This week saw the loss of Bullpen contributor Colin to Atlantic City, and the addition of top prospects Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to the big leagues. What follows is some musings on the nature of prospect hype and fandom. This is good stuff that you can enjoy, without feeling guilty about liking the work of a guy with a mohawk/mullet-combination.
ANDREW: It seems to be top prospect week in baseball, so if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to flash back to the halcyon days of 2009 and talk about Matt Wieters, the man who nearly broke the hype machine (not to mention PECOTA). A funny thing happened to the switch-hitting Jesus while some segments of the baseball-consuming populace were busy lamenting his failure to be the next Johnny Bench: he became a damn fine player in his own right. He’ll probably never reach the insane heights projected for him in the days before his major league debut, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he could give the Orioles Yadier Molina-esque defense with wOBAs in the .350 range for the next half-decade or more. That would make him an excellent player, one who in different surroundings could be the cornerstone of a perennial contender, but I worry that the expectations surrounding his debut will lead some fans to consider him at least a mild disappointment if he’s not hitting .300 with 35 home runs every season.
It’s ironic that the stat-nerd community was largely responsible for the hype (it was nerd bible Baseball Prospectus that projected him to basically be the greatest player ever as a rookie), and now the same community might be the only one to truly appreciate his excellence despite his failure to reach the heights unfairly projected for him. Wieters is a good illustration of the double edge of the modern-day prospect hype machine. I attended his debut at Oriole Park, and I’ve never felt the stadium more alive, but the same hype that fed that atmosphere is now preventing some people from appreciating Wieters for the excellent player he’s becoming, rather than bemoaning the instant superstar he didn’t become.
Do you think the joy and hope of moments like Wieters Day or Strasmas are worth the weight of often unfair expectations that accompany them? Would you be happier if Bryce Harper just stepped out of a cornfield (or a whorehouse; he is from Vegas, after all) unheard of and started hitting lasers and gunning people down at the plate instead of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16? I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying in sports than watching someone live up to or even exceed seemingly impossible expectations (that’s why I find it hard to turn against LeBron James despite the litany of reasons he provides to do so), but I think there’s something to be said for letting a player’s career unfold without wondering why he isn’t instantly the next [insert Hall-of-Famer here].
DAN: This is digging deep here in the Bullpen. Allow me to dig a bit deeper: life is a series of small disappointments, punctuated by moments of brilliance and euphoria. Sports are built the same way, especially baseball: the best hitters are lauded for not failing 40% of the time. There isn’t a single superstar athlete who isn’t wildly disappointing in some way; we counter this inevitable disappointment by becoming enamored with prospects and recruits.
Before a prospect arrives, he is only a series of statistics and scouting reports and highlights. He hasn’t yet been thrown out of a bar or choked in a big moment or dogged it in meaningless midsummer games. He hasn’t dropped out of school or failed to learn the playbook or proven himself to be a sexist, racist, and homophobic boor. He’s the platonic ideal of a player, all production and no person, and we get to fill in the margins with our own projection of him.
Right now, Bryce Harper is my favorite National. He hustles down the line like his life depends on it, hurls himself into the centerfield wall tracking a fly ball, drives in runs with less than two outs and a man on third, and lays off inside heat early in the count. And all of this in two days. His hair is still funny, not yet obnoxious. His quotes are brash but harmless. His opponents are the ones annoyed by his antics, not his teammates. Harper hasn’t blown out his elbow or struck out looking with runners in scoring position or dressed like an insufferable yuppie at brunch.
So, absolutely give me the prospect hype. Sports are a stupid obsession that emotionally crush us multiple times each season; every good season or winning streak is just more time to brace yourself for the heartbreak. Prospects are all hope and dreams and optimism, and those first few fleeting moments of a career — before things somehow go awry — serve as beautiful reminders of why we became fans in the first place.
ANDREW: Well said. I agree with everything, except for one key point: Bryce Harper’s haircut is obnoxious as hell.