Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 8 – The Cincinnati Reds
Baseball scouts are always searching for the proverbial five-tool athlete.
This highly sought-after ballplayer is someone who possesses five different abilities important to success in the Major Leagues. They are: 1) Running (fast, presumably), 2) Throwing 3) Fielding 4) Hitting for Average (apparently as opposed to simply getting on base), and 5) Hitting for Power.
To begin with, is there a difference between a “tool” and a “skill?” I believe there is. To my way of thinking, a “tool” is an innate, God-given physical ability that you are born with, something that cannot be taught. Running fast is just such a “tool.” Some guys are just faster than others. End of story.
Throwing, like running, is also a “tool.” Sure, a guy can be taught to throw straighter and more efficiently, but his arm strength is what it is. Johnny Damon’s arm was never going to become Dave Parker’s arm, no matter how much training Damon might receive.
Likewise, hitting for power is primarily, although not only, the result of an individual’s physical strength (setting aside the issue of steroids for now.) Denny Doyle, Freddie Patek and Dave Magadan just weren’t ever going to be big-time home run threats.
Even fielding, to a certain extent, fits in to the conventional wisdom inherent in the five-tool philosophy. A speedy outfielder can race into the left-center field gap to steal a sure extra-base hit away from an incredulous batter.
But fielding, like hitting for average is also a “skill”, something that a person can be taught to do reasonably well, assuming average physical strength and motor skills.
Therefore, whereas Andruw Jones was a physically gifted outfielder whose defensive “skills” were built upon the bedrock of his physical “tools,” Keith Hernandez was merely (and therefore, just as impressively) a defensive whiz whose skill as a first baseman had much less to do with physical prowess than it did with the far more mundane reality of hard work and tireless drill.
Hitting for average is a skill. Not every physically gifted athlete, regardless of the “tools” in their arsenal, is going to learn to become a .300 hitter, let alone a .330 hitter. Yes, a pro athlete is more likely to hit .300 than an average guy off the street because his secondary physical abilities (bat-speed, ability to beat out an infield hit, etc.) are, by definition, likely to be stronger.
But a five-tool athlete is actually, at most, a three and a half tool athlete.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the contemporary statistical reality that hitting for average now most definitely (except, perhaps, in the eyes of some scouts) takes a back seat to a player’s ability to reach base via hit or walk. Perhaps “Ability to Control the Strike Zone” will one day become the mythological Sixth Tool.
All of which leads me, believe it or not, to the 1987 Cincinnati Reds.
Specifically, I have in mind a player that possessed four of the five so-called tools. He never hit for much of an average, but boy, could Eric Davis play some baseball.
Eric Davis’ 1987 season is one of the Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons of any Reds player.
The 25-year old Reds center fielder could run (50 steals in 56 attempts), field (led N.L. in Range Factor – 3.13, and put outs – 378), throw (N.L. best 10 assists), and hit for power (37 home runs in just 474 at bats.)
Davis also scored 120 runs, drove in an even 100, drew 84 walks, slugged .593, and had an OPS of .991. His OPS+ was 155, which means he was about 50% better than a league-average ballplayer, adjusting for ballpark and era.
He accomplished this despite playing in just 129 games and accumulating 562 plate appearances. But staying healthy was one skill Davis didn’t possess. He never managed to play as many as 140 games in a single season in his seventeen-year career.
Hitting for average was still, in 1987, considered a very important indicator of a player’s overall talent. But hitting for average was never a strong aspect of Davis’ overall game.
Davis hit .293 in ’87. Not a bad mark, but not Tony Gwynn, either. It was his best batting average until he hit a surprising .327 in 1998 at the age of 36. But 1998 is to 1987 what 1927 was to 1918. The Age of the Hitter was in full swing, eclipsing the hitting highlights of the previous decade.
In 1987, Davis played in the All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and finished in the top ten in M.V.P. award voting in the N.L. And on August 2nd, he reached the 30 homer / 30 steal mark quicker than any player in history.
Over a two-year period, 1986-87, Eric Davis was the best power-speed player in baseball. He belted 64 homers and stole an outstanding 130 bases, while scoring 217 runs.
In a game in May, 1997, while playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Eric Davis returned to the dugout after having just scored a run, and doubled-over in severe pain.
A week later, after several inconclusive diagnoses, it was discovered that Eric Davis had colon cancer. He was 35-years old. Most people thought that, even if Davis did manage to beat cancer, he would never again play Major League Baseball.
Davis shocked virtually everyone the following season by returning to play baseball for the Orioles. In fact, he had one of his finest overall seasons since his ’87 campaign with the Reds, batting a career high .327 with 28 home runs and 89 RBI’s. His heart and his bravery won over the loyalty of his Orioles fans, and he became an inspiration to others who suffered from the same disease.
Today, Davis, who retired at age 39 after the 2001 season, speaks at ballparks and at other public functions about the importance of screening for colon cancer. He is, of course, under no obligation to do so, but believes it is his duty as a cancer survivor to help others avoid this life-threatening illness.
Although Davis, a .269 career hitter, was, according to the conventional wisdom, missing a “tool” in his arsenal, he more than made up for it with an even bigger and more important tool, his heart.
And, in the end, this is the tool most worth having.