I Want To Be A Prospect

Jarek Cunningham

With the draft deadline of August 16th rapidly approaching, it means that we will soon have more “shiny new toys” to examine and rank as prospects.  But what exactly makes Player A better than Player B?  When you look at a player, try to think…

“What is this player’s ultimate position in the field and the batting order?” and “How likely is he going to reach that prediction (injuries, progress from year to year)?”

I thought I would share my personal thoughts on how I rank prospects.  Note that none of this is groundbreaking stuff; rather, it is an amalgamation of different rules of thumb and tidbits that I have picked up over the years.

1. Age

It’s important to determine if a player is at his appropriate level for his age.  Otherwise, it’s like when Kramer was taking karate lessons with all the little kids.  Here’s what the accepted prospect age levels are for each classification:

Rookie – 18-19

Short Season – 20-21

Low A – 20-21

High A – 21-22

Double A – 22-23

Triple A – 23-24

Majors – 24-25

Keep in mind that these ages are for prospects.  The average age of these leagues is usually 1 to 2 years more than the age ranges shown above.  Baseball America did a chart last year of the average age for each league.  That’s not to say that if a player at age 24 is excelling in Double A he is not a prospect.  It just means that his performance has to be viewed with a few grains of salt.  Likewise if a 20 year old is struggling at Double A, he is not a bust, necessarily.

2. Defensive Spectrum

Bill James put together the defensive importance of each position in one of his early Handbooks.  It goes something like:

C – SS – CF – 3B – 2B – RF – LF – 1B

The further to the left, the more important the position is defensively.  But the corollary to that is that as you move to the right, the offensive demands have to compensate for the relatively less important defensive position.

This means that a light hitting catcher with great defense is OK, but a 1B without significant power is not.  You don’t typically see players move from right to left on this chart, either, so if you are not mashing as a 1B or corner OF, you are in trouble.

3. Size

Yes, it does matter.  It’s mostly a function of long-term stamina over a whole season and how a player will be able to handle the rigors of the major leagues where all the players are big and strong.

If a SS is 5’-9”, it is highly unlikely he will be able to hit for any amount of power in the major leagues.  He will most likely have to be a glove-first guy and hope to have slap power.  Likewise, if a starting pitcher is only 5’-11”, he may not have the leverage to generate consistent speed and movement on his pitches.  There will also be concerns about his long-term stamina to hold up as a starter over 180 to 200 innings of a season.

Ideally, a pitcher should be 6’-2” to 6’-6”.  Any greater than that and there is concern about keeping all the moving parts of his mechanics in line for him to have a repeatable motion as a starter.

A good example of a Pirate player that I have concerns about is Ramon Cabrera.  He’s a catcher that is only 5’-7”.  The number of successful players at that height, even as a catcher, is very limited.  His body may simply not be able to handle the wear and tear over a season, plus the specter of him trying to block the plate with Prince Fielder bearing down on him would be frightening.

4.  Strikeout to Walk Ratio

This applies to both hitters and pitchers.  For hitters, I base it on at-bats for both of these categories.  Technically, the walk ratio should be based on plate appearances since walks do not count towards at-bats but they do toward plate appearances.  But most stat sites, especially the very handy Minor League Baseball, only show at-bats.

A hitter should ideally walk in 10% of his at-bats and strike out no more than 20% of his at-bats.  If you strike out more than 20%, you better be able to mash the ball out of the yard at a high degree.  These ratios are important because it shows the player’s plate discipline and how it will progress as he advances.  Pitchers only get better as you move up the chain, so a prospect can make himself more valuable with the ability to control the strike zone.  If a player bats .290 but only has a .315 on-base percentage, that is not a good sign for long-term success.  And even if that player can maintain that through the minors, where in the batting order will that put him?  Maybe 7th?  That shows how his value will take a hit in the majors.

A pitcher is a little bit more difficult to quantify.  Obviously everyone would like to have a pitcher that averages 9 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (9 K/9 IP) with only 2 walks per 9 innings (2 BB/ 9 IP), but that is unrealistic.  Strikeouts are important, though, as it shows that the player has an “out” pitch that he can depend on to get him out of a jam.  Ideally, you want your prospects to have at least a 7.5 K/9 IP and no more than 3.5 BB/9 IP.

5.  Righty-Lefty Splits

It’s important to not just look at a player’s overall numbers to deem him a prospect.  You also have to see what his split rates are against righties and lefties, for both hitters and pitchers.

If a left-handed hitter destroys righty pitching, but has a drastic (more than 100 OPS points) difference against lefty pitching, he may be destined to be a platoon player, which ultimately affects his value.  Even if there is a split, as long as that player is not striking out at a vastly different rate, he may still have some value but more often than not he will be neutralized in the majors.

The same applies to pitchers.  If a righty pitcher has trouble against left-handed batters, it is usually a sign that his changeup is poor.  The changeup is a vital pitch for all pitchers because it helps keep opposing-handed batters honest.  Think about a pitcher throwing a curve.  He can only make it curve one way and that’s away from his same-handed type of batter.  If a lefty throws a curve to a righty, it’s going right into his wheelhouse.  That’s why a changeup (ideally thrown 8-10 mph slower than the fastball with the same motion) is so important against opposing-handed batters.  If a pitcher can’t master it, he may be doomed to be a middle reliever or a dreaded “specialist”.

6.  Ballpark Environment

Thankfully, all of the Pirates affiliates are in relatively neutral environments for evaluating stats, with the exception of Bradenton in the Florida State League.  The FSL is known to be a pitcher’s league due the heavy, humid air in the summer and the larger parks, especially Myrtle Beach.  But for the most part, especially compared to other league within the same classification, the affiliates are in neutral leagues.

All prospects that come out of the California League (A+), with the dry air and high elevations, have to be taken with not a grain of salt, but a whole shaker of salt.  I understand that the CAL is convenient for most of the West Coast teams to have an affiliate, but it really must wreak havoc on the evaluation process, especially for evaluating pitchers.  The Pacific Coast League (AAA) and to a lesser extent the Texas League (AA) are also prime hitting environments.  The previously-mentioned FSL and the Midwest League (A) are known to be pitcher’s leagues.

I try to take all those things into account when I rank players.  I’m also a performance guy, as well….I don’t want to hear that someone has every tool in the shed while he’s hitting .225 with a 5% BB rate.  At some point, it’s not about upside anymore.  It’s “can you play in the majors and succeed?”

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