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Why are Yankees fans so obsessed with Kevin Maas?

In a universe where the Yankees brand emphasizes proven talent, Maas is a convenient, but incorrect, cautionary tale.

Kevin Maas

In the past few days, there have been as many tweets about former Yankee Kevin Maas as current players on the Yankees’ roster. That’s pretty remarkable. Sure, this is because Gary Sanchez has emulated the hot start of Maas, the once heir-apparent for Don Mattingly back in 1990. You can’t deny, though, that Yankees fans have an interesting fascination with Maas.

I talked in my last post about the paradigms of fandom, in particular with the Yankees. There is a litany of common tropes among Yankees fans—”If only the Boss were here,” “Play the kids instead of the veterans,” and “Fire Cashman” are but a few. One trope that has subsisted under the surface, but has reappeared in force this year, is: “Don’t get too excited about a prospect’s hot start, because there’s always Kevin Maas.”

Maas, to the unfamiliar, was a relatively unheralded Yankees prospect, drafted in the 22nd round of the 1986 draft. He put together a pretty good minor league career, posting a .280/.370/.494 slash line across ten seasons. Even with this success, he wasn’t as popular among scouts. He was never rated on Baseball America’s top prospects list, and he was never heralded quite like the other Yankees prospects of that era, like Bernie Williams or Brien Taylor.

Many of us know the rest of the story. Maas hit an incredible .252/.367/.535 (150 OPS+) with 21 home runs in 79 games in 1990. He then collapsed, hitting only .224/.320/.393 for the remainder of his career.

Maas has become some sort of rallying cry for Yankees fans; whenever a prospect comes up, it is almost a requirement that a fan screams, “But Kevin Maas!” as if the mere words would infect that prospect with his bad fortunes. The more I heard this line, though, especially during this Gary Sanchez extravaganza where the Maas comparisons are rife, the more I realized I didn’t really understand how this line became so prevalent.

Firstly, his rookie season wasn’t even that great. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I sorted Yankees players’ rookie seasons by cumulative WAR. Maas was only 31st.

Secondly, as I mentioned, Maas wasn’t even a top prospect! There have been actual prospects that have been legitimate who come through and flamed out. Nick Johnson, who was probably the best prospect of an entire generation of Yankees prospects, was not what we hoped he would be. Brien Taylor got in a fight. Ruben Rivera became a fourth outfielder. Joba Chamberlain became a poor reliever. Phil Hughes became a serviceable starter for a while, but he didn’t become the next Roger Clemens like people thought. Jesus Montero threw ice cream at a scout.

I understand the basic premise, obviously. Hot starts do not make a player, and the league adjusts. We know this. But Kevin Maas, of all players, should not be the one to teach us this. He was not a top prospect, nor did he have the physical tool set of someone like Gary Sanchez. Even if he settles into a league average hitter, Sanchez is still a very capable major league catcher defensively. He was also a top 100 prospect five times.

What I think this line says about Yankees fandom, though, is that this is a classic reaction based on how the team was marketed to fans, especially those of the Maas generation. In the years leading up to the dynasty, and even during it, George Steinbrenner was not a fan of prospects. In 1996 he tried to trade Mariano Rivera for Felix Fermin because he didn’t trust Derek Jeter at shortstop, and he tried to trade Bernie Williams multiple times. It’s only because Gene Michael wanted them to have a chance that they got one.

For the Steinbrenner brand, prospects were something to be feared. Prospects were for the poor teams, and they certainly weren’t for the Yankees. They relied on major league capable talent at all times, and they didn’t throw caution to the wind by rolling the dice on some prospects. For an organization that demanded immediate success at all times, even the notion of the successful prospect was a fearful concept.

It’s also because, frankly, the Yankees didn’t really have top prospects, so in comparison, I suppose Maas looked like one. Prospect coverage also wasn’t like it is today, so in reality, all prospects could easily be brushed with a broad stroke. Today, there are a number of scouts and writers checking in with each other to rank and assess talent. Many fans today know the difference between a top prospect and an organizational depth player.

The Maas phenomenon likely isn’t going away soon, and I expect it to be a common refrain every single time a rookie has a good start, at least for the foreseeable future. As I’ve said, though, these refrains often say more about the anxieties of the fans themselves than what is actually at play.

In Maas, Yankees fans see an organization that has made promise after promise that a new, young core would be on its way. Time and again they have failed to deliver, and the team has become older, and very mediocre. 2016 is not 1990, though, and the prospects of tomorrow, compared to the prospects of yesterday, are like night and day.