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Fuld becomes a Stanford Superman for the Rays
A decade ago, a speedy, slap-hitting outfielder captivated the imagination of Tampa Bay baseball fans. What he lacked in power he made up for with speed and a nifty glove. On a team sorely lacking stars, his contributions stood out. But things got ugly in a hurry. By the time the Devil Rays honored him with a bobblehead night, Jason Tyner had been sent to the minors. To this day, 10,000 tiny Tyners sit in the offices of the Pinellas County Education Foundation, gathering dust.
Sam Fuld(notes), another small, speedy outfielder, has been a savior for the Rays through the first month of the 2011 season. More than that, he's become a social media star and a baseball icon. So much so that the Rays plan to honor Fuld by giving away Super Sam capes to the first 10,000 kids through the turnstiles May 29. That giveaway replaces a planned Manny Ramirez(notes) bobblehead promotion. Yup, the Rays have turned the tale of a petulant, twice-busted, suddenly-retired PED user into a David vs. Goliath saga.
All of which leads to the question: Have the Rays found the model for a new kind of baseball success story? Or is Sam Fuld, and others like him, destined to go the way of Jason Tyner?
Let's start by tracing #TheLegendofSamFuld as he's known on Twitter. He grew up in Durham, N.H., a small college town that ranks among the most unlikely origins for any U.S.-born baseball player. His mother, Amanda Merrill, is a New Hampshire State Senator. His father, Ken Fuld, is a dean and professor at the University of New Hampshire. Ken's second cousin is former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld. Sam studied economics at Stanford, then interned at Stats, Inc. If ever there was a guy who seemed too smart to be a baseball player, he's it. He's also Jewish, which, with apologies to Kevin Youkilis(notes), Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and a few others, is rare for a major league ballplayer. Oh, and Fuld is diabetic, requiring two insulin shots a day to regulate his blood sugar.
None of this has stopped Fuld from making a splash on the field and becoming a sensation off it. He ranks among the league leaders in batting average, while slugging .431 and getting on base 35 percent of the time. He's on pace to swipe more than 60 bases. And he's already banked a whole highlight reel's worth of spectacular catches (that last one might be the play of the year so far this season in MLB). Growing up in New England, he dreamed of one day playing at Fenway Park. When he finally got his shot, all he did was bash a homer past Pesky's Pole, a triple into the Triangle, and two doubles, the last one preventing him from hitting for the cycle.
Fuld's fancy feats have prompted an onslaught of Internet hyperbole. Superman wears Sam Fuld pajamas to bed. Sam Fuld has only been thrown out at home once - by Sam Fuld. When a recent Rays-Red Sox game got rained out, Fuld playfully got into the act. It wasn't really rain that canceled that night's game, he quipped. "This is me washing my planet."
Major caveats apply. You could fill 10,000 Russian novels with stories of baseball players who were great for one month. Fuld has also benefited from a sky-high batting average on balls in play, near .380. While speedy players often leg out infield hits to boost that stat, league average tends to hover around .300, suggesting that Fuld's hot hitting might cool off. And it has: He's in the midst of a 1 for 22 slump. Still, Fuld posted a robust .372 on-base percentage in the minors, showing off that trademark speed and defense. Though one might be skeptical of a 29-year-old with his background playing well all season, this is also his first clear shot at an everyday major league job.
Fuld wouldn't be the first player with this profile to succeed in recent years. Brett Gardner hit just five homers in 150 games last season. But the Yankees outfielder did many other things well. He drew 79 walks, scored 97 runs, stole 47 bases, and enjoyed a monster year defensively. Those contributions added up to 5.4 Wins Above Replacement, making Gardner the 19th-most valuable position player in the majors, according to FanGraphs.com. In 2009, Nyjer Morgan turned in a similar performance. Playing in just 120 games with the Pirates and Nationals, Morgan hit a measly three homers. But he also batted .307 with a .369 OBP, swiped 42 bases, ranked as one of baseball's best defenders in center field, and netted nearly 5 Wins Above Replacement.
Gardner was a homegrown Yankees product projected as a fourth outfielder. Morgan was a 33rd-round draft pick cast off by one of baseball's worst teams in the middle of his huge season. Both players' lack of power had most observers believing they would never amount to impact players. Angels outfielder Peter Bourjos, 24, doesn't have anywhere near the plate discipline that Gardner and Fuld have shown, and he's got a bit more power. But Bourjos' own combination of speed and great outfield defense have likewise landed him an everyday job, with encouraging early returns: a .318 AVG/.352 OBP/.541 SLG line this season.
There's plenty of downside to relying too heavily on a player with this kind of profile. Morgan has struggled to keep a steady job since his 2009 bonanza, and Gardner's off to a terrible start offensively this season. With little threat of the long ball, pitchers know they can attack hitters of this stripe, and dare them to beat them with balls in play rather than giving up walks and letting them take over on the basepaths. It's been the strategy of pitchers facing Juan Pierre for years. Even defensive performance can fluctuate from one year to the next; a good-but-not-great defender won't be of much use when he's hitting .240 with no power.
Still, in an era where defense has become an undervalued commodity, hitters who lack power remain dollar-store bargains. Teams would do well to take a shot on superior defenders and basestealers who also own a good batting eye. If a few more balls drop in for hits in any given season, suddenly you've got a legitimate everyday player who can deliver multiple wins. Given the cascading effect that defense can have on a pitcher's effectiveness and durability, searching for the next speedy slap-hitter to play an up-the-middle position such as center field, shortstop, or second base could produce a big bargain.
And maybe, with a little luck, the next superhero.
Jonah Keri's new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, has received critical acclaim from Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Buster Olney and many others, and is now a national best-seller. Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.
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