Altering The Process Of Evaluating MLB Prospects

Yesterday, we took a closer look at positional value in baseball, and how front offices can use it to gain a competitive edge over other teams. However, there is an even greater flaw that front offices can capitalize on, and it’s with evaluating prospects. Currently, we aren’t modifying our prospect boards enough to account for positional value, but that has to change. In this article, I’ll be proposing a new method for player evaluation, based on the information gathered about positional adjustments, as well as the most valuable tools for prospects.

Most scouts either use a “20-80” scale or “2-8” scale to evaluate prospects. It’s used to measure the five tools of baseball: hitting, hitting for power, defense, arm strength, and athleticism. The scale goes as follows:

80- Perfect

70- Well Above Average

60- Above Average

50- Average

40- Below Average

30- Well Below Average

20- The Lowest of the Low

Scouts tend to go by 5s on the 20-80 scale, which helps with player evaluation- a player may not be worthy of a “60” tool, but they may be much better than a “50” tool. Yet, in order to be as specific as possible, I’d even prefer if we decided to go by 2.5s, as after examining several prospects, it’s clear that we must account for the smallest of differences between different players’ skills.

One major issue with the 20-80 scale is its lack of positional adjustment. A “50” hit-tool, for instance, isn’t as valuable at one position as it is for another. A typical average stat line (50s all-around) would consist of a .330 on-base percentage (OBP) and .435 slugging percentage (SLG). However, as you can see, not every position generates the same type of offensive production:

Average Statistics

Catcher: .316 OBP + .393 SLG

First Base: .345 OBP + .454 SLG

Second Base: .326 OBP +.396 SLG

Third Base: .328 OBP + .423 SLG

Shortstop: .319 OBP +.391 SLG

Corner Outfield: .336 OBP +.436 SLG

Center Field: .330 OBP +.416 SLG

Designated Hitter: .340 OBP + .452 SLG

When we compare the average offensive statistics at every position to the typical average stat line, we can come up with multipliers to adjust for positional value:

Catcher: Hit- 1.04, Power- 1.1

First Base: Hit- 0.95, Power- 0.96

Second Base: Hit- 1.01, Power- 1.09

Third Base: Hit- 1.01, Power- 1.03

Shortstop: Hit- 1.03, Power- 1.1

Corner Outfield Hit- 0.98, Power- 1

Center Field: Hit- 1, Power- 1.04

Designated Hitter: Hit- 0.97, Power- 0.96

By multiplying the tool grade with the multiplier, we’ve successfully adjusted to demonstrate how valuable a specific tool is per position. Average hit and power tools at catcher and shortstop, for instance, are worth much more than average hit and power tools for first base; the former positions are much more defensive-minded positions, so average offense is above the mean for a player at the position. Therefore, we’re raising the demands of offensive production at more offensive-minded positions, while doing the opposite for positions that value defense more- this allows us to properly project how valuable a player’s skills are based on the position he plays.

After that, we also need to do the same for prospects’ defensive grades. To do that, I took the average defensive runs above average (DEF) at each position in the 21st century, listed here with what their defensive tool grade should be multiplied by:

Catcher: 8.3 Runs (1.083)

First Base -9.03 Runs (.9097)

Second Base: 1.49 Runs (1.049)

Third Base: 0.81 Runs (1.0081)

Shortstop: 5.23 Runs (1.0523)

Corner Outfield: -5.02 Runs (.948)

Center Field: 1.55 Runs (1.0155)

An average defender at catcher or shortstop is naturally going to provide more value than an average defender at first base or corner outfield, based on Fangraphs’ positional adjustments. If the goal of evaluating these players is to project them as future major-league players, it’s only logical that we take those positional adjustments into account.

So, now that we’ve properly taken into account positional value for a player’s offensive and defensive tools, how should it be applied to produce an overall grade? Arm strength and speed are important, but they are more factors of defense than mandatory skills, so rather than using it in the calculation, they should be used to help with the defensive rating. Therefore, only the first three tools should be taken into account, which helps us quantify how important each tool is.

We know that offense is around five times more predictive to team success than defense, so offense should take up 83% of a player’s overall grade. However, we also know that getting on base is around 1.8 times more valuable than hitting for power, and by utilizing all of this information, here is the official formula for the final evaluation grade:

Overall Grade= (0.53 x Hit) + (0.3 x Power) + (0.17 x Field)

Coming up with a player’s hit, power, and defensive tool grades is a complicated process using both a player’s statistics and judging their overall talent. Here is how I personally use each tool:

  • A player’s hit tool is mostly predicated on their on-base skills, which means that their plate discipline (both drawing walks and not striking out) plays a major role. Their mechanics are important, but having natural plate discipline is so important if a player is going to have success at higher levels.
  • A player’s power tool is a combination of their raw power/strength and the power they show in games. Raw power initially takes the cake in terms of importance, as teams should be able to generate more power from their hitters with mechanical changes.
  • A player’s defensive grade is mostly based off of their raw tools, as shifts are utilized so often in today’s game, that having the range to make plays is key- technique can also be coached. However, for catchers, their framing and blocking ability matters much more than their athletic ability.

Which positions are most affected by these positional adjustments? Let’s take a closer look: (In order to most to least)

Offense: Catcher, Shortstop, Second Base, Third Base, Center Field, Corner Outfield, First Base

Defense: Catcher, Shortstop, Second Base, Center Field, Third Base, Corner Outfield, First Base

The offensive and defensive adjustments are pretty consistent; young catchers and shortstops are worth more than young first basemen and corner outfielders. The bar is so high for the latter two positions to provide value offensively, whereas an average catcher is so valuable- not many catchers can be average all-around, and simply not being a liability offensively provides value in itself.

Pitchers, meanwhile, aren’t weighted at all. The formula for their overall grade is pretty straight forward:

(0.5 x Command) + (0.25 x Fastball) + (0.15 x Breaking Ball) + (0.1 x Third Pitch)

When calculating fielding independent statistics for pitchers, both strikeouts and command are each extremely important. Therefore, I think it’s best that we split the two in half, using a pitcher’s arsenal of pitches (in order of normal pitch frequency) to project their upside striking batters out. It’s always worth taking pitchers, since having one who is cheap and talented is very important considering how much high-end pitchers are constantly in demand. However, it doesn’t appear that it should come at the cost of an intriguing, athletic young position player at a valuable position- star position players are arguably more valuable than ace pitchers, since building a pitching staff is as much about depth as having one terrific pitcher.

There will be some outliers to this rule, such as White Sox first baseman prospect Andrew Vaughn, but generally, teams should always place an emphasis on collecting as many talented players at positions where the average is valuable. In other words, even Vaughn has to be a .400 on-base percentage type of hitter to be a star, while fellow White Sox prospect Nick Madrigal, who plays the middle infield, doesn’t have as much pressure to meet expectations in order to provide value. We never know whether prospects will pan out, but teams can prevent themselves from disaster by not having their future depend on a first baseman or corner outfielders, and rather from their accumulation of catchers, shortstops, center fielders, third basemen, and second basemen.

In football, it’s apparent that an average quarterback or cornerback is more valuable than an average defensive tackle. Therefore, draft analysts adjust their boards to take that into account. It’s time for that to also be the case in baseball, where teams can really gain an edge by accommodating for positional value with their prospect rankings.

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