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.