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Shawn O’Malley: More Than A Feeling

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the Ballad of the Everyman

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers
look ma we made it
Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

Shawn O’Malley is our collective younger brother. We tease him—we roll our eyes when we see him in the lineup, we call him Grit Lord and Potatoes and O’MalleyCat and whatever else—and we would kick anyone in the teeth who tried to mess with him. He’s our hometown boy, if we extend our hometown to encompass all of Eastern Washington. He’s the super-utilitiest of the super-utility players, a switch-hitter who’s able to play any outfield position, almost every infield spot (and I bet he could do first base if pressed), and is the emergency catcher, which didn’t seem like such a big deal until we witnessed with our own eyes the breaking of Steve Clevenger’s hand on a Miserable Monday Night. O’Malley’s speed and defensive versatility allow the Mariners to ride with a short bench and use whichever pitcher falls out when Scott Servais whacks his fist against the hinky old vending machine in the clubhouse. But O’Malley is more than a sentimental favorite or a human Swiss Army Knife; he brings value with his bat, as well.

O’Malley has been with the team since May 15, when JerryCo pulled the plug and sent Sardiñas down to ripen in the warm Pacific Coast sun in favor of the 28-year-old journeyman. In May, he played in 11 games and had 23 ABs. With those 23 ABs, he recorded a mere three hits—and two of them came in one game, May 22nd against the lowly Reds—and no walks. Nary a one. This was disheartening, as the one thing O’Malleys are supposed to do is get on base. In Tacoma, O’Malley was an OBP machine, slashing .317/.412/.439 with a 13% BB rate. Small sample size and all, but O’Malley’s May slash line looked more like a basketball score (like, the 76ers playing the Clippers kind of a basketball score).

June was a different story for O’Malley. Injuries to Ketel Marte and Leonys Martín upped his playing time early in the month, and O’Malley improved his offensive performance, collecting 10 hits in his 39 ABs. He only had one extra-base hit in May; in June, while the rest of the team slumped, he hit as many doubles as he had hits in May, and added a triple in a game against the Indians. He still struck out 11 times, but he managed three BBs. Perhaps his finest moment was his clutch hit in the epic comeback game. His slash line for June basically doubled what he’d done in May, at .256/.310/.385.

In July so far—with the all-star break, and having sat five times already this month, so put on your Small Sample Size hats—O’Malley is slashing .313/.476/.375. That OBP is so high thanks to the five walks he’s taken in only 16 ABs. In yesterday’s debacle he had one at-bat and recorded one hit to help score the Mariners’ lone run of the day. He may be a mid-200s hitter, but with runners on base his average climbs to .265; with RISP, it’s .333, and with RISP and two outs he’s batting .385. His Clutch score is .14, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you compare it to Lind’s (-.18), Iannetta’s (-.70), or Cruz’s (-2.34). If he can keep his numbers trending in a positive direction, O’Malley will be a piece useful for much more than just his defense.

And yet, the sentimentality lingers. It’s impossible for me to separate O’Malley, the baseball player, from O’Malley, the hero with a thousand faces. Because in a way, Shawn O’Malley is each of us who have ever struggled with being good at something we love—good, but not great, not sensational. He is made, not of star stuff, but of the same quotidian bricks as the rest of us, the same stubbed toes and overdue library books, ordinary as a carrot. Shawn O’Malley may not have been graced with superstar talent, but he has done everything—literally, everything he can—to make it in MLB. When he slams his glove in frustration after diving for a ball, he is a man running headlong into his body’s own limitations, and he is mad as hell about it. And for those of us garden-varieties, the non-wunderkinds, that’s life: trying to find a way to color past our own borders, doing the best we can with the tools we have, clumsy as they may be. Loving what we do anyway, and feeling lucky to do it. Coming back the next day to do it again, to try to do it better.