Carson Fulmer, Time Horizons, and the Aim of Prospect Lists

I scouted Vanderbilt righty Carson Fulmer (video) last Thursday and walked away from that game with more thoughts about prospect lists than about Fulmer himself.

First some background on Fulmer: he’s listed at 6’0/195, but scouts and I estimate he’s actually 5’11/205. He’s pitched at 93-95 mph with an above-average to plus curveball and above-average changeup for all three years at Vanderbilt and all the way back to his high school days, as well. His delivery in high school included a significant head whack, which is much less pronounced now, along with a more up-tempo delivery. Fulmer has never been hurt, even after shifting midseason in 2014 from the bullpen to the rotation, regularly going over 100 pitches in his starts (126 last weekend) and throwing last summer for Team USA.

While some scouts question his delivery and command, he has 132 strikeouts and 37 walks along with 61 hits allowed in 95.2 innings this year, en route to setting school records in multiple categories. He’s a physical and possibly genetic freak, as this delivery, stuff, usage and velocity would’ve broken most other pitchers already, but he’s never been hurt.

Now that you have some background on Fulmer, you’ve probably figured out that he is one of “my guys” in this draft and I’ll be writing more about him before the draft. I’m higher on him than the many in the industry and I will write an extended pre-draft scouting report/rant wondering why this is the case. For reference, here’s what I wrote about last year’s case, 35th overall pick last summer, Rockies 2B Forrest Wall.

Unavoidable Bias

I’ve written before that the time horizon for ranking draft prospects should technically be the peak of their career, but I’ve realized that’s too much to ask of me or anyone else. To rank hundreds of prospects at ages 18-21 based on what I think they will be worth when they are 25-28 is far too much for one brain to handle. If I instead just rank them based on what they are right now, with some adjustments for age and physical projection, that’s much more achievable. If I just rank them based on where I think they’ll get drafted in a few weeks, that’s even easier. Which of these would be most useful to the reader?

There’s a shocking lack of accountability in prospect writing. None of the major outlets republish past high-profile lists or even point to them, when that’s an easy source of content and often will help reveal biases to fine-tune future projections. I’ll be doing this, starting this summer, in a number of different ways, but I suspect the reason other outlets don’t do this is because it will make confident, in-the-moment assertions about players seem silly if readers were regularly reminded of the margin for error in these projections.

In my past draft rankings, I’ve started by ranking players based on what I thought of them, and then, as the information has gotten thinner and less reliable at the lower parts of the list, have attempted to estimate where certain players will be drafted rather than what I think. This is partly because I can’t see all the non-first rounders in the spring, so where a guy will get drafted could be seen as a proxy for what I would’ve seen if I were there. More accurately, I did this because it’ll make me look smarter in the time horizon that matters.

Time Horizons

Readers largely look at draft rankings the weeks before and after the draft and then basically don’t look at them ever again. If I can rank a player I think is a 3rd-4th rounder (i.e. 76-135 overall) at 48th overall and he goes 52nd, I look smart. If he ends up being a bust (thus my intuition was correct to be lower than the industry), nobody comes back to check where I had him, since nobody cares about that prospect at that point. No one is going back over lists to see who was right because the team picking him was wrong with more/better information, so who cares what the writers thought? If I rank the player 125th, the other outlets have him at 52nd, and he goes 48th, at the only time when people are reading these lists, I’m the “wrong” guy.

At the very least, the time horizon for draft rankings should be the next offseason. Royals lefty Brandon Finnegan was ranked around the middle of the first round by the publications and was drafted 17th overall, but we all knew he could dominate in short relief stints with Billy Wagner-type stuff, which he did in the summer for the Royals after the draft. He was then ranked around 6th to 9th among 2014 draftees in the offseason lists, after doing exactly what everyone knew he could do.

Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola was ranked 10th by multiple major outlets pre-draft, then ranked in the top 5 in the draft class on those outlets’ top 100, after doing exactly what we knew he would do after the draft: perform pretty well in High-A and Double-A. Nola’s stuff was actually down a tick after signing and Finnegan’s success only came in max-effort relief appearances when he was drafted as a starter (so we didn’t even learn that much about his peak upside or odds to reach it), but the sheer fact that they succeeded at a high level of the minors, even though it went as every scout would’ve expected, somehow raised their profiles.

The offseason top-100 lists are composed by a formula of sorts. You take the age, tool grades, level and performance and you can pretty easily guess where a guy will rank. The level of success of these two players post-draft was expected given their talent and track record, but the fact that it happened changed the equation. The math for ranking a player in the draft is much more mysterious. It’s a combination of how good he is now, how good he could be in the future, how much buzz he’s getting pre-draft, where that kind of prospect usually gets drafted historically, how long he’s been known to the scouting community, where you’re hearing this guy may be taken on draft day, etc. It’s completely ridiculous that those factors matter, but given the time horizon and review process by readers for draft rankings, there’s no incentive to even try to look ahead, even to the next offseason. I’ve never seen an article at any website analyzing this “next offseason” phenomenon as a way of reviewing draft rankings to see who is most accurate by that metric.

Looking Back and Forward

I point all of this out, and I’ve been guilty of these things as well, to try to shed some light on a blind spot in the industry, but mostly to explain how my draft rankings will look in the coming weeks. Last year, I ranked Aaron Nola 5th pre-draft and 4th in the offseason, but Brady Aiken disappeared from the class, so Nola held his position. I asked scouts who told me they had Tyler Kolek ahead of Nola who they would want 24 months later when Nola was in the big-league rotation and Kolek was still an unfinished product in A-Ball trying to put it all together. Suddenly, the strong conviction to take the raw fireballer over the finished product wavered, but they knew that couldn’t change their position after one question, so they’d stick to their guns, but admitting it may be closer than they originally said.

I started asking a different question to scouts this spring who told me they had Carson Fulmer in the middle of the first round, even in a weak draft, with a couple high-school arms ahead of him. If Fulmer doesn’t work out as a starter, do you have any doubt he’ll be an elite, late-inning big league reliever in short order? They say no. Okay, so if Fulmer fails and turns into that, 24 months from now, would you rather have one of the top-30 or -40 relievers in baseball, capable of pitching in multiple innings and in back-to-back nights, or a prep pitcher still putting things together in A-Ball? And before you answer, what if I told you it wouldn’t just be a trade 24 months from now, but you’d also get the 50-100 MLB relief innings that Fulmer threw in the interim?

The scouts would pause and think, as this now seemed pretty even to them, at least. The answers and justification would vary, but the fact that we were having the conversation implied it was close and there’s a clear case to be made for Fulmer. I gave them a medium to bad outcome for Fulmer and a medium to bad outcome for the prep pitcher and changed the decision to pre-draft (you get Fulmer’s whole career) but the concept of draft stock and where you draft certain kinds of guys confused the issue far more than it should ever be.  I would bet that if Fulmer did a Finnegan impression in the big leagues later this season, these scouts would tell me to put him 6th or 7th in the draft class — say 70th or so on a top-100 list — because you can’t ignore big-league performance, even when it’s completely expected and doesn’t answer any of the pre-draft starter/reliever questions that made scouts pause in the first place.

The industry consensus on Fulmer seems to be trending up in recent weeks, as his dominating performance has continued and other players have faltered, combined with a weak draft class. There are more enlightened teams that I know are on Fulmer around where I would take him and they seemed to figure this issue out years ago. It sounds like the industry is slowly coming around on some blind spots like this, but there’s still low-hanging fruit in the amateur markets; more on this coming tomorrow.

We hoped you liked reading Carson Fulmer, Time Horizons, and the Aim of Prospect Lists by Kiley McDaniel!

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Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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brb
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brb

this is fantastic, thoughtful stuff. and a real pleasure to read!

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas

Agreed, this is the kind of stuff that makes Kiley a good prospect writer for FanGraphs, not just a good prospect writer. Looking forward to further discussion of this.