The Myth of the Five-Tool Player


Since baseball is a great parable for life, it’s fitting that baseball, like life, is full of archetypes — types of players that are so quintessential to the game that they become part of its mythology. There’s the intimidating starting pitcher (big, strapping workhorse that’s not afraid to brush a hitter back), the even more intimidating relief ace (coupling a sizzling fastball with an RBI-baseball style breaking pitch), the strikeout prone slugger (more and more common these days), and the tiny, nimble, ninja-quick middle infielder (less and less common as more Jeter-types arrive on the seen).

There is one archetype that stands above the rest, however; having an air of prophecy and mystique about him that approaches the Messianic (in baseball terms). This breathtaking creature has been given different labels through the years, but the current terminology most often refers to him as the “5-tool athlete.” Who is this masked man, and is he really as valuable as we instinctively seem to believe him to be? Let’s discuss.

The Five Tools

For almost as long as there have been ballplayers, there have been envious dorks such as myself who couldn’t hit a curveball with a snowshovel but love to analyze those who can and discuss why their either better or worse than everyone thinks. Now what you do when you analyze things is you break them down into their component parts and at some point in history, someone decided to break down what non-pitching baseball players do into five “tools” — hitting for average, hitting for power, running the bases, defense, and throwing arm. Once this discovery was made, it followed as naturally as Gehrig follows Ruth that the “perfect” baseball player would be someone who was excellent in all of these categories. Thus, if you got to play mad Dr. Frankenveeck and create your own ideal player out of your imagination, he would do all of these things at an exceptionally high level. Also, while we’re in the lab, we need to give him a sense of style and grace that makes doing the impossible seem so natural that you’d swear that when the holy angels were dreaming up baseball and whispered it to Alexander Cartwright, that’s what they meant by nailing the runner at home.

And where would you play this unnatural phenomenon once you got him out of the lab and gave him a brand new pair of shoes? Centerfield, of course, which is the home of most of the players who come to mind when we think of the five-tool player. Shortstop may also be an option, but we want to see this guy covering ground like an antelope and chasing down balls in the gap, so better stick him in center.

The Chosen Few

So, who in all of baseball history has come closest to this impossible ideal? That’s an interesting question, because before 1920, baseball only had four tools. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker may very well have been what we’d recognize now as five tool athletes except nobody hit home runs before Babe Ruth, so we can’t really tell. The first major leaguer who really fit the mold was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Joe D hit homers, was a gold-glove caliber fielder with a great arm, hit .330 and could steal you some bags. Oh, and style and grace? Joe was the essence of refined class; the coolest cat from a very cool age. If you need empirical evidence, look up a picture of one Marilyn Monroe; shouldn’t be too hard to find.

What’s interesting to me is the place DiMaggio has maintained in baseball history despite final career stats that are a bit underwhelming. Part of that is without a doubt the fact he was a Yankee and enjoyed an unprecedented run of World Series success (10 World Series in 12 seasons played; 9 wins!). Also, there were defining moments like the 56-game winning streak and retiring rather than letting his skills degrade. However, part of it, I think, is the fact that he was the first of his kind; the first of the naturals; the ballplayer we’d all like to be if we could. Writers of that time called him “the most perfect ballplayer there ever was,” and I think this image of DiMaggio as the incarnation of every man’s idea of baseball perfection is part of why his legacy has endured just as strongly as his contemporary Ted Williams, who, by any statistical measure was the far superior player.

DiMaggio was just setting the stage, though. The 50’s gave us two men who surpassed even Joe D’s legend and remain to this day the standard by which all prototypical centerfielders are measured to this day, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Both men were impossibly good; Mays was probably a little better, but not a whole lot. Mays was probably a little faster; Mantle hit the ball further. Mays was a better fielder; the Mick was the first great switch hitter. Mays had the more productive career stats; Mantle won more World Series. They were both the defining stars of an era that produced as many legendary players as any in baseball history.

Mays is probably the one that remains the standard; more than Mantle; more than DiMaggio. He has the defining play (the World Series catch against Vic Wertz), that seems to best embody what this kind of player is all about; doing the impossible (catching the ball) and then topping that by doing something so unthinkable it never crossed your mind (throwing it back in well enough to hold the runner). DiMaggio showed us that we had a place in our hearts that could only be filled by a natural, graceful, “five-tool” centerfielder. Mays filled that place better than anyone else, and we’re still looking for someone who can live up to his standard.

The Legacy

Of course, chasing down these ghosts is no easy task, and has led to several excellent players being labeled as disappointments. This played out in San Francisco almost immediately. After Mays retired, the Giants had Bobby Bonds, Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox come up in succession. They were all excellent players and they were all traded because they weren’t Willie Mays. It’s not just the Giants, though; nearly ever centerfielder that comes up with pop in his bat and some wheels gets tagged as the next Willie Mays, and inevitably fails by comparison. The guy I remember growing up was Eric Davis, who hit some home runs and stole some bases as a young player and was told to clear mantle space for the MVP awards he would win. Well, not quite; Davis was a nice player, but nowhere near the chosen one baseball was longing for. Junior Griffey was the next on the podium, and for a while looked to some like he might even surpass Willie. Of course, this was always a little silly, as Griffey never really had the wheels of Mays. However, he was hitting home runs at an unprecedented pace and there was a lot of talk about him being the best player in baseball (again, a little silly as he was never the equal of Bonds). Now, after a lack of postseason production and a freakish run of injuries, the Kid is being asked to explain why he might end up with “only” 600 home runs. And so it goes when you’re looked at as the heir to Willie’s throne.

Another guy who’s thought of as a disappointment largely, I think, because he hasn’t fulfilled the role of uber-centerfielder is Andruw Jones. Hailed by many as the greatest fielding centerfielder of all time as a kid (of all time? really? was he ever clearly better than Jim Edmonds?), he hit a couple of home runs in the World Series and everyone thought the Jones kid was surely the one we’d all been waiting for. Well, the problem no one seemed to notice was that he had no plate discipline and was an indifferent worker so he was unlikely to develop any. However, he has been a very good player. Look at his stats; he’s got 250 home runs and is just now entering his prime years, turning 28 on Saturday. Really, he’s not a disappointment, people; he’s just not Willie Mays; no one is. . . .

Well, maybe we finally have found the next Willie. Did anyone see Carlos Beltran in the playoffs last year? This guy really is the real deal; he does it all and does it very well. He was nearly a 40-40 man last year; should start winning gold gloves any time now. And style? The guy never looks like he’s breaking a sweat while robbing fly balls and cranking home runs from both sides of the plate. He is the ultimate in cool.

And he’s no Willie Mays. He turns 28 on Sunday, and only has 142 home runs (though Jones did get a head start). He’s never finished higher than ninth in the MVP voting, and isn’t likely to pass Albert Pujols any time soon. Playing for the Mets, he’s no lock to get back to the playoffs in the near future either. Thus, it’s likely the quest for the next chosen one may take a while, especially if Mays is the standard by which he is measured. In the meantime, though, you could do worse than enjoying the talents of Mr. Beltran.

What’s a boy to do?So, how do you avoid hitting 500 home runs and being labeled a disappointment? Stay out of center. It seems strange to me that Albert Pujols doesn’t have to deal very often with comparisons to Jimmie Foxx or Lou Gehrig (though Pujols may actually be that good) and that Vlad Guerrero isn’t always measured against Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron (try living up to that legacy!). For whatever reason, the image of the slugging corner player isn’t as indelibly marked on the collective baseball psyche as is that of the centerfielder. Maybe that’s because the weaknesses of those players are more evident; they tend to be slower and strike out a lot (though Aaron really didn’t have these weaknesses; he was a pretty incredible all around player). Thus, the standard isn’t really perfection; it’s a different sort of excellence; more gaudy and less refined.But ultimately, perhaps, more valuable. Think about it, who would you rather build your team around — Pujols or Beltran? Willie Mays or Babe Ruth? The fact is not all “tools” are created equally; Babe Ruth couldn’t steal a base if the catcher had a grand mal seizure, but he’s far and away the greatest player in the history of the game. Why? Well, he had about two tools in his box, but they were both sledgehammers, so who cared if he didn’t carry around an Allen wrench (as I beat that metaphor to a bloody death). Don’t get me wrong, a strong throwing arm is nice, but not nearly as nice (or valuable) as a .690 slugging percentage (Ruth’s career avg). A stolen base is important, but not as important as a three-run homer. In the end, though the ideal we all have of what a baseball player should be may be the 5-tool, prototype centerfielder, if you’re looking for the better value, run production is where it’s at.

Oh yeah, I guess the Babe probably had a pretty good throwing arm, too.

8 Responses to “The Myth of the Five-Tool Player”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Awesome article. I always want to choose Pujols to build a fantasy team around, but I never get the 1st draft pick!!!

    Excellent analysis.

    Best line, however: “Babe Ruth couldn’t steal a base if the catcher had a grand mal seizure…”

    (the “couldn’t hit a curveball with a snowshovel” line was good, too!)

  2. wednesday Says:

    Are you sure you didn’t ghostwrite Moneyball? 🙂

    (Of course, the erudite Joe Morgan still thinks Billy Beane wrote it.)

    Can’t believe a Houston boy would write anything about a grand mal seizure. Where have you gone, Larry Dierker? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo…

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Centerfielders aren’t the only ones to get tagged with the “5-tool” label. As a Dodgers fan, the person who leaps to mind anytime I hear that phrase is Raul Mondesi, a rightfielder. For about 5 or 6 years there, I thought “5-tool player” was part of the man’s name.

    He brings up another interesting point about players who get that label. They tend to flame out.

  4. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Dierker’s back in the broadcast booth. I read an article that quoted the Doc that operated on Dirk and he said that the mass of blood vessels they removed was (in true Texan Speak) “the size of a really big jalapeno.” Dierker now has the affectionate nickname of “Hal”, short for jalapeno.

  5. guru junior Says:

    Coolhand, if there is such a thing as the 5 tool sportswriter, you’re it. There is a great story about “the catch” by Mays that often goes untold, I don’t know for sure that it’s true but it’s a great story none the less and baseball is full of these kind of “legends”. The pitcher who served up the meatball to Wertz had only been put in to get one out. The manager and the next reliever got to the mound and this guy whose tit has just been pulled from the ringer by Mays, looks at the new reliever and says “I got my man, guess it’s up to you now” Classic.

  6. Coolhand Says:

    i think a lot of the big shortstops (A-Rod, Jeter) have also been given the 5-tool tag. Just last night Larry Bowa was saying how Torii Hunter was a 5-tool guy.

    Is Jim Edmonds a five-tool guy? He never stole a lot of bags but it seems he would qualify. Rarely hear him called it though.

    That’s true about rightfielders. Vlad had that label as a younger man, though hitting pitches at eye level may have to qualify for a sixth tool. I think such illuminaries as Jose Guillen and Alex Ochoa also got that label.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    ESPN is ripping you off!

  8. John Maier Says:

    You’re definitely wrong-Mantle was much faster and quicker than Mays(at least in Mantle’s prime). Mantle probably had more raw talent than any player in MLB histroy. However, don’t take anything from Mays. He was definitely a great player-one of the best to ever play the game.. His career stats were better than Mantle’s but Mantle had better peak years.

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