Identify Can’t-Miss Prospects Using This One Weird Trick

Recently, in these electronic pages, the author made a study of those hitting prospects who had been recognized by Baseball America for possessing the best of this or that tool (i.e. ability to hit for average, ability to hit for power, etc.) within their respective organizations. The study, specifically, was designed to identify how certain tools, on average, had translated to the majors. The results? While not exhaustive, the exercise in question seemed to indicate that those prospects who had been recognized either for their ability to hit for average or their plate discipline had produced markedly better numbers at the major leagues than those prospects who were recognized for their power, speed, or athleticism.

A sequel of sorts to that first piece focused specifically on those prospects who, during at least one of the years between 2005 and -09, had been recognized by Baseball America for possessing both the best hit tool and the best plate discipline within their respective organization. While, as noted in that second post, one doesn’t expect talent to have been distributed evenly among every minor-league system — and, accordingly, can’t expect the best hitter in a talent-poor system to match the skills of the best hitter in a talent-rich one — the value of the Best Tool designations is that they function as a reasonable proxy for more sophisticated data that isn’t available publicly.

That second post revealed that, on average, this collection of the best-hitting, most-disciplined prospects had fared quite well at the major-league level. To wit: of the 29 prospects who met the relevant criteria, 27 (93%) of them have recorded at least one major-league plate appearance — and 12 more of them (41%) have recorded at least 5.0 WAR over the course of their respective careers.

Below are the median figures for that prospect group by a number of relevant metrics. HRC% denotes home runs on contact (that is, home runs per ball batted into fair play). WAR550 denotes WAR for every 550 plate appearances of a player’s career.

1981 9.2% 17.9% 2.8% 98 2.7 0.8

One observes that not every prospect between 2005 and -09 recognized both for his ability to hit for average and his plate discipline has succeeded in becoming a star-level major-leaguer. That said, “star-level major-leaguer” isn’t a particularly reasonable standard by which to adjudge these prospects — nor by which to adjudge the decisions made by Baseball America’s editors. Consider: not even those players designated as any given year’s top overall prospect have produced uniformly excellent numbers as major-leaguers. Delmon Young, for example, was rated as BA’s top rookie-eligible player prior to the 2006 season, and he’s actually recorded a slightly below-average park-adjusted batting line as a major-leaguer, in addition to compiling a negative WAR figure over his nearly 4,000 career plate appearances.

Again, the value of these findings — as they relate to the future major-league production of prospects recognized for this or that tool — is that they provide, I think, some idea of how one ought to best weight the various tools a prospect might demonstrate. “All things being equal,” one has perhaps asked before, “should I possess more optimism for the major-league future of a prospect distinguished for his plate discipline or his athleticism?”

“His plate discipline,” appears to be the answer, almost empirically.

Up until this point, I’ve considered only these best-hitting and most-disciplined prospects to the degree to which they’ve succeeded offensively. Of course, offensive performance is merely one of the performances. As such, for the remainder of this piece, I’d like to provide a slightly more robust examination of a brief remark made towards the latter of the two posts mentioned above — a point which concerns overall value, including defense.

That same remark, nearly in full:

“What,” the author wondered, “what if one were to reduce the list further — in this case to include only those players who were recognized for possessing their respective organizations best hit tool, best plate discipline, and then also best defensive skills, as well, at either catcher, the infield, or the outfield, such as the case may be?” In fact, using that more refined criteria one finds a small collection of excellent players: Michael Bourn, Andrew McCutchen, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Wieters. That group has averaged 3.7 WAR per every 550 plate appearances over their respective (and all still very active) major-league careers.

Re-stated: between 2005 and -09, only four prospects were recognized by BA for possessing the best hit tool, best plate discipline, and best defensive skills (at the relevant position) within their respective organization. Those four players, named above, have not only all graduated to the majors but have produced wins at a rate generally regarded as All-Star level. A small sample, that, but also an impressive one.

Given the positive returns of this three-pronged criteria, I endeavored to expand the sample of players considered. The Best Tool designations aren’t readily available online for years prior to 2005, but they are available from 2005 onwards — a timeframe which accounts for the sample already considered plus the 2010 to -13 seasons. Including Baseball America’s Best Tool designations for 2010 to -13, as well, produces six more prospects all recognized as possessing the best hit tool, plate discipline, and defensive skills within their respective organization, as follow (year of designation in parentheses): Jackie Bradley Jr (2013), Jason Heyward (2010), Desmond Jennings (2010), Buster Posey (2010), Jurickson Profar (2012), and Anthony Rendon (2013).

As in the case of the first four players, this second collection of hit-discipline-and-defense prospects is also impressive, as the table below illustrates. Note that Year denotes the year in which the relevant player was acknowledged as possessing his system’s best hit tool, discipline, and defense. The # symbol denotes the relevant player’s peak ranking on Baseball America’s annual top-100 prospect list. Columns marked by an asterisk (*) are expressed as a rate statistic per every 550 plate appearances. cWAR denotes career WAR.

Name Year # PA BB% K% HRC% BABIP wRC+ BsR* Off* Def* WAR* cWAR
Buster Posey 2010 7 1850 9.6% 13.8% 4.3% .330 140 -3.4 22.2 10.6 5.3 17.7
Andrew McCutchen 2006 13 3171 11.4% 16.7% 4.5% .332 139 3.1 28.0 -0.4 4.7 27.1
Dustin Pedroia 2006 77 4548 9.3% 8.9% 2.7% .314 119 0.5 12.8 9.1 4.2 34.4
Jason Heyward 2010 1 2170 11.4% 20.6% 4.9% .303 119 2.7 15.2 7.1 4.2 16.4
Desmond Jennings 2010 6 1476 9.7% 20.2% 3.6% .297 109 5.8 11.6 1.2 3.3 8.8
Matt Wieters 2009 1 2610 8.7% 18.4% 4.6% .283 96 -3.4 -5.7 16.4 3.0 14.4
Michael Bourn 2005 N/A 3941 8.5% 20.6% 1.0% .342 92 7.5 2.1 9.3 3.0 21.5
Anthony Rendon 2013 19 394 7.9% 17.5% 2.4% .307 100 1.3 1.5 1.5 2.1 1.5
Jurickson Profar 2012 1 341 7.6% 19.6% 2.8% .274 74 -3.7 -20.0 -5.2 -0.8 -0.5
Jackie Bradley Jr 2013 31 107 9.3% 29.0% 4.5% .246 69 3.6 -15.4 -11.8 -1.0 -0.2
Average 2061 9.3% 18.5% 3.5% .303 106 1.4 5.2 3.8 2.8 14.1
Median 10 2010 9.3% 19.0% 4.0% .305 105 2.0 6.9 4.3 3.2 15.4

The most obvious and relevant observation one makes with regard to this list is that it’s populated by talented ballplayers. The majority of them are currently in what might one might safely call the “middle” of their respective careers. One of them (Michael Bourn) has probably entered the beginnings of his decline phase. Three of the group, finally, have basically just begun to assemble their major-league resumes — a point made most clearly by how, after just three games and 11 plate appearances this season, Anthony Rendon has already improved his career WAR mark by 20%.

If it’s true that those prospects who’ve distinguished themselves by demonstrating the three relevant tools appear to have also generally produced wins at the major-league level, then it’s also necessary to acknowledge a legitimate critique of what amounts to this “one weird trick” I’ve used — namely, that these same players, when they were prospects, were mostly well-regarded. The median peak prospect ranking of 10 suggests as much.

Indeed, a study by Chris St. John reveals that 100% of players whose final ranking on a BA top-100 list was 10 or better — that 100% of those players eventually graduated to the majors. St. John’s work also indicates that players whose last ranking on Baseball America’s top-100 list was 10 — that those players have produced a career WAR figure of 25.0, on average. Some of the players above have already surpassed that 25-win threshold; other appear likely to do so in the not very distant future. As for the three junior members of the group, one can only reasonably say that they are promising young players.

In any case, the precise figures aren’t the point. The point is this: if, by assembling a collection of prospects noted for their hitting, plate discipline, and defense — if, by doing that, one has only succeeded in producing a convoluted proxy for identifying, or a means by which to reverse engineer, a list of top-10 prospects, then that is interesting, perhaps, but also entirely trivial.

What renders this exercise only mostly trivial, I’ll argue, is the presence above of certain players who’ve produced successful major-league careers despite having been less celebrated as prospects overall — namely, in this case, Michael Bourn and Dustin Pedroia.

Despite his virtues, Bourn never appeared among BA’s top-100 prospects — due to concerns about his power on contact, one assumes. Indeed, even his parent club at the time, the Philadelphia Phillies, appear not to have been particularly enamored of him: Bourn passed the entirety of the 2007 season as a member of the Phillies’ (admittedly strong) major-league roster, but recorded only 133 plate appearances in the process, serving largely as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. While there are surely exceptions, that’s generally not how a club utilizes its top prospects.

As for Pedroia, there were always concerns about his size, of course, and probably his ability to remain at shortstop (which he obviously didn’t, anyway). Pedroia’s status as a prospect is somewhat curious: he was ranked 77th by BA before the 2006 season, during which campaign he proceeded to slash .305/.384/.426 as just a 22-year-old at Triple-A. “Promising,” one says. A decidedly unimpressive 98 plate appearances following a late-season promotion to the majors, however — in tandem with the persistent concerns about his shortcomings — appear to have persuaded the editors of BA and the contacts upon whom they rely that Pedroia’s wasn’t so bright that shades would be necessary. Indeed, despite have retained eligibility for it, Pedroia was absent from the top-100 list BA published in 2007. That he received the Rookie of the Year award at the end of that season suggests that he possessed the relevant skills to succeed in the majors.

Given the paucity of the sample, the examples of Bourn and Pedroia serve not as proof of a systematic disconnect between a certain skill set and how prospect rankings are assembled, but rather merely as case studies. In each case, however, one finds a lesson — namely, that each player’s strengths (the hit tool, plate discipline, defense) more than compensated for perceived deficiencies (power on contact or size).

That lesson, it turns out, has some relevance as the 2014 season begins. In this year’s edition of their Prospect Handbook, the editors of Baseball America — again, with the aid of scouts and other industry contacts — appear to have identified three new additions to the fraternity being discussed here of prospects who possess the best hit tool, plate discipline, and defense (at the relevant position) in their system. Those prospects are as follows: shortstop Francisco Lindor (Cleveland), shortstop J.P. Crawford (Philadelphia), and shortstop Jace Peterson (San Diego). While Lindor is ranked 13th on Baseball America’s most recent top-100 prospect list, Crawford appears just at 78th overall (i.e. one place behind Pedroia’s top ranking), while Peterson is absent entirely.

If the trend identified by means of this exercise continues, one might reasonably expect two things: both (a) for Crawford and Peterson to appear closer to the top of BA’s list in the future and (b) for Crawford and Peterson (along with Lindor) to develop into above-average major-leaguers, regardless of their position on BA’s prospect rankings. This — one finds, in the final analysis — has been the case with players recognized for their hitting, plate discipline, and defense. It’s not unreasonable to expect some sort of favorable results from prospects who fit that profile currently.

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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