Baseball Theory: The Imposter Syndrome is a Very Real Thing and It’s Why Prospects Fail

I knew this guy, we’ll call him David.

David lived in a pretty normal neighborhood. He had a successful business at a younger age than most. His house was the most prominent, located on a corner lot with a pool in the back yard. His wife was the hottest in the neighborhood. His kids were the most popular.

David’s job and status put him at the top of the neighborhood pecking order. In your typical white neighborhood in the 90s (and even to this day), there was always some sort of “keeping up with the Joneses” game being played. To many in the neighborhood, David might as well have been named David Jones.

The thing about the Joneses is that they know they’re the Joneses. They know they’re at the top. And yet, somewhere in a bigger neighborhood in the distance, David knows of another family named Jones. To that family, David’s last name is anything but Jones, and David knew it.

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the situation, but guys like David are usually assholes. Yeah, they’re more successful than everyone else around them, and in a society that respects accomplishments and money, that washes away a lot of the bad stuff. So David got away with blatantly looking down on other families, and acting like an asshole to their kids.

There was another family, we’ll call them the Harper family. While David was skinny, clean cut, and wore his success on his cleanly manicured lawn, the Harper family was fat, had a disheveled personal appearance, and didn’t have the money to both live in their neighborhood and have a green yard and have a pool behind the house. In fact, they could only afford to live in that neighborhood, and the other items were a dream.

David’s kids would casually repeat their dad’s words to the Harper children about how bad their yard was, and how David had the best yard in the neighborhood. The Harper kids would always go over to the Joneses and play, due to their superior yard, and the pool in the back.

The younger Harper child didn’t seem to care about the Joneses, seeing at a young age that David was nothing more than a drunk who cared more about status than people. The beautiful ignorance that kids possess is that they don’t care about money or titles or what type of aeration schedule you’ve got for your yard. They only judge a person on being a good person.

Kids grow up and eventually get to an age where they learn the truth: This world is heavily fueled on status. You’re nothing unless you’ve proven yourself, and you’re someone if you have tangible evidence to show you’re above everyone else.

The problem is that having money and success does not mean you’ve figured life out.

David hadn’t figured life out. His whole outward appearance was a mirage to cover up something he was missing on the inside.

The older Harper kid was starting to figure out the way the world worked. He knew about the money and status, and what this said about a person. By that translation, he looked at David as someone who had figured things out. After all, the Harpers had just moved to the neighborhood, while the Joneses had been there since the beginning. The Harpers were the ones who didn’t belong in the neighborhood with the Joneses.

David’s oldest son was in the same grade as the oldest Harper kid. We’ll call the older Harper kid “Rick.”

For all the advantages David seemed to have, he didn’t pass those on to his kid, who was entitled and dumber than shit. David saw that Rick Harper was more advanced than his own son. It threw a wrench into his world. How could he ever keep up with the Joneses in that distant neighborhood if he wasn’t even completely the Joneses in his own neighborhood?

So when Rick was in high school, David felt that he had the right to verbally abuse the oldest Harper kid, trying to knock the kid down just to raise his own shortcomings. There was one point where David even struck the Harper kid in the back of the head, calling him an idiot in front of all of the neighborhood kids. A fight ensued, and David, drunk at the time, was put in his place.

Rick Harper grew up to have a great job. He has a beautiful wife and two healthy kids. He’s got a great home, bigger than that original house that his parents moved into, and bigger than the one David owned. He lives in a neighborhood where everyone jockeys to be the Joneses, and he wishes he could change his last name.

Meanwhile, David eventually sold his company and moved up into a mansion in the same neighborhood as the Joneses he was chasing. Except he didn’t really sell his company. He was forced out for being a drunk. He spent all of the money from the sale building his brand new mansion, and living a lifestyle to show that he was still David Jones. Meanwhile, he couldn’t replicate his success at a higher level, and ended up drinking his way through early retirement.

A few years later, David’s family lost that massive house due to financial difficulties. His wife left him. His kids left the house and didn’t come around. Not long after that, David ended up drinking himself to an early death before his 50th birthday.

Even years after David’s death, Rick Harper still thought David’s last name was Jones.

And the older Harper kid, with all he had in life, started drinking every night, unsure about where he was headed…

*****

Imposter syndrome is a real thing.

Especially in the age of Twitter, where everyone is an expert on everything.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, then congratulations! Or, I’m sorry! Because I think everyone suffers from the imposter syndrome in some way. If you know how you suffer, you’re probably ahead in life.

Here’s the best visual I’ve seen to describe the imposter syndrome:

I’m the walking version of the imposter syndrome when it comes to Pittsburgh baseball.

I didn’t grow up a Pirates fan. The only time in my life that I can say the Pirates were my favorite team to follow was when Oliver Perez was their ace, and that lasted up until shortly after he lost a battle with a laundry cart.

I followed the Orioles as a child, and once Cal Ripken Jr. retired my favorite team to follow was a carousel of small market teams, most often stopping on the Rays.

I didn’t go to school to become a journalist. I just decided that I wanted to write about sports. I built up a following on a message board, reached out to a company about writing for them as a job, and within a year I had my first published works on ESPN, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the now defunct AOL Fanhouse.

I later saw an opportunity to write about the Pirates. There was almost no coverage of their farm system in 2009, and the only site dedicated to following the prospects was Wilbur Miller’s player pages. To be fair, there was barely a farm system that existed to cover in 2009. There was a growing demand for prospect information at the lower levels with Neal Huntington putting an increased focus on the draft and the minors. I lived 45 minutes from the Pirates’ High-A affiliate, and decided to start this site to follow 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez.

Again, I didn’t have the credentials. Despite being a sports writer with a lot of published work, I had never interviewed a player until that year. I also had never played baseball beyond Little League. That’s a perfect recipe for trying to essentially become a scout over the next decade.

I knew that what I knew wasn’t much. I wasn’t qualified to be running a scouting site about baseball in those early years.

Fortunately, I didn’t care. I saw opportunity, and I took it. I then asked questions and studied the game endlessly the next few years, trying to overcome the imposter syndrome. I was trying to make my small blue circle as big as the massive yellow circle of baseball knowledge that seemingly surrounded me daily. I faked it until I made it.

By the year 2012, this site was the first one through the wall in independent media in Pittsburgh. This was a time when Dejan Kovacevic was still saying things along the lines of “newspapers are the only way to be a true journalist” and a time when Rob Biertempfel was just starting to steal the very few news scoops I had. I was running an online only site that had become the first non-traditional media outlet to receive credentials from the Pirates.

I give a lot of credit and thanks to the Pirates’ media department for their forward thinking in allowing me through the door. I’ve been credentialed by other teams since then, due to the vouching that I received from the Pirates. Even with that, some teams still didn’t credential new media outlets as recently as 2018, although I’m sure that’s changing with the evolving media landscape and the slow death of newspapers.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, you started to see every blog follow the path I paved, using whatever means they had to score interviews with players, and try to fill in the holes in coverage that the Trib and Post-Gazette and even Pirates Prospects were missing.

From the imposter syndrome standpoint, my tiny blue circle in my head was being crowded by other similarly sized circles who were doing the same thing I did. We were all drowning in a sea of yellow knowledge that we could never obtain in a lifetime.

I was David Jones in the world of Pittsburgh baseball prospects. I knew I was David Jones. And just like David Jones, I was chasing the Joneses in another neighborhood.

I didn’t see that the house I had built was good enough, and that a bigger house was unnecessary. I looked at the new neighbors as a threat that could surpass me, rather than neighbors who could build a neighborhood together.

I didn’t see the reality, that my blue circle was overlapping green with other yellow circles. I didn’t see that there was still a lot of blue in my circle that no one else had.

*****

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you haven’t, here’s a simple summary:

Now let’s imagine where the imposter syndrome falls on that scale, using the plot points above.

Huh? This is where everyone starts. At some point you discover a new field of knowledge. It’s a quick rise from there until you realize you possess enough knowledge to start to understand a subject.

I Know Everything – This is the point where you realize that you are a blue circle. You don’t see the yellow that surrounds you. Many in life don’t escape this, as they don’t seek out the information that others possess.

There’s More to This Than I Thought – At this point, you notice that there’s a sea of yellow circles surrounding you. You see them as one massive circle, and you’re in the middle, with no special knowledge of your own.

I’m Never Going to Understand This – To me, this is where a lot of people fail. They think they know everything, then realize they don’t, and they’ve yet to identify the places where their blue circle is untouched by other yellow circles. Some people, like David Jones, rise up so fast and fall so hard to this point, skipping past the crucial “There’s more to this” stage. They don’t know how they got so high, and because of that, they’ll never figure out how to get back up the hill to “I know everything.” They keep looking back, and don’t see that there’s another hill to climb ahead of them. They’re stuck in their house in this valley.

It’s Starting to Make Sense – At this stage, you start to realize that you are just another yellow circle in the sea. The only reason you were ever a blue circle was to make it easier to see where you were on a chart by a baseball blogger who is probably full of shit, and doesn’t even fully understand his own life. You have the same knowledge as others. They have knowledge you don’t have. But you have knowledge they don’t have.

Trust Me. It’s Complicated – This is where reality kicks in. You see exactly where you are separate from others. You don’t worry about the knowledge others exclusively have over you. You’re focused on your exclusive blue circle, while trying to expand the outside and add more green to the mix.

Everyone has exclusive knowledge. There are no original ideas, but there are original implementations of ideas.

I didn’t start anything revolutionary in 2009 when I started Pirates Prospects. I followed what a Red Sox blogger had with SoxProspects.com. My idea wasn’t original. It was my implementation of this idea into Pittsburgh that was original. If I wouldn’t have done it, someone else would have eventually come around to the same idea. Someone else would have become the first new media outlet credentialed in Pittsburgh.

I don’t think Pittsburgh Baseball Network is an original idea. Again, it’s just something that has never been implemented in Pittsburgh. I have a lot of plans for this network that exclusively exist in my blue circle. I also have plans to separate Pirates Prospects from the sea of yellow now that the prospect boom has come and gone.

I didn’t always know where this site was going.

I got stuck in the “I’m never going to understand this” phase. Looking back, I rose way too fast. I knew how to get that original sports writing job. I was good enough to get my work published on bigger outlets. I used that to quickly build up this site in it’s original form. After a few years I had several million annual page views and an MLB credential. I skipped right past “there’s more to this” and perpetually saw myself as a tiny blue circle in a yellow sea.

I drank like David Jones. I ate fried comfort foods late at night. My lifelong migraines, mostly due to weather, were getting worse and worse, even when the weather wasn’t bad. I couldn’t drink anymore due to the constant pain in my head. I started smoking weed. It was amazing. I highly recommend it in moderation. It will free your pain. But it won’t solve all of your problems.

The pain in my head was reduced. But I was still a drowning blue circle.

I smoked more weed. I eventually got to a point where I was smoking over an ounce of weed a week. I wasn’t doing it to get high. I was doing it because it made me feel like myself. It created a world where there were no Joneses to worry about, and all I had to focus on was expanding my blue circle and discovering new green. No pun intended.

I was David Jones on marijuana, and when I smoked weed, I could see my beautiful house, my beautiful wife, and our demon-spawn cats. I didn’t need anything else. The beer, the fatty food, and later the Snoop Dogg quantities of weed gave me something I never had.

Confidence.

I eventually reached a critical point where I realized that I didn’t need the weed for this confidence. I could see everyone in my neighborhood, and there was no one named Jones. My last name wasn’t Jones. No one in bigger houses in other valleys were named Jones. I knew where I could go, and I knew how to get there. I had already made this journey once before, just at an easier level.

*****

It’s comical to look back at my valley of despair from an objective viewpoint.

I was thinking I had no special knowledge. Meanwhile, I was dodging calls with scouts because I had no knowledge to give them. They kept calling. I had nothing. I was crippled with anxiety, and my gut churned every time I was asked to give a scouting report out of the blue. I eventually blocked everyone out by ignoring calls and secluded myself in safety.

If I was never asked a question about baseball, I could never reveal how little knowledge I had in my blue circle compared to anyone else.

It never occurred to me that those scouts kept calling because they saw me as another yellow circle with knowledge they didn’t have.

It was difficult to realize this, because scouting calls over the years shifted away from the game that I had studied, and more toward the individual.

In the early days, I’d get questions about how hard a player was throwing, what mechanical adjustments he was making, what level of injury he had, and so on.

I got into the game at a point when every MLB team had every stat they needed, so they didn’t need me to analyze that information. The Dan Foxes of the world were already starting to organize that frontier.

I did get into the game at a point when the lower levels weren’t as widely scouted. Some teams didn’t even have scouts for the GCL, and here I was, a blogger who was blogger rich, scouting every single GCL home game.

Teams have covered that frontier in recent years, and MLB’s plan to eliminate the lower levels of the minors and turn to a “One Baseball” system will make that obsolete, while removing part of my circle of knowledge, and everyone else’s circle that overlaps the section of lower level scouting and projections.

The scout calls had all taken the same tone the last few years, trying to cover that final frontier of player development: The human brain.

“What type of person is this guy?”

“Is he a good character guy?”

“Yeah, he’s cocky, but I don’t mind that.”

In an age when every pitcher was throwing 92-95 out of high school, and in an age when every hitter was starting to utilize analytics and new technology to advance their careers, the one separator was the brain.

Scouts were trying to find the guys who had realized the imposter syndrome is a load of shit, and they were trying to find that before their own teams discovered this.

The problem is that no one knows when the imposter syndrome has been eliminated from a person’s head. On the Dunning-Kruger scale, you can have someone in the “I know everything” phase who seemingly also knows that he’s not an imposter due to his confidence and the way he carries himself.

The bigger problem is that it’s hard to know someone else when you don’t even know yourself. Scouts are people. They spend three weeks of the month on the road away from their family, in grueling conditions, making far less than what the minimum wage MLB player makes, and possibly getting a brief recognition when a player they signed makes the majors. That’s only if they haven’t been fired by that point.

I believe the Pirates were trying to tackle the frontier of qualifying the imposter syndrome, trying to find the guy who knew he wasn’t an imposter. Every single player they brought in was a high quality guy. Perhaps the epitome of this was Cole Tucker.

When Tucker was drafted, it was seen as a massive reach. He was graded as a second round talent, but taken almost a round higher than national rankings. Shortly after the pick, it was learned that the Pirates weren’t the only team who liked Tucker that high. The Oakland Athletics would have taken him right after the Pirates, and a few other teams liked him. There was a clear disconnect here between the old scouting and the new scouting, with the new scouting focusing on what was inside a player’s head.

Tucker was 17 years old in the draft, but carried himself like a veteran major leaguer when he talked. When he was coached, he was open to changes. When he talked about those changes, he understood their importance, and he understood that he didn’t have all of the answers. He would have to adjust his game between high school and the majors.

Tucker was showing that he was heading down the Dunning-Kruger slope, in the “There’s more to this than I thought” phase. He was an isolated blue talent in high school, thrown into a sea of yellow in pro ball. This is the story of almost every prep or college draft pick. You go from the absolute best on your local team to just another guy who was the best on their crappy local team. The hope was that Tucker would eventually see where his blue was untouched, and would use that to be a successful MLB player.

The Pirates had drafted another shortstop a year earlier, this time out of college. His name was Jacoby Jones. The early reports I got on Jones were that he had an attitude problem. He just seemed like a very confident guy to me, who knew how good he was compared to others. He knew where his circle was exclusively blue. That rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s not prohibitive to success.

The Pirates quickly traded Jones, and traded other prospects who seemed to be perpetually stuck in the “I know everything” phase. It’s possible that Jones already knew reality, that he had talent no one else had, and he just didn’t know how to expand his circle of knowledge. Jones had the benefit of a skill you can’t easily teach: Athleticism. He could play anywhere on the field, and that’s difficult to replicate. It also provides endless opportunities.

Tucker is in the same mold. He’s highly athletic, and has the ability to play anywhere on the field.

Ironically enough, Jones has a .216/.281/.384 line in his MLB career, while Tucker is off to a .219/.267/.359 line in his early MLB career.

Two players with athleticism you can’t teach. One knows how good he is, and lets it show. The other might know how good he is, but he’s humble enough to openly show that he could be better. They both end up with the same numbers in the majors, falling well short of expectations.

If you wonder why the human brain is the final frontier of scouting, it’s this situation. Tucker and Jones both had different levels of confidence, humility, articulation, and self-awareness. The first three can be judged from the outside. The final part can only be projected from outward appearance. Judging self-awareness is still a mystery, thus making it an unsolved mystery why two completely different character guys like Tucker and Jones can reach the same result of “they never lived up to their potential.”

I’m not saying that Tucker is never going to make it. Somewhere in his collection of skills is a blue circle that no one else in baseball can turn green with their yellow knowledge. Coaches can teach him new knowledge. They can show him what he does well. It’s up to Tucker to take that information, and separate out what is blue, what is yellow, and what is the shared green.

The teams who figure out how to unlock the ability of self-awareness in a person will be the teams that dominate over the next decade. They will also be the teams that turns guys like Tucker and Jones into the players they were projected to become.

*****

Going back to David Jones, from the outside he had everything. You could assume that he had self-awareness, and that he saw his reality where his knowledge and skills didn’t overlap others. How could that not be the case? He was the best in that original neighborhood. But David Jones had his eye on succeeding at a higher level.

He made the jump to the next neighborhood. After two years he washed out, struggling along the way. He eventually was out of the game, literally. He could have made a nice career in that original neighborhood. Maybe he skipped a level and tried to jump too high, too quickly. Maybe he drank himself to death because he lacked self-awareness, and without that, he couldn’t climb any of the next hills in life.

All of this should sound familiar to a baseball fan who follows minor league ball. David Jones is every single prospect who succeeds in Double-A, Triple-A, and then washes out in the majors. He dominated Double-A in his family of four home, located in a neighborhood of other families who seemingly weren’t as good because they arrived at the level at an older age.

He skipped right over Triple-A, and went to the majors, building a mansion for himself far away from that original neighborhood. He eventually washed out of the majors.

The Harper family eventually moved up to Triple-A, a bigger neighborhood for their growing family. They now find themselves in the majors, right where David Jones tried to jump many years before. I don’t know if it will work for them. No one ever knows if someone will stick in the majors.

I do know that the Harpers had an advantage: They knew they weren’t the best, or at least they didn’t see themselves that way. They always had David Jones to chase. They saw him reach the majors from their level, and thought they could do it as well.

There’s something about knowing you aren’t the best that breeds self-awareness. There’s something about realizing that you aren’t special that forces you to search for the thing you possess that is special. There had to be a reason you got this far, and there has to be a reason people projected you to go further.

There’s a reason that Cole Tucker got to where he is. There’s a reason that so many people projected him to be more than what he has been to date.

Our life can’t be simplified by a chart with yellow and blue circles, and it can’t be simplified with a simple line outlining one mountain range.

In reality, our lives are an endless range of mountains. The Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t end with “Trust me, it’s complicated.” Those are just the words of the man who stands above everyone else, who sees the next mountain ahead, and sees the next valley below.

From a baseball standpoint, imagine it this way:

Then imagine that the imposter syndrome exists at every single stage.

Every peak of confidence is the realization that you are a blue circle, untouched by yellow.

Every valley is the slow realization that you’re surrounded in this new location by others who are loaded with skills and knowledge.

Every climb up the next range is the separation of yellow, blue, and finding where they converge to green.

And every peak reveals a new valley of people below, and a new mountain ahead to climb.

I think we view the Dunning-Kruger effect as one single hill, where a player reaches the majors once he reaches that first “Trust me, it’s complicated” stage.

The reality is that it’s probably an endless mountain range. The people who make it to the majors are the ones who never get tired of descending and ascending.

*****

DUNNING KRUGER

We claw, scrape, and drag our way up
Reaching a peak that very few stand on
From the sound we stare at the valley below
The peaks ahead beckon like a mirage

This isn’t our highest point
It’s the highest point we previously knew
Now we see bigger mountains in the distance
The journey so far, the peak can’t be seen

I don’t want to go down again
I’ve climbed my whole life to get here
The peak I need to reach is in sight
If only I could cross this valley by bridge

You hang over the edge, your heart clings to your chest
The descent delayed, then rushed
Your stomach empty as it climbs the stairs of your gut
Right where the force of your decline hits hardest

The ride down is scary, but slowly gets common
You easily glide to the floor below
Momentum should carry you up the other side
But an unknown force stops you at the bottom

I don’t want to start this climb
A destination so far away, in view only a moment ago
The path established, but the guide lost
Rollercoasters were supposed to be designed better

The first step up is hard to take and uncertain
Are you going in the right direction?
How far away is the top?
How many mountains are hidden behind this hill?

My whole life is an endless climb
I was just at the top
Now I rest at the bottom
Wondering why the Earth can’t be flat

I plan my step with certainty and trepidation
I’ve made this climb before
I know I can make it again
But the soles of my soul are worn from a lifetime of sperlunking

If you want to stop, no one can make you climb
You could make a life with the people here
But your people are in the next valley
Only a short climb from your view
And they’re all waiting for you to take your first step

– Tim Williams

Prospect Guide

More Similar Posts

Menu