If a baseball player could hit, hit for power, run, throw, and was a superb defender, and if he was active in his community and helped little old ladies across the street in his spare time, he would be Mike Trout.
If a basketball player could score, rebound, defend everyone from 5-foot-11-inch point guards to 7-foot centers and was the best passer in the game, and if he donated millions to establish a school for at-risk youth, he would be LeBron James.
But leaving aside the off-field lives for a moment, the bulk of professional sports rosters are comprised of more ordinary players. They all have some notable skill in some phase of their respective games, or else they wouldn’t be there. But some players stand out from the pack precisely because they are rather obviously lopsided with their abilities. They are seemingly quite deficient in the most obvious skill their game involves while being amazingly proficient in an area, or areas, that are not so easy quantifiable. They spark great debates among the fans.
Right here in our town we have two classic Exhibit As. By now I’m kinda hoping you’ve figured out that the players in question are Marcus Smart and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Ask the average basketball fan what is the single most important aspect of the game and the expected answer is shooting the basketball. That’s why some Celtics fans are aghast because their beloved basketball team has just bestowed a four-year, $52 million contract on a player with a four-year career average of 9.4 points per game, and who has done so with a career shooting percentage of 36.0. Other fans are smiling broadly because they believe the Celtics are a significantly lesser team without Smart in the lineup. I am one of those people.
Of course, I’d like it if Smart were a more reliable shooter. I’d like to think that even as we speak, Smart has locked himself in a gym somewhere working on his 3-point stroke. I believe that’s what Avery Bradley did, and by the time he left here he was a fairly reliable marksman from beyond the vaunted arc.
But even if he never materializes into a major shooting threat, Smart will always have value. I maintain that Brad Stevens should allow him to drop-kick threes on occasion if it keeps him happy. That’s because the things Smart does give you are not available anywhere in the NBA, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. He is absolutely sui generis.
Marcus Smart is a disruptive defensive player. Marcus Smart makes opponents worry. They don’t know when or where he’s coming from. Marcus Smart makes things happen. There aren’t definable categories to annotate his contributions, although I shall give you one: most alley-oop passes intercepted intended for 7-foot Greeks.
And file this one: “They need him. He gives them toughness.” That, from an opposing coach.
The Celtics were 55-27 last regular season. They played 28 regular-season and three playoff games without Smart. Their record in those games was 18-13. The defense rests.
Now we come to Bradley, who sparked a lot of conversation this past week with yet another highlight catch. He is the subject of debate because his undeniable brilliance as a center fielder is negated in the minds of many by his frustrating inconsistency at the plate, and, yes, I’m being gentle here because I am a paid-up member of the Jackie Bradley Jr. Fan Club.
First, the defense. No one on earth can say he isn’t a brilliant center fielder. Is he the absolute best in the game? I don’t know. We are in an age of truly amazing defense and if people say the likes of Kevin Kiermaier, Billy Hamilton, or who knows how many other people favor are as good or better, I am in no position to refute them as long as you don’t attempt to cite those ludicrous defensive metrics that are of interest to people who apparently never actually watch a game but only crunch numbers.
What I do know is that I have seen every Red Sox center fielder since 1964 and Jackie Bradley Jr. is unquestionably — let me repeat that — unquestionably the best of them all. That would leave Tris Speaker, Dominic DiMaggio, and Jimmy Piersall in the discussion, which is fine with me. As I said, defense will always remain ultimately unquantifiable.
Why the man we know as JBJ isn’t a more reliable hitter is one of life’s great mysteries. He is such a good athlete it truly makes little sense.
But wait. Sometimes he does hit. He had a 29-game batting streak from April 24 through May 25, 2016, a year in which he had 26 homers and 87 runs batted in and was a legitimate American League All-Star. He blows astonishingly hot and astonishingly cold at the plate to a degree unmatched in contemporary baseball. Why? Why? Why?
But wait again. There is now evidence that he may be amazingly unlucky, as well. There is a metric called Expected Batting Average, which is based on how hard someone hits the ball (which is now measured for everyone) and where. Based on this, Bradley’s .215 batting average as of last Wednesday had an Expected Batting Average of .268. And get this: His Expected Slugging Percentage was .485, not .363. That .485 was higher than, among others, Bryce Harper and Shin-Soo Choo.
The strikeouts? Yes, of course he strikes out. Join the club. Welcome to 2018.
I understand the panic among Jackie doubters when he was hitting .161 on May 19. At that point the Mendoza Line looked far, far away. But he crossed that line on July 7 and he had a fairly decent month, with enough production, I would think, to justify his daily presence in the lineup.
The issue in both the Smart and Bradley cases is what value can be placed on outsized contributions that are attached to clear weaknesses in their overall games. Is it now a matter of roster composition? The Celtics can accommodate Smart’s offensive inefficiency because they have sufficient firepower elsewhere. I liken him to a Gold Glove catcher who hits .220 but throws out everybody, and when he does hit he does so with some power.
Similarly, the Red Sox can accommodate Bradley because they have sufficient offense. Smart might not make much sense for the Kings. Jackie might not make much sense for the Orioles. But each man is a valuable component of a very good team.
Throw in the fact that Smart gets you incredible clean-up baskets and Jackie does have that pop in the bat when he connects and the discussion should be over.
No, I mean it. We’re done for today.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.