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40 in 40: Franklin Gutierrez

Franklin Gutierrez fought through illness and injury to return to the game he loves.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Millions of Christians around the world are reflecting on this passage today. It's an acknowledgement of our humanity, a reminder of the frailty of our mortal bodies. These bone clocks that we occupy are ticking time bombs, a slip, misstep, or fall away from deteriorating irreversibly. No player in recent memory has had more cause to reflect on the fragility of the human body than Franklin Gutierrez.

For four years, Gutierrez had injury, illness, and tragedy sap him of his strength and ability to play the game he loved. He will have to manage the debilitating physical symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis for the rest of his life. To his great credit, he wrestled his body back into shape. Through all the ups and downs, he never lost sight of his goal.

The liturgy of Gutierrez's career is no coincidence. It's a story of resilience and resurrection. Gutierrez's miraculous revival in 2015 was the best storyline in a year characterized by misery and frustration. That he simply made it back to the major leagues is impressive enough; unsatisfied with an ordinary comeback story, he bashed 15 home runs in an offensive display that emphatically declared his return. Put simply, he hit the snot out of the ball.

In just 189 plate appearances, Gutierrez accumulated an astonishing 2.3 fWAR, almost entirely driven by his offensive performance. The stabilization point for isolated power—€”the point at which a statistic becomes predictive—€”is just 160 plate appearances. Among all batters who reached that point last year, Gutierrez's ISO of .327 was the best in the American League and second only to Giancarlo Stanton in all of baseball. He won't continue to blast home runs 35% of the time he hits a fly ball—that rate is entirely unsustainable. But in his brief time in the majors in 2013, he was able to post a.255 ISO in just 151 PAs, so he's clearly regained the strength he lost from his initial bout with IBS.

Some of Gutierrez's offensive outburst was buoyed by an abnormally high BABIP, although he did post a career-best line drive rate and cut his infield fly rate to just 4.8%. He was also hitting the ball harder than he ever has, with a hard hit rate of just under 40% and an average exit velocity of 91.5 mph. Those marks compare favorably to Andrew McCutchen. Our understanding and ability to predict BABIP is still fairly limited, but using Alex Chamberlain's expected BABIP formula, Guti's batted ball peripherals tell us that he "should have" posted a BABIP around .322. That's still a very good mark and bodes well for his ability to produce moving forward.

One of Jerry Dipoto's first orders of business this offseason was re-signing Guti to an incentive-filled contract. He'll share time with Seth Smith in left field and should see most of his at-bats against left-handed pitching. Historically, he's thrived against southpaws, running a career .360 wOBA against them. Together, he and Smith are projected to post a 110 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR.

At this point, Death to Flying Things is as much an endearing nickname as it is a reminder of the promise of yesterday. Visions of him gliding across the outfield are now the stuff of legend. But the hope for tomorrow had only been deferred, not lost. The specter of his arthritis will always loom over every step he takes on the field. This is his reality now. His story reminds us to value every moment, to savor the highs and the lows. Every at-bat from here on out is a gift.

"I don't have any expectations right now," he said. "I'm just trying to enjoy it day by day. I'm just glad to be back here with my friends, being around here and doing what I love, the things I've been doing my whole life. This is where I am right now."

This is where we are right now. Soaring.

Guti Forever

As Guti rounds the corner, you can see his eyes close, and then his head bobs up and down a few times and he is flying, flying, the clouds are the ground. Something died right there, after touching first base. Something died, and something was born again.