We're conditioned to ignore stories about players being in the best shape of their lives. Or stories about players being in better shape at all. Maybe we don't ignore them entirely, but we pay them little mind. It's been established many times over that these stories don't really mean anything. At least in terms of performance improvement. Hearing that a player is in the best shape of his life means that the player is probably in the best shape of his life, but people have struggled to find any meaningful and consistent relationship between this and the numbers. There probably isn't one. So we don't care. We generally don't care how a player looks, or how a player feels. We care how a player does.
For example, I just read this morning that Dexter Fowler is in really good shape. Dexter Fowler of the , if you weren't familiar with Dexter Fowler. I'm guessing that Dexter Fowler was already in really good shape. Now he's in better shape. But, so what? How much better shape is he in? By what percent did his physical condition improve? Is he going to hit more dingers now? Is he going to swing at fewer balls? One should assume that Dexter Fowler is going to continue to be Dexter Fowler, for everything that he is and isn't.
We get it. Most of us get that "better shape" doesn't necessarily mean "better performance". Better shape very infrequently means better performance, and in the event of better performance, it's an open question as to whether it had anything to do with the better shape. Consciously and deliberately, this is understood. What makes it tricky is that we're always hoping. It makes some intuitive sense that a player getting into better shape might play better baseball, so when we hear that a player on our team has been working out, we think, maybe. We can't help dreaming, even though we know better.
This has all been building up to a tweet from the Mariners last week:
GM Jack Zduriencik told RBI Club members Franklin Gutierrez has put on 19lbs since end of season and is feeling strong.
That's it. A simple tweet. One simple, short message. A message delivered to whatever the RBI Club is. But contained within that short message is so much God damn hope. It's like a liqueur-filled chocolate where you bite into it and wonder how they pumped so much liqueur into the middle of such a small edible box.
This is, at its core, a reference to Franklin Gutierrez being in really good shape. When a player is reported to be in really good shape, ordinarily we try to ignore it. But this is Franklin Gutierrez. Doesn't Franklin Gutierrez seem like he could be an exception? Doesn't Franklin Gutierrez present a different sort of case, where there status of his shape is meaningful information?
Last season, Franklin Gutierrez posted a .534 OPS. He wasn't much better at the plate than Chone Figgins. He hit as many home runs as Chone Figgins. That's one home run. Franklin Gutierrez hit one home run. His defense wasn't a problem. His footspeed was fine. His discipline didn't erode. He just didn't have any strength. Balls he hit on the barrel died in front of the track. He homered in his sixth game, and then didn't homer again over his remaining 86 games. His season ended early with an injury.
What happened to Franklin Gutierrez's strength? We don't know for certain, but we can be pretty damn sure it has something to do with his gastrointestinal problems. When you have trouble exercising and when you have trouble eating, you tend to get weaker. Franklin Gutierrez got weaker, and he lost a lot of weight off of what was already a fairly slender frame.
Now we hear that Gutierrez has re-gained a significant amount of weight. Now we hear that Gutierrez has re-gained a significant amount of strength. He hasn't been playing, but, what if he finally has his symptoms under control? What if the complications are behind him, or at least mostly behind him? What if he rebounds?
Franklin Gutierrez is 28 years old. This ought to be his prime. As an Indian, he posted a .717 OPS. As a Mariner in 2009, he posted a .764 OPS and was an all-around star. On June 6, 2010, his OPS stood at .805. Symptoms showed up, and his performance declined. The rest of the way in 2010, he posted a .585 OPS. Last season was last season.
Franklin Gutierrez has been bad for a while. It seems like there's an easy explanation for that, though, and it wasn't that long ago that the Mariners saw fit to sign him to a four-year contract. Granted, Gutierrez signed a four-year contract in the same offseason that Figgins signed a four-year contract, but again, we think we have an easy explanation for what happened to Gutierrez. We don't have an easy explanation for what happened to Figgins. ("He got a lot worse.") Now we have word that Gutierrez is feeling an awful lot better.
Who can help but hope? I have a lot of faith in some parts of the medical industry and less faith in others, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Gutierrez has figured out a way to manage his body. And thus it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Gutierrez could return to being more or less what he was. What he was was awesome. He wasn't a superstar bat, and he never had the ability of a superstar bat, but he was a good bat with great defense. He was a great player.
People aren't really counting on Franklin Gutierrez going forward. I can't blame them. I'm not counting on him, either. We've seen him be a lousy player for a while. There's that chance, though. What seems like a much better chance than Figgins has. Franklin Gutierrez has added 19 pounds. He's feeling strong. What if he maintains his weight? What if he maintains his strength? What if? Is this really so outlandish?
Maybe it is. I don't know. Even Franklin Gutierrez probably doesn't know, and can't know, yet. But we'll see. That old Guti might still be in there. That old Guti might be ready to emerge.