A look at why Bryce Harper's call to the majors could be a good thing, or a mistake.
I talk a lot about how impossible it is to answer the “When Is Player X coming up?” questions. It's because more often than not, even the top prospects get their first chance not because of their own performance, but because the failures or injuries of others. That was made no more apparent on Friday when Bryce Harper was called up by a Nationals team now missing two run producers in Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse, while the Angels finally found a way to bring up Mike Trout by flat out releasing what's left of Bobby Abreu.
For the Angels and Trout, the decision was an easy one. The signing of Albert Pujols created a series of roster complications, but this is a team designed to win right now, and it's an offense with a sub-.300 on-base guy in left field, center field and designated hitter. Mike Trout simply makes this team better when he is inserted in the lineup on Saturday. For Harper, it's not that simple. There are a number of factors that leave a open question as to whether this is a short-sighted rush job.
The need for offensive support is certainly obvious, and in a system where there are few big bats in the upper levels, Harper makes sense. In addition, it should be noted that General Manager Mike Rizzo spent time in Syracuse this week watching Harper, which makes him uniquely qualified to make a decision that even he admits is not exactly how he envisioned things when it came to Harper's big league ascension.
Still, it's a risky move for a variety of reasons. Would Harper be up if the club wasn't leading what suddenly looks like a much weaker than expected National League East? Taking advantage of a situation handed to you early in the season is both sensible and foolhardy at the same time. Flags do fly forever, and opportunities need to be pounced upon, but there are reasons to be cautious. Think about the Royals for a second. They got off to a hot start last year, called up Eric Hosmer, and turned out to be nowhere near as good as they looked. Now they stink again and suddenly they have one less year left to take advantage of Hosmer's talent. The risk of losing an arbitration year and getting Harper to free agency quicker is a potential doozy of a price for what is still a risky proposition based on just over three weeks of baseball.
And then there is Harper himself. He's unquestionably a massive talent, one who looks like a future perennial MVP candidate, but is that future now? His age (19), his career batting average (.254) and slugging percentage (.388) in the upper levels say no. Harper is going to do some amazing things immediately in the big leagues. He's going to hit a 450 foot blast at some point; he's going to gun down a runner with an incredible throw from the warning track at some point, but he's also going to make a lot of outs. He's yet to adjust to the more advanced pitching at Double- and Triple-A, especially in terms of their ability to locate and throw strikes with breaking stuff. He has the ability to make those adjustments, but he's just not experienced enough to do so yet, which now makes him both the obvious candidate for a call up, and yet not necessarily the answer the Nationals are looking for, especially with the risk of losing a year of Harper when this team will likely be better, and possibly much better than it is now.
Here's why I might just be wrong: makeup. I've written plenty about Harper's cockiness, if not downright abrasive style, but here's the thing, nobody has ever said a bad thing about his work ethic. He busts it as much as anyone on any team he's ever been on, and he is definitely capable of dealing with the expected adversity in a way that won't affect him long term. When people ask me about prospects who exceed scouting expectations, makeup is often a central piece, and Harper has that kind of makeup.
For the 2012 season only, this is a no-risk move. He's not going to be any worse than the dreadful production Washington has been getting for their left fielders, and despite the issues, there's certainly a non-zero chance that he makes an impact. The question is does the lack of Harper's impact bat down the road because he's playing somewhere else in his late 20s make it all worth it. We won't know until we see what the standings are in September, and what role Harper played in them.
I doubt the world needs another piece on whether to give a foul ball to a nearby kid, but I happen to be sitting next to a nearby kid and she would like me to keep earning money for her college fund, so here the heck goes.
The trot times for April 26: two heroic home runs and Jay Bruce almost hits a sleeping kid.
The worst thing in the world that could have happened did happen on Thursday: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, he of the 47-letter last name, hit two home runs for the Red Sox. Now, in the "Today's Trots" list below, Salty's last name followed "#1" and "#2" will cause every other trotter to have an obscene amount of space following his name. These are the trials and tribulations of a Tater Trot Tracker.
How does a Google search for, say, "Dodgers" differ between the US and the non-baseball world?
Our view of the world is a bit skewed, especially as Baseball Prospectus readers. For us, it's baseball here, baseball there—we probably even see baseballs in scoops of ice cream or in sunrises. A close encounter of the third kind would likely bring us face to face with Babe Ruth or Harmon Killebrew as we carve Yankee Stadium out of a pile of mashed potatoes. A day without baseball is a day wasted.
But ours is a limited view of the real world. There are whole countries and whole continents who couldn't care less about the infield-fly rule or if Mariano Rivera has gone back to wearing high socks. It's a sad world, yes, but it's a world that exists nonetheless.
As a way to explore this sad state of things, I decided to run an experiment. For each of the 30 teams in the majors, I logged into both google.com and google.co.uk (the British homepage for Google) and searched for the team's nickname (e.g., "Yankees" instead of "New York Yankees" or "Tigers" instead of "Detroit Tigers"). With Great Britain being so famously sans baseball, this experiment should provide us with a glimpse at what the non-baseball world sees, however scary that may be.
The teams are listed below in order of 2011 total attendance, with the google.com and google.co.uk rankings of the team's website shown. Comments are also provided.
Phillies google.com rank for phillies.com: 1 google.co.uk rank for phillies.com: 1 Comments: Too specific of a team name. If the word only ever refers to the baseball team, there's little chance that even the British Google will find something else first.
Yankees google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: The biggest, most notable name in baseball. If this didn't have any kind of pull across the Atlantic, I would have been shocked (even considering the Brits' use of the word as a nickname for Americans).
Giants google.com rank: 2 google.co.uk rank: 3* Comments: The New York Football Giants take the first website listing in each search engine. The asterisk (*) on the google.co.uk search means that the Google News search for the term appeared higher than the actual webpage. This will happen a few more times (the Google News search typically appears somewhere in the middle of the first page of results). I'm actually a bit surprised this one carries such cachet in Britain. I would have guessed that, being a fairly generic term, it'd be superseded by Hagrid/Aragog slash fiction or something.
Twins google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: This is pretty shocking. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see a minnesotatwins.com search result on google.co.uk until the 18th(!) page of results. The Twins page on Bleacher Report even shows up before the official website. The Google News search does show up near the bottom of the first page of results, however.
Angels google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page) Comments: British people like a Robbie Williams song and Doctor Who's Weeping Angels. They do not like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The team website does not appear anywhere in the first 20 pages of results on google.co.uk.
Cardinals google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 2* Comments: The only result above the official team page on google.co.uk is the Google News search. Do cardinals (i.e., the bird) exist in Great Britain? If they don't, that might explain why the team shows up so high in the British rankings - it's a purely American word.
Brewers google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: This may be my favorite result so far. As with the Angels, the team website appears nowhere in the first 20 pages of search results. Instead, we're treated to a British home decorating company, a London hall, and numerous links to British beer brewing groups. Brewers Fayre Pub Restaurants sound like something worth visiting too.
Red Sox google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: I would be surprised if this wasn't the case.
Cubs google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 5* Comments: The first three results on google.co.uk come from scouts.org.uk. I'm guessing that's the British equivalent of the Cub/Boy Scouts.
Rangers google.com rank: 2* google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: Both sites feature Google News searches high on the results pages. At google.com, that means the Google News search followed by the Texas Rangers' website. In Britain, the results are covered in references to the Rangers Football Club.
Dodgers google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: Wasn't sure what to expect on this one, but I can't say I'm surprised. When else is anything ever referred to as a "dodger"? I suppose there could have been a Charles Dickens fan club high in the rankings, but, alas, there wasn't.
Rockies google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: The Rocky Mountain range had a good shot at taking the google.co.uk top spot here, but Todd Helton's club hung on for the win.
Tigers google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: The Leicester Tigers take the top few British results here, with the rest returning information on everyone's favorite striped big cat.
Mets google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 2* Comments: The Google News search takes the number one spot on google.co.uk, followed closely by the team page itself.
Braves google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: The entire first page of results on google.co.uk reference the Atlanta squad.
Reds google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: The 1981 Warren Beatty/Diane Keaton film takes two of the three top spots on google.co.uk. I'm pretty sure this is exactly what Beatty was setting out to do when he made this movie 30 years ago.
Padres google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: Another surprise. I guess British people probably don't use that word all too often.
Diamondbacks google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: Another word that just isn't used all that often in Britain, I imagine.
Astros google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: I admit it, I was jealous that the second result on the google.co.uk page went to Astro Gaming UK.
White Sox google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: As Hawk Harrelson might say - "Yes! Yes! Hell yes! And the flowers are still standing!"
Nationals google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: This is one of the biggest surprises. It seems like such a generic term that might be used in many circumstances. I guess not.
Pirates google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 5* Comments: Beaten out by "piracy" and various other nefarious activities. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and the brand new "Pirates! Band of Misfits" movie also find their way into the British results.
Mariners google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 4* Comments: This may be a reverse of, say, the Dodgers' ranking. The word "mariner" just isn't used much in American English, but it was used quite often in older British times. It makes sense, then, for the top result to be a page where you can research the "mariners and ships of the merchant marines and the world's navies."
Indians google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: A little surprised by this one.
Blue Jays google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: This could be another "Cardinals" situation, where the American word takes precedence because there isn't really a need for it in Great Britain.
Orioles google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: More aviary nicknames taking control of google.co.uk.
Royals google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: (not on first page)* Comments: Did you know that the family of the king and queen are collectively referred to as "the royals" in British parlance? Shocking, I know. How could we expect the team page of a lousy club to even compete with something as ingrained in Britons' being as that?
Rays google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 1 Comments: Maybe the biggest shock of all. Yes, the Rays have been good lately, but I was still expecting the generic nature of the name to take it off the top of the list quickly.
Marlins google.com rank: 1 google.co.uk rank: 3* Comments: The Google News search takes the number one spot on google.co.uk, but number two is much more surprising: Marlins.co.uk, which offers "training solutions for the shipping, cruise, and offshore industries."
A's (or Athletics) google.com rank: 1 (2*) google.co.uk rank: 1 ( [not on first page]* ) Comments: This didn't seem fair, considering how unique the "A's" nickname is in sport. Of course it would be found at the top of both search pages. At least the Athletics name allowed for the chance that a non-baseball site would get high on the results page. As you can see, that assumption was true, as the Oakland Athletics are nowhere to be found.
There you have it. Some mixed results in the experiment, I'd say. On the one hand, the really specific or powerful brand names (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, etc.) don't care what country you're searching for them in. And the super-generic terms (Angels, Twins, Tigers) have very different results in the non-baseball-oriented world. But how do we explain the Nationals or Orioles or even Indians being so easy to find in Britain? There's no real answer to that question, but I think that's okay. As long as it means that our baseball world is constantly expanding, I'll take anything.
Now if you'll excuse me, a pile of mashed potatoes is calling me...
A group of distinguished baseball writers and researchers have collaborated to create a new award as a memorial to the late baseball researcher Greg Spira. The new Greg Spira Baseball Research Award (www.SpiraAward.org) will be given annually in recognition of the best published article or paper containing original baseball research by a person 30 years old or younger. The winning entry must display innovative analysis or reasoning.
Jason Collette and Paul Sporer launch the new Baseball Prospectus Fantasy Podcast and discuss the studs and duds of April, roster management in the first few weeks of the season, make prop bets, and talk about their favorite read of the week.