Take a summer stroll through any park and find a baseball game. Watch players step to the plate, dig territorial dirt, and shake some lumber.
In the major leagues, choosing a batting stance is as old as Cracker Jack. Over the last 30 years, the Cooper crouch, Ichiro leg lift, Bagwell squat, and Sheffield waggle have inspired countless imitators-flattery. In the year 2000, Craig Counsell took the visual art form to an entirely new level, literally.
The Dodgers released Counsell in Spring Training 2000. Five days later, the Diamondbacks signed him. Arizona's hitting instructor Dwayne Murphy provided a little advice. Counsell tinkered a bit. He extended his arms skyward, bat elevated like an Olympic torch towards heaven. According to Counsell, his elbow was drooping, so he raised his arms as a reminder to stay on top of the ball. And he started to hit again. (The Arizona Republic Sept. 29, 2006)
As a Diamondback that season, he mashed 126 hits, walked 61 times (career best .359 OB%). He scored runs and helped the Snakes win their first ever World Series.
The obsession over his stance seems strange when you consider how good he's been both offensively and defensively. Counsell snares a liner heading into right field, two runners don’t score and the crowd cheers. He receives high fives, a pat on the behind by his pitcher and that’s that. The great defender toils away in obscurity.
Statistics to measure player performance are definitely an imperfect science, especially when it comes to defense, but there’s no denying the amazing efforts being made. The big hang up for defensive metrics has always been range. If a player makes 23 errors over the course of a season, what does this tell us about his range? I’ll stop there because it gets over my head very quickly. At the risk of sounding like I know what I’m saying, the more variables the better when evaluating performance.
SAFE (Spatial Aggregate Fielding Evaluation) measures the amount of runs a defender saves. Counsell ranks number 1 amongst both second and third baseman between 2002 and 2008. (10.86 runs saved at 2B and 5.86 at 3B) (SAFE explanation)
Counsell joined the Brewers towards the end of his career, but when he’s played, Brewer fans have come to enjoy ground balls his way as “routine.” A percentage and formula pale in comparison to eyewitness accounts.
Counsell’s Notre Dame coach Pat Murphy explains.
"I was hitting them (ground balls) hard on a bad infield....One took a bad hop and broke his nose. He had a small nose before I hit him...but sure enough, he came back at 5:30, it was about zero out and he wanted to take some more."
(The Arizona Republic Sept. 29, 2006)
No guts-no glory, but no guarantee either. The average MLB career lasts 5.6 years. (New York Times July 15, 2007) Meanwhile, Counsell has enjoyed 16 seasons and still counting. Physical conditioning, devoted infield-practice, and batting cages before and after games goes a long way.
A little favorable Fortuna doesn't hurt either. And how about playing the right way. Counsell knows. He rolled strat-o-matic baseball dice as a teenager. The simulated board game hammers home the need to get on base, play near perfect defense, and to pitch well. Counsell hasn't straddled the rubber, yet, but I bet he'd be willing to strap on the "tools of ignorance" if duty called.
At his peak, Counsell walked, slashed the ball to all fields, induced hit by pitches. And when he reached base, he exercised the perfect mix of caution and guts. He scored runs. For his career, he holds a .341 OB%. That ties him with Hall Of Famers Johnny Bench and Andre Dawson.
Only three players in MLB history have recorded at least 100 triples, 200 home runs, 300 stolen bases, and 400 doubles. Willie Mays tops the list with his incredible blend of power and speed. No surprise there. Paul Molitor stands tall next to Mays in all categories other than home runs. The long time Brewer actually tops the legend in doubles and stolen bases. And then there’s Steve Finley who may be the most unknown 300 homer-300 stolen base guy in the history of baseball.
Counsell obviously falls well short in terms of totals here, not to mention batting average. Moreover, he never hit more than 9 home runs in a season, but with the same number of at bats as Mays and Molitor, the other numbers get very interesting.
We’d have to go back to Notre Dame to find Counsell the power hitter. He hit 12 home runs in 227 at bats as a senior (1992) in less than hitter-hospitable South Bend, Indiana. (1990-99 Notre Dame Stats-See Page 5)
It’s always risky and incomplete when citing statistics, but it hopefully draws some well-deserved attention to Counsell-the hitter. There is nothing wrong with being an ideal teammate, a perfect spokesperson for baseball, and holder of a freaky stance, but it tends to overshadow all other accomplishments.
Counsell has walked 589 times. That's more than Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Orlando Cepeda and more than Don Mattingly.
We all remember when Counsell hit a deep sac fly to tie game 7 of the 1997 World Series and later scored the winning run in the 11th for the Marlins. We remember when he reached base in game 7 of the 2001 Series, setting the stage for Luis Gonzalez heroics. And of course, we will always remember that batting stance.
These are the things people should remember because baseball is very much about special moments and uniqueness. But professional baseball is also about the daily grind, the ups and downs where failure is commonplace.
Players like Counsell who endure and come through time and time again are definitely above average.