Don’t Believe the Hype
While making the media rounds to promote The 300 Club, my book on two-dozen pitchers won 300 games, I was asked about Stephen Strasburg several times — once after he had only one win in one appearance.
I told my inquisitor that he needed only 299 more wins to make the next edition. We both got a big laugh out of that.
People always ask whether any active pitcher could join The 300 Club, with Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte the closest pretenders to the throne. Since Moyer hits 48 in November and Pettitte entered the season with 229 wins and a 38th birthday party pending, the odds are astronomical.
In fact, the current edition of The Bill James Handbook lists Roy Halladay as the pitcher most likely to crack the 300-win plateau — but gives him only a 33 per cent chance. CC Sabathia, next on the James list, as only 23 per cent chance with Dan Haren the only other hurler over 20 per cent. Moyer’s odds are 20 per cent favorable, with Pettitte’s at 18 per cent.
Stephen Strasburg, who didn’t even reach the majors until June, is nowhere on the list. Nor should he be included on the list of National League pitchers going to the All-Star Game.
While it’s true that Strasburg’s various road appearances produced sellout crowds, the kid lost three of his first five games. He’s living proof that reaching triple digits on the radar gun may impress the media but does not necessarily intimidate the opposition.
Though Strasburg may have many Midsummer Classics in front of him, Warren Spahn’s record of 17 All-Star appearances by a pitcher is hardly in immediately jeopardy. Nor is Spahn’s record of starting All-Star games in three different decades.
True baseball fans know that Strasburg is a product of media hype — the same phenomenon that elevated an inexperienced Illinois senator to the White House over far more seasoned candidates.
Remember what media hype did to David Clyde in 1973? A first-round draft choice of the Texas Rangers, Clyde went directly to the majors without passing GO or collecting $200. At the tender age of 18, he went 4-8 with a 5.03 earned run average and was out of baseball six years later with an 18-33 record.
This is not to say that Strasburg is the second coming of David Clyde. But he might be the second coming of Fernando Valenzuela.
In 1981, the portly Mexican southpaw pitched an Opening Day shutout after winning the assignment by default. He won seven more starts in succession, triggering what became known as “Fernandomania,” before losing seven of his last dozen decisions.Â While he did lead league in strikeouts and shutouts during that strike-shortened season, Fernando didn’t deserve to deprive Tom Seaver of his fourth Cy Young Award or Tim Raines of the rookie award.
Media hype helped, especially since Fernando became a fan favorite with his rolly-polly body, ever-present interpreter, and pathological persistence in keeping his true age a well-guarded secret.
As for Strasburg, he has a long learning curve ahead. The so-called experts who immediately annointed him the best pitcher in the majors, or even one of the top five, were — to use a baseball metaphor — way off base.
He’s good, to be sure, but he’s not going to win 300 games either. Check out the list of Hall of Famers who didn’t: Don Drysdale, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, and Robin Roberts, among others.
The savvy fan should know when a player is the real thing or just the media darling of the moment. The network telecasts of virtually all of Strasburg’s starts only fueled the fan frenzy — especially the way the broadcasters focused on the young pitcher and hardly mentioned any of the other 49 players involved in the game.
As a member of the media for more than 40 years, I apologize to the fans who appreciate baseball history and realize that players become superstars only after passing the test of time.
And Strasburg is not alone: too many pundits placed Jason Heyward at the head of the 2010 rookie class before spring training even ended.
A media darling before hurting his thumb, Heyward garnered enough fan votes to win a spot in the National League’s starting lineup. After a hot start that might have merited All-Star status, he hit .172 for a month and proved that pitchers have adjusted to the lefty-hitting Atlanta outfielder.
His selection proves once again that fans should not be entrusted to pick the All-Star starters. To be sure, Heyward is no Davey Lopes, once elected an “All-Star” with a .169 batting average, or Reggie Jackson, who made the AL team with a .199 mark. But he’s played less than half a season in the majors and hit 11 home runs. Corey Hart or Josh Willingham would have been a better choice.
It is truly regrettable that hype is such a hit — witness the appeal of reality TV. In baseball, the only hit that should count is the one that falls between the white lines or clears the fence.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 35 baseball books, including The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners?