Mark Grant, my former Triple-A teammate and current Padres broadcaster, never liked when people used the word "great" so easily. Greatness to him should be applied sparingly and reserved for accomplishments that took time. Yet this season, we are looking at young players like Jason Heyward, Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake and Stephen Strasburg who tempt the tongue to counter Grant's philosophy.
Part of what youth can do is challenge conventional wisdom. The power of experience, coupled with time to reflect give us comfort in how things should be done. This tells us that we always move the runner over with a man on second with no outs, that we dare not steal third with a left-handed hitter at the plate, and we certainly don't hit a mammoth home run in our first at-bat in the big leagues at 20 years old off an ace pitcher. But there are people who reach the highest level with such speed and force that they make it seem like we should rethink a few things.
We are lulled into the idea that they should be there, that they could somehow be the future of all our dreams. They will transform and rewrite history, and tell us what is about to come. The Reds' Leake could be the new rule of how to arrive in the big leagues; he became just the 21st player in history to bypass the minors and begin his professional career in the majors. And in his first start he allowed only one run in 6 2/3 innings. Who needs the minor leagues?
During my career, I knew I was on the hamster wheel of adjustments. I ran as fast as I could and no matter if someone dropped food or snakes into my cage, I just kept running. Even so, once in a while, I changed something -- my pace, my direction -- but for the most part, I kept moving because someone else was always gaining on me.
We always hear about the need to make adjustments and the ability to not only make wise ones, but timely and expeditious ones. This is the true way to separate good from great. Many players in history have made giant splashes and faded out either in short order or in a war of attrition. So what bucket will Heyward, Chapman, Leake and Strasburg end up in?
As a '70s and '80s baseball fan, I remember Dave Hostetler, most notably of the Texas Rangers. He powered his way to a tremendous 1982 season, and eventually it was discovered that he didn't fare well against changeups. His strikeout totals mounted. In today's game, his 22 homers in 418 at-bats would have excused his strikeout total (113) but the strikeouts contributed to him losing the first-base job to Pete O'Brien. His career then hit neutral; he left for Japan for a couple of successful campaigns and came back to the Pirates in 1988 for eight at-bats to close out his career.
Another meteoric starting career crashed to earth for Cleveland Indians sensation and 1980 AL Rookie of the Year "Super Joe" Charboneau (known for having his own theme song and for his many dyed hair colors). Despite being stabbed with a pen by a fan during spring training and missing the last six weeks of the campaign with injury, he hit 23 homers and drove in 87 runs. Charboneau hurt his back sliding headfirst into a base in 1981, found himself back in the minors and was out of the majors by 1982. This game is tough.
Heyward's first game sent an explosive message of arrival, just as Leake's changeup was dominant in his first start. But with super-computers storing your every at-bat or pitch, cameras capturing your swing in super slo-mo, and scouts armed with analytics that trump the old trusty clipboard and snail mail, you cannot hide. Information about you is gathered instantaneously, and before you finish taking your shower after the game, the advance scout has data on you that rests in the hands of the manager of the next team you are about to play.
The Cubs made a quick adjustment to Heyward, staying away from fastballs and sticking to soft pitches away. Not only would Heyward have to show he could hit the ball the other way to beat them, but he had to show he could slow down the game and wait, attributes not typical of a 20-year-old.
This is clear evidence that the cat-and-mouse game is not only alive and well, but it is on its own performance-enhanced pace. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, I must not have been using my computer.
So what will it be for those four young players? Are they "here today, gone tomorrow," or are they "here today, shape tomorrow"? After the Cubs left town, Heyward used the whole field to beat up on the Giants in the first game of the Braves' next series. He made quick and precise adjustments. He earned another tomorrow. Yet only time will tell the whole story.
Right now the big four look like world-beaters. But make no mistake about it -- the other teams are watching.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His forthcoming book "The Game from Where I Stand" will be released on May 11.