There are players that come around once in a generation. We know it. We can feel it. And we can tell it when we see them. Bryce Harper is one of those players. He was called up for his "impact bat," and we soon found that to be an understatement -- he has an impact on just about every aspect of what happens on the field. He runs, he hits, he has power and he has a cannon for an arm -- and you cannot help but watch what he does whenever he is in action.
If it was only left up to what happens on the field, he could be doing this 25 years from now on his way to a Hall of Fame induction, but it takes mastery of the world "off the field" to really last.
Ability alone is not what makes a player succeed for generations in the game. It is his maturity, wisdom, adaptability and a knack for being able to navigate the game beyond the game that makes a player "can't miss."
The game itself will ultimately be the least of Bryce Harper's or any newly minted big leaguer's challenge. You can work in the cage to nail down your inside-out swing. You can take an extra groundball to make sure you field a base hit correctly to give yourself the best chance to throw out the lead runner. But it is not so easy to figure out how to deal with the press or the dating world once the clear-cut rules of the game are not in play.
Young players who are already enjoying success stand out, as they should. Harper, at 19, is getting rave reviews for just about every aspect of his game. In less than a week, he has Cy Young candidates pitching him carefully, and he has baserunners thinking twice about running on his arm. After one series, he was thrust in the No 3 hole in the lineup, marking him as the best hitter on the team.
Yet young players often come with big question marks about their game. Will Giancarlo Stanton learn to have a better plan at the plate? Will Mike Trout need a bigger home run game? Will Matt Moore throw enough strikes? But the bigger question mark is what could have been answered before they arrived in the big leagues. It comes in the opportunity they often miss when they rocket through the minor league system.
When a team makes a monster investment in a draft pick or a top free-agent signee, there is a lot of incentive and pressure to rush them to the big leagues. It is much easier to advance these players after a hot month from one level to the next. Now many top prospects fly through the minor league system as if it is spring training, not a learning opportunity.
What you learn in the minors is how to pass certain tests. Lessons gained by being expected not to just succeed for a short period at each level, but to succeed at each level with all the ups and downs that come with a full season. If a player advances after every hot month, it is hard to see how he will truly handle the whole roller coaster. And Major League Baseball is nothing short of a roller coaster.
Seasons season players. They help players learn how to cope with the inevitable down season. Perpetual success is not reality; it is a myth waiting to come crashing down, and it is too easy to take snapshots of a player and find his best moments to advance his progress. He may be that good, he may be way above his level, but it helps to learn how he'll react if he gets bored. It helps to know if he stays humble with his teammates or if he makes good adjustments the third time he sees a pitcher in July. Does he appreciate the opportunity?
That is not to say a great talent can't arrive at 19 and play until 39 with Hall of Fame credentials. Certainly we learn coping skills from much of what happened in our life beyond the field, but there is nothing more humbling than playing a full season anywhere, even when your opinion or your skills say you should be two levels above where you are presently playing.
Consistency is the cornerstone of greatness. And to have it for 162 games takes time. Time to learn how to deal with slumps. Time to learn how to deal with long bus rides when exhausting travel saps your energy. Those times tell your story just as much as those times when you hit the ball over the light tower.
When you look at Gordon Beckham of the White Sox (still only 25, by the way), you see a hitter struggling to find his mojo. He has done a fantastic job mastering the defensive side of second base, but his bat hasn't quite come around. But he also shot through the system after 233 minor league at-bats, arriving quickly and with high expectations. Once Beckham struggled, it was foreign territory for him (he hit .397 with 24 homers for Georgia in 62 games the year he was selected No. 8 overall in 2008). He never had dealt with being lost at the plate for an extended period of time with expectation right in his face, something that happens to every player many times over a long season. It is a lot to ask for him to learn to cope with the lack of success after he has long been in the big leagues. More stressful for him is that it is happening on the front page of everything.
The beauty of baseball is that it will reveal who you are no matter what. So time will certainly tell about Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and the next wave of the future. They certainly have done a lot to earn their opportunities. But as my GM Ed Lynch told me when I came back from winter baseball in Puerto Rico with a MVP trophy in my hands. "Do it again, here, during a full championship season." And once I did and fought the ups and the downs of a long season, it helped me deal with those nasty stretches years later in the big leagues. That is why with some players, you ask, "How did that guy stay in the big leagues so long?"
They stayed because they had to learn a lesson that could be a great help to these super-talented players. They learned to perform well with everything a season brings to them long before the big leagues. And that experience may be the best way to give them the tools they need to meet those lofty expectations.