There are some people who follow college baseball because a publication or faintly queasy-making subscription-only scouting service or Major League Baseball team pays them to do it. There is a slightly larger group of people who follow it recreationally, apparently, and while I have definitely never met one of these people, I and the staff of Deadspin absolutely wish them well. These people possess various degrees of expertise about Major League Baseball’s June Draft, but by and large even they don’t really know what they’re talking about. In a way that other amateur drafts are not, and in a way that is effectively guaranteed by the vastness and sprawling geographic distribution of the players in the mix, the MLB Draft is unknowable.
This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to project or get upset about, of course. I will join several hundred other fundamentally unappeasable saddos when the Mets pull the trigger on some ACC shortstop named Matt that I have never seen play for even a moment. I will be upset because it’s what people do around draft time, and because of my stupid bitter Mets-ruined heart, but also for another reason—the Mets are definitely going to go out there and get themselves a Matt or a Nick or a Jeff instead of taking one of the more florid, lurid, overtly psychedelic names in the field. It’s not nearly the most frustrating thing about them, but this blog post isn’t about the Mets. It’s about all the players named Handgun and Bakeley and Sharmander and Pryson and Ranch that some other team—every other team, eventually—will take. This is about the present and the future of The American Baseball Name.
Baseball fans know, as a generation of rectangular all-beef American Jasons and Dereks and Mikes has been replaced by more aspirational American names, that something is changing. Last year around draft time, I compared the names of players chosen in some randomly selected rounds of the 1990, 2000, and 2017 MLB Drafts and found that a baroque period in baseball names began sometime during the late years of the Bill Clinton administration. For example, the 22nd round of last year’s draft featured players named Janson Junk, Skyler Messinger, Gunner Halter, and Cole Stapler; the best that 1990 could offer was a Bubba, and the closest the draft came in 2000 was someone named Corbey. Even the last names have improved. If indeed people even had last names like Junk and Stapler in 1990, they were not teaching their children to throw effective off-speed pitches.
But, as with so many things that we experience in the moment, this particular sea change—away from Kevin and in the direction of Kheyvinn, broadly speaking—began decades ago. We notice when each June brings a brimming tide of people with names like Caden Lemons (real) and Pistoll VanderBoots (maybe also real?), but whatever deepwater disturbance sent these waves towards us a generation ago was then and remains still fundamentally invisible to us.
We can reverse-engineer some of it, or at least take a shot at parsing what all those extraneous letter-y’s are doing in names. The millennium loomed, towering and terrifying but also jarringly reflective and a little bit inspiring. People looked at it and they thought my son, who I think might be a power-hitting outfielder who could stick in center but whose bat would play in a corner, deserves a name as distinguished as his collection of carrying tools. Or they thought the world is changing and we must change with it, the old names will not be called in the new age on the other side of the year 2000, and therefore my long-levered son who will throw easy mid-90s heat with at least a show-me slider by the time he becomes draft eligible, must be called Whyley. Some of these parents, we can assume, just lived in Utah.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and the best names in this year’s draft class—we’ve been over these, but my favorites on MLB’s top-200 list are Kumar Rocker and Seth Beer and Durbin Feltman and Owen Sharts and Gage Canning—are all little symphonies attesting to America’s cultural and ethnic diversity and also its extremely weird tastes. They are aspirational or whimsical and in at least a few cases represent entire grammatically correct sentences all on their own. If you punctuate it right and are saying it to someone named Seth who is either sitting near or in need of a cold one, “Seth Beer” could actually be two sentences. I’m not sure what point that proves, but it seemed worth noting.
Here is my working theory on baseball names, present and future: Contemporary American life is hard on people in a bunch of different ways. There is pressure from above both to assimilate and assent to a state of affairs that is not pleasant or fair or even really tenable, but there is also an equal pressure to stand out and go big and express your personal suite of brand truths.
That second pressure, like the first, has a lot to do with living in and under a fundamentally anti-human marketplace that works constantly to create problems and then sells potential solutions to them. Some of these solutions are affordable and effective but most of them are neither; fewer and fewer things are actually free. These names, the infinite tweaked permutations on Jaden and Jackson and so on, are fundamentally hopeful gestures: an attempt, at the very beginning of a child’s life in this hard and narrowing world, to break things open a little bit for the kid, to speak into existence the possibility of a bigger and more exciting life with more possibilities—to give the kid a chance to have the life of a Steele Walker instead of a Brian Walker. It is a generous thing, and a hopeful one. Although, again, also many of these people are just from Utah.