Rookie optimism, or building them up to tear them down

Jonathan Daniel

Stephen Strasburg thinks rookies get built up just so they can be torn down, but that seems too cynical for Mike Bate's tastes.

Last weekend, the New York Daily News took a break from suggesting the Yankees should commit insurance fraud and Alex Rodriguez will retire, instead using the space to speak to Stephen Strasburg about prospect hype, particularly in light of Zack Wheeler's rough last couple outings. Strasburg lamented that "They" -- meaning media and fans -- "build you up just so they can bring you down." I can understand how someone in Strasburg's position might feel that way. After all, we live in a world of Dan Shaughnessies and sports talk radio call-ins, where the bombastic buzzkill and schadenfreude vampire often get a lion's share of the attention. But, as a fan, I can't believe this is the case.

I was just at Kyle Gibson's debut on Saturday, and what I saw wasn't 37,000 people rooting for a kid to fail. It was the exact opposite.

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By way of background, I should point out that the Twins are on their way to their third straight finish below .500, and that they haven't had a top-100 pitching prospect debut since Kevin Slowey in 2007. As Slowey's initial promise curdled, fans have had to make do with the far less anticipated debuts of Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, Liam Hendriks, and Scott Diamond. Meanwhile, the once vaunted rotation has become one of the worst in baseball, manned by a cast of veteran castoffs, replacement-level AAA veterans, and a Rule 5 draftee. Calling Gibson's start anticipated undersells just how desperate Twins fans have become for adequate pitching.

Indeed, Gibson was the most hyped prospect to debut for the Twins in years, since at least Francisco Liriano. A 2009 first-round pick, described as a quick moving prospect out of the University of Missouri, Gibson was actually on the verge of being called up in 2011 before he began experiencing forearm tightness that devolved into Tommy John surgery. After 18 months of recovery, fans were baffled as Gibson was shuttled to Rochester to start 2013, and stayed there for almost half of the season. While Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, Pedro Hernandez, P.J. Walters, and Scott Diamond all scuffled, he remained on the farm.

Aaron Gleeman of NBC Sports has a great line where he points out that the fewer people who actually see a player, the better he tends to look in reports. Since Twins fans had barely even gotten a glimpse of Gibson in spring training, they were allowed to dream wildly on him. Finally, when he got the call up to the majors last week, the optimism reached a fevered pitch. Twins fans pinned on Gibson the hope for a brighter future, with a revamped rotation. St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Tom Power wrote:

We have seen the future. And it is refreshingly unlike the present. You have to give the people what they want, and what Twins fans have wanted for a long time is Kyle Gibson. After watching an unsightly gaggle of starting pitchers chuck and duck for a couple of years, the public was clamoring for Gibson, a first-round draft choice in 2009. Other pitchers were getting second and even third chances to try to win a spot in the shaky rotation. Where was Gibson?

No pressure, kid! The problem, of course, is that, while Gibson is a good prospect, and almost certainly the best starter in the beleaguered rotation, it's also clear that he's probably no more than a good number two starter, and more likely a good number three on a playoff contender. This is not to disparage Gibson, but it's realistic. He's good, but will almost certainly never be the transcendent player on whom Twins fans can pin their future hopes and dreams. Ultimately, if those expectations aren't managed, he's going to be a let down for many fans.

That's a shame, or course, and not Gibson's fault. He pitched well in his debut, as Power notes, "he thrilled everyone by, well, not letting them down. He pitched very well against the Kansas City Royals, allowing two runs and striking out five over six innings. His hard sinker was snapping downward. His slider had bite, and his changeup was moving so well, it almost looked like a mini-knuckleball." But ultimately, those initial thrills wear off and fans will want to see the player they got their hopes up for, even if that player only exists in their minds. It's not that they want to see rookies like Gibson fail, it's that they so desperately want them to succeed. It's all very Harvey Dent: You either die young or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain when you can't reach impossible heights.

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

It's the same with Joe Mauer, who is already one of the fifteen best catchers in baseball history, who has a higher career batting average than any player since Tony Gwynn, and a .405 career on base percentage, and three Gold Gloves. But one season (2009), Mauer made the mistake of hitting 28 homers, and since has been burdened with the curse of expectation. He did it once, surely he can do it again, goes the argument, in spite of the fact that Mauer has changed ballparks. Minnesotans don't want him to fail; they want success beyond their wildest dreams.

Nor is this over-hyping a modern phenomenon. The Giants were desperate for a crosstown answer to Babe Ruth in 1923, and John McGraw desperately wanted to have a Jewish superstar. So toward the end of the year, they purchased Mose Solomon from a team in Hutchinson, Kansas, for whom he'd hit 49 homers and billed him as "The Rabbi of Swat." Supporters claimed "He was as big as a house [he was 5'9"]...and can play first base like [Hall of Fame 1B George] Sisler, hit like ‘Babe' Ruth, and fight like [Heavy-weight boxing champ Jack] Dempsey." Solomon played two games in September and October, and it was apparent his defense at both first base and the outfield made it impossible to carry him. He never played in the major leagues again. Fortunately, Solomon didn't have time to stick around and earn the ire of Giants fans, becoming only a footnote in history.

Unfortunately, any subset of any fan base will be bitter when they don't get what they've been promised. That doesn't make them bad fans, or happy when players falter, but I can understand why they seem that way to someone like Strasburg or Mauer, who can't figure out why they're getting booed when they're leading the league in strikeouts or on-base percentage. It's just a side effect of baseball being entertainment that has to drum up interest however it can. Twins, Mets, and (until recently) Nats fans had little to cheer for until their pitching prospects arrived. Nobody was going to invest much of themselves into Jamey Carroll or Kirk Nieuwenhuis, for example. But players like Gibson and Wheeler give them an outlet for that pent up need to be excited about something. While it may not be exactly fair, I think we need to let them have it. We can deal with their disappointment later.

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