First Pitch: When Do the Prospect Rankings Change?

I was asked the following question in Monday’s chat:

How long does it take for you to be convinced that a player’s performance isn’t a function of small sample size? A few live viewings? 2 months? Half season?

It wasn’t really a question I could give a good answer to in the chat, since it requires a deeper look at how I evaluate players.

Typically players are evaluated on a season-to-season basis. It’s easy to go this route. You’ve got your opinion of the player heading in to the year. The player either lives up to expectations, exceeds them, or falls short. After the season you evaluate the year the player had, then you apply the evaluation to the following year.

This is the approach I take with all players. The gap between seasons provides the perfect time to reflect on the previous year and re-evaluate a player. However, there’s a fine line involved when you’re focusing from season to season. Evaluating a player after every season is fine, but you have to avoid putting too much focus on the individual seasons.

In the minor leagues, the individual seasons can carry a bit more weight. Typically a player starts at a new level each year, so you can’t go completely on his results in the previous year, since those results usually came at a lower level. But that still doesn’t mean that you should only focus on the current year.

To answer the question above, let’s look at three examples of small sample sizes from the young 2012 season. We’ll focus on a bad start, a hot start, and a breakout candidate.

Nick Kingham

Kingham is a pitcher that I’m high on. He was ranked in the top 10 this year, and has some impressive stuff. He touches 95 MPH with his fastball, only a year removed from high school. He’s got a good curveball and a good changeup, and he pounds the strike zone. He misses bats with all three pitches, and has strong command.

So far, the right-hander is off to a rough start in 2012. He’s been hit hard in the second inning of each start, giving up nine earned runs in three innings this season. All nine runs came in his second inning of work.

How do we weigh the two starts for Kingham? When should we be concerned?

I’ve seen Kingham a lot. I saw him at various points during the season last year, and I saw him several times this Spring. Nothing about his previous outings suggest that these second inning struggles are more than just a fluke. In the starts I saw this Spring, he was throwing 93-95 MPH consistently for the first three innings. The only time he ran in to trouble came in the fourth and fifth when he started losing some of his stuff.

I’m going to want to see him pitch live in West Virginia (maybe this weekend, maybe at the end of the month), and I’m going to want to see him several times throughout the year. But right now I don’t put much stock in these two outings. Typically I value the eye test more than stats in the lower levels. The eye test tells me that Kingham is a talented pitcher. I’ve talked to scouts who agree with this assessment.

To answer the question above, if Kingham continues getting bombed early, I might get concerned. If he rebounds some, but still has a down year this year, I’d want to know what caused it. At that point I’d evaluate how Kingham’s season impacts his future.

Tim Alderson

This is kind of the opposite of Kingham. Alderson didn’t make the top 50 prospects list heading in to the year, and I had pretty much written off any chance of him making the majors. Then he went back to his old throwing program, and started hitting 90-93 MPH consistently, with good results and a lot of ground balls.

Alderson is off to a good start this year. His fastball has maintained the velocity it showed in the spring. His curveball looks great, getting a lot of ground ball outs. The eye test is good for Alderson.

However, I need to see a full season of this before I buy in to the changes. Alderson did all of this last year. He upped his velocity to the upper-80s, from the mid-80s in 2010. His curveball looked improved. He put up strong numbers in the first half of the 2011 season in Altoona. Then things fell apart. His numbers dropped off. His fastball lost velocity.

Alderson is definitely improved heading in to the year. But will it last this time? Is he back on track, or will he fade and lose velocity again in the second half? Until that question is answered, I probably won’t change my opinion about him.

Alen Hanson

Here’s the breakout candidate. Hanson was rated the 37th best prospect in the system this year. He’s a speedy, athletic shortstop with strong defense. Last year he started off hitting well, but faded in the second half of the GCL season. He’s got a good line drive stroke, but he swings at some pitches he shouldn’t, which could lead to problems.

So far in the young season, Hanson hasn’t had any problems. Despite making the jump from the GCL to full-season low-A ball, Hanson is off to a hot start. He’s 10-for-25 with three doubles, two homers, and three stolen bases in three attempts. He has three strikeouts and three walks. And his defense was sharp when I saw him in Spring Training, although it’s a bit raw at times, as Wilbur Miller noted over the weekend in watching three West Virginia games.

With the long term shortstop position in question, there will be a lot of focus on Hanson. If he continues his hot hitting, he could become the top shortstop prospect in the system when you factor in his speed, athleticism, and his defensive abilities. He’s not going to hit .400 all year, but I’d consider a breakout year to be something in the range of what Starling Marte did in West Virginia in 2009 (.312/.377/.439 in 221 at-bats). If Hanson can put up those numbers, he may have a shot at being a top ten prospect next year.

Going back to the original question, how soon could Hanson make that jump? Marte went from not being ranked in the top 30 to being ranked 12th by the middle of the season. That was after getting a hit in 14 of 15 games with West Virginia. I was a little more aggressive with ranking lower level guys at that point than I am now, but Marte ended up seventh overall in the pre-season 2010 rankings.

But again, I’m not looking at Hanson’s individual season. I’m focusing on the positive reports I heard from last year, the impressive play I saw in Spring Training, the live reports we’ve already seen this year, and what he does for the remainder of the season. And as I said before, in the lower levels I value the eye test more than the numbers.

It might be harder for Hanson to crack the top 10 than it was for Marte, since the system is significantly better now than it was in 2009. But a shortstop prospect who can hit and play good defense is also a rare commodity, which is why I’m leaving any possibility on the table for Hanson’s upside and ranking.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 2-1 to the Dodgers after Andre Ethier’s 8th inning homer. Game story here.

**Matt Bandi’s Pitch F/X preview of the rest of the Dodgers’ starters.

**Clint Hurdle will pick his spots for Pedro Alvarez against left-handed pitching. Alvarez was on the bench today, along with Garrett Jones, in favor of Matt Hague and Casey McGehee.

**Prospect Watch: Hunter Strickland makes his first start since June 2010.

**Prospect Notebook: Evan Chambers looking to be more mature at the plate. Also, updates on Carlos Paulino, Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and West Virginia’s international hitters.

**Roster and injury updates on Kyle McPherson, Stetson Allie, Zack Von Rosenberg, Mike Loree, and Michael Crotta.

**Wilbur Miller watched Josh Bell play his first pro series this past weekend, and has a few observations on the outfielder.

**Kevin Creagh interviews Kenny Morgan, a senior at Clarion University who hopes to be drafted this year.


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