“The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can sometimes even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.” ~Chad Harbach, The Art Of Fielding
Every week in this column we highlight and profile a prospect in the Red Sox’ system. We analyze how he has performed so far, how he projects to perform in the future, etc. Essentially, we analyze them based on the numbers they have compiled, whether it’s their stat line from the minors, or their performance in college, or even sometimes high school. No matter how you break it down, it comes back to one thing: numbers. This week we’re going to do something a little bit different, mostly because the prospect we’re going to look at isn’t real. His name is Henry Skrimshander and he is the protagonist in Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art Of Fielding.
Henry, who attends Westish College in northern Wisconsin, is on his way to becoming the greatest college shortstop of all time. He bats third and has shown plus power. But whatever he does with the bat is merely a luxury, it’s Henry’s glove that has scouts from almost every major league team at Westish’s games. For, he has never committed an error. Impossible as it may seem, Henry seems poised to finish his college career without an errant throw, without a bad hop, even without one of those inbetweeners that routinely eat shortstops up. He’s going to be drafted in the first round. He’s going to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he grew up with, the team whose hat he still wears everyday. He’s going to live the life he always wanted.
Until it all changes.
Henry makes his first error. An easy throw from short to first suddenly sails wide, so wide in fact that it rockets into his team’s dugout, directly into his teammate (and roommate) Owen’s face. And with that simple mistake, it all falls apart. Owen is taken to the hospital, where he eventually recovers. But Henry’s psyche is ruptured in a way that no one can quite explain. He can’t throw anymore. Like Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Blass before him, Henry’s accuracy, his gift, disappears.
Each character has a different explanation for the ailment. Some, like his best friend Mike Schwartz, think it’s a physical problem, one that can be fixed with enough practice, groundball by groundball. Some, like the President of the University, Guert Affenlight, believe the problem lies in Henry’s psyche, that he has been mentally handicapped by his first error. At the end of the day, no one really knows.
The funny thing is that while most elements in the book are fictional (the world of Westish college, the Cardinal legend Luis Aparacio, Henry’s favorite book coincidentally titled The Art Of Fielding) the problem Henry faces is not. As mentioned before, major leaguers Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Blass, and Steve Sax all suffered similar problems. Something that seemed so simple, something they had been doing since they were children, suddenly disappeared. For these players, there was no inciting incident like committing their first error, or injuring one of their teammates with a throw. Their abilities simply vanished. And at the end of the day, the only people who could probably truly explain the malady are the players themselves.
Every week we write about prospects. We try and predict what they will become, what hole on the team they will fill, who Boston could trade them for. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that these names are more than just compilations of numbers. They’re people. There always seems to be a battle going on between those who embrace the numbers and those that embrace the human element. Some believe that numbers can explain performance; some believe that when it comes down to it, a player needs heart over anything else.
Obviously, here at Fire Brand we love numbers. But don’t think that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the human element too. At the end of the day, a combination of the two seems to be the best solution. Numbers can be telling. A player’s attitude can be too. We love Dustin Pedroia because of his 8.0 WAR and his 17.9 FLD. But we also love him because of his mouth. Because he’s the Laser Show, because he’ll argue for every out, because he slides headfirst into first base even though everyone knows it actually slows you down. The numbers tell you he’s a damn good player. The human element tells you the same thing.
Henry Skrimshander was the best defensive college shortstop of all time. Until he wasn’t. There’s no explanation for it, and no easy way to fix it, but it serves as an ultimate reminder that there’s more to the game and the players than simple analysis. Sometimes there is no explanation. Henry Skrimshander would understand this. On September 28th, 2011, most of Boston understood this. Numbers can tell us close to everything, and that’s why we love them. But there’s still that mystery, those moments that leave us without anything to say. Maybe that’s the real beauty of the game. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back.
Happy holidays everyone. Read the Art of Fielding if you get a chance. Do something beautiful in the next few days. We’ll be here when you get back.