The Year in Successful Non-Prospects

Everyone in the majors has, at some point, been considered a star. Certainly not in the major leagues, of course, but the majors select the best of the best of the best of the best. The majors pull the best players from Triple-A. Triple-A pulls the best players from the lower minors. The lower minors pull the best players from high school and college and various other countries. And even from there, those levels tend to pull the best players from the youth circuits. Players in the majors are elites at their sport, and as the saying goes, everyone used to be the best player on one of their teams.

Still, players do get separated and classified. As players move up the ladder, some are seen as better than others. Those perceived to have the most talent end up as highly-ranked prospects. Everyone else, not so much. Many of the eventual top players were seen coming. Alex Rodriguez was a highly-ranked prospect. Mike Trout was a highly-ranked prospect. Corey Seager was a highly-ranked prospect.

Something I like to revisit from time to time is the collective big-league performance from the guys who weren’t highly-ranked prospects. Obviously, there will be the occasional surprise. How many surprises are there? Let me give you a decade of data. There are more surprises than you might realize.

The first time I ever wrote about this was early in 2015. I’m not changing the method. I’m making use of the Baseball America all-time top-100 prospect lists, and as you can see here, that information stretches back to 1990. In large part for that reason, I’m basing everything on the BA rankings, but in addition to that, BA has long been the gold standard, anyway. So I feel pretty comfortable.

You’d be right to point out that a top-100 prospect list can include only up to 100 prospects. In any given year, there are more than 100 talented young players spread throughout the 30 organizations. So there’s a difference between being a non-prospect and just not being a great prospect. I used the word “non-prospect” in the headline just because it fits well, but it doesn’t convey quite the right message. This isn’t exactly an analysis of non-prospects — it’s an analysis of unranked prospects, as far as the top-100s are concerned. This is an important point to understand, although you still wouldn’t expect an unranked prospect to turn into a quality regular.

Enough with all that. In the linked post from 2015, I set a cutoff at 3 WAR. I wanted to know how many good players had been good prospects, or unranked prospects, and 3 WAR was the line I used to define a good player. I’m going to use that again. So, once more, how many good players have been unranked prospects? Here’s the year-to-year information, covering the last decade. The thin gray line is the sample average.

This year, we’re at 30%. That is, 30% of the players worth at least 3 WAR never showed up on a top-100 list. That’s down from last year’s 35%, which was down from the previous year’s 39%. Based on that, you might want to identify a trend. But the overall average here is 31%, and I personally don’t see much of a hint of anything. The numbers bounce around. It tends to be about three out of 10.

Taking an even broader view, here’s the percent of total league WAR generated by unranked prospects.

Ranked prospects continue to be responsible for generating the majority of all value. But maybe, just maybe, the gap is narrowing. This season, 41% of league WAR has come from players who never showed up on a top-100 list. The overall average is 39%. No trend can be conclusively identified, but we’re talking about two wins out of every five. It’s a real and substantial contribution.

So, who are this season’s top previously unranked prospects? Here’s the top 10, just in descending order of WAR. Guys that just miss out include Daniel Murphy, Brian Dozier, and Lorenzo Cain.

Top Unranked Players
SOURCE: Baseball America

Just to make the point absolutely clear, once again, none of these guys ever showed up in a BA preseason top-100. I didn’t bother to try to look at midseason prospect-list updates. That doesn’t mean that nobody liked these guys when they were in the minors. They might’ve been prospects; they just weren’t thought of as being particularly special prospects. This year, they’re all having special seasons. To go a step further, Altuve, Kluber, Goldschmidt, Turner, and Pham all also failed to rank in a BA preseason organizational top-10. They were never top-10 prospects just within their own systems. The five other players were all considered top-10 organizational prospects at some point, but then, among them, Suarez drew the highest ranking, once being the No. 8 prospect for the Tigers. Even that isn’t so encouraging. That’s the kind of prospect you don’t mind giving away for a trade-deadline rental.

Some of these players are familiar. Altuve’s been great for years. Kluber, too. They help to prop up the unranked-prospect WAR every year, in the way that Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista used to. But then you have, say, the Taylor breakout, or the Pham emergence. And while Ramirez was excellent in 2016 as well, now I think it’s safe to truly buy into him as an All-Star-caliber asset. One could’ve reasonably been skeptical of the Ramirez breakout, but now he’s surged beyond 5 WAR, giving him a total of 10 since the start of last year. Jose Ramirez is one of the best players in baseball. I don’t have to be able to explain it. It’s just a new truth.

Obviously, the bulk of the best talent comes from the guys who were seen as the best prospects. Prospect evaluators know what they’re doing. Yet there’s still plenty of room for unranked prospects to burst through and establish themselves. Ranked prospects might get more opportunities, more of the benefit of the doubt, but, eventually, results are everything. Kluber wasn’t a prospect. He might win the AL Cy Young. Altuve and Ramirez weren’t prospects. One of them might win the AL MVP. Goldschmidt wasn’t a prospect. He might win the NL MVP. Blackmon could be a candidate, too! Which isn’t to suggest that this is a particularly strong year, in terms of the performance of unranked prospects. Rather, it seems like a normal year, and that’s the whole point.

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.

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Joe Joemember
6 years ago

Coffee hasn’t kicked in yet, but it seems Jeff’s article from yesterday should have been mentioned here. As smaller guys hit fly balls harder, it seems like the WAR gap between hitters in the Top 100 prospects and unranked hitters should decrease. Also, I suspect as it becomes harder to make contact in majors; it will become harder for scouts to evaluate which minor league hitters with contact issues will make enough contact in the majors.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

That is good food for thought. Nice!