Homogeneousness the result of specialization, analytics and refinement at an early age means it’s difficult today to tell one superstar athlete from another. The question is, are we still entertained?
Major League Baseball quietly entered a new era over the last half decade. It is the era of the long ball, the strikeout, the disposable starter, the veteran rookie and the lost dynasty.
To catch you up on this conclusion I’d have to cut and paste many similar text threads between myself and DPB’s Kyle Magin here—I won’t because they also include asides on Dadaism, San Diego’s surfeit of wood paneled craft breweries, The Bodyguard (the musical) and the fading necessity of khakis.
…But to summarize, in 2017 MLB will likely shatter records in home runs and strikeouts. The average age of a starter’s best season is 26 (down from 31 just a decade ago) and the new unapproachable career win milestone is 150, not 300 even as the length of an average start (5 ⅓ innings) down from 6 ⅔ in 2000, continues to shrink. Hitters, in other words, are hitting harder and throwers, for their part, are throwing harder and careers, overall, are ending faster.
There’s not enough data to support the other clams, but the “veteran rookie” theory is kind of Bryce Harper (or if you followed this spring’s draft the Hunter Greene—actual name) phenomenon; boys who’ve been scouted in year-round club play since they were nine, developing prematurely pristine skill sets.
This year’s All Star game was a lesson in perfection through uniformity at the plate. Remember backyard wiffle ball imitating the stance and hacks of Darryl Strawberry (a loping, majestic upswing), Robin Ventura (a one-hand slapper), Will Clark (a single-motion curly cue with the right sleeve pulled up almost to the shoulder), Mark McGwire (pigeon-toed and compact till eruption), Wade Boggs (hands letter-level weight shifted evenly through a flat plane) and Tim Raines (the prototype for today’s hitter, power in the haunches, medium stride through the pitch to get the most from his torque and balanced finish)?
…Now it’s all sameness, maximum efficiency and, well, almost so good they’re boring. No wonder Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger (among a crop of about a dozen impactful rookies this season) come out of the box with veteran chops. Gone are the days of fooling or being fooled or taking the league by surprise. These guys have had scouting reports and analytics run on them since they were old enough to munch Cap’n Crunch (or in their case Kashi) in their living rooms watching MrBatSpeed clips on YouTube and rolling out their IT bands before their seven-plus pre-teen travel club tournament games over the weekend.
The NBA is similarly starting to look like a league that is poised to benefit from—or at least lull its fanbase into—the kind of taking-the-extraordinary-for-granted slumber that MLB fans currently enjoy.
I tuned in to Wednesday night’s Sixers/Lakers summer league tilt in Vegas because it featured a bevy of lottery picks both present and recent past and baseball was off nursing its Cuba Libre All Star hangover in Miami, so why not?
What I witnessed was two bottom-dwelling teams that appeared playoff-ready, not like a bunch of first- and second-year players working out the kinks at half-speed. My suspicions that the off-season action would be worth catching were confirmed as the camera panned to LeBron James courtside. The King was every ounce an active observer and he looked at once calm and reserved, highly entertained …and a little bit scared—mortality and all that. James was impactful as an 18-year-old rookie, but it took him six or seven seasons to realize his full potential. The learning curve for this group seems steeper than the side of a skyscraper by comparison.
For the Lakers, second overall pick Lonzo Ball scored 36 points with 11 assists, grabbed eight rebounds and took five steals. Ball dropped 28 of those points in the second half and when he really got going—defined by a Jordanesque first step, a Curry-like shimmy and a James-style finish—even a casual observer could clearly see the basketball lineage coursing through his veins and right to the hole.
Ball’s play eclipsed that of the only man selected above him in the 2017 draft. Though sidelined for the evening’s action, Sixers point guard Markelle Fultz (ankle) is more of a traditional N.B.A. point, smaller and slippery but aggressive, a Russell Westbrook without the seasoning but the precision and physicality is already formed.
Josh Jackson, the draft’s No. 4 pick, has already shown a new day is dawning for the Phoenix Suns and thus far is the league’s most prolific finisher this summer.
De’Aaron Fox seems to be able to score at will for the Sacramento Kings and is playing staggeringly efficient defense. Dennis Smith, Jr., the No. 9 pick by the Dallas Mavericks, is the summer league’s stunner and plays the game a step or two quicker than everyone else. The other nine tend to stand there and watch when he gets the ball.
Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick, is a specimen whose game resembles a plus-sized Klay Thompson. He plays defense like he’s about to get cut then comes back on the other side and drops 20-footers with veteran touch.
Golden State’s Jordan Bell, who will be hatched at the knee of Andre Iguodala, will likely spend the next three seasons honing his already prolific game in the paint that is perfectly suited to contest ill-advised visitors down low at Oracle and, most importantly, will be the next in a line of Warriors to be blessed with the secret of how to jump start superstars in transition.
I texted a college buddy who has lived in Vegas the majority of his adult life and he said the last summer league games he attended were exactly one decade ago. The 2007 draft class featured No. 1 pick Greg Oden plus Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Marc Gasol. Though still mid-iso era, 2007 was year was that first showcased a bigs’ versatility and eventually delivered on its promise in this year’s N.B.A. finals, where Durant hoisted the MVP trophy. My buddy has tickets this weekend, this time it’s to prove to himself whether his current hypothesis that “everyone’s good, all the time” has any merit.
I doubt we’ll have to wait a decade to find out.