It is dehumanizing, what happens to phenoms like Zack Wheeler over the long arc of a professional baseball career. In the minor leagues, you are an abstraction, a blank screen onto which fans and media project hopes that have little to do with who you actually are.
Then you arrive in the big city and, as any person would, reveal your normal imperfections. You are not a savior, but a human, and the public can grow bitter. Ask Mike Pelfrey, a first-round pick who became a solid pitcher, and was seen by many fans as the devil by the middle of his Mets years. Or even better, ask the guy whose debut brought more hype than perhaps any pitcher in history, Stephen Strasburg.
“What happens is, that they build you up just to bring you down,” Strasburg said Saturday. “They never get it. Unfortunately, that’s people who never played the game. You really can’t control what people write or say.”
This reminds me of an article by Danny Knobler of CBS Sports a couple of weeks ago, where he surveyed some scouts who all seemed to be bailing on Zack Wheeler after his major league debut.
Both scouts who watched Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader in person listed Harvey as perhaps the most impressive pitcher they’ve seen this season. But neither came away raving about Wheeler, despite six shutout innings in his major-league debut.
One of the scouts suggested that Wheeler should still be in Triple-A, and in any case might still need a trip back to the minor leagues before he comes back for good. The other scout was even less impressed. ”He’s going to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy,” the second scout said. “Edwin Jackson, maybe.”
Edwin Jackson? Really?
Martino correctly asserts that a rare set of circumstances created the frenzied Wheeler buildup: He was acquired for Carlos Beltran, one of the greatest players in franchise history; he arrived at a time when the organization was marketing its future over its present, and became a symbol of that trend; he dazzled scouts in the minor leagues with raw talent, and copy-hungry writers like me relayed their quotes to the public without context; he followed Matt Harvey, who has worn the phenom crown as well as anyone could, convincing some fans that it can happen again.
Because of those factors, Wheeler’s major league debut generated an absurd volume of attention — and that buzz drowned reality. Wheeler is a high-ceiling talent with flaws in his delivery, who might not even be ready for the major leagues. But he is here, and he is working to improve, which is all we should ask of a young player.
Yes, yes and yes…
You may remember how often I would say over the last 18 months how sorry I felt for Zack Wheeler. This was why. I knew he would be over-hyped, and that in most fans’ minds his uniform number would always be No. 15. Throw in the fact that this whole “Plan” thing was built mostly upon Wheeler’s back as soon as he became Sandy Alderson’s signature move.
I still feel bad for the kid… The all-out nonsense to make him out to be more than what he really was, will have a heavy toll on Wheeler. And unless he ends up his career with a room full of major league awards and hardware, there will be an unfortunate minority who will see him as a disappointment.
We do love our mythological heroes in baseball, but like Strasburg says, we love tearing them down as well. I like this summation from Martino:
Hype is fiction, and it is actually cruel: Building a man up is just as wrong as tearing him down, because neither honors who he really is. Maybe we could just watch, and appreciate the complexity of Wheeler’s learning process.
Yes, yes and yes…