I've wanted to write about this topic for a while, but the opportunity never came up. After reading through Murray Chass' annual "VORP is destroying baseball column", now is as good of a time as ever.
This may come as a shock to some people, especially those who think I'm typing this in my underwear in my mom's basement, but I think the most important trait in a baseball player isn't plate discipline, or isolated power, but mental toughness. That's right, I think that an "intangible" is far more valuable than anything that fits in a nice number. Here's the rub: mental toughness is so important that a player can't make the big leagues without it. There's no way that a player can climb up through the dregs of the minor leagues without the ability to solely focus on the task of hitting the baseball.
Personally, I'm a complete headcase when it comes to almost any kind of sport. I once missed 32 soft toss pitches in a row because after I missed the first one my thought process went something like "don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, DAMMIT! Don't miss, don't miss, don't miss...". Conversely, I can constantly drive the ball after a couple of beers because I stop thinking and just swing. Maybe I'm the exception, and this actually isn't true for the majority of the population, but at least for me, the second I start getting down on my self, I fail.
But here's the thing, this lack of mental toughness doesn't happen in a void. In my personal example, when I go into head case mode, I start striking out and get less hits. Hey, we have a stat that measures that, it's called batting average.
When we start talking about how a certain player is more valuable because of his heart or his mental toughness, we're double counting those traits. If David Eckstein wasn't constantly training and running out every ground ball, there's no way he would be able to hit .292/.350/.344 in the big leagues. David Eckstein's heart and grit is what is keeping him in the big leagues, and that's an amazing thing. What it doesn't do is make him better than a guy who puts up better numbers.
I'm going to set a personal anecdote record here with yet another personal anecdote. I ran cross-country in high school, and behind an awkward geek, I wasn't too good at it when I started. As time went on, I worked my butt off and put in the fifth or sixth fastest times on the team. Now, if we were to rank how valuable I was to the team, where would I finish? If Bill Plaschke analyzed high school cross country, his answer would be "most valuable" from all the heart I showed. The actual answer is "fifth or sixth" because while the effort I put in got me to that position, I was still slower than the better runners on the team.
My point here is that all these "intangible" things that us stat guys supposedly miss are actually very tangible. Derek Jeter runs out every ground ball? He gets a few more singles. Juan Pierre spends hours before the game studying how balls roll around home plate? He gets a few more bunt hits. David Eckstein hearts it up? He's a semi-productive major leaguer despite being 4'2''. There's no real difference between a single you hit through effort and a single that Adam Dunn lashes into left followed by him jogging to first. Things like mental toughness are huge, there's no way you can be a productive major leaguer without it, and because of this, there's no way you can put up impressive stats without it. Stats measure what happened on the field, that's what's so great about them.