'That dog in them': MLB players explain what makes baseball's top 'dogs' so special

Not long ago, athletes might have chafed at hearing their name mentioned in the same sentence as “dog.”

After all, nobody likes to be told they’re “dogging it.” The grimmest, hottest stretch of the summer is still the “dog days,” evoking images of lazy naps and climate-induced inaction.

But times change, and so does language. And now, in a sport that values fearlessness above all, that rewards the ability to triumph over fatigue, malaise and monotony, there’s little praise in a baseball clubhouse higher than being termed a dog.

Perhaps you know the phrase differently, that a tenacious competitor acts that way because he or she “has got that dog in ‘em.” Dawg, too, is acceptable.

Throughout Major League Baseball, the phrase is bestowed on those who fiercely contest every pitch. That might shatter the silence of a moribund clubhouse. That will lie through their teeth to the manager that 'yes, I’m fine, I can take the ball a fourth time in five days, why do you ask?'

Above all, they help make 162 games over 190 days navigable – preferably fought with every bit of a team’s competitive capability, regardless of circumstance.

A three-time All-Star, DJ LeMahieu has won two batting titles in his career (2016 and 2020)
A three-time All-Star, DJ LeMahieu has won two batting titles in his career (2016 and 2020)

“It’s something you need. You need to be pushed sometimes,” says New York Mets outfielder Mark Canha, who was among a half-dozen players that cited his teammate, ace Max Scherzer, as the ultimate dog. “It helps the season go by a little faster. You’re not dwelling so much; you’re staying on task.

“You need reminders – not so subtle reminders in Max’s case sometimes. He’s loud and does his thing and gets us fired up.”

So, who are the ultimate dogs across the game? USA TODAY Sports queried 20 players for their responses, aiming for those who’d played for multiple teams, and received responses both predictable and illuminating. A sampling of the top nominations:

DJ LeMahieu, Yankees infielder

(Nominated by Yankees starter Nestor Cortes)

“Even though he’s very quiet and he’s the same every day, you can see underneath that, there is that person that wants to succeed at everything he does and at every moment. He's the first one in, last one out of the clubhouse. I remember the Sunday morning before the All-Star break, going into the video room, he’s watching video alone. That’s what makes him great – that dog in him that you might not see. But he has in there for sure.

“No words – he’s a leader by action. What he’s done over the years exemplifies the leader he is.”

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Jose Ramirez, Guardians infielder

Jose Ramirez has finished in the top six of AL MVP voting four times in the past five seasons.
Jose Ramirez has finished in the top six of AL MVP voting four times in the past five seasons.

(Nominated by Pirates outfielder Greg Allen)

“He brings it to every game, every pitch, the way he runs the bases – he’s as aggressive but just as smart as anyone. He plays the game hard, he plays to win, and just kind of has you on the edge of your seat. I’ve seen him do some incredible things.

“He’s a dog, without a doubt. You don’t always get that – sometimes guys have that dog in them, but the talent is not at the same standard. Then, you get some special ones where the talent meets that caliber of player when those things come together. He brings good energy. A guy you want on your team, for sure.”

Joey Wendle, Marlins infielder

(Nominated by Angels reliever Aaron Loup)

“An unsuspecting one. He flies under the radar. Just a really good baseball player. Not a big rah-rah guy, or real flashy, but you know you're getting everything he’s got. He puts together great ABs, plays great defense, just a great guy. I have a lot of respect for him.

“To me, he’s one of those guys that leads by example. I’ve had a chance to play with him, I’ve faced him a few times and he’s a tough at-bat. He has a good approach. And he’s not afraid.”

Christian Vazquez, Astros catcher

The Astros landed Christian Vazquez in a trade with the Red Sox.
The Astros landed Christian Vazquez in a trade with the Red Sox.

(Nominated by Rays reliever Matt Wisler)

“I’m honestly impressed how much he catches; the guy’s out there every single day, having good years, and it’s not an easy position. You see the wear and tear of what those guys do.

“For catchers, it’s usually two days on, one off, three on, and he’s out there four or five days in a row, which you don’t see very often anymore.”

Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien, Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette

(nominated by Blue Jays reliever Jordan Romano) 

“Every day, it’s like, Marcus is not just a good player, he’s a dog. It’s competitiveness and a never-ending drive. It’s like no matter what’s going on, every day, he’s putting his work in regardless of if he’s tired or playing bad and he’s going to try to beat you.

“Bo Bichette, no matter how he’s playing, he’s showing up to compete and he wants to win more than you. He’s super talented and young, a little flashy but underneath the hood, there’s that dog. And there’s a lot of work nobody else gets to see other than his teammates.”

Mariners lefty Robbie Ray

(Nominated by Mariners lefty Marco Gonzales)

“He’s probably as low key and easygoing as they come every other day of the week, but when he toes it up, it’s just that level he goes to that’s special to watch. When he’s rolling and he’s locked in, he’s able to elevate his game in a way that you know, no one can touch him. He knows it, everyone in the park knows it, and that’s been fun to watch.”

Yankees reliever Clay Holmes

Clay Holmes pitched the eighth inning of the AL's All-Star Game win.
Clay Holmes pitched the eighth inning of the AL's All-Star Game win.

(Nominated by Yankees reliever Lucas Luetge)

“I’m with him in the bullpen a lot and no matter how much he’s thrown that week or pitched in a game, how many pitches he threw the night before, when you ask him how he feels he’s like, ‘I’m ready to pitch.’ When I think of a dog, whether you’re fresh or not, or doing good or not, it’s wanting to be out there. That’s what I look at teammates who I want around me. Whatever your performance, whatever happens, happens. But as long as you’re busting your ass every day and wanting to get out there and play no matter what, to me, that’s what a dog is.

“You could give up the house the night before, if you’re ready to go the next day, that’s who you want on your team.”

Orioles second baseman Rougned Odor

(Nominated by Orioles right-hander Austin Voth)

“I feel like when you see Odor play the game, you see it. You see the intensity, the way he walks to the plate, the way he has that swagger to him. He comes up and he’s got a plan, every time. He’s always searching for one pitch and he’s not going to get cheated. With one swing, he can make a difference. And he’s a good teammate.”

Red Sox starter Nate Eovaldi

Nathan Eovaldi was an All-Star for the first time in 2021.
Nathan Eovaldi was an All-Star for the first time in 2021.

(Nominated by Rangers pitcher Garrett Richards)

“That’s a straight up competitor right there. That’s a dog. As competitors, we go into a certain mode of competing. You can tell that some guys operate on a higher level than others. For whatever reason, some of us have to take ourselves to a higher level. And others operate better when they’re just kind of hanging out, chilling.

“When he’s on the bump, it’s a different guy. He’s totally focused, totally convicted in what he’s doing. Goes through a game plan, does his homework totally, fully prepared and ready to compete. In his eyes, he’s going to dominate every time. He’s got great stuff and you take that attitude and you’ve got a special player. It was totally fun to watch him pitch last year and carry us down the road a little bit. He lives for the big moment.”

Yankees reliever Scott Effross

(Nominated by Cubs reliever Rowan Wick)

“3-2, two outs, bases loaded, he punches out (Cardinals infielder) Tommy Edman on a backdoor slider. That was a dog moment.”

Mets starter Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer, right, in the Mets dugout with Jacob deGrom.
Max Scherzer, right, in the Mets dugout with Jacob deGrom.

(Nominated by Canha and several others)

“He wears his emotions on his sleeve and doesn’t care what people think. It’s ingrained in him. It’s hard to come to the ballpark for 162 games and flip a switch every time. He’s seemingly able to do that and have that mentality.

“He’s a guy you want in the clubhouse, because he’s constantly on the ball with making sure we’re in that compete mode and in that fight mode.”

Nationals starter Josiah Gray

(Nominated by Nationals reliever Brandon Finnegan)

“He pitches with a lot of intensity and you can see how bad he wants it while he’s out there. You really appreciate that – a guy you’re confident is giving it everything he’s got while he’s out there. He’s a workaholic. He’s constantly doing something to make himself better. He has a really good idea of what he’s trying to accomplish and what he needs to do to get that done.

“This team is going to need young guys to step up as we move along in this phase. I think Josiah’s a good candidate to lead that charge. He’s still fresh here, but he’s getting his roots planted a little bit and getting a lot of respect in the clubhouse for the way he pitches and competes. He’s going to be a huge piece of this going forward.”

Mets starter Jacob deGrom

(Nominated by Angels infielder Jonathan Villar)

“Jacob deGrom is an incredible guy. He’s joking all the time and when he comes to pitch on his day, he takes it easy, he listens to music, he’s working just a little bit in the training room and weight room and getting focused for the game. He’s talking with us. He has good concentration when he’s pitching. I like that.”

Retired catcher Russell Martin

(Nominated by Angels reliever Ryan Tepera)

“He had a presence about him. He was a winner. I think at one point in his career he was 11 for 12 in making the playoffs. True professional. A dog. He was that older veteran guy when I was (in Toronto).”

Pirates outfielder Ben Gamel

(Nominated by Pirates infielder Bligh Madris)

“He’s willing to put his body on the line, puts together good at-bats no matter who’s on the mound, doesn’t fear any situation. That’s my main definition of it – willing to fight power with power, willing to attack any situation. It’s a guy you want in a big situation. Willing to take it on head on. Keep going. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, who we’re facing, just gets out there and attacks.

“If you play with that attitude and mindset every single at-bat, you’ll be able to play this game a long time. It’s something you can’t teach; it’s just instilled with you, coming through the minors and grinding through it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's top dogs: Baseball players explain who's got 'that dog in them'