You ever hear of The Superstar Fallacy? The Superstar Fallacy is the tendency, as fans, to blame a team’s best player for its shortcomings even though the team would be profoundly worse without that player. When the Cleveland Cavaliers would lose in the NBA Finals, the blame would inevitably land on LeBron James, even though James’ talent was of course the only reason the Cavs were in the Finals in the first place. The reason the Cavs lost wasn’t LeBron James; it was all those other players who aren’t LeBron James.
I thought about The Superstar Fallacy a lot after the Braves’ heartbreaking 7-6 loss to the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday night. The Braves missed several opportunities to add to a lead, gave up six runs in the final two innings and missed the opportunity to tie the game in the ninth after a dramatic two-run home run. Yet after the game … everyone was mad at the guy who went 3-for-4 with a walk, a majestic two-run homer and a slick sliding catch in center field to save a run.
Why? Hustle. Ronald Acuña Jr., the obscenely talented Braves outfielder who would have had a 40-40 season had he not missed most the last week, led off the bottom of the seventh with a 355-foot fly ball down the right field line that nearly hit the foul pole. Unfortunately, Acuña -- who, like many people in the stadium (including me) thought the ball was gone -- didn’t sprint out of the box, and right fielder Dexter Fowler played it perfectly and held him to a single. He advanced to second on a groundout and was eventually doubled off second base on a Josh Donaldson lineout.
At the time, the Braves were leading, 3-1, and in the grand scheme of their loss it was a relatively a minor moment in a game that had many far more important plays. But after the game, all the anger was focused on Acuña, from fans in the stands (who were still grousing about Acuña’s lack of hustle an hour later) to Acuña’s teammates (“It’s frustrating,” Freddie Freeman said) to his manager (“We’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there,” Brian Snitker said, clearly hinting that he wanted to pull Acuña from the game like he did earlier this year after not running out a long fly ball).
It’s a good thing Snitker didn’t pull Acuña like he wanted to, considering Acuña’s homer in the ninth was the only reason the Braves had a chance to come back. In reality, Atlanta’s bullpen -- which has been plaguing the team all season -- allowed six runs in the final two innings and was clearly the reason for the loss … so it seems a little odd to place the blame on the one player who did the most to improve Atlanta’s chances of winning.
It all comes down to that hustle. Nothing makes sports fans and Serious Baseball People angrier than not hustling. I remember a few years ago, ESPN.com ran a poll asking what an athlete could do that would most irritate fans, including options like “take performance enhancing drugs” and “get arrested for a violent crime.” The winner, far and away, was “not hustle.” We are obsessed with hustle. A player can hit .200 and not even have warning track power, but if he runs really hard to first base on a groundout, we applaud him and somehow argue that he plays the game better than, say, a transcendent talent who can hit the ball 500 feet.
There is no worse crime in many people’s eyes than not hustling. And yes: Acuña should have been on second base on his hit off the right-field wall. But it did not, in fact, cost the Braves anything. You have to make a leap of faith to claim it really cost the Braves a run, considering had he not been doubled off second on Donaldson’s hit, he’d have been standing on third with two out, far from an assured scoring situation. (Also, who’s to say he wouldn’t have been doubled off third?) And even if it did, the Braves still gave up six runs in the next two innings. The only reason the final score looks close was because Acuña homered in the ninth, which wouldn’t have happened if Snitker had pulled him like he wanted to. How exactly is this all Acuña’s fault?
Acuna is a polarizing player, to be sure, even to Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martínez, who took umbrage with how Acuna celebrated his nint- inning homer off him, saying, “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.” (It is bizarre to see Martínez, a player who has often been lambasted for his own demonstrative celebrations, suddenly getting cranky about a young player visibly enjoying the game of baseball. Alas, we all get old eventually.) But more than Acuña being a polarizing player, he is an incredible player. He’s the only reason the Braves nearly won that game Thursday. And he’s being treated like he lost it by himself.
This fetishization of hustle has always been in the sport’s DNA, and there’s a thin line between hustle and “fake hustle,” a player going all out in an unnecessary, show-off way just to make it look like he’s trying harder than everyone else is. (It is worth remembering that Pete Rose’s nickname “Charlie Hustle” was a result of Whitey Ford making fun of Rose for sprinting to first base after a walk.) And it certainly bothers Snitker and some of Acuña’s teammates. But you know what would bother them more? Not having a center fielder who can make the amazing catch he made, or who notches seven total bases in the first game of a postseason series. At least you would think it would bother them more.
The Braves can still win this series, and doing so will require Acuña being the all-world baseball player we all know he is. It will not require him hustling out of the box every time he hits a long fly ball. He should. Yes. We know. He definitely should. But nobody’s perfect. You take the good with the bad. And contrary to what the Braves clubhouse seemed to think afterward, there is a far more good than bad. After the game, Acuña said, “Things happen. Stuff like this doesn't happen to the one who is sitting on the bench.” He’s right.