Franklin Gutierrez is Baseball, All Right
I’ve watched the play so many times – Alexi Casilla lining a ball into the left-CF gap in the old Metrodome, April 9th, 2009. I remember watching it in slow motion and stopping the video at various points, trying to see at what moment a catch looked likely, or even possible. My honest answer was never. At the start of the video, Franklin Gutierrez wasn’t on the screen, and while he comes flying over to his right, his stride seemingly at a different frame rate than the rest of the video, as he begins his dive, the whole thing still looks ludicrous. “Why is he diving at thaOH MY GOD!”
Baseball is so good at delivering moments like this, and stories like Franklin Gutierrez’s 2009. It’s why Jeff’s piece from April is still 100% true- MLB serves up so much greatness, so much upside, that the whole thing can get dizzying. It’s why M’s fans have convinced themselves they could compete in 2006, 2007, 2010, OK, 2013, maybe 2015. Taijuan Walker’s pitching tonight in Tacoma after slicing through the Southern League this month. No one can get Brad Miller out. Jesus Montero’s the best hitting prospect in the minors. Franklin Gutierrez is the guy you build a dynasty around.
In 1940, 21-year old OF Pete Reiser was hitting .378 and slugging .618 for Elmira of the Eastern League. After a one week dip in Montreal, the Dodgers called him up in late July and watched the youngster hit .293, and post a 104 wRC+ in 58 games. He had a lot of speed, and covered a lot of ground in CF, and obviously had some ability at the plate, but I’m not sure anyone could’ve predicted Reiser’s breakout 1941 campaign. Reiser hit .343/.406/.558, playing in 137 games. He was robbed of the MVP award, which went to his teammate, Dolph Camilli, a 1B with a lower slugging percentage than Reiser’s. Reiser’s 7+WAR led all position players in the NL, despite missing several games due to injury. Reiser’s all-out style made him a stellar defender, but he was never able to hold back, to keep a hitter to a single. Fans probably loved it, if fan reaction to Ichiro’s lack of dives is anything to go by. The next year, the 23 year old was building on his jaw-dropping 1941 season, and was sitting at .366/.423/.564 in mid-June. A little later, Reiser crashed face-first into the OF wall in St. Louis, trying to catch a drive off the bat of Enos Slaughter. Another great effort, he’s just 23, give him a day off and send him out there. That’s just the way he plays, kid can’t help it. Reiser was never the same, slumping through the end of 1942, and then getting injured again while playing for a US Army team during WWII. He was selling cars in his early 30s, and managing in the minors through the 1950s (including a stint in Spokane).*
Upside is probably why a bunch of us are still here, still following this team. We put downside and risk out of our minds because it’s not terribly fun, and if a player flames out, well, that just opens up a spot for this guy they haven’t had room for, the guy who’s tearing up the PCL/SL/whatever. Upside is preferable to downside, and it is *everywhere*. And thus, I think we miss what baseball’s doing at the same time it’s presenting all of this upside. It’s brutally, mercilessly, hunting down and attacking greatness. Injuries are always a great way to lay a pitcher low, but simple regression can be just as effective. The Jeremy Reed career trajectory is familiar to many M’s fans, but we just sort of look past the Raul Mondesi/Tim Salmon career paths – guys who were very good and looked like they could take the leap to great, and just didn’t, because it’s ridiculously hard to do and truly great players are rare. It’s why the transcendent stars like Trout/Cabrera/A-Rod/etc. are so incredible. They fight regression to a draw for a while – their true talent so incredible, random variance can’t obscure it – and then, hopefully, age gracefully. Fighting age is particularly impressive – I think this is huge reason why fans love and overrate Nolan Ryan, and it’s a big reason why Raul Ibanez is perhaps more popular now than he was in 2006. But sometimes, baseball doesn’t wait for age. Sometimes the initial volleys are enough.
It was 1981, and M’s phenom Edwin Nunez headed back to Wausau in the Midwest League. He’s pitched there the year before, at age 16-17, posting a credible ERA even in the pitcher-friendly league. He’d pitched for Bellingham in 1979, as a brand-new 16-year old. If the Northwest League wasn’t a short-season league, he’d have begun the year at 15. So, in 1981, at age 17 but with considerable professional experience, the Puerto Rican began laying waste to the college kids in the Midwest league. Nunez went 16-3 with a 2.47 ERA, striking out 205 in 186 innings, and giving up just 143 hits. His walk rate, which was fairly high the year before, was now pretty good. His K rate was ridiculous, especially in the pre-K boom 1980s. Thus, it wasn’t ridiculous when the M’s had him start the 1982 season in the major league bullpen. He was 18 when he made his debut against Minnesota, pitching 3 1/3 IP against the Twins, and giving up just one run. He was even better in Anaheim a few days later. The M’s and Angels were locked in a 2-2 tie in the 12th inning, and the 18-year old needed to sop up some innings as he was the sixth pitcher used that day. He couldn’t hold a lead in the 14th (giving up hits to Rod Carew and Don Baylor…NUNEZ WAS 18, REMEMBER), but he kept the M’s in the game through the 17th. They eventually suspended the game after the 18th inning, and the Angels won the continuation the next day, because of course they did. Nunez’s line was 6IP, 2H, 1R, 2BB, 5Ks. The M’s moved him into the rotation for a couple of starts, then sent him back to Salt Lake in the PCL to get stretched out. Partially due to the M’s indecision around Nunez’s role, and partially due to some lingering soreness, the M’s kept him in relief for much of the next few years. He pitched 90 innings in 1985, but his shoulder continued to bother him. Nunez complaints of injury were ignored or refuted by the team, who told him every pitcher is sore now and then. This battle between Nunez and the team reached a boiling point when the M’s sent him back to AAA during his poor 1986 season, and Nunez refused to report, and then accused the team of racism in their treatment of him. Somehow or another, GM Dick Balderson and Nunez made peace, and Edwin bounced back in 1987 to some degree. In 1988, the M’s traded him to the Mets for Gene Walter, who the M’s released not long after.
Anyone who watched him in 2011 could see it wasn’t the same Franklin Gutierrez. He looked hollowed out, and when he was diagnosed with IBS in April, we at least knew why. Now we had a cause of his terrible second-half in 2010. Now, with management, he’d be back to 2009-level! The more they managed the disease, the more Guti looked like a shell. His K% was lower than it was in his good year, but the ball made a different sound off his bat. He limped through a rehab stint in Tacoma, but he couldn’t hit at all once he was back in Seattle. His defense still looked OK, at least visually, but my relationship to it had changed. That old feeling of anticipation when a ball went into a gap was replaced by apprehension. The possibility of seeing a diving play was replaced with the sincere hope that I wouldn’t. Since then, the glimpses that we’ve gotten have been great, but we know what they are and what purpose they serve.**
As Larry Stone wrote, none of this is Gutierrez’s fault, just like none of this was Nunez’s fault or Reiser’s fault. This is baseball’s fault. Almost every nail that sticks up gets hammered down, so we resume scanning for other protruding nails, and we cheer for them even as the hammer falls again and again. It’s awesome when someone upsets the natural order and Ryan Vogelsong’s, or Tom Wilhelmsen’s their way to something approaching greatness. It’s fun, and it shows a range of possibilities beyond another setback with Franklin Gutierrez’s leg or another 4-3 groundout by Dustin Ackley, but it doesn’t change the game. The hammer’s still falling.
Look, I know he just tweaked his hamstring and he’ll be back in a day or two. He isn’t dead, and his career’s not over. But I could’ve written this any of a half a dozen times over the past 12-18 months. The more we learn about Gutierrez’s struggles, the more we see them as potentially unique and the more we see Franklin as a tragic figure. This probably isn’t the injury that marks the end of his M’s career. The problem’s that we’re all waiting for the one that does. Imagine trying to play with that over your head.*** You were amazing, Franklin Gutierrez.
* Just saw someone with SBN did a Reiser-Bryce Harper piece. It’s good, and the link to Bryce Harper makes more sense than to Franklin Gutierrez DNA-level maladies, but the point of all this is to show the range of baseball’s cruelty.
** Not “this is a player you build a dynasty around,” kinds of purposes.
*** I always imagine specialists trying to contain their enthusiasm around Guti. “This test revealed a bizarre genetic malfunction that’s caused the tendons to seat the bones in the joint under stress. But the weirdest part is that the malfunction may be preventing the tendons from adapting and rewiring. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so cool.”
“Horrible. So horrible. Didn’t I say horrible?”