I didn’t start to pay much attention to the Pittsburgh Pirates until I was nine. That was 2005. From that moment, I had a penchant for shortstops. I’m not sure why. I was a good enough little leaguer, but I wasn’t particularly nimble or quick. I was mostly at first base or on the mound.
The result of this adoration of the “6” position was a love for Jack Wilson. He was not only my first favorite Pirate, he was my first favorite baseball player. In fact, I remember Wilson using a well-broken in, brown glove. My dad had a beaten up, old brown glove that I was enamored by because it made me feel like I was Wilson, tossing the ball up to myself in the front yard.
Wilson was certainly a fine player. In 2004, a year before I was committed to him and the Pirates, he was an All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient. But much more than his offense, Wilson was known for his defense.
Defense is somewhat hard to truly quantify in a more modern sense, but let’s try to break Wilson’s numbers down a bit. In 2005, for example, Wilson logged 32 defensive runs saved (DRS), the highest total of his career. In 2009, his DRS was 28. For reference, the highest DRS in 2019 was brought to you courtesy of defensive guru Matt Chapman, who totaled 34. Wilson’s 2009 season would’ve put him in second place in all of baseball.
In 2005, he had an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 14.3, and then 15.0 in 2009. Again, the highest mark in baseball in 2019 was Matt Chapman, who totaled 14.8. At the time, of course, I wasn’t aware of stats like DRS and UZR. In fact, they hadn’t been invented. But one of the things I caught onto was that Wilson was good at defense. This compelled me to place an emphasis on defense for myself.
Even today, in a game dominated by offense, one of the most alluring things to me about baseball is defense. While many prefer rocketed home runs, I prefer slick double plays. I might even go so far as to say I prefer normal, run-of-the-mill 6-4-3 double plays (that is, when it benefits the Pirates) to moonshots into the upper deck.
Wilson played 12 seasons in Major League Baseball and compiled 23.5 bWAR. He was a favorite for many, I’m sure, but I happened to stumble across him at a formative time during my baseball journey: the beginning. Wilson spent four more full seasons in Pittsburgh, including the 2005 season. Over that time, he shaped my perspective on baseball; a perspective that still informs my enjoyment of the game to this day.
Baseball has changed a lot since 2005. It’s much more analytically advanced and there’s a much higher reliance on things like analytics and biomechanics, and I think all that is good for the game. It’s one of the aspects I really enjoy. But no matter what changes come, nothing will replace the satisfaction I receive from watching a smooth shortstop gather a groundball and throw a rope to first base. Jack “Flash” is responsible for the way I watch and enjoy baseball. For that, I will be forever grateful.