Thrown Out at Third

In an excellent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, Jeff Luhnow, general manager of baseball’s Houston Astros, explained that base runners need to be aggressive. If they aren’t, it will cost the team not only runs but wins over the regular season, which lasts for 162 games from April to October. “If you have a player on first,” he says, “and he never gets thrown out at third on a single to right field, he’s not being aggressive enough. If you don’t ever get thrown out at third, you’re leaving runs on the table.” He concludes, “If we’re not making some mistakes along the way, we’re not being aggressive enough.”

There is nothing like baseball for this kind of folk wisdom. Yogi Berra could not have come out of soccer’s Bundesliga, which would be taken aback at the mere suggestion of aggression. After all, how aggressive can you be in gym shorts and knee socks? The most you can do is writhe on the manicured lawn in ersatz agony. It makes for great television, but nobody believes it. However, when a base runner slides spikes up into third base or a catcher takes a nasty foul tip to the groin, that’s aggression. No ersatz pain there. It’s the real deal.

Since most of us are not professional ballplayers, how can we apply Luhnow’s insight to our own lives? That is, how do we round second for third on a single to right? The answer lies in mistakes. We’ve got to make mistakes to achieve the level of aggression that produces runs. If we don’t take risks, we will never be aggressive enough to put extra runs on the scoreboard.

“That sounds great,” you may say. “But I am not an aggressive type. I listen to NPR and contribute to a sea turtle foundation. It’s just not my thing.” All right, let’s turn to Aristotle. If you look at aggression on the base paths as a virtue, as Luhnow clearly does, you can apply Aristotelian logic. This says that you are not first an aggressive base runner who then commits to running aggressively. We are not born aggressive base runners. We become aggressive base runners.

For Aristotle, the corresponding virtue would be andreía, courage. A courageous person is not born that way. They perform acts of courage one day at a time, perhaps even acting rashly or cowardly at times, but eventually they find the proper balance and become courageous. In other words–think of Carnegie Hall here–the requirement for aggressive base running is practice.

Could there be a better lesson for all of us? If you want to score more runs, try for third. You might get thrown out. You might even get thrown out repeatedly. But if you keep doing what you’re doing, who knows? Maybe the throw will come in wide. Maybe you’ll slide under the tag. Maybe you’ll discover the perfect angle to take rounding second. Maybe base running will become second nature to you, and this new nature will affect other areas of your life.

If a genetic disposition exists to taking risks, it could be related to the y chromosome, males generally being more aggressive than females. But notice what Aristotle says. Courage is a decision you make every day. It is the cumulative effect of putting your head down and sliding into third even if you get thrown out every time. Even if you look like an idiot. The decision need not be genetically determined.

What does it mean to look like an idiot? It means that you’re so in love with the game that you let its rhythms–inning after inning–carry you into a deeper experience of play. A deeper experience of reality. It means you’re in the game, not in the stands. It’s time to get thrown out at third.

For feature image, see Brandon Mowinkel. Middle image, Todd Thompson. Note to self: 太阳 is Chinese for sun, male genitals, south of a hill, and north of a river. And people get Chinese tattoos? This post is dedicated to Ann Winters, dedicated blog and baseball fan extraordinaire. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance


  1. I appreciate the Luhnowian Theory, even if it contradicts the wisdom of W. C. Fields: “If at first you don’t suceed, try, try, again. Then quit. There’s no sense in being a damn fool about it.”

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