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Grit N' Clutch: The Power of the Sports Media Narrative

This offseason has produced a lot of drive-by narratives about the Diamondbacks. I'm here to tell you that those, as well as most sports media narratives, are lazier than people said Justin Upton was (which he wasn't.)

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Jonathan Daniel

If you have seen or listened to any Spring Training broadcasts this year, you have probably heard Steve Berthume mention the "grit narrative." and then generally say something derisive about it. What is the "grit narrative?" In a broad sense, it's the idea that the offseason moves that the Diamondbacks have made were made in the name of getting gritty, hard nosed, tough types. This has caused every twitter reply to a Diamondbacks story to be some bordering-on-hacky response about grit. ("BUT WHAT ABOUT INSERT PLAYER HERE'S GRIT.") So it has become the narrative of these past few months. Whether or not said narrative has merits is almost irrelevant at this point, it's out there, and it has become the narrative, and the narrative is all consuming. You cannot hide from it. It wants your soul.

Melodramatics aside, whatever the accepted narrative about a team or a player is, it is that narrative, despite what they do to the contrary. Here we will look at what narratives are surrounding the D'Backs this season, and I will look into (read: rant) about the power of the sports media narrative, and how that narrative is usually, for lack of better term, really stupid.

First, let's examine the "grit narrative." This came about from quotes from Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers after the Upton-Prado trade. One quote in particular from Gibby was revealing...

"We want to be gritty, we want to be a team that pressures our opponent," said Gibson, his left arm in a sling following recent shoulder surgery. "We want to be relentless, highly dedicated, determined and undeterred in our goals."

I will admit up front: If I had a nickel for every time someone mentions the words "grit", "scrap", "hustle" etc. without irony in a way that caused me to roll my eyes, I would have about $4.60 (enough for an all day bus pass and change in Tucson! Let's see what adventures await me there!) The thing is, you can have a reasonable thought and debate about whether that team-building strategy can work, but if I also had a nickel for every time I saw some random on twitter (or even a baseball writer who commands some amount of respect) go "GRIT, LOL!" as a response to a tweet about the Diamondbacks, I could also buy me and a friend lunch at a Fast Casual restaurant.

I'm as skeptical as anybody about the idea of building a team around that idea, but the "GRIT, LOL!" is just a lazy response that only furthers a silly narrative. People don't stop and say "You know, you can't argue with the fact that that Diamondbacks improved their infield defense this offseason, and that will help guys like Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy, so I can see a positive here." (Okay, I'll admit, that's pretty much my exact opinion.) There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of this offseason (I have no doubt that many of you will post them in the comments, delighting us all.), but "GRIT" will be the prevailing theme this season from people when it comes to the Diamondbacks. Aaron Hill makes a routine play? "THAT WAS GRITTY, YO!" Miguel Montero pops out in the 7th inning of a blowout win? "HE DOESN'T HAVE GRIT, DFA HIM!" and so on. It's the "grit narrative" and it's here to stay, Third Amendment be damned!

The 'grit' narrative! Which I just hate. I think it's so senseless and lazy and poorly-researched." -Steve Berthume

When Jim interviewed Steve Berthume. he asked about the offseason moves, and Steve had this to say about the narrative and the Upton trade, which I will present without comment:

AZSP: Going back to the Diamondbacks, it seems a lot of the acquisitions this winter were based, to some extent, on 'character'. You were talking about getting the pieces to fit.
Steve: The "grit" narrative! Which I just hate. I think it's so senseless and lazy and poorly-researched.

AZSP: There has been criticism of that from the sabermetric community.
Steve: Why? Since when does the sabermetric community value potential so much? Look at the numbers. I did it. The last three years, the last four years, Prado and Upton they're neck and neck. I'll give you the extra 15-20 homers, and I'll take the 100+ fewer strikeouts. Other than that, the numbers are almost identical to me. I looked at it - they're very close. That, I didn't get. Justin Upton is a really good player. I think he'll do better in Atlanta than he did here because of - and again, it goes back to this, it's critical - the fit. He's going to do well, he's going to have a good year. But he's not Willie Mays, calm down.

Yes, he has the potential to be a great player, but you can also subscribe to the theory that he has already had his best year. I don't know if that's true or not, but I can see that as a possibility, and it's a reasonable point of discussion. So, do you want to sit and wait for Justin Upton's potential to come through, or not come through, or do you want Martin Prado, whom you absolutely know what you're going to get? You're not getting three years of Martin Prado and giving up ten years of Justin Upton. It's basically three for three. For me, I'll take Martin Prado's next three or four years versus Upton's next three years.

Another narrative surrounding this team involves Didi Gregorious, who we acquired in the Trevor Bauer deal. Kevin Towers said this about him:

"When I saw him, he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter," Towers said on a Tuesday night conference call.... "I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan," Towers said. "He's got that type of range."

This is a guy scouting a prospect and making a comparison to a current player. This happens all the time, and it's nothing really special. However, some of you, and you know who you are, have reduced this statement to "KT SAID GREGORIOUS IS THE NEXT DEREK JETER AND WE ARE GOING TO LAUGH AT HIM FOR IT." I did a CTRL-F a few times and did not find the word "Next" in that statement. Within this community, that narrative has taken a life of its own. You should know that your Didi-Jeter joke is a precious snowflake: It's one of a bajillion and should melt away without a trace in the desert. (Credit to Kishi for that joke on twitter a few weeks ago.)

A beavy of current and former Diamondbacks have had various narratives tossed on them. Willie Bloomquist is gritty, Justin Upton is lazy, Trevor Bauer won't listen to people, Chad Qualls was terrible (Okay, that one was true for a good period of time.) A lot of these are drive-by observations that people make after watching a handful of games. For all we know, Bloomquist has to see a therapist whenever he gets his uniform dirty, Upton could have run steps at Chase Field everyday, and Bauer could have visited a sage on the top of a mountain who dispensed wisdom which he followed. The average fan isn't aware of what goes on behind the scenes with a team, but they sure will try to fill in the gaps.

The thing that is most ubiquitous with the Sports Narrative is clutch. You may think of clutch as the pedal you push to change gears in your car, but it loosely means "The ability to do good things in late game situations." In baseball it means the guy who hits the walk-off double is clutch, but the guy who popped out is not. In basketball, it's the guy who can hit the last-second shot that is clutch, and so on and so forth. The idea that clutch is a baseball ability has been debunked by many people who are smarter than me, but the narrative cares not. Some players are built to shine in clutch situations, and some just wither and die like the worthless human beings they are because they just can't take the pressure.

If you still wanted to see if "clutch" exists, you could look at stats of a player in a certain situation. Numbers, for the most part, do not lie. However, one can twist numbers to however they want if it fits the all-mighty narrative. If you'll allow me to leave the realm of baseball for a minute, take a look at this ESPN graphic from last year's NBA finals:



If your first reaction was slamming your head on the desk: 1. You shouldn't do that and 2. you realize the absurdity of that graphic. What's dividing by three?

If you are unfamiliar with the professional hoopball, I should explain that LeBron James is a supremely talented, once in a generation sort of player who, up until last season, was not on a team that had won a championship. He had also rubbed some people the wrong way in the way in which he announced that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami (which seems like the most logical choice one could ever make.) Ergo, he is just some sort of clutch-less loser that is a worthless baby that doesn't show up in the fourth quarter. The above graphic just shows how far certain national media outlets will go to push the narrative, no matter how absurd they look in doing it.

In Football, the pervasive narrative that surrounds a player is usually something like "(insert quarterback here) can't win playoff games!" If your general thought is "Well, there are 50something players on an NFL team, and they do single elimination playoffs, which makes it difficult to get a really good sample size, because any individual game in any sport can have any sort of result 'Any Given Sunday' and all that." then I don't have to explain that one to you.

So, why do sport narratives exist? I would say it is because we as humans like to view things as a sort of story or narrative, and have it boiled down to something simple. Something like "LeBron James is a Chokey McChokerson from Glaschoke, UK." is easily digested. Analysis that would counter that would have to be in depth and involve scary numbers, and who has time for that?

Narratives are also used to spice things up. If you're watching the Olympics and you see a Latvian pole vaulter do very well, you're probably going "Meh, what else is on?", but if you had watched the pre-vault fluff piece...

"Miroslav Ozolinsh spent his whole life running from the Latvian mob, who had taken his father's left eye and broke his prized Hockey stick over his head. The only way Miroslav could escape was by taking a drainage pipe and vaulting himself over the wall at the border between Latvia and Belarus. He vowed one day that he would return a hero to his homeland, and he would set things right!"

...Then you would probably be yelling "YES! YOU SHOW THOSE MOBSTER BASTARDS A THING!" while the tears started to flow.

You might be saying to yourself "Gee, Clefo. I see what you are saying about narratives, but is there an overall point to this that has to do with the Diamondbacks?" Why, yes there is! There will be many narratives surrounding the Diamondbacks this year, the "grit narrative" is just the tip of the iceberg. It can be really easy to fall into these traps, but you should resist. Form your conclusions from what you see with your eyes and see on a stat sheet (or a website, I suppose. That's how they do it these days.) Sports media narratives are, for the most part, lazy and too simple for what might be a complex subject. Basically, when it comes to the Diamondbacks this year, watch games, do the necessary research, just so you know what is actually going on. If nothing else, you can feel smug over someone who may just spout a tired media narrative.

Also, if you are ever in a situation where someone says to you "Boy, that Tim Tebow is just a winner!", I would advise you to not make eye contact with the person, find a way to leave wherever you are, and then phone the proper authorities.