Monthly Archives: October 2015

Prospects Are Bullshit

It can be so fun to read baseball writing with hindsight. I went back to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 Annual (for which I wrote a team essay and some player comments) and had a look at Andy McCullough‘s essay on the Kansas City Royals, which it turned out I had not read even once. That I had not read it says something about what even professional baseball writers tended to think about Kansas City’s chances going into 2015: better to read about other teams first. The Royals weren’t likely to be good again.

McCullough’s essay argues that the Royals will be good again 2015. So he has gotten it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if he has his causes wrong, because who can know about causes, really? Essentially, he’s arguing that the James Shields trade—which was front and center in my world back in 2012-13, when I was still covering the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate)—was a great trade for the Royals no matter how Shields ended up pitching (which was not better than pretty decently) or if he left after his contract was up (which he did). McCullough suggests that Shields’s mere presence on the team, for as long as it lasted, and in multiple ways, had a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect, and the the waters were likely to stay high after Shields was gone.

So now the Royals are two wins away from a World Series title.

When a writer gets it right, especially in the face of a lot of people thinking he’ll turn out to be wrong—Baseball Prospectus’s staff had Kansas City finishing fourth in the five-team American League Central—you take the other things he thinks very seriously, and McCullough thinks “prospects are bullshit.” This is the axis of his essay about the Royals: that prospects are bullshit. I am a (former) minor-league beat writer who has been writing about prospects since 2009: watching them, interviewing them, assessing them, building narratives around them. The opinion that prospects are bullshit gets my attention. Yet the attention it gets from me is that he’s absolutely right. McCullough is absolutely right. They’re bullshit. Not the players themselves. The players, including (especially) minor-league players, whether they’re on PEDs or not, are the most authentic part of baseball. Most of them are doing the best they can to make themselves major leaguers. (Note: Wil Myers was not doing the best he could when he was in Durham). What’s bullshit is the more abstract notion of prospects, which is essentially an invention of writers: entities writers can evaluate in terms of future production. Doing this is a fool’s errand, a mug’s game, and it becomes more foolish and more mugging—as in, mugging for the camera, the internet, the book—as the gap between the majors and minors widens.

McCullough is careful (and kind) to add that “prospect writers aren’t the problem. They can only work with the materials they have,” and “those materials are bullshit.” I appreciate this defense of writers, of me. You’d expect a writer to mount this defense—we protect our own—but I don’t think it’s true. Prospect writers are the problem, or a large part of it. Almost every case we make has to be overstated. We have to try to see things no one else sees, so we see things that aren’t there, or things that are there now but almost surely won’t be later. Even the best experts in the world are usually wrong most of the time: scouts, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus; usually wrong. This is what we should say about ourselves: we’re usually wrong. I run across professional evaluators all the time, and it amazes me how much more they appear to think they know than they actually do, or ever can. What we ought to do, as a matter of professional discipline, is throw up our hands and say, well, best guess. Even a blind squirrel.

Baseball players will often say that the game has a way of humbling them. If only it would humble the rest of us, too.

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Headhunter Carignane 2012

IMG_0359I think the delight is in finding something no one seems to have found. It’s so hard to do that anymore, whether you’re trying to or not. One of the constant disappointments of the new world we live in, online and off, is how little unexplored territory remains. This isn’t just the romance of being the first one down the unknown river, although there is that. It’s wanting some privacy, places and things that aren’t poked and prodded until they’ve lost their shape, nor beset by noise. I’m writing a biography of a musician who has just published her own memoirs. It’s an enjoyable project and I’m seeing and saying things that I don’t think have been said about or by her, but part of me just wants to leave her alone. Facticity is our abiding condition, or factitiousness. I’m not sure.

On Friday, we were on our way up to Virginia to visit my wife’s family and stopped to get coffee in Richmond at a pleasant place my wife knows, not far off the interstate. It’s also a little grocery store—the kind, my wife points out, downtown Durham sorely needs—and they sell wine. We wanted to show up at the folks’ place with a bottle or two. Nothing fancy, just wine we could drink with dinner (which turned out to be steak and lobster, yikes). I picked out a wine from southern France whose producer I didn’t recognize. Part of the fun of traveling is that I find wines by importers whose wines don’t find their way to North Carolina, so there are hundreds of bottles I’ve never seen before. In our good but somewhat insular market, I see the same wines over and over again. The Roussillon was $12. I remember nothing else about it.

Then I passed the closeout bin and saw, amid the junky prosecco (prosecco being, in my opinion, pretty much inherently junky), a bottle with a funny-looking label bearing the name “Headhunter.” In our peculiar marketing era, a name like that (and a funny-looking label) can belong to a tiny handmade thing or to a mass-produced, assembly-line product, with equal likelihood, because we’re running out of names as surely as we’re running out of unexplored territory. Hence the spate of horrendous band names in recent years, even (or especially) around here: I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers; I’ll stop there. (Actually, I won’t: we had a recent nano-dustup in Durham when a restaurateur announced that his new place would be called “Hattie Mae Called Me Captain.” People objected because Hattie Mae was apparently the black housekeeper or nanny who fed the white restaurateur scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwiches when he was a tyke, but hardly anyone objected on the grounds that it was a terrible, terrible, unsightly, ungainly name no matter its provenance. He withdrew it, as he should have. Had he just called it Hattie Mae’s, or even Hattie’s, and kept his mouth shut about it, probably no one would have complained. But an ugly, pretentious name like that demanded an explanation, and it was the ugliness and its explanation that got his fingers hammered.)

I looked at the back of the bottle, where the real information is, and discovered that Headhunter was very much a tiny handmade thing. “100% Whole Cluster Old-Vine Carignane from Mendocino,” it says. “65 Cases Produced.” And not much else. Reading that, and “Alc. 13.0% by vol.,” I was sold. All of the above is code for: small-production wine, probably made by young people, using a light hand in the cellar. This description fits what Jon Bonne, the San Francisco wine writer, has called “the New California Wine,” and although there is plenty to quibble with, ideologically speaking, in what that term represents, there is mostly a lot to like and support. The wine, after closeout discounting, was $16. Sold.

You can look up whole-cluster and Carignane if you want to. I can even try to describe the Headhunter, but what could really be stupider than tasting notes? My sister-in-law did not like this wine at all. My sister-in-law doesn’t drink much wine and knows very little about it. When I told her there were 65 cases of Headhunter Carignane 2012, she asked me if that was a lot or a little. If you give the wine (not that you’re likely ever to find it) to someone who doesn’t drink much wine, be prepared for that person to dislike it. It isn’t oaky, or big and blowsy, or usual in any way. I’m not even sure I can say I liked it, although I drank it happily. The wine appeared to be more than merely unfiltered. Instead of a bunch of sediment at the bottom, it had tiny little particles floating all in it, which did not affect its drinkability (and also a lot of sediment at the bottom). It was not “green,” as is often said of “hipster” wine. It was very grapey, sort of foot-stomped and backyardy, in a way that made me want to drink it in a Berkeley backyard at about four in the afternoon. I believed the “old-vine” claim, because there was something about it that struck me as, how do I put this, mature meets immature: young winemakers making an early-career wine out of old fruit.

Well, what could be more pleasurable than turning out to be right? I discovered that Headhunter Carignane 2012, which we drank most of, was the very first vintage produced by a husband and wife team in northern California, and that the reason it was in a Richmond, Virginia wine shop despite having yielded just 65 cases is that the couple comes from Virginia. This made me very happy. I was also happy to discover that their other wine, an Albarino, was produced in a similarly tiny quantity. I was happy to learn that I was drinking the first vintage they ever made, out of the last bottle in a closeout bin in their home state—something far from home and also close to home, and about to vanish. It was the last of its kind, and here I am the first to say something about it. I’m so glad that I get to do this.

I’m looking forward to the next wines these people produce, although I am unlikely ever to see them. I doubt it’s sold in North Carolina. It will never make its way into the wine column I write for a mostly unread magazine in a small enclave of the state. But I’m so happy for the winemakers, and for me. And I find that even though I opened this bottle five days ago and there’s still a little wine left in it (that is too oxidized to drink by now), I can’t abide the idea of getting rid of the bottle. We drove it home from Virginia and it’s sitting on the kitchen counter, like a lucky charm.