Nationals Baseball: The kingdom of the veteran jerk

Friday, May 20, 2011

The kingdom of the veteran jerk

I went into Boz's "Harmon Killebrew is Bryce Harper. No he isn't. Yes he is" column with a preconceived notion that keeping someone in the minors when they were ready talent-wise for the majors is a mistake. I've come out of it not being so sure but not for any of the reasons Boz would want us to go with.

Well, ok, maybe we can agree on one thing - the everyday life of a ballplayer might take some getting used to. Playing months on end with long road trips to different places, staying in hotels, barely settling into one place before moving onto the next, that is something unlike most kids, even those that played college ball, have done. I can see value in making a youngster go through that. I also am not sure it's necessary, but it's so different than anything I've ever done I'm willing to give the guys who have done it some benefit of the doubt if they say it is so.

To me, keeping someone in the minors when they could be preforming in the majors is a waste. I know we talk about "clocks starting" and "maturity" and the like but I don't buy either. For the clock issue, I see betting on the future part - that the Nats will definitely be better in 2012, 2013, 2014, etc. as a fools bet. So much can happen between then and now; Strasburg could never recover, Zimm's injury could be a recurring thing, Werth could collpase; that "saving" Bryce for then is like not buying a little shelf to put your trophy on so you can save that money for the big cabinet that will fit all the trophies you are going to win. I like the attitude but why not worry about problem B when it actually becomes a problem?

As for the second part, I know sports isn't like everything else, but human nature is pretty stable. For every person I know that was groomed into a more mature person by circumstances there are a dozen that are pretty much the same as before. Little shifts to maturity over time will happen, but for the most part the mature stayed mature, the immature like wise. I kind of feel like that's going to prevail in sports as well. The Dukes, Bradleys, LoDucas will be who they are regardless of "dues paid". Mainly because eventually you don't care if they've learned anything - you got to use 'em or lose 'em.

(at this point I want to note that neither of these things apply to Killebrew, which makes the column's attempts to compare him to Bryce iffy. Harmon was apparently always the good ambassador type. He didn't need the minors to "learn him". And the Twins weren't sticking him in the minors for no good reason. It seems he wasn't ready for the majors in '54 and '55 when he had to ride with the team (though they could have played him more). His '56 numbers were good, but they were A-ball and he struggled in the majors again. Only in '57 did he do well in a stronger league (AA) and play well in the majors. And you know what? He started next season with the major league squad. He was sent down to AA again for some reason, (given the 3 game stint maybe he was an injury fill-in? - I need to find a biography) but when they attempted to bump him up to AAA he struggled. So outside the AA send down in '58 they treated him almost exactly you would any other minor league prospect)

OK, so if I'm not convinced Bryce should spend a couple years in the minors because he needs it or because the Nats need to save him for later, then why do I still think it might be necessary? Here's where the thought experiment starts: What if Bryce spending time in the minors isn't just for Bryce? What if it's for everyone else?

See, if you are good enough to make the major leagues, odds are very very good you are going to make it. It doesn't matter how mature you are, or how you treat your teammates or not, or how many times you smile to the fans. Talent rules. That means, right now, the major leagues are filled with a mixture of good and bad guys, just like real life (possibly more skewed toward those having issues just because being in a profession that leads to you getting adulation through most of your formative years can skew your perception of reality). The bad guys, or more accurately the insecure guys, can't handle the idea of a youngster coming up at 18 and being handed a starting spot, if they didn't catch that break themselves. That youngster could then be treated overly harsh by those guys wanting to make him "earn" in the majors what he didn't in the minors; trying to make something that is inevitably unfair, promotion due to physical talent, into something more fair, promotion due to time served. This is basically what the Lastings Milledge deal was all about. Here comes a kid two years out of high school and he's getting the attention and love from the fans? Didn't matter that he wasn't doing all that great and might not stick in the majors anyway. Some guys can't handle that. Everyone has their place and by the sheer virtue of sticking in the majors they earned the spot at the top of the heap.

You could say, we're just bringing him up anyway, but you risk alienating a good chunk of your team. It's a shame that you have to cater to that segment of your clubhouse, but unless you managed to bring together the perfect egoless team, you kind of do. So Bryce has to waste away another year in the minors possibly, just so he doesn't ruffle the feathers of the old guys too much. Can you imagine Dibble on a team where a 19 year old is a starting LF? It doesn't matter if Bryce was a date-raping showboat or a humble church-goer who stayed until the last fan got their autograph. That kid would learn his place.

I'm not saying that this IS the case, but given that I don't think much of the other possible reasons for keeping Bryce down, I needed to come up with something that made sense to me. I know this is armchair psychology and if you are bothered by that... well come back on Monday when I'll have some ottoman sabermetrics for you.


test said...

One of Rizzo's more maddening reasons for keeping Harper down (put me in the "he should be in the minors for a season" camp though) is that he "needs to prove to the guys up here that he has paid his dues." That's the biggest bunch of horse hooey ever.

On the whole, he's in the minors to learn about being a professional athlete, adjust to the demands of a long season (as you wrote), and I bet there is a lot of coaching on how to not act like an idiot; especially with the media always watching. He can hide in Hagerstown and the Sally to an extent.

I think we're all intrigued to see when he gets a promotion...

David said...

I think the number one reason why he's in the minors is that they don't want to start his free-agency clock too soon. Everything else is just rationalization for the decision they've already made. Bryce will move through the minors to AA this year and start next in AAA and get called up in June.

Anonymous said...

I think the one thing that has been overlooked here is the assumption that Harper is ready to jump to the majors right now. I've only seen him in Hagarstown a couple of times, but he made more than one gaffe in both games and where that can fly under the radar in Hagarstown, in DC you your mistakes are written about over and over again (Mr Dukes, your table is ready).

I think we have been tricked into thinking from last year that it is easy to fly through the minors and show up in the majors. It not easy and it is much harder for a position player than for a pitcher because there are more skills that have to be mastered. Talent may rule but it still has to be combined with skill and the knowledge how to use it at the professional level.

On top of this the guy is 18. Maybe everyone here was as mature the year before your first full time job and the year after, but I know I wasn't--and I didn't have a couple of million burning a hole in my pocket either.

The only reason I would bring him up are: 1.You really think he can excel at major league level. 2. You are worried his aggressive style is going to get him hurt and you want to make a couple of bucks before it happens.

Anonymous said...

The kid can hit. I don't think there's any disputing that. But from what I've seen, he's not major leauge ready in any other aspect of the game. He's still learning the most basic things about fielding and base running, all of which I'd like him to be comfortable with before he gets to the bigs.

Harper said...

ck - that line bother's me too. If he said he has stuff to learn - that would be more palatable, though if you just say that you leave it all to how well he's doing.

David - I know it's supposed to be smart management but doesn't it feel like the work of a sad team? That the driving force is "Let's get one more cheap year out of him because we don't think we can sign him?" (Yeah - you can say it's more "...because we can use that extra cash to make a push in that extra year" but I'm not sure I buy that and it's basically exchanging 2012 which right now seems like it could be more wide open than people think for 2018? 2019? which who the hell knows what is going to be like?

Anon #1 - I'd disagree with 1. rather than "You really think he can excel at major league level." I would say "You really think he can CONTRIBUTE at major league level." which he maybe able to do (or may not, remember I'm not saying BRING HIM UP NOW - let's see him in AA for a month or so first)

I get the "kids are stupid" but all the Nats are asking is Bryce to be at a maturity level where he doesn't make everyone mad at him somehow. I'd hope an 18 yr old with a major league support system around him could pull that off...

Anon #1/#2 -

How long can it take to learn baserunning and fielding to a level that's major league acceptable? We've seen guys with great bats stink out in the field so I'm guessing not long at all

Wally said...

Isn't there a little bit of 'feeding the affiliates' involved too? I mean, forget what Rizzo says. We all agree that the kid has more to demonstrate before the majors, and we are really just saying when should he go to Potomac?

So I think that it is part giving him a chance to work through a league once or twice, and the other part to give Hagerstown some time to show him off and generate some revenues. If he is at Potomac by June, is it really off anyone's expectation of how quickly he should be advanced?

As for beyond Potomac, I am sure if he does as well there, he'll see Harrisburg before the end of the year.

Harper said...

I don't think he's being moved overly slowly but I get the feeling he could be. If he kills it in Potomac for June and July, and Harrisburg in August and Sept. and looks good in AA (and has gotten over this supposed incredible inability to field and run the bases) Why shouldn't he start next year in the majors? If the Nats can't manage to be good enough in '12-'17 I'm not holding out hope that it call comes together in '18....

Wally said...

If he followed that path, he might very well start off in DC next year*. I am just saying that we shouldn't take Rizzo's word now about Bryce's** future at face value. He has not proven to be incredibly forthright that way, and it seems like he is just trying to take some pressure/spotlight off the kid's progression.

* except or that rule where if you delay the call up by a few weeks, you wind up with an extra year of control. I have said it badly, but I would make sure to delay enough for that
** notice how I continue to follow your decree to refer to him by his first name only!