More Data, More Prospects?

I started writing this article with an eye on it being brief because much of the rest of Prospect Week was not, and that’s part of what brought this piece about. The Board is out of control, growing and expanding like The Blob, consuming more rows and columns by the day, threatening to create a paucity of digital space once thought infinite. Since 2017, when we first breathed life into The Board, the amount of info we display there has grown and the number of players included has doubled from just over 600 to just over 1,200.

A little over a year ago, once we realized this was happening, Kiley and I began asking ourselves why and whether or not it was correct. We answered the latter question pretty quickly. It became more rare for players we didn’t cover at all to the reach the big leagues or be traded, which was better for readers. Carson Cistulli had a harder time finding Cistulli’s Guy prospects he felt strongly about, which was an indication that we’d plugged a statistical hole in our boat (until Alex Chamberlain’s Peripheral Prospects series arrived and helped highlight an age-related one). Plus, we received few accusations of frivolousness from industry contacts, though there was some, citing opportunity costs. Mostly, while mindful that not all of them will, we decided we liked it better to cover all the players we thought could make a big-league impact rather than work with a cap. It most aligned with what the goal would be were we running a hypothetical 31st team, and it is this statement that I ask you to put in your back pocket for later on.

We accepted that this rate of expansion was not a stated goal, not something we did intentionally, but rather something that we allowed to continue happening once we recognized it. But we still needed to consider why this occurred. We got better, at least I’d like to think so, at both sourcing and at seeing players ourselves. And as we improved at identifying prospects, diving into the mesopelagic zone of the minor league player pool, the industry also got better at making them. Tech enabled better and more widespread understanding of the biomechanical variables that contribute to things like velocity or power, and athletes sought to train for those variables. Capital-B Baseball’s collective improved its understanding of how to manipulate the lowercase-b baseball in order to make it move more effectively. The way certain pitches fit together like out-getting puzzle pieces and the ways teams developed pitchers became more precise. Even casual baseball fans are no doubt aware of what impact this has had at the big league level. More fastball velocity, more home runs, and more strikeouts as a byproduct of both pursuits. Your aesthetic mileage may vary, but players are getting better.

The proliferation of this knowledge and the way it changed teams’ behavior made it clearer why some guys were outperforming their obvious, on-the-face tools (or not), and that we needed to find a way to skim the minors for players with those traits at scale. With that in mind, we began sourcing TrackMan data.

Take Phillies righty Julian Garcia, for instance. In the days of yore, Garcia’s statistical performance would have caused me to ask scouts about him, the scouts would’ve told me his fastball sits 87-90, and that would’ve severely damaged his ability to make the Phillies list. At his age and level and with a fastball at that velocity, he’d be a low-priority topic on a call with a scout with limited time to chat.

But Garcia’s pitch data makes him very interesting. His fastball spins at 2700 rpm on average, which is incredible on its own but especially amazing at his velocity. It’s freaky enough to do more digging. And yes, scouts like Garcia as a pitchability depth starter. He has a deceptive overhand delivery, his changeup and curveball dovetail nicely, and he throws strikes. He gets a 35+ FV designation, a player who’s still fairly likely to be an upper-level depth arm but who has a characteristic that is rare or unique or special in some way, perhaps giving him a chance to be more.

Theoretically, this should apply to player evaluation and development across baseball’s global theater. The industry, as a whole, should be getting better at identifying and improving players. Last week, Driveline Baseball published another early installment in a series of studies in which they attempt to quantify player development success monetarily. Based on their findings, some teams are several hundred millions of dollars in the black. Driveline is incentivized to conclude that teams should be spending more on player development because Driveline is in the player dev business, and I read that study with that in mind, but I didn’t have any methodological qualms with it.

Regardless, it’s obviously true some teams have been better at developing players than others, and without even reading the study, you can probably guess who the top few teams are. Most clubs have a clear understanding of pitch design, and some are still working to catch up on building the technological infrastructure that will help put that understanding to good use, but everyone is improving.

Now recall that 31st team bit I asked you to stash earlier. I submit that the industry’s ability to identify and nurture players, especially pitchers, is now so good as to merit league expansion. For example, there is a great big bubble of relievers of roughly the same quality who are constantly being shuttled back and forth from Triple-A to MLB while they have option years remaining. Pre-arb relievers with option years remaining are less expensive and make it less likely that your bullpen gets overtaxed since you’re constantly cycling them to and from the minors. Once they hit arbitration and/or are out of options, it’s sink or swim. At that point they’ve either seized a permanent roster spot with their current club, or they get traded to a motivated team for which they represent an upgrade to current relievers, or they become DFA hot potatoes.

It seems likely that the next CBA will feature changes to early-career compensation and perhaps option years, and then team behavior could change. For now, this strategy is an indication that teams feel comfortable handing quite a few innings to players who are spilling over into Triple-A, which I think supports the notion that the current talent level would enable expansion.

This principle arguably applies to position players too. I’ll concede that the industry seems less good at evaluating and developing hitters (vision and cognition are tougher nuts to crack), but it’s starting to show signs of seeing value in changing personnel based on game state, an evolution of the platoon concept extending beyond left/right to offense/defense and even some swing plane/pitch plane consideration. Expansion might create more aesthetically diverse baseball. Diluting the hitter pool by about 43 (two teams worth of expansion hitters plus a universal DH, which I’m not personally for but seems likely) means a lot of the names you seen bouncing around the transaction wire will just have a firm foothold on a roster spot somewhere, and I submit that those players are often colorful and interesting in some way.

These thoughts come at a time when the player pool is poised to shrink via proposed minor league contraction. MLB owners have the financial capability to maintain the minor league affiliate status quo and pay minor leaguers a living wage, this is not a zero sum situation. Ideally, they’d do so. They shockingly don’t seem inclined to consider arguments grounded solely in morality, arguments that often hypocritically ignore that minor league owners are also rich folks who are taking advantage of cheap, intern-heavy labor, and who wear an Affordable Family Fun t-shirt as they sell you a $7 beer and fill your ears and eyes with nine innings worth of advertising. Americana.

Teams currently have individual financial incentive to cast a wide net in the minors and apply well-funded, sound player development concepts to create big-league role players. Even under the proposed new minor league salaries (which are still meager), when you compare them to Craig Edwards’ prospect valuations, you need only turn a couple non-prospects into either a big leaguer or tradeable prospect to justify the cost of six or seven affiliates worth of other players. For organizations with good scouting and development, the juice is worth the eight-affiliate squeeze.

But that’s not how the owners, collectively, behave. As is the case with a new data-sharing policy, owners act in a way that saves everyone money rather than rewarding those more willing to spend it wisely in pursuit of on-field competitive advantage. Branch Rickey turns over in his grave but everyone goes home with a heavier wallet. Is expansion to Portland or Mexico City or elsewhere a long-term, financial benefit for MLB? Based on Rob Manfred’s comments here it is, and in the past it’s mentioned hand-in-hand with playoff reformatting, which was raised again this week.

Consider the notion that disrupting the current amount of minor league teams — a structure that has gotten us to a place where there’s enough talent to support expansion without diluting the level of baseball too terribly — might de-stabilize long-term comfort with expansion. Owners with any degree of confidence in their baseball ops staff (or themselves by extension, since they hired the people who run ops) should already have financial incentive to have a deep minor league system of well-funded, developing athletes. Perhaps they need a few collective nudges to truly reconsider contraction.

We hoped you liked reading More Data, More Prospects? by Eric Longenhagen!

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Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Jim
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Jim

Nice comments on minor-league contraction.