Wall Street Journal – July 15, 2009 – Darren Everson – Baseball’s Winning Glue Guys: The Gritty, Gutty Players Who Hold Teams Together and Help Them Succeed – There are aces, closers, sluggers and Gold Glovers. And then there are the really important people in a ballclub: the glue guys.
â€œGlueâ€? guys, in baseball parlance, are the players whose oft-overlooked performance quietly holds winning teams togetherâ€”and without which, presumably, the team would fall apart. Statisticians donâ€™t buy that they exist, but psychologists do. And players and managers swear by them.
â€œHeâ€™s the scrapper,â€? says Charlie Manuel, manager of the defending World Series-champion Philadelphia Phillies. â€œThe guy who plays every day. Who gets big hits. Hustles. Heâ€™s the guy who, in his own way, whether itâ€™s quiet or spoken or whatever, he leads.â€?
Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Bartlett is a glue guy. Before he joined the Rays last season, Tampa Bay had baseballâ€™s worst record in 2007, due greatly to having the majorsâ€™ worst defense. Then Mr. Bartlett came over from the Twins and took over the shortstop position. The Raysâ€™ defense became the best in baseball last season and they reached the World Series.
Tim Wakefield, the Red Soxâ€™s knuckleball pitcher, is a glue guy. As Bostonâ€™s pitching staff has evolved over the past 15 yearsâ€”with youngsters coming, veterans going and pricey additions like Daisuke Matsuzaka not always deliveringâ€”the dependable constant has been Mr. Wakefield, a first-time All-Star this year at 42 who has made at least 15 starts each season.
As baseball enters the second half of the season Thursday, the top contenders all have a glue guy or two whom they attribute part of their success to. With the Tigers, itâ€™s All-Star third baseman Brandon Inge, who not only has a surprising 21 home runs but is also hitting .348 in close, late-game situations. With the Yankees, as usual, itâ€™s shortstop Derek Jeter, who owns the highest on-base percentage among the American Leagueâ€™s starting shortstops despite being its oldest (35). And the Phillies insist slugger Ryan Howard is a glue guyâ€”despite not fitting the tagâ€™s small, scrappy stereotypeâ€”because he quietly never takes a day off.
â€œTheyâ€™re the reliable guys,â€? says Braves president John Schuerholz, â€œwho, in the toughest of circumstances, in the biggest of moments, deliver the goods.â€?
The legend of the glue guy is an extension of the age-old question in sports over whether natural â€œwinnersâ€? existâ€”players who are greater than their statistics indicate, who win in part because of their force of will or ability to perform under pressure. Whether itâ€™s with superstars who make clutch plays or unknowns who have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, fans and observers ascribe special talents to these playersâ€”often exaggerating their actual contributions.
Michael Jordan famously said in a 1997 Nike commercial that heâ€™d missed 26 potential game-winning shots. â€œHeâ€™s probably been successful about 50 times,â€? then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson said at the time. But when Mr. Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1999â€”seven months after making his iconic shot to beat the Jazz for the championshipâ€”the total number of game-winning shots heâ€™d hit was 25.
Skeptical about whether winners exist, statistician Scott Berry of Berry Consultants studied the matter in 2005. Taking the statistics of more than 14,000 players who had played in Major League Baseball, he created a formula to find the ultimate winner: the player whose teams exceeded their win-loss expectations the most when he happened to be on them.
Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox
The winnersâ€™ winner? Dennis Cook, a journeyman lefty reliever in the 1990s. Several players whom fans widely regard as winners and glue guys did fare well: Mr. Jeter, the Yankees shortstop, was in the 97th percentile, and David Wells, a noted big-game pitcher in the 1990s and 2000s, was in the 99th. But the presence of the relatively unknown Mr. Cook at the top, Mr. Berry says, proves his point. â€œAnnouncers refer to players who just have the will to win,â€? he says. â€œThe fact that he comes out on top pokes fun at that notion.â€?
But Mr. Cook does believe in glue. Although he admits he was lucky to bounce from one winner to the nextâ€”including the 1996 division-winning Rangers, the 1997 world-champion Marlins and the 2000 National League-winning Metsâ€”Mr. Cook says his teams won in part because they invested in overlooked roles like middle relievers.
â€œA long man who eats up 100 innings a year, he saves the rest of your pitching staff,â€? he says. â€œThose guys donâ€™t get recognized, but theyâ€™re every bit as important. Baseball people see that, but number-crunchers donâ€™t.â€?
Psychologists say there is indeed a spill-over effect with glue guys that helps their teams win, one which goes beyond quantifiable contributions. John F. Murray, a sports psychologist
in Palm Beach, Fla., says that teams are much like fraternities or high schools in that players spend a massive amount of time in close proximity to each other. Because of this, â€œtheyâ€™re constantly influencing one another,â€? he says. â€œOne of the keys to confidence is social support and modeling. If you have some outstanding role models who deal with pressure effectively, that glue is going to spill out of the bottle and help everyone.â€?
A huge hole in the reasoning of glue believers is that itâ€™s impossible to know in retrospect how teams would have fared without their glue players. For example, the Rays won 58% of their games (11 of 19) earlier this season when Mr. Bartlett, their slick-fielding shortstop, was out with an injured ankle. Theyâ€™ve won 54% overall. But the first-place Philliesâ€™ abundance of glue, according to both them and their opponents, appears to be whatâ€™s put that franchise over the topâ€”just a few years after it had a reputation for underachieving. â€œItâ€™s not about just one guy,â€? says All-Star second baseman Chase Utley.
The Philliesâ€™ most-talented players also happen to be their glue guys, including Mr. Utley, who has led the majors the past two years in times hit by pitch, and Mr. Howard, who has played in 362 of Philadelphiaâ€™s last 363 games. Unlike many left-handed hitters over the years, he even refused to take a day off against Randy Johnson once last season.
â€œHeâ€™s definitely a leader, just by keeping his mouth shut,â€? Mr. Manuel says. â€œI call him the Big Piece. As in the big piece of the puzzle.â€?
… just another example of the benefits of sports psychology.