I’m not a prospects guy, a draft guy, or (least of all) an amateur ball guy. I like to attend the occasional minor league game, and if there’s a guy who’s going to be the next Mantle or Clemens, I want to know a little something about him, but that’s it. I’m MLB all the way, pretty much.
But the College World Series started today, the MLB draft was held early last week and there’s a lot of non-MLB baseball stuff in the news (if you’re OK with news close to two weeks old, at least), so that’s our theme for the day.The College World Series is like March Madness, if there were no regular college basketball season at all.
Earlier today, I came across a tweet from someone I don’t know that pretty much epitomized the way people view college baseball. Paraphrased, it was essentially thus: “We have Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson on our team, we CAN’T lose! Go Dores!!!”
Mike Yastrzemski is a sophomore at Vanderbilt who started all 62 team games in 2011 (and batted .300 with a .434 OBP, but he doesn’t yet have quite his grandfather’s power, with a .390 SLG). He played in 58 of their 66 as a freshman last year, starting 35 of those. I’m guessing here, but it seems to me that if there’s one fact you were likely to learn about Commodore baseball, it would be that the grandson of a legend and Hall of Famer is on the squad. It seems that this guy only learned this one essential fact today, and yet because they’re in the CWS now, he’s suddenly so much a fan that he uses the fan’s “we.”
I’m exactly the same way. I went to law school at Virginia, and now that they’re in the CWS, I plan to watch and root for them as much as I can, despite the fact that I can name just one player on the team, and that only because Danny Hultzen was the second overall pick. (I can give you all sorts of MLB and even a few MiLB former Wahoos — Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, Brandon Guyer, Sean Doolittle — but I don’t really care about the actives.) The thing is, I just don’t really like college baseball much. The constant PING! of the bats drives me nuts. And even if you do like the sport, in most places, it’s almost impossible to follow on TV, until today. ESPN carries all the games of the CWS, and basically none before then.
So nobody (or almost nobody) gets as rabid about the CWS as people tend to about the Final Four, but it’s just funny to me to see some people (including myself) get almost as excited about a sport that, a few days ago, they barely knew existed, just because their alma mater or local school is in the running. It’s far from unique to college baseball — I saw the same thing happen on a much larger scale in Chicago last year when the Blackhawks (of whose existence most people were only dimly aware until the finals started) won the cup — but it’s always interesting.
Judging the MLB draft is like declaring a game over at 1-0 in the first inning.
Kevin Goldstein had a really good article over at Baseball Prospectus shortly after the draft (subscriber only, sorry) in which he highlighted ten players who most people thought were drafted much too early — including Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder — who ended up being very good players (or at least, great values for their draft position). At the same time, of course, Goldstein has been doing division-by-division wrap-ups of the draft and judging the quality of the picks.
This is not any kind of criticism of guys like Goldstein or Keith Law, whose job is to do things like critique the draft. But I’m entertained by all the hand-wringing, elation and devastation that follows the draft on the part of team fans and bloggers. The odds are slim that they’ve seen any of these prospects play, the stats from high school and college really tell you nothing, and even the best independent scouts and analysts — and there are some great ones — can usually give you only an opinion based on having watched them a few times, while also having watched hundreds of other guys a few times. Putting aside the obvious fact that an almost literally infinite number of things that can happen after the draft will shape the draftees in unpredictable ways, it’s hard to rely completely on the experts’ opinions of these guys in the moment, either.
To me, the closest thing to a safe assumption is that the teams — who have tons of people looking at and analyzing this stuff, way more than anything you can find on the internet — generally know what they’re doing, and that if for instance the Orioles take the top lefty pitcher in the draft, take him much higher than anyone thought he’d go, and then decide to make him an outfielder, you should probably just trust them. Go back and reevaluate in a year or three.
Bryce Harper is (going to be) like Barry Bonds.
No, I’m not predicting that an 18 year old kid is going to hit 762 homers or win seven MVP awards. I do think he’s going to be a star, though, a huge star, and very possibly like the kind of guy, like a mid-career Bonds, who is at least above average in literally every part of the game. And more importantly, by all indications, he’s kind of a big jerkface.
Remember how everyone hated Barry Bonds? Not the way they hate him now, where they tend to focus all their steroid angst from the entire sport on that one guy, but back before the PEDs were the biggest part of the story, when it was fun to hate Bonds only because he was such a jag, a guy who was just so great at baseball that he could get away with anything, and he knew it, so he did. Bonds was good for baseball, I think, in the same way that the Yankees’ perennial excellence is good for baseball. It’s fun to have villains, and villains are only villains if they’re really good at what they do. Magneto (the 2000 film version, not a comic or cartoon guy) is my favorite, because he’s evil and almost unbeatable. Really hard to do anything to the guy who controls all the metal. Bonds, ca. 1993-2003 or so, was like baseball’s Magneto (bonus simile!).
And baseball really hasn’t had a villain since then. Manny Ramirez almost fit the bill, but he’s just too much of a goof. His purpose wasn’t to make you hate him, his purpose was to say or do whatever first came into his head, and that sometimes had the effect of making people hate him. A.J. Pierzynski meets the jerk requirement, but isn’t nearly a good enough player. Bryce Harper, with his awesome talent and the self-aggrandizing quotes and the blown kiss and the ridiculous facial hair and all that, has the potential to really tick off all the boxes.
It does seem like Harper might have some growing up to do, and I really hope he does it, just because I don’t think you can function as a Major Leaguer without a certain very minimal level of maturity and humility, or you’ll fall apart the first time you go on an 0-for-20 or a material weakness in your game gets exposed. But I hope he keeps most of that attitude and obvious awareness of his awesomeness. Baseball certainly doesn’t “need” another Magneto, but I think it makes it a hell of a lot more fun.