It’s Time To Fix How We Evaluate MLB Prospects

Prospect evaluation may be the most difficult part of any sport. After all, the best way to judge a player is based on their previous production, but we don’t have that luxury with prospects- we are forced to project how they’ll fare playing at higher levels, which is a burdensome task. As this process has garnered the attention of the public more, however, it is clear that there are incredibly exploitable inefficiencies with how prospects are currently judged. That’ll be the focus of today’s article, though we’re go about in a different way. Most of the content on this website is focused on numbers and models, but today, let’s simply have a conversation. Using my findings from previous studies, as well as anecdotes from specific prospects and teams, I’ll lay out my ten greatest issues with the current method of prospect evaluation. Finally, I’ll answer the two major questions: what is a prospect’s future value, and what is the ideal prospect acquisition process for teams?

#1: There’s No Way To Quantity Potential, So Stop Trying

A’s GM Billy Beane- Photo Cred: Athletics Nation

If I received a nickel for every time I’ve seen a prospect be descried as possessing an immense amount of “upside”, I’d be a billionaire. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m not receiving those nickels that bugs me about this, but the idea that we can quantity potential is absurd. After all, isn’t the most accurate way to project future performance is to use a player’s previous production? Let me phrase this a different way. I would much rather bet on a player who has constantly produced than one who hasn’t, and that would appear to be common logic. Yet, so many times, evaluators fall in love with players who have “projectable tools”. That’s understandable, but if those players have such translatable skills, why aren’t they producing against what should be inferior competition. When I think about the debate on whether “upside” truly exists, I think of a famous quote by Brad Pitt playing A’s lead executive Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball: “If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?”. So, why does this misconception exist. Honestly, I think it comes down to there being too much faith in the ability to develop prospects. It’s easy to understand the sense of pride a scout/general manager must feel when they put their faith into a player who needs a lot of development, only for them to become a star. Still, the chances of someone with that profile being simply an everyday player are nowhere near as high as you’d think, which is why relying on the ability to predict “upside” is an extremely faulty process.

#2: Having a “High Floor” Isn’t a Flaw

Jake Cronenworth- Photo Cred: The Detroit News

With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a shocker that I believe that having a “high floor” is actually one of the best aspects of a prospect’s scouting report. After all, if you buy into the idea that we can’t quantity potential, and rather should place an emphasis on a player’s present ability, then being considered a polished product is awesome. Right now, having a high floor is seen as a criticism, as it’s a preconceived notion that those types of prospects can’t get better. Yet, who is to say they can’t get better? Take Padres’ rookie standout Jake Cronenworth as a prime example. In his previous scouting reports, he was labeled as a low-ceiling utility player. Well, he’s now on his way to being the Rookie of the Year, and he’s not the only example of this; pitchers who have been labeled as “back-end starters”, such as Shane Bieber and Chris Paddack, are among the many “high-floor” prospects to blossom into star players. To refer back to the quote in Moneyball from our first principle, a good hitter should hit good, and if those prospects do so, then I could care less about what their ceiling is supposed to be, based on his physical tools.

#3: Drafting High-School Players(Especially Hitters) Is Risky

Mickey Moniak Photo Cred: Philadelphia Inquirer

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a high-floor prospect out of high school. I’m more confident in high school pitchers, given their ability to control the game, as specific data points (spin rate, movement, spin efficiency) can be improved upon over time to go along with their raw tools. Prep hitters, on the other hand, are a different story. Easily the most important skill for a hitter, based on the research I’ve conducted, is their pitch selection. For college hitters, one can look at their plate discipline data and are able to get a good gauge for how they fare in this area. High-school hitters, however, are generally facing inferior competition and are generally so much better than the other players on their team, so it’s nearly impossible to know how their plate discipline will translate to pro ball. Wait, if you can’t get a read on a hitter’s most important skill, why bother drafting them with an early pick? That’s something that I consistently ponder when I see teams bet on high-school players at the top of the draft, as those players are much more prone to bust- Mickey Moniak, Alex Jackson, and Nick Gordon are recent examples. Rather, since their plate discipline is unknown for the most part, I’d take a chance on a prep prospect with a later pick, as the gap between them and the premier prospects may be much smaller than evaluators believe to currently e the case.

#4: Target Players Who Are Skilled In Stable Areas

Austin Martin- Photo Cred: Nashville Post

So, we’re supposed to be targeting high-floor players, right? Correct, but do you know who those players are? Simply, you want to target players who are proficient in stable skills. What are those skills? Based on our research done on stable metrics, that would be plate discipline, the ability to hit the ball hard, and bat control. Ironically, the top two position players in this past draft, in my opinion, were tremendous in each of these areas: Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin and Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson. I’m very confident in those two players becoming star players, as they’re productive in every area where improvement is the hardest. Now, they can refine their abilities in smaller aspects – improving their launch angle, defense, etc. It’s easier to project development when the prospect’s weaknesses are in areas that have proven to be much more straightforward when it comes to progressing, rather than extremely difficult aspects. This should be common knowledge, but then again, we tend to fall in love with prospects with power, defense, and pure-hitting ability, over those who are elite when it comes to pitch selection.

#5: Surface Level Statistics Are Often Pointless, But Peripherals Are Useful

Photo Cred: KSDK.com

Since they are facing inferior competition, I tend to not pay attention to a prospect’s surface-level statsitics: wrc+, slash-line, ERA. After all, they should be tearing it up, as good hitters/pitchers hit/pitch good. Rather, paying attention to their peripherals, which are far less subject to change as the advance up the system, is a far better approach. This explains why I’m lower on White Sox young centerfielder Luis Robert. He had poor plate discipline throughout the minors, and so far, that’s been backed up in the majors (over 46% chase rate, about a 32% K rate). What has changed, though, is surface-level statistics, as his batted ball luck (BABIP) has fallen off dramatically. In other words, his peripherals displayed his inability to produce in stable areas, which hasn’t gotten better, while the unstable areas of his game, have, in fact, turned out to be volatile. This is really just a branch from principle #4, but I did want to make sure that I demonstrated the value of peripherals as a quantified way to understand how a player fares in stable aspects of baseball.

#6: Assess a Player Based Off Their Skills, Not Their Body, Name, or Age

Mike Yastrzemski- Photo Cred: Yard Barker

This principle should be common practice, but, somehow, it clearly isn’t: prospects should be valued based on how their actual baseball skills project to the next level, rather than their age, body, or name. Let’s go over these three misconceptions:

  1. Age: I hear so often that a prospect is facing a critical year of their development, as they’re “already” a certain age, and older prospects tend to be negated. This make absolutely zero sense. We know that development isn’t linear, and if that’s the case, then why should we just suddenly give up on a talented player because they’re older. Players can have a breakthrough at different times, so rather than letting them be claimed on waivers, they should garner a greater spotlight and be a higher priority for front offices. Jacob deGrom, Mike Yastrzemski, Max Muncy, Austin Nola, the list goes on and on. You want to have one of these players? Don’t give up on them.
  2. Body type: I’ll make this quick, I care about if a player plays well, not how they look. If they have an on-base percentage of .400, who cares if they look like a premier athlete or not?
  3. Name: High-round picks get so much more leeway than other prospects, but we’ve already gone over how the draft is a complete crapshoot, for the most part. Thus, we need to be more willing to accept this, and not be so skeptical when later-round picks burst onto the scene. The Dodgers, after all, just promoted Zach McKinstry, who they selected in the 33rd round in 2016!

#7: Don’t Overvalue Defense, Just Make Sure They Can Play a Valuable Position

Victor Robles- Photo Cred: Federal Baseball

On this website, we’ve concluded that offense is 5.35 times more valuable than defense, which is why the statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is now flawed. Thus, we can fall into the trap of overrating a player’s defensive ability, and this is particularly worrisome with prospects. As I mentioned, we should target players who are skilled in stable areas, and defense certainly doesn’t fit that bill- defensive metrics are much more volatile than offensive statistics. Thus, banking on a player being an elite defender, especially when defensive data is likely more limited in the minors, is incredibly risky. Take Victor Robles of the Nationals, for example. Ranked as a consensus top-five prospect in the sport, his hitting always left a lot to be desired in the minors, and so far, he’s been a below-average offensive producer (89 career wrc+). That’s far from the superstar potential he is supposed to have, and there are other prospects (Joey Bart, Christian Pache) who I feel evaluators have fallen into the same trap with. On the other hand, it’s time that prospects such as Michael Busch (Dodgers) and Trevor Hauver (Yankees), who project as below-average defensive second baseman but have clear offensive skills, get the love they deserve.

#8: Understand Positional Value

Photo Cred: PressBoxOnline.Com

Since the goal of prospect evaluation is to project them to the big-league level, we need to quantify how valuable they are. Thus, it is a necessity that we take into account positional value. Due to the lack of talent at certain positions, there is a higher greater margin for those types of players. What positions are we talking about? That would be the up-the-middle positions (catcher, middle infield, center field), while there are a lot of productive players at corner positions- prospects at those positions need to stand out more. To do so, I recommend not only projecting how valuable a player is from a $/production standpoint, but by also taking into account the implied value based on the average production at the position. Thus, a greater emphasis is placed on players who play positions where teams actually need help.

#9: Target Position Players At The Top of The Draft; The Second/Third Tier of Pitching Is The Best Place To Add Pitching Depth; Flawed Pitchers Are More Valuable Than Flawed Hitters

Photo Cred: Bleacher Report

Acquiring an ace is always rewarding, which is why teams at the top of the draft aren’t usually shy about drafting pitchers. However, based on most value calculations, a single star pitcher simply doesn’t provide as much value to a team as a standard star hitter, which makes sense. Think about this way; there is much more margin for error when it comes to having a flaw for a pitcher. You can be a command artist, a strikeout master, or a mixture of both. For a position player, though, a flaw in pitch selection, power, or defense can be far more exploitable, and thus is likely to have a much more significant impact on their value. Thus, I would be much more selective when it comes to selecting position players, which is why I’d target the least flawed ones at the top of the draft, before shifting towards the second/third tier of pitchers later. In my opinion, building a strong pitching staff is more about depth than having a frontline starter, while star hitters can much more move the needle. Thus, I’m a major proponent of the draft strategy that I’m proposing here. For this reason, if Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker is going to warrant being the #1 pick in my eyes, he’s going to have to really set himself apart from the rest of the pack, as I’d have a tough time passing on a productive position player, such as Florida’s Jud Fabian.

#10: Don’t Be Rigid

Jeff Lunhow- Photo Cred: The Athletic

Most of all, though, there isn’t one specific strategy that’s a one-sized-fit-all. The game is constantly changing, and to respond to this, teams need to be willing to adapt. Going back to Moneyball, another one of Brad Pitt’s best quotes playing Billy Beane is “adapt or die”. This is a motto that should be key principle for any front office, as being stuck in one current approach can make you short-sighted and not provide you with the flexibility needed to properly judge prospects. A balanced team is preferred over one that isn’t, and that starts with prospect evaluation.

So, What Is Future Value?

I’m glad we finally got here! Based on how much I’ve advocated for a player’s present ability, you may assume that this is what I believe future value is. Yet, I understand that certain players are likely, based on their data, to develop into better players than they currently are, especially in unstable areas. Thus, it’s important that we look at a player’s mean projections, which comes from balancing their floor and ceiling. As I mentioned, the key principle for prospect evaluation is to avoid rigidity, so, with that in mind, taking all factors into account, and weighting it properly, is the optimal approach.

What Is The Ideal Prospect Evaluation Process?

As I’ve mentioned, I believe in acquiring star position players and aiming to gather as much pitching depth. Additionally, with an early pick, I want to decrease the amount of volatility present, so I’m much more inclined to target a college player with a lot of present ability. Later on, though, I’d target prep players, as that’s where the volatility comes in handy (a later round pick could become a star); I’d also increase the volatility and balance in my system by targeting a lot of international prospect depth. Most of all, though, keeping all ten of these principles in mind would assist in a more optimal prospect evaluation process.

I hope you enjoyed this article! This is a different article than most of the featured pieces, as it’s taking a collection of all the studies conducted here, and turning it into a conversation on prospect evaluation. In the future, I’ll be publishing the results of my updated prospect model, which included team rankings, player rankings, and also a look at the most undervalued prospects. Just remember, a good hitter is supposed to hit good!

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