The notion of “veteran leadership” is unpopular with a certain subset of sports fans, who will make themselves dizzy with a violent eye roll at the mere mention of that term.
But it’s clear that at least two influential decision-makers in this market have believed in its power: Flip Saunders, who before his untimely passing assembled a Timberwolves roster three-deep with hardened veterans — led by the return of franchise icon Kevin Garnett; and Twins GM Terry Ryan, who signed Torii Hunter a season ago as much for his bat and glove as for his wisdom.
Other teams in this market certainly have veteran leaders, but those two are the most striking examples because they were both very specifically brought back to Minnesota to fill that role.
Trying to quantify the impact of leadership is a zero-sum game. Basketball and baseball lend themselves to advanced stats better than perhaps any other two sports, but there is no Value Over Replacement Leader or Leadership Win Shares metric. You can’t say the Twins won four extra games this season because Hunter’s dance parties kept the clubhouse loose. But you also can’t say they didn’t. All you can do is listen to those who are in the midst of it, while trying not to get caught up in dismissing a narrative you might not choose to like.
At a Thursday news conference to officially put a bow on Hunter’s career, Twins manager Paul Molitor said Hunter’s presence was a very real factor in the team’s success. Afterward, Joe Mauer echoed that sentiment.
“[Molitor] probably said it perfectly: It’s hard to measure things like leadership,” Mauer said. “We know in the clubhouse he was a huge addition for us, along with a lot of new members of the team this season. He’s a guy that’s tough to replace. I don’t know if you can use ‘replace.’ You just try to have guys pick up where we left off.”
Similarly, Garnett won’t play forever. Nor will fellow Wolves veterans Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince. Garnett and Co. are here to play some defense and impart decades of wisdom. All three seem to have individual projects to go along with broader team goals: Garnett with Karl-Anthony Towns, Prince with Andrew Wiggins and Miller with Tyus Jones (and even Ricky Rubio).
And again, it will be impossible to measure their influence with numbers. It’s barely even achievable with actions and words. Veteran leadership might be the kind of thing easier to see when it’s gone.
The future Twins and future Wolves will find out soon enough.