This is a rather odd column topic, I’ll admit. It’s one that probably can be easily criticized. I’ll accept that, too.
It’s something I’ve thought about for years and have discussed from time to time when people who aren’t associated with Major League Baseball ask what strikes me most about the sport.
In those instances, I often bring up the name of Ryan Flaherty, who spent six years as the Orioles’ utility infielder before signing a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this week. Because watching Flaherty over the years always drives home a point for me: Baseball at the major league level is ludicrously difficult.
Flaherty is one of the nicest guys I have ever covered. He’s not the greatest interview in the world – he has often referred to himself as “boring” – but he’s polite and engaging and intelligent and the kind of guy you’d want as your teammate in a long season.
Here’s the other thing you must know about Flaherty: He is an elite athlete. A tremendously gifted baseball player.
Let that sink in for a second. I’ll wait as you laugh or call me a moron.
Flaherty is a career .215 major league hitter. He’s played six seasons in the majors and never had more than 312 plate appearances in a year, never hit more than 10 homers, never drove in more than 32 runs, never hit higher than .224 and never started more than 60 games at one position in one season in the majors.
Sounds like the typical, below-average journeyman; nothing close to a tremendously gifted baseball player.
Flaherty, for one, quickly will tell you he’s not an accomplished big leaguer.
A couple years ago when I was routinely doing book signings, I would ask readers about their favorite all-time Oriole, and, if I had a chapter in my book dedicated to that player, I would mention it in the inscription. One time, I asked the question and a guy said, “Ryan Flaherty. I just like the way he plays.”
I later relayed the story to Flaherty, joking that I’d have to consider adding a chapter on him if his popularity continued to grow.
“You should have told the guy to pick a better favorite player.”
Self-deprecating jokes aside, when the news broke Wednesday that Flaherty had signed a deal with the Phillies, the reception on social media wasn’t particularly kind. The Twitter and Facebook responses I received ranged from “It’s about time” to “This guy was a waste of roster space” to “He couldn’t hit his weight.”
I didn’t snap back. But here’s what I could have said: “Ryan Flaherty is better at baseball than you are at anything you do.” I’m pretty confident in that statement without knowing a shred about the commenters.
Flaherty is a prime example of just how incredibly difficult baseball is to play at the highest level. It’s so, so much harder than anyone at home realizes – so much harder than even all of us in the press box fully understand.
Consider this: Flaherty was raised on baseball. He grew up in Maine as the son of one of the most revered instructors in college history, Ed Flaherty, the University of Southern Maine head coach and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
The younger Flaherty was a three-sport athlete in high school, but really excelled at baseball. He was named Maine’s player of the year as a high school senior. Let that sink in, too. He was the best baseball player in a state in a given year.
Now, we can joke that it was in Maine; not exactly a baseball hotbed; some would say barely a state.
But Maine must not have been much of a joke to talent evaluators. Flaherty was ranked by Baseball America as one of the Top 150 amateurs at the time. Instead of going pro, he joined one of the best Division 1 baseball programs in the country, Vanderbilt University, where he started at shortstop and often batted cleanup, protecting a more heralded player in the No. 3 spot. A guy you may have heard of named Pedro Alvarez.
Flaherty was a second-team All-American at Vandy and was selected by the Chicago Cubs as a supplemental first-rounder – 41st overall – in the 2008 amateur draft.
He’s a .281 career minor league hitter with an .817 on-base-plus slugging percentage.
Let me put Flaherty’s talent and pedigree in further perspective: Think about the best high school athlete you ever played with, the kid who was an amazing ballplayer and you were sure he’d be a big leaguer one day.
In most instances, Flaherty is better than that guy. Probably much better. Flaherty has excelled at every level.
Except in the majors.
Now, the boys he plays with and against – who have come to the majors from all over the world — are even better. Flaherty works his tail off every season, but he’s just not as fast or strong or gifted as MLB’s elite.
But he’s still exceptionally gifted; don’t forget that.
Doing what he does, sitting on the bench for days and weeks at a time and then being thrust into different positions, often in key moments, and not falling on his face, is a skill in itself.
Flaherty has rarely hurt the Orioles over the years and he’s had some highlight moments, including two homers in the postseason – one in Yankee Stadium as a rookie.
I’m not writing this to inflate Flaherty’s worth. I’m not his PR rep. I’m not on his payroll. Flaherty has been very fortunate to have played six seasons for a team that understood his skills set. And he was paid handsomely for it. He made $1.8 million last year to hit .211 and get to the plate just 43 times in an injury-riddled season. He has a chance to make more than $2 million in 2018. I know, that seems ridiculous.
Flaherty isn’t the only player in this situation, of course. Major League Baseball has had plenty of these players who were outstanding during the ride to the majors, and then simply became just another guy.
And, we, as baseball observers, focus on what they did in the majors and decide their value based on that: The guy was a bum, overrated, overpaid, a choke artist, couldn’t throw strikes, couldn’t hit his weight.
When the reality is just to reach the majors is one hell of an accomplishment. To stick there for six years is extraordinary.
We may think, “I could ride the bench in the majors and not hit my weight just as easily as a Flaherty.”
That’s not the case at all, of course. Playing baseball as a kid or in high school or in college or in some men’s league isn’t anywhere near the same ballpark, as it were.
I was reminded of that Wednesday, when Flaherty switched teams and the social media all-stars pounded him.
It’s a fair point that Flaherty hasn’t been a particularly good major leaguer. I get it.
But he, like anyone who makes The Show, is an elite baseball player. Among the 1,000 best in the world in a high-profile, high-pressure profession.
That’s something worth remembering on occasion, too.