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Intangibles and Their Importance in Winning

Turn on a baseball game at any given time and you’re pretty likely to hear an announcer discuss intangibles and what they mean for a given player. Phrases such as, ‘this guy just knows how to win’ and ‘he’s a gamer’ are common in the announcer lexicon. Personally, when I hear this talk, I scoff a bit and tend to not pay attention. My thought is that talent wins over all else. As I got to thinking about it, though, I realized that it’s not really a question of talent vs. intangibles. It’s more a question of who is better? Is it the guy who collects the paycheck and is a superior talent or is it the guy who busts it down the line every single time and is still ultra talented?

The first player I thought of when I was thinking about that question was Hall of Famer George Brett. Unfortunately I was born too late to experience much of Brett’s greatness, but I was beginning to become baseball cognizant around the time he won his third batting title. I distinctly remember his second half that year when he hit close to .400 which allowed him to secure the title. This was, of course, when I put as much stock into batting average as a guy like Joe Morgan does. Regardless, I remember hearing something about George Brett where he stated that it was his goal in his career to beat out a routine grounder to second.

After hearing that, I started watching him a little more closely. Up to that point, my favorite player was Danny Tartabull (or Tarbatull as I said at the time). I didn’t quite understand the greatness of Brett’s career. Around this time, though, I started to really pay attention to George* and what he did. I was getting old enough to understand that he was Hall of Fame bound and that was pretty cool. So I started watching his at bats and I made special note when he grounded out to second. Every single time he was only out by a step or two. Keep in mind, this wasn’t early career George Brett who had some speed. This was early 1990s George Brett who had knee problems. I never did see him beat one out, but every time a player hits a grounder to second and is out by 17 steps, I think about it.

*The other tipping point for me as a young’n going from Tartabull to Brett was a game against the Tigers. It was probably 1991 and the game was played in Tiger Stadium. I was in the car with one of my sisters and we were listening to the game when Brett came up and hit what I can only imagine was just an absolutely monstrous homerun. Denny Matthews (post on him soon) made one of my favorite calls of his of all time. Brett stepped to the plate, you heard the crack of the bat through the radio and Denny simply said in a gleeful voice, “There she goes!” The ball had gone on top of the roof over the right field seats. At the time, I thought that it must have been like the longest homerun ever. Then I found out that it wasn’t all that uncommon. Still, though, that call made me a Denny fan for life.

So, back to the original topic of intangibles and the competitive nature in players. To shift sports for a second, take a look at a guy like Randy Moss. Maybe not so much anymore, but in his prime he was probably more talented than any WR to play the game and possibly anybody to play the game. He was in it all for him, though. Sure that was helpful to teams in winning games, but if he didn’t get the ball, he’d pout and quit on routes. In 2010, he’s on his third team. The Patriots got tired of him. The Vikings got tired of him. The Titans will soon get tired of him. His talent simply isn’t enough.

Back to baseball, look at a guy like Chase Utley. He’s also supremely talented. Of course, everybody in the majors is supremely talented, but some are more than others. It’s a pretty common belief that Utley is one of the three best defensive second basemen in the league. Coming through the Phillies system, Utley was a nice prospect. He wasn’t expected to be anything amazing, but he was expected to be a nice piece. The problem, though, was that his defense was really bad wherever he was. I’ve never met Chase Utley, but everything I’ve ever heard about him is that he is so competitive that he worked and he worked and he worked until he’s darn near the best second baseman in baseball. That is where intangibles come into play.

Talent gets you to the majors, but that extra oomph a player puts into his game is what puts him over the top. It’s akin to an argument I’ve read about Harvard students and how there are always some who just can’t cut it. You wonder why, though. They make it through the screening process and get accepted to one of the finest schools in the country. They were undoubtedly in the top 10 of their class in high school yet they can’t seem to cut it. Here’s the rub: everybody there is smarter than everyone with whom they went to high school. Your intelligence is no longer what sets you apart.

Bringing this all together and relating it to the Royals of now and the Royals of the near future, I see a lot of good things happening for the team. The future left side of the infield of Mike Moustakas and Christian Colon is lauded for their ability to get the most of their teammates and be natural leaders. A good team needs that. They need people who lead by example. In addition to Moustakas, a guy like Billy Butler who is constantly studying tape trying to get better is a huge key. Joakim Soria and his competitive nature sets the tone for an entire bullpen.

Ultimately, the best teams win. There are many ingredients that go into being the best. The most prevalent one is easy to define, and it’s talent. But as is the example with the Harvard student or flunks out or the disgruntled WR who has trouble sticking with a team, it’s more than talent that makes a player or a team great. George Brett had it. Mike Moustakas has it. Most of the prospects coming through the Royals system are believed to have it as well. Combine that with their talent, and things might get exciting in Kansas City and fast.

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