Nationals Baseball: Great Expectations

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Great Expectations

In the 2+ years since coming back from injury Stephen Strasburg has been one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball. Even ignoring the strong finish from 2011 only bumps him down to a Top 15 and he's at least two years younger than all but 2 names above him (and there are only 2 in that range in the next 14 below him).  He's a clear #1 pitcher in his prime with likely a half-decade minimum of All-Star level performance ahead of him. 

And Nats fans don't like him.

What Bryce Harper has done in this first two years in the game is amazing. Before the age of 21, when the vast majority of players are still in the minors or college, he's put up a .272 / .353 / .481 line. Only four players in the history of the game have done better in a comparable number of PAs by that age. Even expanding out to age 21, the numbers that produced at that level are miniscule and the list is overrun with Hall of Famers. Ted Williams, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Hanke Aaron, Ken Griffey.

And Nats fans are ready to turn on him unless he puts up a MVP type year in 2014.

I really hate fans sometimes.

Expectations are a tricky thing. If either Bryce or Strasburg had failed, or at least slowed down their ascent, in their minor league stints, it's likely that we would have written off those "generational talents" evaluations as wishful thinking. It happens all the time. Guys look good in HS or college, but they hit some hitch on their way up and either need some time to work on it or worse, can't overcome it at all. Neither Stras or Bryce really hit a hitch though. They were able to breeze through the minors and make it to the majors on schedule, if not before. Because of that they carried their whole "future Hall of Famers" expectations with them.

The kicker is they haven't even failed to live up to those lofty goals just yet. Bryce, because of his young age is still arguably on target for greatness. Strasburg, when looking at age, isn't that far off either, thanks in large part to the fickleness of pitching. Yet fans hate. 

In large part I think it's because they not only have failed to live up to the outsized expectations, but we're, kind of amazingly, seeing others players reach those levels. There hasn't been anyone this young and phenomenal as Bryce since A-Rod... except for Mike Trout.  In the decade since Mark Prior teased everyone with his ability, only King Felix and the burning out Tim Lincecum had shown themselves to pitch as well as Strasburg has at this young an age... but right at this instant Clayton Kershaw is doing it, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner are a "better than Stasburg 2014" from separating themselves from him, and guys like Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez have that potential.

Bryce and Strasburg are no longer just fighting to reach expectations that have only been met by a select few in 100+ years, they are now fighting to match someone who is looking like one of the great young players of all time, and possibly the best group of young pitchers we've seen since before the War, the first one. (we'll see - pitching has lots of ways of disappointing you)

This is all amusing and infuriating to me at the same time. The Nats have two of the best players under the age of 25 in baseball today and yet it feels like because it's not THE two best players under the age of 25 that it's some sort of failure. Really? Is that how some people look at the game?*.

Arrrrr. This is frustrating. I think this way of thinking is just so stupid and really kills any enjoyment from the game. It's "World Series or Bust" on a career level. But maybe you like viewing the world like this so I'm in a quandry. I guess we'll agree to disagree, and I'll agree to call you stupid every few months.

*Of course it is. There are like 80 college football programs that think that they can compete for a national championship like every 4 years with the right coach and support.  That's not to mention the ones that feel they should compete on that level MORE OFTEN. Fans are stupid and unreasonable. It's part of the fun for some.  


bdrube said...

Strawman argument. Who, exactly doesn't like Strasburg or Harper? I'm so old I can remember when their spots on the roster were occupied by the likes of Tim Redding and Austin Kearns. I'm thrilled to have them.

That said, acknowledging that they are so young, each needs to take it up a notch or so and reach their full potential if the Nats are going to win a WS or two. They are the straws that stir the drink on this team, and anyone who does not recognize that fact is not a real Nats fan.

cass said...

Perhaps some fans don't like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, but I think that most of us like them both quite a bit. And both of them seem to have charisma (in very different ways) and fame even beyond their accomplishments so far. Very unusual for this team - we're more used to players like Desmond and both Zimmerman(n)s whose greatness flies under the radar.

I mean, there are trolls and grumpy people everywhere and some people like to lift people up just to tear them down. Strasburgmania was pretty intense during 2010 and, frankly, he was a different pitcher then. He threw over 2 mph harder than any other starter. I imagine he was the hardest throwing starter in the pitch f/x age that year, but I'm not sure. So he was unique. But the human arm couldn't stand up to that so he had to dial it back just a bit and throw as hard as the other hard throwers.

Anyway, I think the team needs to sign Bryce and Strasburg 10-year deals ASAP. The Nats have other good players that could be extended as well (Desmond, Zimmermann), but they aren't as young as Harper and Strasburg who each have many more years of peak performance potentially ahead of them. And the team's identity is pretty much centered around these two.

So I'd say put aside the money needed to lock them up and then start locking up other players if the cash is available. I know some people say the Nats can't afford to sign both, but I don't think they can afford not to. But Strasburg is a pitcher, so there's always some risk. Still gotta do it. Maybe do it now while he's potentially cheaper. Same for Harper. Either one could put up a CY/MVP season next year.

Harper said...

bdrube - and why does the USA hate football?

But seriously, if you don't think Joe Q Nats Fan doesn't LIKE Strasburg and isn't getting very antsy on Bryce then I don't know what to tell you. Not that they don't want these guys on the team, just that the personal feelings toward Strasburg are negative and are trending that way for Bryce.

cass - I think the column is coming across as "don't like Strasburg and Bryce" and I didn't mean it like that. While I do think the dislike of Strasburg is real, everyone is one hot month from smearing on eye black for Bryce. But I'm thinking a .275 21 HR year from now things could be different.

I'll still hold firm to the Strasburg walks prediction (assuming they sign ZNN)

Anonymous said...

I think part of the issue with Strasburg is he hasn't had that defining game yet. I wouldn't call it hate, but there's definitely an air of disappointment. He also didn't help his case this past year with his early blowups after errors and the staring down a face of the team 3rd baseman definitely didn't go over well with Joe Q fan. Plus, there are lots of fans (more than half) in the park every game who weren't going to games 3 years ago and have been sold on the "once a generation talent taking us to the WS" label. Strasburg throws a no-hitter or even a complete game shutout with 10 K's....oh yeah, Philly in August so we've seen that will continue to waffle. And since he's only out there every 5th day, he's not a straw. Bryce can be that straw, but more than any player I can remember back through the 70's, he got judged before he played a minute. Not many have changed their minds from that initial judgment.
The amazing thing about each of them is that at least once a game you see a "how did he DO that?" moment. Just phenomenal.

Chaos.....and yes, Strasburg is the better be to walk.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the hating come from the fact that although they may end up in the Hall of Fame, many of those years will likely be for another club for one or maybe both of them. For a fan it is kinda like knowing you are going to get dumped so it is harder to invest in the player.

Wally said...

I think that I agree that most internet posters seem to find fault with them, especially Strasburg. There is often a sense of 'he has ace stuff but hasn't performed like an ace'. But I don't see the same dissatisfaction from fans that I talk to.

FWIW, I am very happy with both of them, and would like to see them offer Stras 5/$100m this offseason. With pitching injuries, including his own, it seems hard to see him turn that down, knowing he can be back out to the market by age 30.

I think that there is no way Harper signs early.

blovy8 said...

Harper, weren't you the guy picking apart a talented 86-win club, at least partially, because of the expectations placed upon them?

What is the average non-sabermetrically inclined fan supposed to think of Strasburg given the way he's been babied? The club doesn't think he can pitch in hot weather or cold weather. They keep pitch counts on him and no other starters essentially. He's been hurt several times already despite this treatment, and as anon said he's not sticking around since Boras is his agent.

He becomes this fragile doll whose singularity seems to be diminished, who's past publicized issues give Joe Natsfan (all four of them) an expectation that he will probably wilt on the big stage if it ever happens. If the expectations were unrealistic for Harper or Strasburg, they were told to have those before these guys even played a game. Baseball was gone from this area for 35 years unless you became a Orioles fan or brought your fandom with you from some place else. It sound like you are citing 2012 front-runners who think they've been cheated by that band wagon, rather than the bitter experience of John Patterson-led pitching staffs.

There is a defeatist strain in DC fandom that has been voiced well by anon and Chaos.
For Strasburg it'll be that the guy will never pitch 220 innings for us, and right at the point where he's at his best, he'll sign with another club. Same thing for Harper, except it'll be that he can't hit lefties, and won't go near the warning track. We're the victims of too much information and the same old overselling technique with prospects.

You can't fall into the trap of what internet posters write, because to get to that stage by reacting, it's pretty likely to show an overstated opinion. You know, like this one.

cass said...

Is it Strasburg's fault that when he pitched one of the best games in Nationals history, the team couldn't hit worth a lick and he took a loss? Part of it, maybe, since his bat had a huge drop off from last year. But his pitching was fine.

I donno. People seem to like Stras at the stadium. People I sit next to are excited if they're seeing him for the first time. I've heard from people who feel he isn't living up to expectations, sure, but I don't know that it's the majority. And Gio smiles more.

But I think the team absolutely must extend both of them. Attendance and tv ratings are up. They'll get a good tv contract once the MASN thing gets resolved. They have money. Spend it. People come to see Harper and Strasburg. Pay them. Pay Desmond and J-Z too. If they could afford to throw money away on Soriano, they can lock up this team.

Of course, I just saw that the Nats are projected 18th in WAR based on Steamer and FanGraphs playing time estimates for 2014. Ugh.

Maybe do a post about why these estimates are wrong or, if they're not, what the Nats can do about them? How do we move up 8 places into the top 10?

Harper said...

Chaos - Yeah I think a big game win would do a lot for Strasburg. Unfortunately last year was a walk until the playoffs (which for some reaoson he didn't pitch in any games - anyone know why? INSERT SMILEY FACE) and this year was a mess.

Anon - Eh, I think Bryce will be here for the long haul if the Nats will empty out that dump truck for him. He'd be THE Nationals star for a long time, rather than one of X number on another team.

Wally - I guess that's true I don't face to face many fans. I'll see if I can't get a poll added to the All-Star ballot.

5/100? Interesting and tempting on both sides. I think Stras holds out for more though. Kershaw's deal, while not 100% comparable, is going to skew things

blovy8 - The equivalent would be more like picking this team apart for winning 94 games and a playoff series, when I thought they should win 110 and the whole thing.

I guess I am falling for the internet poster but that's all I have to go on. We can all say I know # fans and none of them are like this, but we tend to self-segregate so personal experience can be even less educational.

Hmmmm Hmmmm - how best then to get a reading? Twitter/Facebook are more ubitquitous but I don't think my followers are a fair enough sample of typical Nats fans. I need a Ladson like person. CYou think they'd let Comak ask "Hey, Do you guys like Strasburg?" as an official question?

Also John Patterson was great when healthy once he figured it out.

cass - So what I'm getting is

Casual fan - likes 'em because they are told they are our best pitcher and hitter.

Some what passionate fan - hates them because they've been told these guys were going to be the best thing ever and the team didn't win and there are other people doing better.

Passionate fan - likes them because they understand the amount they are contributing to the team

Overpassionate fan - hates them because everyone on the team should be hitting their highest potential. Anyone who doesn't, either doesn't care enough or is pressing too much depending on what they show to the fans through the media and on the field.

I have to look at those projections. In a Nats vacuum I can point out places where they are underselling (ZNN, pen, Desmond) but I have to see why that would be.

blovy8 said...

Well, the other thing is, you can be the next big thing for only so long. Those first Strasburg starts were electric. Then he gets hurt, has the rehab year where you have to reduce expectations for a bit with him grateful for Harper taking the spotlight, and this year where he seemed to get all the rain delays, no run support, new part of himself hurt with a lat strain, mild tantrums after errors, etc. It begins to look like the guy has issues in several directions, and he's somehow to blame for the 8-9 record he sports, when the reality is that the numbers he could control were still really good. I think there would still be some passionate fans in your equation that would say, it's great that he's pitching so well, but why is it they don't seem to win games with him out there? He's still learning how to pitch. My perception remains that he's still a bit less than his peripherals would indicate, but I have nothing really tangible to base that on, and I believe he'll get better if the inverted W doesn't get him. Of course, being a DC fan, I have to think it will again. You can be disappointed or impatient without hating the guy.

Anonymous said...

How could you not mention Manny Machado of the Orioles? He has better numbers than Harper.

Sirc said...

Anonymous said...

"How could you not mention Manny Machado of the Orioles? He has better numbers than Harper"

If by "numbers" you mean *just* doubles, then sure Manny Machado has better numbers than Bryce Harper. But that's it. Harper's played roughly 50 more games than Machado, but the difference in games does not account for the difference in production. Their averages are just about a wash, but Runs, OBP, RBI, SB, BB, HR, SLG, OPS all favor Harper. Some of those significantly favor Harper. Machado's walk/k rate is terrible while Harper's is elite.

Machado is fantastic and I hope he keeps improving. But there is no debate as to which has been more productive offensively to date.

m j b said...

Love this post on unrealistic fans, though it's not a majority that are guilty.

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