On Prospects and Anticipation

Baseball is, in many ways, a game about waiting. The moments between pitches are usually far longer than the action themselves, and everyone is waiting for something. The pitcher, for the batter to step into the box or a sign he likes. The batter and the catcher, for the pitch to arrive. The fielders, for the ball to be put into play.

This might all sound rather dull, yet there’s nothing wrong with waiting; the biggest problem might be calling it waiting. To say waiting suggests something dull, devoid of emotion. Better to say anticipating, a word far more loaded with excitement and tension. To quote the great philosopher Jacques, from The Simpsons:

To the most beautiful moment in life. Better than a deed, better than a memory, the moment…of anticipation!

While Jacques was anticipating an illicit extra-marital rendezvous with Marge which never came to pass, his sentiment remains rather more pure. The moments of anticipation can be the most thrilling, when your heart races fastest, when you feel emotion the most keenly, when the object of anticipation is all you can think of. Possibilities stretch out before us in that moment, as far as imagination can carry them.

If the game itself embodies this anticipation in a more immediate sense, the world of prospects offers a different experience entirely, and with the 2018 draft recently in the books, I wanted to talk about that rather strange world. For the uninitiated fan, there are many aspects of baseball that seem baffling or arcane at first glance. Whether it’s the dizzying array of acronyms, abbreviations, and slang, or figuring out exactly what the rules are, there’s plenty of unfamiliar territory for the British fan to traverse.

The concept of prospects might initially appear to be one of the more recognisable elements in that regard, even if the usage of the term itself is alien. Fans of a variety of sports will have had the experience of hearing about an exciting young player for the first time, watching that player learn and develop, eventually seeing that player either realise their potential at the highest level or fall short of those expectations.

Those who have come to baseball fandom via the route of other American sports will also recognise a key aspect of the prospect cycle: the aforementioned amateur draft. The top college and high school talent enters professional baseball in this way. The months-long circus that surrounds the NFL draft in particular makes MLB’s version seem tame and extremely restrained in comparison, despite the league’s best efforts to make it into more of a spectacle.

Even if one is well-versed in other draft-based sports, however, that’s where any familiarity ends. For starters, the MLB draft is a mammoth three-day, 40-round affair, the test match to the NFL’s ODI, which lasts seven rounds, and the NBA’s 20-20, a measly two. If 40 rounds sounds like a lot, consider the fact that there used to be no limit at all – teams just went on choosing players as long as they wanted to.

The prime reason for the relative absence of fanfare for baseball’s draft is probably becoming more apparent now, as is the difficulty of simply keeping track of these players. Even if one did read through all 1204 picks in this year’s draft, most of them would have been forgotten by the time one arrived at Tyler Webb, a college shortstop from Memphis who was taken by the Twins with that very final pick.

The volume isn’t the sole reason why the baseball prospect world can be strange and intimidating for the new fan. The period of time that will pass between some of these players getting drafted and making the majors – the lead time, in prospect parlance – can be upwards of four or five years. Sure, the best college bats like Andrew Benintendi or Alex Bregman crack the majors within a year or two of being drafted, and some polished college pitchers, especially in relief, will see time in the majors this year.

These examples are few and far between relative to the overall volume of players who find themselves in the minor leagues, whether via the draft or international free agent signings (yes, there’s a whole other process for that by which amateurs from outside the country are signed). Baseball is an extremely hard game in which development relies significantly on a lot of repetitions.

Immensely talented high school hitters need to see thousands of pitches to develop the kind of pitch recognition and selection needed to succeed in the majors. Pitchers have to repeat their delivery thousands of times to develop the strength and feel required in the bigs, to hone their existing pitches and learn to throw the breaking and offspeed stuff that is essential for survival at the highest level.

Being familiar with drafts in other sports, or even just recalling young prodigies from sports like football, cricket, or tennis, cannot prepare you for this feature of prospect life. The top NFL draft picks go straight to the NFL team, often straight into the starting lineup, and sometimes are among the best players in the league almost immediately. The first time a young player is brought to our attention in the Premier League is often when they are actually playing for the first team.

By contrast, the top draft prospects will have been discussed for months, even years before they are drafted, are given seven-figure bonuses, and then are covered constantly by a multitude of scouts and prospect sites for years. If you are focused on the major league team, this can be excrutiating, because it really can feel like an age before they ever set foot on a major league field. It’s an extremely slow burn in many cases, and one that often fizzles out either in the majors or before the player even makes it there.

As much work as there is that goes into predicting what these players will become, teams and scouts are naturally far from perfect. Predicting the future is hard, especially when you’re trying to figure out what an 18-year-old is going to be like in 7 or 8 years. That also means prospects can be immensely frustrating: the much-heralded names have been talked about for so long that the level of disappointment can be significant if they don’t live up to that hype.

Tracking the fortunes of these potential future major leaguers is far from essential for understanding or enjoying the game, and it’s no surprise that learning about players who might never put on a major league uniform is not everyone’s idea of time well spent. So why get invested at all? In addition to simply learning more about your team and enjoying the often surreal world of the minor leagues, what following prospects does give you is that sense of anticipation.

That anticipation needs some structure. Not every – or any – prospect is likely to turn into Mike Trout and approaching them as such will lead only to disappointment. Prospects offer that framework on which to drape our best-case scenarios, the improbable yet possible upside of fully realised potential. They’re also about the journey, the overcoming of obstacles and the triumph of will and determination.

There’s usually at least one or two minor leaguers for whom that potential seems almost certain to be realised, who stand out even at 18 or 19 years of age, who cannot be contained by the minors. The very best prospects can also stray into that more fraught area of expectation, making their successes seem simply par for the course and their failures huge disappointments. For everyone else, that range of outcomes covers the spectrum from major league star to anonymous farmhand. The majority will never have significant major league careers; many will never get to taste the majors at all.

The anticipation lives on, because the minors are teeming with constant possibility, and the difficulty of reaching the majors preserves the prestige and the romance of the achievement. As prospects get called up they quickly lose their prospect and rookie ‘eligibility’ after a relatively small amount of playing time, a distinction that draws a firm line between the minors and the majors, and that makes the development process seem far more linear than it actually is.

The fate of the prospects once they stop beyond prospects is besides the point, in terms of anticipation, and beyond the scope of this piece. That’s straying into the deed and the memory, moments that Jacques presciently, and presumably with the benefit of significant experience, recognises as less beautiful.

Marge, of course, does not meet up with Jacques, instead reuniting with Homer at the power plant. The ‘moment of anticipation’ is the last time we see Jacques in the episode. He remains symbolic of that moment. While individual prospects come and go, the idea of the prospect can permanently exist in that moment of anticipation too, if you let it.

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