June 19, 2012
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
Bring Me the Head of…..
Prospects fail to develop for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from poor makeup, to marginal physical talent, to lack of instincts, and some only fail in our own minds, where unrealistic expectations create a world where disappointment is assured. As minor league masochists, joy can be found in the process of constructing our own torture, as we open our hearts to the allure of projection and cathedral ceilings, knowing with an intellectual mind that what we want to see as a diamond will really end up being coal. In a game built on a foundation of failure, the developmental process is the evolutionary doorman of that failure, tasked with keeping the exclusive club populated with only the best of the best, the exceptional and the beautiful over the ordinary and the ugly.
I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately. In my personal life—which I often bring into my professional life—I’ve come upon a developmental roadblock, an imploding relationship that needs to be abandoned, much like a breaking ball that just isn’t good for my arm slot/action anymore. As I transition from the curveball to the slider, I’m going to stumble; learning a new pitch is never easy, especially when you’ve been throwing the curve for so many years. This personal obstruction is a nice companion to the articles I’ve been writing lately, the ones where I take a look at what could go wrong with a prospect based on their present level of refinement. With those pieces, I’m selling the setbacks, preparing readers for the disappointments that are not only possible, but also very likely to occur in some form during the maturation process. As I research those players in search of characteristics in their skill set that are exploitable, introspection forces me to examine the weaknesses in my own skill set, the holes in my game that encouraged failure. With that internal spelunking came perspective, and a somewhat refined approach to expectation management; when the heart hurts, it’s easy to water down the dreams in your head, finding that it's pleasurable to believe in the fairy tale, but not at the expense of your anchor to reality. You can learn a lot from failure.
All of this brings me back to expectations, and the dangers of assigning too much emotional weight and responsibility to something or someone that is designed to fall short of supreme expectation in the first place. As humans, we excel in the construction and destruction of heroes, building individuals into idols and then burning the idols to the ground when their very existence can’t make us whole or happy. Baseball is the perfect medium for idolatry, a field of superheroes at our disposal whenever we need a fix; idols playing a game that all spectators to the event wish they could play at such an advanced level. If this happens to be true, our passion for the game at the professional level has roots in our own athletic shortcomings, which for some, becomes an incubator for resentment and hostility. If we invest too much in the athlete and the athlete fails, does that not amplify our own disappointments? If the superhero of my choosing can’t even live up to my expectations, how I am supposed to live up to the hype when I’m just a mere mortal, someone who watches the games that other people play?
I’ve been trapped in my own head lately, so you will have to excuse the attempts at depth. I’m fascinated by failure, and when presented with my own, the search for answers is the only course of action at my disposal. This search extends to my day job as well, a platform where I help to establish the unrealistic expectations that I’m currently ranting against. I won’t shut up about Francisco Lindor, calling him a future All Star and savior to the starving, and if you happen to value my opinions on prospects, the expectations of greatness have been firmly established. As a result, anything short of superhero will be a disappointment, and I will wear that defeat like a badge of failure when Lindor inevitably fails to become the top shortstop in baseball.
Expectation management is my new bag, and it will no doubt paint me as a hypocrite because the world is familiar with me by my given name, which is Jason “the tools whore, ceiling-loving, projection addict, ultimate ceilings are my co-pilot” Parks. As much as I love ceiling, and as much as I love to dream of the ultimate projection—no matter how much space exists between the present and the future—being unrealistic about a prospect only adds to the problem, making the disappointments sting with more ferocity. Could Francisco Lindor become a future All Star? Yes. Will he? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t say it’s likely. Becoming a quality major league regular would more than justify his draft position and should be viewed as an accomplishment, both by the player and the developmental team that encouraged the talent to mature. But if Lindor fails to develop into a star, the established expectations won’t allow many of us to appreciate the remarkable accomplishment of becoming a major league regular; rather, we will spend more time asking what went wrong instead of celebrating what went right.
Because it’s easier to sell dreams than dread, I can take a sensational scout quote and place it on Twitter and watch the re-tweets and comments roll in. When a scout told me that Oscar Taveras could develop into a batting champion, an offensive force with a potential 80-grade hit tool, I dropped the nugget on the internet and I gained 200 followers in the span of an hour and helped establish the expectation that Oscar Taveras will win multiple batting titles, become a legend in St. Louis, and solve the financial crisis in Greece. When I used the same platform to suggest Dodgers RHP Zach Lee might not have the ceiling that some have propagated, figuring to be more of a solid-average number three/four type than a top of the rotation arm, the response was tepid; a few comments expressed disappointment, a few disbelief, and a few were hostile, but the overall reach was limited. Selling reality wasn’t nearly as successful as selling a savior. I think I even lost a follower or two when I attempted to manage the expectations of Zach Lee. Question: Since when is a cost-controlled solid-average number three/four starter a bad thing? Answer: When you bought into the idea that the player in question had more to offer. When the ultimate ceiling became the absolute truth.
This phenomenon, while not exclusive to sports, exists in abundance on the professional athletic landscape. In our everyday lives, how often do we examine and judge our ultimate potential as compared to others? This isn’t a knock on people in my universe, but I don’t know a single individual who has lived up to their ultimate potential. I sure haven’t. I love writing about baseball, and getting paid to be an active participant in a passion makes me a very fortunate person, but I have the intellectual and artistic capacity for more [I think]. I know people with advanced degrees from Ivy League schools and careers that reflect this academic prowess, but their gifts create a ceiling that even extreme accomplishment can’t satisfy. I don’t judge my friends for having faults, or falling short of hero status; I appreciate who they are, and what they are, and what they accomplish for what it is. But when it comes to athletes, my lens of judgment is magnified and my emotions about their level of success are not only intense, but they are often unforgiving. I’m having a hard time in my personal life and I’m getting a divorce, so bring me the head of Martin Perez. I have failed in my quest for comfort and contentment, so bring me the head of Manny Banuelos. I didn’t live up to my own potential, but I expect the athletes I watch on television to achieve that distinction, so bring me the head of Colby Rasmus.
This is more than just a long-winded rant from a man with a lot of clouds in his head and a lot of doubt in his heart. It’s the primer for a series of articles I want to write where I’ll take a detailed look at a few players/prospects whose expectations exceeded the reality of their skill set. I’ll take suggestions for future candidates on all social platforms, as well as in the comment section of this piece. With each prospect, we will take a look at who the player really is, what has gone wrong in the journey towards expectation, and then (if applicable), paint a more realistic picture of the player based on the available scouting, avoiding the ultimate ceiling hyperbole that can carry such an influence over our perceptions. In addition to the “What Could Go Wrong” series, which is still ongoing and offers up both the extreme highs and the extreme lows of a prospect’s developmental arc, and the “Baseball is My Stereo” series, which are scouting pieces based on eyewitness accounts, the “Bring Me the Head of…” series will focus on expectation management for the individual prospect of your choosing. If you want to know who Martin Perez really is, and why he was always unlikely to develop into a top-of-the-rotation arm that some projected, and why he has stumbled in recent seasons, and what all that means, I’ll write an article about Martin Perez. If you want to explore what makes Julio Teheran a man and not a mythical creature sent to change the fortunes of the Braves organization, I’ll write about Julio Teheran. You get the idea. Let’s explore what’s really going on with the objects of our affection, and hopefully discover that tempered expectations can be just as sexy and sensational as grandiose ceilings, the ones we build with a smile in order to frown when they fall.
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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