The first step to being a gritty, scrappy, or gutty baseball player: Be small and white. When the game wasn't integrated, and the average height was several inches under today's average, did announcers use the word "gritty" 700 times during each broadcast? Johnny Evers was 125 pounds, for example. Today's game couldn't handle that much scrap. Every time he touched the ball, it'd be a miracle of hustle and internal fortitude. A wee white fella, doin' adorable baseball things. He'd make David Eckstein look like an entitled loafer.
That's something of an accepted thing, it seems. Maybe "accepted" isn't the right word. Expected, then. It's just one of those evaluative tics that pops up in both print and broadcast media. For a while, Chone Figgins was breaking ground, but then he got his lungs full of Safeco dust, and now he's just a tragic tale.
For a while, that's where the conversation had to end. It felt like there was some sort of unintentional, but very real, bias when it came to how players were described. But it's not like there was any way to prove it. Not unless someone took the time to get a scientific study going, with detailed analysis of the broadcasts of all 30 teams.
Which is exactly what happened. Adam Felder and Seth Amitin raised money for such a study via Kickstarter, and they studied every broadcast from August 11 through August 17 last season. They categorized broadcaster comments into three categories for their study, which was published at the Atlantic:
Performance-based descriptions often take the form of contrasting equivalents—praising a pitcher for being "a pitcher, not a thrower." or being "not just an athlete, but a baseball player."
Effort-based descriptions rely on the old standards of "grit," "hustle," "scrap" and other such synonyms that seem to rely on how much dirt a ballplayer gets on his uniform over the course of a game.
Character-based descriptions ignore the on-field product and instead describe the subject as a person. Announcers frequently like to call ballplayers "professionals" as a compliment. This category also includes praising players for "respecting the game" and being "old school."
It wasn't a perfect, comprehensive study. The research was limited to a week of baseball because of funds and logistics, which messed around some with the results. Jim Thome heads the "most-praised players" list, probably because, as the authors mention, that was the week he hit his 600th home run. Dodgers infielder Justin Sellers made the top-ten list of "most-praised players", even though he's something of a fringe player. That was probably because it was his major-league debut, and he was inserted directly into the Dodgers' lineup. Announcers love to talk up the new guy.
But that was just with the individual results. With hundreds of games and thousands of hours of broadcaster comments to study, there were identifiable trends:
The analysis reveals that foreign-born players—the vast majority of whom are Latino—are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to receiving praise for intangibles. Latino players are almost 13 percent less likely to be praised for intangibles than their white counterparts. Announcers are nearly 14 percent more likely to praise a US/Canadian-born player for intangibles than they are their international counterparts.
That's a huge difference. Think of it like a 40-point swing in batting average over a full season. You might not have the mental capacity to quantify exactly what the difference is between a .200 hitter and a .240 hitter, but you instinctively know there's a difference. Those suspicions that you had to be of a certain ethnicity to be scrappy? Turns out they might be well-founded, and over a 162-game season, the point is hammered home over and over again.
So what can Major League Baseball do? Heck, that's a question I can't even pretend to be qualified for. Probably study it a bit more. Use the framework of this study, and fund something more expansive for a longer period of time. And after that ... no idea. But it's a fascinating article, and it confirms what you already suspected. When a player is respected for his intangibles, there might be a very tangible reason for that.