Monday, March 7, 2016

Puckett's Memory Defies Analytics

On Sunday March 6, Twins Territory was reminded of a somber event. It was the 10 year anniversary of Kirby Puckett's death. No doubt one of the organization's all time greats, it's tough to fathom it having been a decade since his passing. For everything that followed him in his final years, Puckett represented everything that was beautiful for baseball and the Twins while he was involved in the sport. In talking about him, we may have found the missing piece in defying new found analytics.

The ten year anniversary of his passing seems like an odd day to point out his flaws as a player. While most of them are well documented and understood, the conversation seems best suited on any other day. Regardless, in taking place, we may be through the looking glass in figuring out exactly what the connection is to statistics, analytics, and how players are viewed.

Here's where the talking points got started:
And here's where they concluded:
Now, there's little room to argue that either of those statements in inaccurate. Misplaced considering the event, no doubt, but accurate nonetheless. The point here however, is that Puckett, and the perception of him is actually quite insightful in regards to the game today and advanced analytics.

As baseball has continued to trend towards a game of numbers, and sabermetrics have gained momentum in mainstream media, players are generally evaluated more on paper than ever before. Warne makes that point indirectly without explicitly stating as such.

Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer, even despite numbers that generally fall somewhere well outside of that norm. Picking up 10 All Star awards, six Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, he collected just 2,304 hits and 207 homers. He drove in just north of 1,000 runs (1,085), but slashed an impressive .318/.360/.477 over his 12 year career.

A continued notion that his career was cut short due to an eye injury tends to tread water when stacked against the fact he retired at the age of 35, having debuted at just 24 years old. During his 12 seasons, Puckett's 44.9 fWAR ranks him 234 all time.

That brings us to current Twin, Joe Mauer, whose fWAR sits at 45.1 (ahead of Puckett) with at least a couple more seasons ahead of him. Mauer has yet to reach the 2,000 hits plateau (but should in the next two seasons). He hasn't driven in 1,000 runs, and he probably won't ever hit 200 homers. In fact, Mauer's .313/.394/.451 career slash line actually pales in comparison to that of Puck. A six time All Star himself, Mauer owns three Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers, along with his three batting titles (all as a catcher).

The point here isn't to suggest Mauer's career has been one of better production than that of the late Twins hero, but the argument is a pretty solid one. Instead, what Warne led us to is that sabermetrics and analytics have changed the way in which we view the game of baseball completely.

Puckett's last season with the Twins was in 1995. At that time, Fangraphs was far from even a realistic thought and numbers generally ended in the nightly box score. Mauer didn't play his first game with the Twins until 2004, as teams around Major League Baseball began to shift towards looking for any competitive advantage they could muster. What that's given us is two very different trains of thought.

Among Twins Territorians, you'd be hard pressed to find two players that find themselves at the opposite end of a perception spectrum, despite being incredibly intricately linked. Puckett was heralded because he was a star who made "The Catch," and gave us "We'll see you tomorrow night." Mauer is a one-time Hall of Fame lock, now forced to assume a different type of value while being expected to produce to the non-existing terms of a contract signed with differing circumstances.

Sabermetics, analytics, numbers, and statistics will forever have a place in the game of baseball. The more we lend ourselves the opportunity to understand and appreciate all avenues, the further respect can be given, and perspective seen, for major leaguers whose strengths are incomparable. Kirby Puckett was an amazing baseball player, a fringe Hall of Famer, and a Twins fan favorite. His career, and the actual remembrance of it may be the insight we need to separate what was, what is, and what it all means.