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Luis Valbuena and the value of the bat flip

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What is baseball really about, anyway?

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
A classic bat flip from Valbuena.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Back in 2015, when the Angels were languishing around at home having not made the playoffs (a popular theme these days), I was watching some postseason baseball when this happened.

This is Jose Bautista hitting a big HR in Game 5 of the ALDS, breaking a tie in an elimination game. He just chucked his bat away. Gave it some oompf, too.

Now, because it was Texas, I was rooting for the Jays. When Bautista launched his HR, however, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the narrative propped up by the media. The narrative. There were articles upon articles upon articles. “Respect the game.” “Act like you’ve been there before.” Sam Dyson, the guy who gave up the homer, criticized Bautista...

I believed the narrative. Jose Bautista was doing something that not ought to have been done. It wasn’t football, or basketball, or soccer, what with the crazy celebrations and emotions that go on there. It was baseball. The quiet, unassuming sport. The sport in which you’re supposed to go about your business, hit your home run, and quietly jog around the bases. Is that why I loved it? “Jose Bautista deserved every oompf of Rougned Odor’s punch; he disrespected the game. He broke the unwritten rules.”

Luis Valbuena

Enter Luis Valbuena. When the Angels signed him, in my mind, he was a quiet, unassuming utility infielder who would hit his fair share of home runs. He’d played for the Astros, and his stats looked good (fairly certain he hit homers off the Angels multiple times), but maybe they were inflated by that short porch out there in right at Minute Maid. He blundered along for a while, injured for the start of the season, and there was a little itch in the back of my head praying, hoping that he would be the “savior.”

He wasn’t. Valbuena finished with 401 plate appearances on the season, hitting 22 homers but slashing .199/.294/.432/.727. His bWAR was 0.0. Perfectly replaceable.

So he didn’t bring me any happiness with the value that he provided on the field. And to be honest, it wasn’t helping that he bat flipped every miniature step up. It was homers. It was outs. He offended Fiers...

Somewhere over the course of the season, these events stopped standing out and simply became regular. It was a point of discussion: “When will Valbuena next bat-flip?” Victor Rojas got in on the action, tweeting about Valbuena’s bat flips. And after Fiers threw at his head, Valbuena didn’t back down. He doubled down.

Regularity

It seems just natural behavior that we’re indifferent of things about which we don’t know a lot. It leaves malleable room, a place for someone else to shape human opinions. For me, having not seen a lot of bat flips, when Bautista did his, everyone told me it was bad, so I assumed it was bad. It became my opinion that bat flips were bad. The narrative had effectively changed the way I thought about baseball.

I don’t like that feeling, the feeling that your choices and your opinions are subconsciously influenced by something that is not your own free will.

Watching Valbuena this year, finally getting to see the bat flips with my own eyes changed my opinion. They were no longer some mystical, evil force that was trying to take out baseball. It was just a “thing.” When Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after hitting a double in this year’s playoffs (and not after a HR), it was just a “thing.” Carlos Correa homered in crazy Game 2 of the World Series, and it was just a “thing.”

And if Valbuena provides no other value in 2018, he’ll still have changed my outlook on baseball. I thank him for that.