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Cheslor Cuthbert is a window into the extreme difficulty of Major League Baseball

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Baseball is hard.

First baseman Cheslor Cuthbert #19 of the Kansas City Royals in action against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium on July 25, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
First baseman Cheslor Cuthbert #19 of the Kansas City Royals in action against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium on July 25, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Talent is an odd thing. It, more than just about anything, is dependent on context. Any parent who has ever witnessed their tiny human offspring give them an, ahem, “drawing” has witnessed this firsthand. Those “drawings” are most definitely not the result of unique talent. Every kid given a Rose Art color pencil set can produce an equivalent work. But you gladly accept it as talent because it A) comes from a place of love and B) comes from the hands of a person who literally didn’t have the ability to control their bowels mere months ago.

The same can be said about professional sports players. Pro sports players have spent more time honing their craft than you or I have done literally anything else. Their skills are masterful. They are amazing. And yet, despite this immense talent, within the context of their own sports leagues they can be anywhere on the spectrum from “great” to “awful.”

Major League Baseball is especially demanding. Ted Williams famously told the New York Times that hitting a fastball was the hardest thing to do in sports and, well, just look at the stats. Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, the best hitter in baseball, and his career on base percentage is .419. Imagine a quarterback only making 42% of his passes, or a golfer making par only 42% of the time.

Fielding is even more of an insanely difficult demand. Rather than the requirement for success being so low, the requirement for success is so high. Errors don’t measure a whole lot, but they do measure when a player makes a reasonably big fielding mistake. The worst qualified shortstop, Tim Anderson, has a fielding percentage of .946. The best, Paul DeJong, has a fielding percentage of .987. That’s a difference of 41 errors every 1000 plays. One thousand!

All of this brings us to Cheslor Cuthbert, who is an immensely talented human being with highly developed baseball skills, but who is an awful MLB player and has no business being on a competitive big league team’s roster.

Cuthbert isn’t a good hitter. Over his career, he has an 80 wRC+, meaning that he has been 20% less productive than the average big league player. There are still good overall players who aren’t good hitters, but they have to make up the difference with fielding and baserunning.

Unfortunately, Cuthbert isn’t good at either. Fangraphs’ BsR stat takes into account a wide variety of baserunning events—not just stolen bases or tag plays—and assigns a run value relative to league average. Cuthbert has been worth -8.8 runs on the basepaths over his career. That’s not good.

Most of all, though, Cuthbert is a black hole as a defender. The two most commonly used metrics for defense are Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, both of which, like BsR, assign a run value above or below league average. Between 2300 innings at third base and first base (1900 of which at the former), Cuthbert has been worth -17 runs per DRS and -10.7 per UZR. Any way you slice it, he’s bad.

It’s just not that simple, though. On August 28, Cuthbert was playing “third base” in the shift. At what is traditionally the second baseman’s spot, Cuthbert received a ground ball off the bat of Seth Brown. Jurickson Profar was at first base. With no one to throw the ball two, it was entirely up to Cuthbert to make a play. And he did. Perfectly.

The number of humans with the skill to cleanly field a ground ball, break into a full sprint, and accurately throw a baseball 100 feet from said full sprint within three seconds probably numbers in the thousands. From this play, it certainly looks like Cuthbert is a defensive wizard.

But baseball is hard. Cuthbert is wildly talented. He just isn’t wildly talented enough; the margin for error for MLB players is so little to be functionally nonexistent. Maybe Cuthbert makes that play six times out of 10. Unfortunately, the best can make that play eight times, and enough players can make it seven that Cuthbert is simply outclassed by his colleagues, outclassed enough that Cuthbert likely won’t have a roster spot on an MLB team when next year rolls around.

Baseball is a theater that showcases the immense talents of athletic marvels. But it is utterly unforgiving to the point of being cruel. Perhaps that is why it is so romanticized. Either way, it doesn’t help make Cuthbert a great big league player. It wouldn’t be what it is if it did.