Usually you see this the other way around — how many good prospects became good players? It’s the foundation of any worthwhile prospect analysis, and based on the research, what we indeed observe is that higher-ranking prospects have worked out better than lower-ranking prospects, thereby granting validity to the prospect rankings themselves. If we didn’t see any differences in future performance, we’d have to think, welp, someone’s doing something wrong.
But when you focus just on the future of prospects, you ignore a massive part of the player pool — those players who weren’t considered good prospects. Now, professional baseball is selective for good baseball players. The majors are even more selective. Everyone with a job in baseball has a job because he has some amount of promise, and there’s no such thing as an untalented big-leaguer. But there are the guys who had a lot of hype, and there are the guys the hype never touched. So we return to the headline question: how many good players were good prospects?
There’s no perfect way to analyze this, but there is a simple way to analyze this. I decided to use a cutoff of 3 WAR. For position players, this was regular WAR; for pitchers, this was 50/50 FIP/RA9-WAR. So, for me, a good player was a player worth at least three wins above replacement. Now, about the prospect part. I used the Baseball America historical top-100 lists. They’re an authority within the industry, and they’ve made it easy by providing rankings going all the way back to 1990. So, for me, the definition of a good prospect was a top-100 prospect. I don’t care when the guy was a prospect; as long as he was a good prospect at least once, that counted.
I know that the top-100 doesn’t include all the good prospects. There are always intriguing players left off. But these are supposed to be the best 100 prospects, averaging more than three per organization, and when you get into an organization’s middle-tier prospects, they’re usually not expected to have big futures. They’re not supposed to become 3-WAR players. There are, to me, good prospects, more fringey prospects, and non-prospects. That’s an oversimplification, but the point is that, what I did is what I did, and now you can look at some numbers.
We’ll cover the last three years. The information for 2012:
In 2012, there were 114 players worth at least 3 WAR. So, by my definition, there were 114 “good” players. Of those, 54% had at one point ranked in the BA top 50. Another 18% had at one point ranked in the lower half of the BA top 100, so, 72% of the good players had previously been considered good prospects. The 3-to-1 ratio isn’t nuts — we know the better prospects have higher odds than the lower-ranking prospects. But then there’s the other 3-to-1 ratio — that of good prospects to unranked prospects. There were 32 3+ WAR players who never appeared on a list, and seven even had 5+ WAR seasons. I didn’t come into this expecting any particular number. A few years ago, 28% of good players hadn’t been too highly thought of as minor-leaguers.
Now, the information for 2013:
Now you should know enough to walk yourself through the data presented. There’s not very much of it. The unranked slice got bigger, at the expense of the 51 – 100 slice. This time, there were 134 3+ WAR players. That’s a jump of 20 from the year before.
At last, the information for 2014:
Check out that slice of the unranked! Out of 132 players worth at least 3 WAR, 51 from last season had never appeared on a BA top-100. So last year, 61% of good players had been good prospects. I don’t know if that’s more than you expected, or fewer, or exactly the same. It just is what it is. The 2014 numbers are different from the 2012 numbers, and it isn’t yet clear if that’s in any way meaningful.
Mike Trout? He was a prospect. Felix Hernandez? he was a prospect. Clayton Kershaw? Real good prospect. Yet there were 10 5+ WAR seasons posted by previously unranked players. The leader of all of them would be Corey Kluber. Kluber was at one point traded for Ryan Ludwick. He never showed up on a Padres top-10, nor did he show up on an Indians top-10. Then there’s Michael Brantley, a seventh-round pick who was at one point included in a trade as a PTBNL. He topped out at No. 5 on an Indians top-10. He never ranked with the Brewers. Jonathan Lucroy topped out at No. 5 on a Brewers top-10. You know that Josh Donaldson is an overachiever. Even Robinson Cano was never ranked; he was the No. 2 Yankees prospect before 2005, but that wasn’t considered a strong Yankees system. Cano was something of a tweener, and this future was never forecast for him.
Just averaging the last three years, you get this breakdown:
- 52% had ranked No. 1 – 50
- 15% had ranked No. 51 – 100
- 33% had been unranked
So to answer the question, based on the method explained above, two-thirds of good players were at one time good prospects. Which means one-third of good players were not considered good prospects. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were non-prospects — it just means they’ve overachieved, relative to prior expectations, and this might be of some consolation to fans whose teams don’t score real well in farm-system rankings. Good players are typically seen coming, to some degree. But, not all the time. Not even close to all the time. Players will surprise you, and there might be no better evidence than Kluber beating out Felix for the 2014 AL Cy Young. There is a whole lot of ways to be good, and there is a whole lot of ways to get better.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.