How do you quantify the unquantifiable?

How do you quantify the unquantifiable?
March 11, 2014, 1:30 pm
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The wolf cries into the moonlight. And off in the distance, a man walks tall along a dusty road. His name is Jonny. Jonny Johnson Gomes. He’s just returned from a voyage into the abyss, and he’s brought back a special message to the world: Game on!
Gomes has been doing this for almost a decade now, and over that time he’s traveled far and wide — from Tampa to Cincinnati to Washington to Oakland to Boston — spreading his brand of magic across Major League baseball. What exactly does he do and how exactly does he do it? That’s not to be understood by mortals. All we know is that when Gomes shows up, things get better. Men become inspired. Teams take shape.
He is baseball’s Tyler Durden.
He is Jack’s deep understanding of clubhouse chemistry.
Or I don’t know. Something like that.
It all started in 2008, when Gomes emerged as one of the clubhouse leaders in Tampa, and the Rays went from 96 losses to 97 wins and a spot in the World Series.
In 2009, he joined a Reds team that went 78-84 and finished last in the NL Central. That next season, Cincy went 91-71 and finished first.
In 2011, the Reds traded Gomes to Washington at the deadline. At the time of the deal, Cincinnati was five games back in the division — and they finished 17 games back. Meanwhile, Gomes and the Nationals closed the season with wins in 15 of their last 20 games.
In 2012, Washington let Gomes escape to Oakland. The previous season, the A’s won 74 games. In that first year with Gomes, they won 94 games and the AL West title.
And finally, after one year in Oakland, Gomes arrived in Boston, and we’re all very aware of the impact that he had on the Sox. We know that he — in many ways, just his sheer presence — played a major role in that historic turnaround. In fact, it’s fair to say the Sox probably wouldn’t have won the World Series without Gomes. What more do you need to hear?
But while we can’t deny Gomes’ impact, we don’t truly understand it. Sabermetrics and other advanced statistics may have opened the door to a new universe of baseball learning and perspective, but we still haven’t discovered a tangible way to quantify the clubhouse dynamic.
“There’s no stat for winning player,” Gomes told Nick Cafardo in Sunday’s Boston Globe. “So it gets brushed under the rug. They talk about a player’s WAR? Well, how about a team WAR? I’ve turned a team around 20 games four different times. Worst to first. I was on a Tampa team that was historically bad in 2007 and then went to the World Series in 2008. The Reds hadn’t been in the playoffs for many years.
“When you’re building a team, I’m last on the list because, when the lights go out, you don’t see the player grind out at-bats or run hard to first base every time. Or see the player respect the game and his teammates . . . or see the way the player approaches the game, the work ethic.”
For what it’s worth, Gomes’ 2013 WAR was 1.2, which ranked 11th on the team, behind guys like Jose Iglesias and Mike Carp. He hit .247 on the season, which is low but still three points above his career average. Truth is, by any statistical measure, Gomes is (at best) an average MLB player. That helps explain why he’s bounced around so much. Why last year’s two-year deal with the Sox was the first multi-year deal of his career. And why, despite his emergence as a leader inside that clubhouse and an inspiration to an entire city, Gomes realizes that his future with the Sox isn’t set in stone.
Although he’d certainly like to stay.
“To tell you the honest truth, I’ve never wanted to leave anywhere,” he told Edes. “I’ve been so lucky because everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been welcomed with open arms. I think I have a blueprint and a character of what I’m about. I never wanted to leave Tampa, Washington, A’s, Reds, but I think this is the best fit for me truly. It’s not because I’m here saying that. I think I can play that wall really good.”
Of course, in order to play the wall, Gomes needs to play. And as he embarks on this latest contract year, that opportunity won’t present itself every day. Right now, it looks like Gomes will be in a left field platoon with Daniel Nava. He’ll play against lefties, while Nava plays against righties. However, the Sox also have dreams of Nava developing into a reliable lead-off hitter, and if he’s successful, Gomes might find it exceedingly difficult to crack the lineup. And in turn, to put up the numbers that make a difference at the negotiating table. It will be a challenge.
Meanwhile, at some point down the road, the Sox will face a challenge of their own: How do you quantify the unquantifiable? How do you put a price tag on attitude and aura and optimism and inspiration?
Those answers will take shape over the next eight months, as Gomes mystic powers will be put to the ultimate test. After all, it’s not a fluke that the three-peat Yankees and ’91-’92 Blue Jays are the only teams in the last 35 years to successfully defend a World Series title. It’s one thing to motivate a roster that’s stuck in the trenches to dedicate every moment to climbing out of there. It’s another thing to convince a group of guys that are on top of the world, that’s worth giving every ounce energy to remain on top.
It’s human nature. And Gomes and the Sox are up against it big time.
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