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Talkin' Matt Wieters and the concept of hype, with Bill James

The following is the continuing evolution of an experiment that we tried a couple weeks ago -- and the launch of a new weekly column on SI.com. It's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so...

Our topic this week is hype and Matt Wieters. You already know Baltimore called up the 23-year-old catcher last Friday -- and he is probably the most hyped baseball call-up since, well, we spent some thinking about that. We came up with Bo Jackson.

But even Bo did not have a Web site quite like "MattWietersFacts," which is subtitled, "Facts so good they make Chuck Norris cry like a a little girl."

A few of our favorite facts collected there:

• Sliced bread is actually the best thing since Matt Wieters. (ESPN's Keith Law)

• Matt Wieters beat cancer ... literally, with his bat. There is no more cancer. (fathead5f)

• Matt Wieters sometimes impatiently homers from the on-deck circle. (Larrytt)

• Matt Wieters is the reason I comes before E except after C. (Bob)

And so on. Wieters was generally viewed as the best every day player coming out of the 2007 draft (with similarly hyped David Price going No. 1 overall), and he hit .343 in his 168 games in the minor leagues, and even scouts and analysts who do not post at MattWietersFacts have called him "Joe Mauer with Power" and "the perfect catcher."

Time will tell on all that. But for now it's fun to have a wildly hyped young player come to the big leagues. Hype and rookies have been a part of baseball for a long, long time.

* * *

Bill James: I think Matt Wieters is extremely good. I've seen him play several times, in spring training. His upside is obviously enormous, and I don't think there is a hole in his game that you can see by analysis or that you can see by watching him play, at least at my level of sophistication. There could still be a hole in his game that is exposed by major-league competition, but my guess is that, if there is, he can cover it pretty well.

Joe Posnanski: When I was working on The Machine -- my upcoming book about the 1975 Reds, and yes, I'm already pathetically hyping it -- I learned Johnny Bench was so hyped in the minor leagues that the Class A Peninsula Grays actually retired his number after he played 98 games there in 1966. He did hit 22 homers there, 10 over a "Hit it here, win a free suit" sign, so Bench was a sharp-dressed man when he moved up to Triple A. Hyping brilliantly talented young catchers is hardly something new.

Bill: There is a certain poignancy in the fact that Clint Hurdle was fired by the Rockies the same day that Wieters made his major league debut for the Orioles. Hurdle was the most-hyped rookie in Royals history, and probably the most-hyped rookie of the 1970s. He got drafted high and shot to the majors young, and hit a long, long home run in a late-season call-up in 1977; he was just a couple of months past his 20th birthday.

Sports Illustratedput him on the cover in the spring of 1978. He played OK in '78 but had back trouble and wasn't able to build on that. He went backward in what should have been his prime years, and it took him a long time to rebuild his life after that.

Joe: Hurdle hit that 425-foot homer into the waterfall at Royals Stadium on his second at-bat ... and in postgame interviews he sounded a bit peeved that he had not done it on his first at-bat. After the game Royals manager Whitey Herzog called him another George Brett, and the next spring in that Sports Illustrated article, legendary pitching coach Bill Fischer and hitting coach Charley Lau talked about this time they watched a 17-year-old Hurdle take batting practice. "It was the greatest exhibition you ever saw," Fischer said. So, yes, if the Internet had been around in 1978, there definitely would have been a "ClintHurdleFacts.com."

Rick Reichardt was so hyped he set off a bidding war which led to him getting $200,000 back in 1966 ... baseball people will tell you he's the main reason why owners instituted the draft.

Mickey Mantle was so hyped that it about broke him: He made the New York Yankees club when he was 19 years old. Then, after a rough spell, he was sent back to Kansas City, where he was so depressed he talked about quitting the game. That's when his father famously drove up to Kansas City and started packing his clothes and (in Mickey's memory) said, "I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me."

Mantle, you might remember, decided to stick it out with baseball.

Bill: The phenomenon of hyped rookies dates back at least to the 1880s. In the 1880s there was a player named Eb Beatin, from Allentown, Pa., who (as a teenager) became known as the Allentown Wonder, and who became the subject of a bidding war among teams. Being apparently a little unclear on the rules, when people offered him bonus money to sign a contract with them he would sign the contract and take the money, and so he wound up signing with four different teams. He didn't turn out to be great.

About 1915 Walter Barbare was hyped as a great young prospect, apparently based on his build and athleticism, but he turned out to be nothing special. But then, often they do. Lefty Grove and Joe DiMaggio were the subjects of bidding wars before they became major-league players, and they both turned out to be OK.

Joe: I remember the hype that built around Bo Jackson. Obviously, he was a special case since he had just won the Heisman Trophy and that made him as much of a curiosity as a hyped young baseball player. But I saw him hit his first professional home run in Charlotte, N.C., ... that was 1986. He broke his bat when he hit it. Of course. Everything about Bo seemed mythical, which is probably part of what drives baseball hype.

Bill: I wonder if this is a definition of Hype: that hype celebrates potential before the potential is realized, in an effort to profit from it when it is realized. I remember the line somebody had about Lenny Dykstra: that he was the first player to write a book about what he had done before he did it. And later, same team, Gregg Jefferies. Jefferies hit .321 with six homers in 29 games in 1988, and was widely acclaimed a superstar. People were trying to cash in on him, but the efforts to cash in on him interfered with his efforts to play well in the majors.

Same era, I remember reading somewhere about a card dealer who bought like 5,000 rookie cards for Gary Sheffield, and found they were useless when Sheffield had a poor rookie season and struggled for about three years. Of course, Sheffield eventually became a great player, but by that time the card market -- which was ITSELF a product of hype -- had collapsed, at the time of the '94-95 strike and also as a consequence of the over-production of cards.

Joe: For a while, back in high school, I was in that baseball card speculation racket. It felt like I was playing a teenage stock market. When I sold my high school baseball collection for pennies on the dollar, I found that I had pages and pages of Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens rookie cards. I also had pages and pages of Jose DeLeon cards, Carmelo Martinez cards, Cory Snyder cards, David Green cards and, yes, Gregg Jefferies cards. Whatever that's worth. Which wasn't much.

Bill: Here's the difference, I think, between hype and scouting. A scout looks carefully at the player himself -- at Wieters as a minor leaguer -- and asks whether he can succeed as a major leaguer. Hype starts on the other end, Hype starts with the question "Who can be a superstar?", and attempts to project each player several levels ahead of where he is ... not only each player but all the players, to figure out which one is going to be the big star.

Joe: I think Hype also is the product of human nature. The birthday present gift-wrapped up will more often than not be better than the gift once you open it. The recruiting class usually looks better before anyone plays a game. The excitement of what's behind door No. 3 will make people give back the perfectly good prize they found behind door No. 2.

Bill: Still trying to define Hype. There is:

1) The legitimate excitement about a player that builds on his skills and his potential.

and

2) Hype, which is built not on the player's skills or his potential but on the excitement about them.

Joe: And how can you not be excited about Matt Wieters? He's sound defensively, he switch-hits with power, he has a great arm, he supposedly calls a good game and he seems by all accounts to have a great baseball sense. But can he be as good as the imagination? Can anyone be that good?

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