [baseball players] could play your sport better than you could play our sport.’”

That’s right: Even Michael Jordan Just — Could Not — Do It.

Jones is onto something here. Perhaps the question we should be asking to assess the relative athleticism of a major-league baseball player versus, for example, an NBA basketball player is: How far below a marginal “replacement level” NBA player would a dynamic baseball player like Jones be if he were put on a basketball court, compared to how far below a “replacement level” baseball player a top NBA player like LeBron James might be if put on a baseball field?

Adam Jones Baseball

Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles

Source Patrick Smith/Reuters

Jones might not be a huge scorer on an NBA team, but he would likely hold his own and embarrass himself less on the court than a baseball-bat-toting LeBron — who has been seen struggling to get a ball out of the cage during batting practice, much less trying to hit major-league pitching.

Still skeptical about the athletic skill required to play pro baseball? Then it’s time to bring in the closer from the bullpen: Exhibit D, Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest athlete ever. Remember when His Airness retired from pro basketball (for the first time) to pursue his dream, or at least his father’s dream, of becoming a major-league baseball player? While some dispute the reasons for his midcareer jump, there can be no question that Jordan — arguably the most competitive man ever to wear a uniform — poured everything he had into becoming a major leaguer. And what did that get the five-time MVP of the NBA? His best was batting .202 with 114 strikeouts for the Double-A minor league Birmingham Barons. That’s right: Even Michael Jordan Just — Could Not — Do It.

Might all this simply mean that playing baseball is a more specialized skill than most? Perhaps to a certain extent, but all sports involve specialized skills on top of general athleticism, and it is the task of the elite athlete to master both. And even if your average football or soccer player can beat the average baseballer in a sprint, there should be no question that the sport’s quick decisions and split-second reactions – so difficult for others to master – make any good baseball player an elite athlete.

And that ample waistline? Well, that’s just more fuel for the fire, baby.

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