Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hyping of The Harper: Bryce Harper and Expectations

Hype Thy Name is Harper

got the most power, the most speed and the best arm in the league,” said the manager. “It’s scary to think what he could do some day.”

You’re thinking Bryce Harper, right? Nope.  Those words were spoken to Peter Gammons over 23 years ago about another young outfielder – Bo Jackson.  Then Boston Red Sox manager Joe Morgan uttered those superlatives about a 25-year-old Jackson who was entering his third full year in the big leagues and, to use Bill Simmons’ parlance, ready to “make the leap”.

 Hype has been around forever. Keith Law would have raved about David’s fastball before he slew Goliath if he’d been around back then. What we’re seeing with Harper isn’t new, there is just more of it.  Had Twitter, the Internet, and a baseball-focused channel existed when Jackson was making his mark, or when Ken Griffey, Jr. was a 19-year-old prodigy with a backwards hat we would have had to deal with the same stories.  Instead we had Sports Illustrated, the USA Today and This Week in Baseball (and we wore onions in our belts, which was the style at the time).

I’ve never understood not liking a player because of the hype surrounding a player, aka the Jeter Effect. If there is one player in the major leagues that is constantly named as the most overrated it is Jeter. Why? Let’s just say it wouldn’t happen if he was the Indians starting shortstop.  He’s a decent shortstop, not the best, not the worst. Yet, if you surf the Internet you’ll find pages and pages of rancor and misspellings detailing his failings. You would think that Jeter had personally insulted these critics just by picking up his glove.

As far as I know he never called himself the greatest, never wrote a column praising his own indefinable leadership qualities or voted lobbied to be inducted into the hall of fame.  All of this was done by the press, by folks trying to sell newspapers or page hits.  He just went out and played the game. Yet fans continue to say they hate him because he’s overrated.

Which brings us back to Harper. Hate him because he acts like a petulant child from time to time or because he wears eye black like he owns a charcoal powder company, but don’t hate him because Sports Illustrated lumped him in with Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky when he was only16-years-old. The same hype that allowed him to sign a $9.9 million, 5-year contract will also be a 2-ton shadow following him around for his career.

If “with great power comes great responsibility” then with great expectations comes great burden. No matter what Harper accomplishes on the field there will be some critics who steadfastly believe he could have done better. If he hits 700 home runs, someone will say he should have hit 701.  Lesser prospects don’t have that issue. If Christian Colon (drafted 3 sports after Harper) only averages 20 HR’s a year in his career no one is going to call him a bust, if Harper does someone will.

Matt Wieters went from “Mauer with Power” and “the Perfect Catcher” to one of Baseball Prospectus’ “Most Disappointing Prospects” before his 25thth birthday.  The Catching Jesus is now winning some of those accolades back as it appears he’s improving on his 2011 All-Star/Gold Glove season.  Will we see a similar wave of hype/derision/credit if Harper struggles early on? Probably, just magnified by a factor of 300.

Yeah, I own a couple of copies of this.

For some reason we’ve become a sports society that values potential more than actual production. What someone is actually doing on the playing field isn’t as important as what he could be doing. Because a scout or writer labels someone as “great” we expect him to be the minute he laces up his shoes.

Vincent Lecavalier has put together a very strong NHL career. More than likely he will finish his career with over 400 goals and 1000 points; in fact there is no reason to doubt that he won’t get to 500 goals. If he does he’ll be among the top 50 goal scorers of all time, yet it’ll still feel like his career fell short.  Why?  Because when he was drafted his owner billed him as the “Michael Jordan of hockey” and some felt he would be the next great offensive weapon in the NHL along with the hallowed names of Gretzky and Lemieux.

When he struggled out of the gate (because his early teams were horrible) some of the hype fell away and fans were quick to anoint Patrick Stefan or Marian Gaborik the next great sniper. Then he started scoring and the hype returned. Now, limited by injuries and the expectations of a $10 million a year contract the kudos have faded again. He’s discussed not as a player capable of scoring 25-30 goals a year, but as a contract liability.

 We get bored easy as fans. Even if you follow a team with a possible hall-of-famer on it fans are more concerened with the future. Who cares about James Shields rolling to 15 wins every year, how many will Matt Moore or Alex Cobb win in 2014? Everyone is in a rush to see if a prospect has “got it” or not.  So what if they are only 19 and have never been away from their childhood for more than a week at a time before.

Who cares about the legions of young pitchers who can throw 98 mph that have been burned out and blown out before their 25th birthday, let’s rush last year’s draft pick through the system as quick as possible.  Why waste time in Aberdeen or Fredrick when he can be standing on the mound in Camden Yards trying to strike out Jose Bautista with a good fastball and a change-up he learned two weeks ago? Who cares, it’ll sell tickets. And then when Bautista hits one off of the ivy we can all say, “Heh. I knew that bum was a bust. Now, this other kid, the one down in Single-A, he’s got the stuff. I can’t wait till they call him up.”

So here’s how am I dealing with the Harper Hype – I’m sitting it out. I’ll watch some of the games, maybe check out the highlights the next day, but I’m not changing my life to see how he does. I’ll read the papers and the SI articles but I’m not going to judge the kid’s abilities. I’m not going to call him a “bust” or a “stud” based on a handful of games.  I’m not going to value his doubles over anyone else’s doubles, they are no more or less tremendous than Wilson Betimet’s. 

I won’t write him off if he gets demoted to the minors, nor will I demand he’s named rookie of the year because he hits 15 home runs and doesn’t look like a fool against major league players. If he earns the praise, I’ll praise him (the most impressive part of his game so far has been his arm strength. A couple of throws have been down right  Ichiro-ian) and if he does something stupid I’ll comment on that.

A part of me hopes he does succeed. Watching a super-hyped prospect succeed is always more enjoyable than watching one fail.  Hopefully, he does do tremendous things in this game and 20 years from now I’m condemning people for calling some kid the “next Bryce Harper”.

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