It started with a simple question: What to make of Ryan Theriot?
Do you know what his slash line is? Do you need to know?
The Cubs shortstop was beloved of fans, who will, let’s face it, tend to focus their affection on players who get their uniforms dirty and don’t cost a lot of money, and “The Riot”, as he was known, was an affirmative on both those counts.“He dove for balls to his left. He dove for balls to his right. He sometimes even dove for balls that were already in the outfield,” one sportswriter pointed out.
On May 7, 2008 he had a .408 on-base percentage and was hitting second on a Cubs team that finished the regular season 97-64 and won the N.L. Central by 7 ½ games. But was he actually that good?
There was some persistent mystery around Theriot.
“He was like a poor man’s Mark DeRosa,” said Tony Jewell, a Cubs fan, Ventor resident, and the hero of our story, said. “But Mark DeRosa was already on the 2008 Cubs. It was kinda weird.”
In baseball, among stat folk, “on-base percentage” is a more sensible metric than batting average. To not get out is, if not the thing, at least a thing. But somehow OBP didn’t capture the entirety of Ryan Theriot’s identity. There are some players, apparently, for whom getting on base isn’t the end of the story. It’s staying there that gives them fits. They have a tendency to get caught stretching a single into a double or to get picked off first base when their team’s down by three runs.
Theriot’s specialty was getting thrown out at third base on routine grounders to short, balls where he was under no obligation to leave second base at all and would have been better off standing there with his hands in his pockets for the duration of the play. As Jewell asked, putting his finger on the Theriot conundrum, “What good is getting on base if you just get picked off or thrown out on a grounder to short with an open base?”
Enter the Tootblan.
He lives in Ventnor now, but at the time he conceived of the tootblan, Tony Jewell was living in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Indianapolis and has been a Cubs fan since 1984, the year they lost to the Padres after going up two games to none in the NLCS (in a five-game series).
Why did he need a tootblan? Why to calculate the “Ryan Theriot Adjusted On-Base Percentage” (RTAOBP) so he could settle an argument.
“One night (May 7, 2008) after putting the kids to bed, I decided to try to settle the debate and figure out what impact Theriot’s base running had on his overall performance,” he said.
Hence an elegant equation was born:
Let the RTAOB = (Hits + Walks + HBP – CS – Tootblans)/Plate Appearances, where tootblans equal the number of times a runner is thrown out on the base paths like a nincompoop.
Thrown out on the basepaths like a nincompoop: tootblan.
You may suppose the tootblan community to be small, but remember, in the age of social media, nothing is esoteric anymore. The very day Tony Jewell launched his tootblan tracker Twitter account, Jerry Seinfeld, the Jerry Seinfeld, followed him—like Jerry’d been waiting for a tootblan compadre his whole life. Seinfeld follows 91 people on Twitter. You can view them for yourself here. But I’ll save you the click. It’s basically Joan Rivers, Doc Gooden, Larry King, and Tony Jewell’s tootblan tracker.
At first, there may have been a concentration of tootblan devotees among Cubs fans, since Jewell had an audience (he wrote a blog, Wrigleyville23, now defunct) and they were familiar with Theriot and the vagaries of his base-running habits. Sometimes they would tweet “tootblan!” when something foolish happened on the basepaths. The 2013 World Series, when Kolten Wong was picked off by Koji Uehara to end game four—“a walkoff tootblan to end a World Series game” (Jewell’s words)—was a big moment in the history of the tootblan. The statistic followed Theriot as he changed teams, winning World Series rings with the Dodgers and Cardinals.
It made the jump to other sports bloggers, then sports writers, then onto ESPN, NBC and Fox Sports among other places. It’s appeared on MLB.com and in the Washington Post. A book about the Cubs has a chapter on the tootblan. The tootblan has an entry in urbandictionary.
“It always makes me laugh. It was literally done in fifteen minutes in my bedroom in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, because I was trying to settle an argument,” he says.
Last May, Jewell polled fans of the tootblan and found 73% were pronouncing it “tootblan” rhymes with “Stan” rather than “tootblan” rhymes with “Juan.” Jewell favors the latter (rhymes with “Juan”) which he says sounds “softer.” He got some pushback from the faithful but it’s Tony’s word after all, so what are they going to do.
Ultimately, Jewell came to feel a pinch of regret at the word nincompoop, which he added “in a fit of whimsy” and at the tootblan’s perhaps too-close association with Theriot, though Theriot himself has always been a good sport about the whole thing.
Yasiel Puig, Jose Altuve and Starling Marte have established themselves as members of the Tootblan Hall of Fame, a young institution.
“I never really meant to call Theriot or anyone else a nincompoop,” he says.
Arguably the greatest tootblan in recent memory came in 2003 when Reuben Rivera managed to get thrown out at home by five feet—despite errors by the right fielder and third baseman—after he inexplicably circled second base at least two times en route to the plate.
“Tootblan should never be used as a value judgment,” Jewell says.
“I just view it more as a way to inform what happens to a baseball player once they get on base.”