We here at HBT are well-known chroniclers of players who claim to be in The Best Shape of Their Lives, We don’t post about those guys because there’s anything inherently interesting about the state of a player’s physical fitness, however. Rather, we latched on to the dynamic a few years ago when we noticed that, most of the time, a player claiming to be in the Best Shape of His Life (BSHOL) had a an interest in claiming he was in the BSOHL.
Mostly to explain away a bad year as an anomaly. By claiming in the dead of winter that he is in great shape and implying that, last year, he was out of shape and that the coming year will be different. By doing so, he — or his team or his agent, as many of these stories seemed to be planted — shape the coverage of the guy as he enters spring training, inspiring reporters to talk about “The New Joe Shlabotnik,” instead of dwelling so much on the previous season. And of course reporters love these things too. There isn’t much going on in baseball before pitchers and catchers report and any chance to file something — anything — during this fallow period isn’t passed up.
These stories, once you start to pay attention to them, begin to seem silly. Sometimes we see players claim to be in the Best Shape of Their Lives in consecutive years, last year bulking up with weight training, this year getting lean with cardio to enhance his “athleticism.” Russell Martin is the all-time champion at this. He did this five freakin’ times in a row! And of course, attention paid to the pre-and-post BSOHL statistics have revealed only the weakest pattern of improvement from guys who made a big show out of hitting the gym. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s pretty random and pretty modest.
Over the past couple of years true, unadulterated BSOHL stories have become rare things. Thanks to our gentle mocking of it, players and reporters have become aware of the meme and have either gone meta with it, making self-aware BSOHL jokes, or have eschewed it altogether. You still see references to weight gain, weight loss and increases in muscle mass and stuff, but it’s rare these days for a player to explicitly and unironically claim to be in the Best Shape of His Life. It’s sad, really. We blame ourselves for the demise of this once-prevalent bit of silliness.
There are still other offseason cliches, however, all of which serve the same purpose as BSOHL.
One of my favorites is “I was tipping my pitches.” Jeff Samardzija offered that one at his introductory press conference with the Giants last week. I’m sure pitchers tip their pitches sometimes and I’m sure it’s a problem for them. It’s also the fact that you hear about this an inordinate number of times in the offseason when it’s convenient for a pitcher to explain away past ineffectiveness and when, unlike in the middle of the season, it cannot be immediately addressed. But, man it’s a good thing he wasn’t injured or beginning to show the tell-tale signs of decline! How lucky it was just tipping!
Injuries are an interesting offseason topic as well. Did you ever notice that, during the season, you hear about injuries constantly? Indeed, by volume, I am certain they are the leading baseball news item by a factor of ten. Which makes sense. Reporters are in the clubhouse every day, one of the first things they ask the manager each day is who is healthy and who is not and, of course, the lineup card makes it plain when someone is hurt. You would think, therefore, that no truly significant injury could go unnoticed and unremarked upon between April and October.
Yet, in the offseason, we are frequently informed that a guy who we all thought to be merely a bad player was suddenly suffering from an injury that sapped his performance. He’s much better now, of course, and his health should in no way hinder his status as a free agent or trade chit and in no way should anyone ask about whether he’s washed up. He was merely injured. Brett Gardner is the most recent case. His second half was miserable and both he and his manager constantly claimed he was not hurt all year. Now, however, he was hurt. By a pitch which hit him in the first half, weeks before his effectiveness began to wane. How . . . unfortunate.
It’s not just individual players who, during a long December, tell us that there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last. Clubs too traffic in offseason cliches. A favorite one of mine is when they say that, this coming year, the club really plans to emphasize the running game. Dusty Baker has said this about the Nationals in 2016. He won’t be the first. He won’t be the last. He won’t even be the last to do so with respect to an aging team which hits a lot of homers and whose youngest, fastest players are ones you really don’t want to risk on the base paths all that much. But that kind of broad strategy is one of the few things the manager can talk about during the offseason which is in his control. It’s not like he can say “well, what we do next year depends on whether my GM can get me some better players than the bums my predecessor had last year.” That would make news.
There is really no end to these sorts of offseason cliches. Indeed, they’re so prevalent and familiar that you can practically make a game out of them.
- “Shalbotnik has remade himself, slimming down to emphasize athleticism”
- “Jorgenson has added a pitch. He’s been working on his cutter since November”
- “Manager Moltenbrey says that the change of scenery following the trade and being around veterans like Shlabotnik and Jorgenson will really help Jackson mature as a player and finally tap into the potential he showed when he first broke into the league”
- “After a 2015 in which Haybury suffered through nagging injuries which, to his credit, he never used as an excuse and about which we never knew, he’s looking forward to a healthy and productive 2016”