The Inner Workings of the MLB Hype Machine
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In this digital age of information, where nothing is a secret for very long, the hype for baseball players seemingly starts in elementary school and continues until we see the finished product in Major League Baseball.
That may be a slight exaggeration, but we have gotten to a point where we hear so much about young players and have access to more video than ever that it would be hard to have absolutely zero knowledge on any player making his debut (for the purposes of this discussion, we are keeping things limited to prospects and rookies).
None of this is to say that hype is a bad thing. One of my favorite parts of baseball in the last decade is the increased coverage and mainstream attention given to the minor leagues, because it tells you where the game is going in the future and a look at the process players go through working their way up.
But where does it all start?
It is easy to just say that when you hear enough about someone that you have to start paying attention, but that is an overly simplistic—and not completely accurate—assessment of how, for example, Mike Trout came to be MIKE TROUT.
So here is a look at the all of the intricacies of the Major League Baseball hype machine that gets used multiple times every year.
In the past, long before this Internet fad and YouTube era hit, we had very few ways of keeping track of prospects in baseball. There was Baseball America, which continues to be the standard in prospect evaluation, and not much of anything else.
That has changed dramatically over the last decade. Baseball America is still around, but there is also the prospect evaluation being done on a number of sites, including our own, with Mike Rosenbaum, the Baseball Prospectus team of prospect writers (led by Jason Parks, who took over for the recently departed Kevin Goldstein), Keith Law at ESPN, Kiley McDaniel at Scout.com and many, many other reputable sources around the web.
By having so many great places to see video and read about players before they ever step foot onto a Major League Baseball field, we get intimate knowledge of how they are developing and their ultimate ceiling.
Sometimes that works to the benefit of fans, as it is always helpful to have more reports at your disposal just for the sake of information. At times it works against the fans, who don't want to see the flaws that their favorite team's players might have.
You need a certain level of information at your fingertips in order to know who the future stars of the game will be and when you can expect to see them.
Show us what you got
While having all of those words and notes about players is critical to helping the hype machine, everything starts with the players themselves. They are the ones doing the work on the field, and ultimately it is on them to live up to their status.
But that all begins when you show us what you can do, either as an amateur or in the lower levels of the minors.
To cite a few recent examples, we are going to look at Washington's Bryce Harper, Los Angeles' Mike Trout, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes and Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton.
We'll start with Harper, who entered the 2010 draft as the most-hyped amateur in history. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, when Tom Verducci wrote a story about him being baseball's version of LeBron James.
It was because of that story, as well as a homer he hit at a home run derby event in Tropicana Field that supposedly traveled 502 feet, that Harper gained national prominence. The pressure was on him to perform at a superstar level at roughly the same time he got a driver's license.
Then Harper got into pro ball and more than held his own, quite often excelling, with an aggressive first-season assignment between Low-A and Double-A. The Nationals had an opening in the outfield early last year, called Harper up and the rest, as they say, is history.
Even though he gets lumped in with Harper for obvious reasons, Trout took a very different path to superstardom. He did get some attention in the 2009 draft—you know, the one that had that Strasburg fella at the top—and was taken by the Angels with the 25th overall pick.
(Fun side note: Trout was actually the Angels' second first-round pick, which they got after Mark Teixeira signed with New York. Outfielder Randal Grichuk was taken by the team with the 24th pick.)
The reason Trout didn't get the pre-draft hype that most stars do had nothing to do with his raw talent, which did show up in games, but everything to do with where he played. He went to a small school in New Jersey, which isn't exactly a baseball hotbed.
If Trout had played in California, Florida or Texas, odds are good that he would have been at least a top-10 pick.
Instead, Trout had to wait until he was in the Angels' system to showcase his skills to a much wider audience. His big breakout game was the 2010 Futures Game in Anaheim. He went 2-for-4 with a double—which he got on a ball that would have been a single for anyone else, and he hustled out of the box and showed his blazing speed—and two runs scored.
Even though Hank Conger, another Angels prospect, won the MVP award by hitting a three-run homer in the game, it was clear that Trout was the best player on the field that day.
Cespedes had as much hype as any Cuban-born position player in MLB history because of his legendary YouTube workout video, which actually starts out with a Star Wars scroll at the beginning telling you that he is the hero we have all been looking for.
It was an amazing introduction, and undoubtedly played some role in the contract he would get from Oakland, and it has paid off in a big way for the team on the field. He has proven to be better than even the most optimistic projections expected as a rookie, and he is having another solid season when healthy this year.
Finally, we close out the look at players showing us what they have with arguably the most dynamic talent in minor league baseball today: Billy Hamilton.
Although Hamilton is not the most physically imposing player in the world, listed at just 6'0", 160 pounds right now, and there are some questions about how well his hit tool will translate against better pitching, fans line up to see him because of what he does on the field and some potential urban legends about him.
Hamilton is the fastest player in baseball, regardless of what level you are talking about. I saw him at the Futures Game last year on a ball he thought was going to be caught, and not break out of the box in a hurry to make it from halfway down the first base line to third base in under 10 seconds.
Last year, during a game with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, he hit an inside-the-park home run that took him just 13.8 seconds to complete.
Amazing, superhuman feats of athleticism are always going to get you noticed by the masses. That's why comic book movies are so popular every summer.
The role of social media
It was touched on before, but I wanted to distinguish this with its own section, because it can't be understated just how important the rise of social media has been in the building up—and in some cases, the tearing down—of prospects.
Look on Twitter, Facebook or any number of other sites you can turn to for instant analysis, and you will see that there is so much floating around about prospects, more than you can possibly keep up with on a daily basis.
For instance, last week we saw the next crop of players to get hyped brought into baseball with the 2013 Major League Baseball draft. Teams have already been signing players at a rapid-fire pace.
In many ways, social media has only helped to increase the hype for a player. You can find something that, say, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus tweets about Minnesota Twins prospect Byron Buxton and just the insane debut season he is having in Low-A.
Byron Buxton is now hitting .350/.444/.578, w/ 29 XBH and 26 SB in 58 MWL games. This is the top prospect in the game. #Twins— Jason Parks (@ProfessorParks) June 10, 2013
A few people get hold of it, favorite it or retweet it, and all of a sudden it has exploded into this huge topic of discussion about whether Buxton is going to be a Mike Trout-type player when he gets into the big leagues.
The old saying is that information is power, and that is certainly what drives the hype machine for prospects and young players in baseball.
Going from hyped prospect to superstar big leaguer
All of this brings us to the natural conclusion of a player graduating from the hyped prospect, either from the minors or imported from a foreign country (like Cespedes or Yu Darvish) to the big leagues.
One of the reasons that writers and analysts tend to caution the hype machine, at least right out of the gate, is because the jump from the minors to the majors is astronomical. It is far bigger than the second-largest hurdle, which is moving from A-ball to Double-A, because there are still so many junk pitchers and organizational hitters at that level.
When you move to the big leagues, even when you are facing the absolute worst team, there are no easy breaks that you can skate by with.
That is what makes players like Harper, Trout, Cespedes, Darvish and others throughout the long, illustrious history of Major League Baseball so amazing to watch. They may have had rough patches here and there, but for the most part were successful right out of the gate.
You start seeing them all over magazine covers, ESPN highlights, commercials, posters—anything and everything that can be used for advertising. It is akin to watching a child grow up, go through school and then hit it big right out of college.
Obviously, not every player with a ton of hype is able to live up to it. That is just the nature of the beast. For every Bryce Harper, there are a ton of Donavan Tates.
What separates the wheat from the chaff is the ability to take those raw skills that get you noticed in the first place and translate them onto the baseball field.
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