September 2, 2014

Don’t Believe the Hype

July 5, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

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.  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?

Comments

7 Responses to “Don’t Believe the Hype”
  1. crater64 says:

    I’m guessing that being “a member of the media for more than 40 years” does not require basic fact-checking as a prerequisite. Strasburg is 2-2 as of this morning, with 2 no-decisions in his 6 starts. Agreed that Strasburg isn’t worthy of an All-Star spot this season, but don’t hang another loss on him until he earns it or his teammates fail to give him run support (which is highly likely).

  2. Mark Ahrens says:

    Great analysis Dan. I am a big Nationals supporter, but still think the rhetoric around Strasburg is way overheated. I had seen the Bill James 300 game probability tables and they don’t hold out much hope for anyone in the future making your next edition book.

    The move to a 5-man rotation immediately cut out 20% of a pitcher’s possible wins…that, and pitch counts leave little room for error, forcing any pitcher coming up to win probably close to 70% of their decsions to make 300.

    Thanks,

    Mark Ahrens

  3. Tony says:

    I agree, I shouldn’t believe the hype. I mean a 21 year-old pitcher with a 2.45 ERA, 1.064 WHIP in 36 2/3IP with 53 strikeouts is just not good enough. Forget about the fact that he has given up 2, 1, 1, 1, 3, 2 earned runs in his starts. And in 3 of his starts his team has only manged to score 1 run COMBINED.

    Sometimes being a contrarian just makes you look stupid because the argument is just so weak.

    Quick, how many starting pitchers this year over any 6 games has given up 9 or fewer earned runs and struck out more than 50? Answer, 3. Two-time Cy-Young Linecum (8ER, 56K), All-Star Jon Lester (8ER, 59K), and Strasburg.

    If you take K’s out of the equation, there have been only 7 pitchers this year to give up 9 or fewer ER during any 6 game stretch. The aforementioned Lincecum, Lester, Strasburg, and Wainwright, Gallardo, Jimenez, and Johnson.

    That’s some pretty special company. One that does make him one of the best pitchers in baseball. Oh, did I mention he is still only 21 and these are his first 6 starts of his career?

  4. Mark Ahrens says:

    Nice analysis Tony…being a Nationals fan, I like anything bordering on the positive. Awaiting the next Strasmas event on Thursday.

  5. Mike Lynch says:

    Good heated debate is welcome here but throwing out words like “stupid” is uncalled for. Your point is a strong one and Strasburg has certainly lived up to the hype so far, but there are no guarantees that this will continue. For every Bob Feller and Dwight Gooden there are a dozen Todd Van Poppels.

    Britt Burns went 15-13 with a 2.84 in 1980 at the age of 21 and through his first six starts that year was 4-2 with a 1.62 ERA. He had to retire at the age of 26 due to a chronic hip condition and finished his career with 70 wins.

    Mark Fidrych went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in 1976 at the age of 21 and finished his career with 29 wins.

    Jason Isringhausen was one of a trio of young Mets pitchers who was supposed to be the “second coming” and he began his career with a 9-2 record and a 2.81 ERA in 1995 at the age of 22 and he has 45 wins.

    Mark Prior went 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA at the age of 21 then 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA at the age of 22 with a combined K/9 of 10.8 and a K/BB ratio of 4.45 and he finished his career with 42 wins.

    Kerry Wood went 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and fanned 12.6 per 9 innings at the age of 21 and he has 81 wins through 12 seasons.

    Then, of course, there’s Ben McDonald (78 wins in 9 seasons) and Jeff Juden (21 wins in 8 seasons), and the list of over-hyped young pitchers from the past goes on and on.

    I’m not saying Strasburg isn’t better than any of the above and it’s fair to argue that I haven’t listed the 21 year olds who did go on to have successful careers, but you can’t take someone to task for warning fans to be cautious about the hype surrounding Strasburg when we’ve seen this happen many, many times before with guys who didn’t pan out in the end. Each of the above was hyped in one way or another and none of them won even 100 games let alone came close to 300.

  6. PeteF3 says:

    Mark Fidrych couldn’t strike anybody out (less than 4 batters per 9 innings). Strasburg can. The Bird is held up as an example of a great career snuffed out by injury, but he was always destined to be a one-season wonder. Guys with strikeout numbers that low don’t last–period.

    McDonald, Juden, and Isringhausen never had any major league stretch that went as well as Strasburg’s first 6 games. Izzy still ended up with a very good career.

    53 strikeouts in 6 games is not “media hype.” It’s stuff that actually, you know, happened. The fact that Strasburg’s 100 mph fastball and monster changeup can’t score runs for his team should not be held against him.

    This passage struck me as well:

    “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.”

    A 33% chance is not “astronomical.” And taking all of those percentages together means that there’s a 69% chance that one of those 5 pitchers will win 300 games. To me, that sounds like pretty good odds. And it sounds pretty plausible, too.

    And I haven’t the faintest idea what to make of the completely gratuitous comment about Obama.

  7. Mike Lynch says:

    Pete,

    You’re absolutely correct about Fidrych not being able to strike out batters at a decent rate and I cringed when I saw his strikeout numbers. You’re also right about Strasburg’s six-game stretch; even Prior and Wood had ERAs in the threes after their first six games, if I remember correctly. But I still think those two provide a cautionary tale when it comes to Strasburg. Prior supposedly had “perfect” mechanics (whatever that is) and he still ended up getting hurt, and Wood is now a closer because he couldn’t stay healthy long enough to be a starter. It’ll be interesting to do a little more research to see how 21-year-old power pitchers typically do with the remainder of their careers. Of course there will be outliers and perhaps Strasburg is a different beast altogether. We won’t really know for another 15-20 years how he panned out (assuming he lasts that long, knock on wood).

    Mike

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