#Hot Corner

Tangible intangibles

Al Bello

Ben Zimmer had an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) over the weekend on "intangibles." "The one thing that you can't fully measure is the intangibles Jonny Gomes brings," according to John Farrell. Joe Maddon says that Shane Victorino "just drips with intangibles," which makes me think someone should collect his drippings and sell them to major league ballplayers. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than "liquid titanium."

The idea that some players' contributions can't be measured goes back a long way, maybe to the origins of baseball. Bill James, in the first edition of The Historical Baseball Abstract, wrote of a catcher, and this is a paraphrase, "I don't know much about [catcher from the 1920s, maybe Luke Sewell?] but I know he was a hell of a player." He must have been because despite mediocre stats, the writers showered him with MVP votes year after year.

According to Zimmer, the first player who was regularly lauded for his "intangibles," a term that migrated to baseball from the business world, was Eddie Stanky, about whom Leo Durocher said, "He can't hit, can't run, can't field ... all the little SOB can do is win." (Which reminds me of Buddy Ryan's famous knock on Cris Carter: "All he does is score touchdowns.")

The thing about Stanky was that he walked a lot. He led the league in walks three times, and walked over 100 times in three other seasons. This wasn't widely known at the time, however. Walks weren't listed in the Sunday paper, and they weren't printed on the backs of baseball cards. I'm pretty sure they weren't even in Who's Who In Baseball until a few years ago. Walks were something the pitcher did, so went the contemporary wisdom, not the batter.

What was intangible to mid-century observers is plain to us now: Stanky's walks resulted in tangible runs for his teams. Stanky may have possessed other gifts that helped his ballclubs win games, gifts that can't be quantified, but according to today's best measurements, he was the National League's best player in 1950. Stanky's advocates, long before Bill James taught us the importance of On-Base Percentage, may have intuitively grasped his value.

By those same measurements, Shane Victorino was one of the American League's best players in 2013. Maybe he, too, possesses gifts which can't be measured (but which can be bottled and sold as "Shane's Victory Drippings," coming soon to a GNC near you). I suspect, however, that baseball men of the 1950s used the word "intangibles" much as their descendants do today -- as a synonym for "virtuous." Or is that too cynical?

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