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First Pitch: The Subjective Business of Prospect Rankings

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I was originally planning on doing a depth article tonight, but wanted to save it for one more day, in part because I could see more cuts coming tomorrow morning, which might make the roster a bit more clear. I also was sent something today that I wanted to use for an article.

Last week, John Sickels released his top 20 prospects for the Pirates’ system. I’ll admit that I really didn’t get a chance to see the list until today. At this time of year, I have very little clue what is going on outside of Pirate City or McKechnie Field. John Dreker did our writeup for the list, and I just glanced through the article, not getting a chance to really see where people were ranked, or any of the reports.

Then today, John Dreker sent me a link to a comment that John Sickels made, wondering what we said about the list, and if we liked it or ripped it.

I think the worst thing here is that Sickels doesn’t have a subscription to the site, thus the need for the comment. John, send me an e-mail at tim@piratesprospects.com and we’ll get that taken care of.

As for the list, I got a chance to take a look at it in more detail today. I saw some differences, but nothing that would warrant ripping the list. In fact, I wanted to point out some of those differences, and explain why I think there’s a difference in each set of rankings.

A Difference of Time

The reality of rankings is that they provide a snapshot of where a player is in his development. Usually, there’s not a big change in the actual information over a short amount of time, but sometimes a few months can make a huge difference.

Our rankings were completed in December, and one of the hardest guys to rank was Cole Tucker. That’s because of the risk his injury carried in terms of sticking at shortstop. He’s not a lock to stick at the position long-term at this point, but a lot has changed in just three months since our original rankings. Tucker is only working at shortstop, and it doesn’t look like he’s really lost anything at the position.

Sickels points out the arm strength questions, but has Tucker seventh overall. We had him 15th, with much bigger questions at the time. I think Tucker is a top ten prospect in this system without those questions, and you can definitely say the questions have been reduced.

The other player who stood out was Chad Kuhl. Sickels had him with a low-90s sinker, which is not far from what we wrote about him in our rankings. We had a lot of reports putting Kuhl’s fastball consistently in the 96-97 MPH range last year, but the pitch had different movement and looked like his four-seam fastball. Kuhl clarified this spring that it was actually his sinker, that the pitch had different movement at a higher velocity, and that the four seamer was rarely used. He’s also been hitting those velocities so far this spring, based off the Pitch F/X style trackers in McKechnie and the scouts radar guns behind home plate.

Sickels rated Kuhl 19th, and we went 16th, and the overall grades (C+/4.5) weren’t too far off either. But Kuhl was the one guy who I felt we ranked lower than we should have, and that especially was true after talking to him this spring and getting clarification on his stuff. We would have had him closer to the top 10 in the system if we were ranking today (and almost had him that high at various points during our rankings). This was all due to a late surge in his velocity, which has held up this spring.

A Difference in Value

You might know by now that I hate numerical rankings. They’re fun, and they give an easy method of comparing different lists. They’re also highly misleading and highly subjective. We use tiered rankings in the Prospect Guide, grouping guys together based on upsides rather than suggesting there’s a big difference between the number 8 and number 15 prospect. I also value the actual reports much more than the numerical ranking, and find that the reports are often the same, despite the rankings being different.

The biggest differences I noticed came with the catching prospects. Sickels has Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire ranked 15th and 16th, respectively. We had McGuire 7th and Diaz 8th. But the reports were very similar — both are strong defenders with questions about the bat.

The difference in ranking is how we each interpreted those questions. In McGuire’s case, Sickels said he has grown less confident in his bat. I’m not there yet. McGuire is only 20 years old. By comparison, Diaz showed a lot of offensive potential, but didn’t start showing it in games until age 22 in Bradenton. It would seem unfair to penalize McGuire for struggling at such a young age. If he was still struggling in A-ball or Double-A at age 22-23, then I might start getting very concerned about the bat. For now, I like what I’ve seen on the field in terms of raw tools, and think more consistent offense will come.

It’s a similar case with Diaz. His offensive skills were apparent for years, and started translating to the stats in late-2013 and throughout 2014. He didn’t have a great year last year in Triple-A, but wasn’t horrible. And watching him this spring, the offensive skills are still there.

In both cases, the reports are the same, but I tend to be a lot more patient with offense from strong defensive catchers if I see the tools. I’m not going to say that Jacob Stallings could eventually hit enough to be a starter, because I don’t see the offensive upside behind the stats. But we’ve seen two recent MLB examples of why you should wait on catchers. When Russell Martin joined the Pirates, I talked with a scout who wondered why he didn’t put up more offense with his tools. He did just that the next three years, carrying his offense over to Toronto. His replacement, Francisco Cervelli, is another guy who saw his offense really start to develop late.

That’s why there’s a big difference in the rankings for the catchers. I’m more patient than most on the offense finally arriving. I don’t fault anyone who is skeptical of Diaz or McGuire and their offense. Odds are, those people will be right more often than not, and my approach of trusting the tools a bit longer will end up being wrong more often than not. The rankings are just a snapshot though, and I eventually adjust the players down when it comes time where their hitting skills might never translate to the field.

Moving away from Sickels’ list, a more extreme difference in value came earlier with Keith Law’s list. He had Luis Escobar as the 12th best prospect in the system, which I totally disagree with. However, the reports were almost identical to the ones we had, where we named Escobar a big sleeper prospect this year. The reports were the same, but Law obviously valued Escobar much higher, and felt there was less risk involved, or assumed that the command issues would fix themselves, while relying on the raw stuff. That’s almost the reverse situation of the catching comparison above.

So it works both ways, where you’ll always be higher on some players, and lower on others, while still having the same rankings. And that showed up again on Sickels’ list, when he had Kevin Kramer ranked 11th overall, with a similar report. We had him lower, mostly because Sickels seems to think his tools will be enough to be a starter at second, while we think those same tools will make him a utility guy, with a smaller chance to be a starter at second. Once again, kind of the opposite of the catchers, but the key thing is the reports are the same.

At the end of the article, Sickels had the following to say:

The first few slots on this list are obvious but once you get into the mass group of B- types, it could be ordered in any number of ways with valid logic. The key point to come away with: this system is very deep. Focus on middle infielders and ground ball pitchers is clear.

I agree with this 100%, and it’s what I was saying above. The first four guys are identical to our rankings. The next several are also very similar, with the key differences being Tucker and the catchers. But we don’t really have different reports on these guys, just different orders. And the grades are largely the same. I also think the system is very deep, and there is nothing more clear than their recent focus on middle infielders and their continued focus on ground ball pitchers.

As someone who knows how difficult it is to keep up with every player in one system, I have a great deal of respect for the work that John does in profiling every system and getting so many accurate reports in the process. There’s a reason he’s one of a handful of rankings we highlight on the site each year. But even with accurate reports, and a respected analyst, you’re going to find a lot of differences when you compare the rankings to other analysts with the same reports.

That’s what makes prospect rankings so much fun. At the same time, it highlights how difficult it can be to scout and predict the futures of young players. When two people can see the same thing from a player and come up with different futures for that player, you know you’re dealing with a very subjective process.

The best part is, it’s not that different with scouts either. The catcher debate from above? The Kramer “utility vs starter” debate? If you talk to different scouts, you’re bound to get these same differences. This is my eighth year covering the system, and I’ve never seen a consensus opinion on a player’s upside from scouts, even if the reports are the same.

Those are the guys getting paid to do nothing but predict the futures for prospects, with the success of their team depending on it. If they can’t come to a consensus on future upsides, then you’re not going to see it anywhere.

**No minor league reports today, since they canceled the camp day game for some reason. The Triple-A and Double-A teams are home tomorrow, so I’ll have plenty to report on then.

**Chris Stewart’s Role as a Mentor to the Young Pirates Pitchers and Catchers. I was originally going to do two articles here, with one focusing on Stewart and the other featuring the younger catchers. I ended up combining them, so you’ve got a long article, which is basically two in one.

**Pirates Release Angel Sanchez. Sanchez had been recovering from Tommy John surgery, and will be out for the year. You wonder if this is part of a move to get him back in the organization under a new deal, much like they did with Casey Sadler. I’ll have more on this when I find out the details.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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