What's the cause of this spat of lying? I, for one, am blaming Billy Beane, Baseball Prospectus, and all the SaberGeeks.
Okay, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh on those guys here. They certainly aren't holding a gun to anyone's head on this, and they aren't the ones who actually the cause of it all. But it is their collective attitudes becoming common across the baseball landscape that's lead to it. Witness the story of Francisco Santos.
If you heard of Francisco Santos, the latest call-up from the Giants who made his major league debut on Wednesday night, before last March, you're a liar. As far as the baseball world was concerned, his name was Deivis Santos, a young prospect from the Dominican Republic. Deivi Santos is in fact Francisco's little brother back home. (The Giants misnomered him as Deivis instead of Deivi, and that stuck)
Santos was discovered by the Giants in the Dominican Republic, and they thought he was good enough to make the majors some day. Only, Santos was hesitant to tell them he was a 23 year old trying to make it. So he took his brother's identity, and was signed as a ‘17 year old non-drafted free agent' in 1997. And such it was until this off season, when national security concerns cast focus on his Visa to the U.S., and the truth came out.
Why'd he do it? Because scouts don't draft 23 year-old prospects. They draft 17 year olds.
Baseball fans aren't strangers to this. Giants fans aren't either, as this season Pedro Feliz was also caught in a fib, and he jumped to age 27 from 25. The worst punishment he received was a couple of weeks of aggravation sorting things out, and a cake at spring training. Granted, it was a cake making fun of his age jump, celebrating no less than three birthdays. Still, it's cake. I wish I got punished like that.
So, how does this tie into the SabreGeeks and our friends at Baseball Prospectus?
(By the way, in case you haven't figured it out, SabreGeeks is a term that's been coined for people who believe very strictly in statistical analysis, or as it's called, Sabremetric analysis. SabreGeeks is not an insulting nickname for San Jose's Arena Football League team.)
Well, it came up when I was attending a Baseball Prospectus Pizza Feed shortly before the start of the season. A couple of guys who do BP were there taking and answering questions, and making fun of things. One of them was BP head honcho Gary Huckaby. During the question session, I asked him why writers and scouts seemed to ignore Jason Ellison when listing Giants minor leaguers, despite his quick ascension and good stats at AAA. Gary had no idea who Ellison was, so one of the guys read off his stat line that was printed in their book. The last thing the guy noted was Ellison's age being 25. Gary immediately looked at me and said, "here you go. Once you're 25, you're not a prospect anymore."
This statement befuddled me for quite some time. Gary's one of those guys who I respect, and he knows what he's talking about when it comes to baseball. But such a general assumption had to have negative effects somewhere. I didn't make the connection until reading about Santos.
You see, as much as the SabreGeeks are loath to admit it, their view on baseball is becoming more and more accepted in sports. Now, various people may have held a similar view on the age of prospects before the Geeks took over, but the strict adherence to numbers has made such generalizations much more prevalent. And one of these seems to be that once you're at the age of 25, you're not going to improve much more, at least not dramatically enough to get over the rather intimidating hump that lies between AAA and the Majors.
Quite frankly, that's hogwash.
This is just another way of saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well, anyone who has had an old dog know they're just as capable of learning. It's the cats that don't learn tricks, but they don't learn as kittens, either. I'd wager a 27 year old can learn, comprehend, and concentrate on the game better than most 22-23 year olds. That's actually about the age that a lot of major leaguers turn the corner in their careers in very good ones. More than one Hall of Fame career truly started closer to 30 than 20.
That's not to say that the wonder-kids that are so celebrated haven't earned their way to the majors. But they're the exceptions to the rule, and teams should have a balance of those phenoms and less celebrated hard workers. Phenoms have a habit of burning out fast, just ask Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, and the entire Florida Marlins pitching staff (which sits, in it's near entirety, on the DL with elbow and shoulder problems).
And this thinking hurts kids worldwide, especially because of the long development time of kids in baseball, coming up through no less than five levels of the Minors (AAA, AA, High-A, Low-A and Rookie Ball). That's a journey that takes the majority of players a few years, so the ‘ripe' time for scouts to find that next big superstar is before 20. The only problem is, these kids' bodies and minds are nowhere near their full development at that age. Most of them are scrawny, nervous wrecks. It's a lot harder to see and gauge potential like that.
But, once these kids get developed, even on their own, it's easier to see what one might like. But more and more scouts are getting scared off on the older kids, apparently seeing a diminished return on a 23 year old. And there go the lies.
This is a cultural phenomenon, too, it's not limited to neither professional baseball (can you say Danny Almonte?) nor to baseball at all. Have you seen American Idol, Jr? Ridiculous. Do you realize that People magazine has run no less than three stories focusing on Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney's pre-adolescent sister? Not because she's a famous person's relative, as ridiculous as that would be, but because she's declaring her entrance into show business. At that age, the only thing she should be worrying about is which zit cream to use.
The problem is, in this overexposed and over informed age of ours, it's not good enough to be good. Or even very good. You have to be great, and you have to be great early. Otherwise, you'll never make it, ever. No matter how good you get. If you weren't doing it as a teen, then it's too late to start. But when you realize that if you're a very good 13 year old, you'd be a great 11 year old doing the exact same thing, it's not hard to see where kids (and just as often, parents) get this idea.
And people wonder why high school kids turn to drugs…or more violent alternatives…to escape the pressure.
But back to baseball. This problem has lessened with the increased security focus on immigrants and foreign nationals working in the U.S., thus discovering faked documents when visas are renewed. But it's still out there, as are the causes. And the end result, this focus on pushing the younger kids to be superstars today instead of tomorrow is going to turn MLB into the NBA, with these scrawny high school kids pretending they can play pro ball, and trying to convince us that the three point line is way too far to shoot from, and defense should be the next thing to be banned in the rules.
Now, I don't mean to be busting the SabreGeeks' collective cajones on this (And certainly not BP. They're great people, and a great publication. And I hope they won't cancel my subscription over this). If you read my column regularly, you'll see I love stats myself. I'll often use them to illustrate and back up my often crazy opinions. They aren't a bad thing, not at all. It's when a computer-like unfeeling view towards baseball becomes standard that I think it becomes a bad thing. One of the things that makes baseball great are the intangibles, and those are, by definition, incalculable. Still, some try to hold onto stats as the Rosetta Stone of baseball. And that's why Kirk Rueter is such a steal in most of their fantasy baseball leagues. He shouldn't win. But he does. And, believe me, it frustrates the heck out of them.
There are solutions to this problem. One of the first ones would be to institute a worldwide draft, so that any player coming into baseball would have to be eligible in a draft. This lessens the pressure on teams to identify the next big thing and sign them before anyone else does. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that the Dodgers were punished for ‘tampering' with Adrian Beltre before he turned the league minimum age of 16. And that addresses the next suggestion of mine: raising the minimum age you can play pro ball up to 18. This will help protect players, letting them develop at a more natural pace instead of rushing themselves, often into injury or strain, both physically and mentally.
Outside of that, it's up to us, all of us, to stop putting pressure on the stars of tomorrow to perform before they're ready. There's plenty of great talent go around, if we're ready to open our eyes to it.
Love me, hate me, idolize me, or laugh at me, just don't ignore me. Let me know what you think: write me at firstname.lastname@example.org .