By day, I’m a marketing professional in the publishing industry. Most of the copy that passes by my desk compares our books and authors to already established authors and bestselling books. This practice is most rampant in the horror genre, where basically every new novel is compared, one way or another, to Stephen King, despite the fact that he is a singular voice in the horror community and most of these books have nothing in common with his writing. It’s an inside joke in the industry that these comparisons don’t even have to make sense, they just have to be strong enough to grab the reader’s attention.
I have a feeling you know where I’m going with this...
A few days ago, an article about Henry Lalane, a 17-year-old pitching prospect in the Yankees’ system who is apparently being compared to Randy Johnson, came across my timeline. While this comparison likely has more to do with his stature—he is a 6-foot-7, 211-pound lefty—than his talent, seeing that click-bait headline bothered me just as much as seeing books that have nothing to do with Stephen King being compared to, well, Stephen King. And, much like in the publishing industry, this practice of making wild, outlandish claims is widespread across baseball.
The first person this headline made me think of was Phil Hughes. Back in 2007, Hughes was the fourth-best prospect in baseball and widely thought to be a “can’t-miss” prospect. While still in the early stages of his career, Hughes was compared to none other than Roger Clemens, one of the best pitchers this game has ever seen. Needless to say, fans could not wait for his debut.
I think it’s safe to say that Hughes didn’t live up to the hype. For his career, Hughes posted a 4.52 ERA, 4.22 FIP, and 17.7 fWAR, 6.3 of which came in his first season with the Minnesota Twins. He threw 200+ innings just once in his career (2014) and, throughout his time with the Yankees, was largely considered a back-of-the-rotation arm. After a respectable but definitely not Clemens-like 12-year career in the majors, he retired in 2018.
Fast forward nearly a decade-and-a-half later and here we are, still making the same mistakes we were making back in the mid-2000s.
In 2019, 16-year-old Jasson Dominguez, arguably the most hyped international prospect of this generation, signed with the New York Yankees for $5.1 million. Since then, Dominguez’s talent has been compared to Bo Jackson and Mickey Mantle. Hell, one writer even said that, at the age of 18, he was already more advanced than Mike Trout, the current best player in baseball, was at that age. Of course, this comparison came with the caveat that Dominguez being more advanced at that age did not inherently mean that he would develop the same way as Trout, but this part was, naturally, glossed over.
In his first taste of pro ball (after a year off because of the pandemic, mind you, and facing competition that was, on average, a few years older than him), Dominguez slashed just .258/.346/.398 with five home runs, a 31.3 percent strikeout clip, 50.4 percent groundball rate, and 105 wRC+ in 49 games of A-ball. Naturally, the conversation of whether or not he was overhyped began the second he got off to a slow start, and those conversations have developed into serious concerns that he’ll never be the player fans were promised. All of this, and he’s still not legally allowed to drink in the United States.
Like with Hughes, the point I’m getting at here is that comparing a teenager to Hall of Famers, soon-to-be Hall of Famers, and legends of the game is little more than a disservice to both fans of the game and players alike. The only thing these outlandish comparisons accomplish is that they set these youngsters up for failure. Is it possible that Dominguez has a Hall of Fame career? Absolutely, and I hope he does. But if he doesn’t reach Mike Trout levels of baseball god-like abilities, is he a failure? Put bluntly, perhaps it’s a bad idea to compare a 17-year-old with exactly zero professional at-bats under his belt to two guys who have a career wRC+ of 170 or higher and who are widely considered to be among the greatest handful of players of all-time.
I understand why comps are needed. I mean, not every fan out there has interest in hearing about a player’s raw tools and I imagine that some fans don’t understand how the various prospect grading systems work. I get that. But marketing a teenager as the next GOAT is a dangerous practice that alienates fans and prospects alike. For the prospects, each miscue is put under a magnifying glass and examined to death. For fans, distrust in the organization’s ability to foster and develop talent festers with each over-hyped player, and, unfortunately, is usually expressed by taking this deep-seated frustration out on the players themselves.
This is, of course, by no means suggesting that prospect projections are useless. To me, projecting a guy as a future starter or suggesting that he doesn’t have the talent to stick in center field, for instance, is very different than saying they’re the next coming of Randy Johnson or, heaven forbid, Mickey Mantle. But is it too much to ask that we just let guys develop and see what happens without holding them to an impossible standard that they will likely never meet?