What to Expect When You’re Expecting Greatness
In today’s know-everything-first, savior-in-the-making, prospect pleasure land, people tend to over-hype everything. Media allows us access to high school football games (a lot of them), little league games, college sports, and so on. On the Internet, we can get analysis and scouting reports on children—read that line again and let it sink in. Think of Bryce Harper, the phenom of the moment. According to ESPN, Baseball America, the Washington Nationals, and Under Armor (he endorses them), Harper is the second coming of Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. According to Fangraphs, he’s hitting .274/.348/.471, which is exceptional for a 19-year-old.
My point, and I’d say it’s a point of criticism, is that we go to extremes with our perspective on players … especially prospects. Until they reach the majors, they are a relative unknown, which helps create our extreme views. We knew less about Harper the player before he got to the majors so that gave us the license to create the fantasy Bryce Harper in our imagination. And fantasy Bryce Harper is phenomenal, perhaps to an unobtainable degree.
If Harper stays the player he is today and finishes his career with the same slash line as right now, he will have been a relative disappointment. He will not have walked on water, leapt tall buildings, solved the debt crisis, and rolled back prices all while creating sweet catch phrases like “That’s a clown question, bro.” Even though his numbers so far this season would equal a pretty good major league player over the course of 15 seasons, it won’t be good enough.
Harper may live up to his hype. The media loves to help players reach it by exaggerating every small things they do as if no one has ever done it before (Remember when Harper hustled around the bases on a popout and ESPN gushed as if no one had ever ran out a popout? Boy, that was terrific journalism). But it takes a lot to get there. He’ll have to be a superstar, nothing else will suffice because people have already created the player they want him to be.
This all came to my mind while I was watching the Omaha Storm Chasers game this morning on MiLB.tv. I wanted to see Jake Odorizzi pitch; I watch most of his starts. The broadcasters mentioned that he would start the Futures Game, but they also talked about another guy who started in the Futures Game something like a decade ago: Josh Fields. Fields is playing for the Albuquerque Isotopes now so Odorizzi pitched against him on Monday.
As Fields, a guy with great promise in his day and plenty of major league opportunities, dug in, I thought to myself: Look at the contrast here. One guy’s star has faded another’s is shining bright. No one knew that Fields would bust at the big league level, but fewer people back then were paying attention to the minor league level. Fields was coming up just as fans started raising expectations on top prospects.
Today, we pin hopes to players in the minor leagues more so than ever. Many Royals blogs and news outlets reported Bubba Starling’s big day on Monday, hitting the first two homeruns of his professional career. Harper and Mike Trout are two of the biggest names in baseball and have been since they were in the low minors. We see these bits of news on rookie ball players like Starling, or Harper when he was down there, and let it fuel our hopeful frenzy. Oddly, when Bubba went 0-5 the other night, no one said much but when he hit two homeruns in one game, we started clearing a spot on our mantels next to Jesus and John McClain (Doesn’t everyone’s mantle have John McClain from Die Hard on it?).
I’ll admit, it’s fun to be hopeful. I spent all this morning looking up stuff about Bubba and dreaming of he, Wil Myers, and Alex Gordon in the outfield. But to do so without critical thought is not fair to the player, the team, or yourself as a fan. Gordon felt the pressure that comes with people pinning their hopes to him. Everyone knew he’d be the next George Brett. Everyone knew he’d be great. And for a long time, he wasn’t, and fans were mad at him for it. Was our disappointment his fault? No. It was ours. We created the fantasy Alex Gordon, and he folded under the pressure of trying to be that thing.
I notice this more as I think about the All-Star Futures Game. The Royals have three young players in it: Odorizzi, Myers, and Yordano Ventura. I’ve already given my thoughts on Myers (good and bad). I know very little about Ventura. So, I’ll give you my thoughts on Odorizzi, and more importantly, I’ll try to do it in a realistic way.
I’ve seen most of his starts this year, and I’m excited like everyone else. To me, his greatest weapon is his fastball. He commands it well, especially up in the zone as an outpitch. If I’m excited about one aspect of his game, it’s that he can use his fastball effectively, something that not too many Royals starters have. He’s poised on the mound and consistent. Sometimes his breaking pitches get a little wild, and they don’t have the type of hard-breaking, late movement associated with aces like Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. But they’re pretty good.
Here’s what scares me about Odorizzi: he gives up a lot of hits. He’s given up 52 hits in 47.2 innings at Omaha this season. When I watch him, he’s always pitching with guys on base. He’s always pitching out of jams. He usually gets out of them because he can strike guys out, which makes his ERA look fine. It’s 2.83 in Omaha, but his opponent’s BA is .274. But it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll be able to do that against top-flight talent in the majors.
That’s why I’m excited to see him in the Futures Game. I want to see him get tested against the best hitters in the minors. I want to see him have a few guys on with nobody out and see if he can work out of that jam. In the majors, he’ll face tough hitters like Miguel Cabrera with runners on base, not random Albuquerque Isotopes players … well … like Josh Fields
It’s easy to look at Odorizzi and become unreasonably excited. From that comes unreasonable expectations and unreasonable disappointment. It makes more sense to be realistically optimistic and contextually open-minded than to hang our hopes and dreams on a kid, and then rip the kid for not delivering.