Digging Deeper Into Prospect Lists
The Trade That Wasn’t has focused a lot of attention on the M’s prospects and how teams value assets like Taijuan Walker or Nick Franklin. It’s worth remembering that the prospect valuations Victor Wang did back in 2007-08 and that have been updated many times by many people since then use prospect rankings as their raw material. That is, theoretical value is largely determined by a prospect’s place on a list like the BA Top 100. They’re they source of a lot of frustration, excitement and all-around interest; we know we shouldn’t, but many of us can get into long arguments about the ordinal ranking of a team’s 5th best RHP.
I mentioned the differences in several of the big prospect rankings back on New Year’s Eve. Today, we look deeper into the lists with Conor Glassey of Baseball America and Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. As authors of two of the lists I looked at, they can explain how they do what they do using the M’s system as an example. This is an article about how others write lists, and if that’s too meta for you, I understand. But I hope this conversation sheds some light on prospects and player development in general, as well as add something to what you know about several M’s prospects.
CG= Conor Glassey, USSM Alumnus, Baseball America employee, MLB draft expert
JP= Jason Parks, chief of Baseball Prospectus’ prospect coverage, noted Texan, instructional league regular
MW: What’s more important, to you: capturing that moment in time faithfully, or picking the best MLB players 5-10 years down the road? Is that a false dichotomy?
CG: Yeah, those aren’t mutually exclusive. What I always try to do in any list I create, whether it’s draft rankings, a league top 20 or an organization top 30s, is pick the best potential MLB players at that particular moment. However, it’s not just about potential upside. There’s always that tough balance of risk vs. reward, but all of our lists are a snapshot in time that present the best future big leaguers based on the current pulse of the industry.
JP: Indeed. The desire to be faithful to a moment while staying true to the desire or need to be “correct” about an evaluation when the developmental music stops is a constant struggle for me. I want to paint an accurate picture of the moment, but I also want to be as realistic as possible when it comes to projection, so that my reports aren’t empty and arbitrary. This isn’t always a happy marriage. Players change, reports change, and projections change, so what is accurate in January might not read as such in June. The process itself is a paradox.
MW: An extremely/increasingly popular paradox. Is that rewarding to you, or does it put more pressure on you knowing the marketplace is getting crowded?
JP: My honest answer is that the more crowded the marketplace becomes, the easier it is for my work to stand out. I’m in a different position than most, as I get to do this full-time with the support of a company. I travel around watching baseball all year long and I get my calls returned by the industry (most of the time), so I don’t have to throw darts at a board or rely on the work of others to make my case. I’ve been very fortunate to learn from people in the prognostication business and from people inside the industry evaluation machine, and it puts me in a good position to succeed. I’m very lucky and very thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given.
MW: How important is maturity/make-up? How important is that variable in your rankings of Zunino/Walker? From everything we’ve heard, Zunino’s ‘leadership’ is off the charts. Not saying Walker’s been anything but a coach’s dream, either, but is Zunino’s motivation/leadership sort of the tie-breaker, is it the more prosaic “he’s a position player?” (for Conor) or the more exciting “he’s a potential #1 starter?” (for Jason)
CG: Makeup is absolutely important. Don’t just take my word for it, read what scouts had to say about makeup in my interviews with them about scouting. Good makeup is especially important for a leadership position like catcher, and Zunino has the added benefit of growing up around the game, since his father has been a scout for more than 25 years. When it came down to choosing between Zunino and Walker, I gave the edge to Zunino because there’s less risk with him. But both are excellent prospects who are among the top 25 prospects in the game.
JP: Makeup is huge for me. When I see a teenager promoted aggressively, playing at or above the level of much older competition, I know there is more to the equation than just raw talent. It takes a special kind of makeup in a player to handle accelerated developmental plans. I’m a huge fan of Walker, and I ranked him higher because I think he has more upside than Zunino, who is also a very talented player. I just think his skill-set, despite being at a premium position, is a bit overrated by some, as the receiving skills didn’t receive the best reports. The offensive package is solid as well, but I think its a a down-the-lineup bat. The total package is a monster, but not the same kind of monster that Walker could be. Makeup plays into both evaluations. It takes something extra to be a special arm, just as it takes something extra to excel at such a demanding mental and physical position like catcher. Without certain intangible qualities, I would have more doubts about the realities of their projections.
MW: The scouts all mentioned just how important makeup is, and that’s not a surprise given everything Jack Z or Tom McNamara has said at USSM gatherings in recent years. But do you think baseball is excellent at judging this? That is, is the kind of makeup in evidence by asking people if the kid’s a “good kid” or by talking one on one (another thing Jack/Tom have mentioned repeatedly) a good proxy for the kinds of skills that can make a difference in a prospect getting to the majors? If it’s the most important tool to so many, you’d expect that scouts would be pretty confident in their ability to identify it. Is that the case? For such a crucial skill/tool, it seems the least objective and most liable for misinterpretation or error, especially when dealing with cultural differences or culture shock borne of sticking a 17yo kid from the Dominican in Clinton Iowa in April or Lowell, MA in July. However important it is, does the industry overrate how well they can ID it?
CG: That’s really tough to say. It’s easier to scout the tangible things, obviously, because they’re tangible. Scouts can see how fast a pitcher throws, they can see how his fastball moves, they can see his breaking stuff, they can see bat speed and footwork and soft hands at shortstop. It’s much tougher to assess makeup. But it’s not for a lack of effort, which is why I do think the scouting industry, in general, does a good job in this regard. Because what more can you ask of them? They’re already going to great lengths to try and figure these kids out. For high picks, they talk to as many people as they can, including people who aren’t invested in the player, they observe them inconspicuously, they use psychological tests and in some cases even hire private investigators. Makeup is the X-factor and being able to determine which players have the work ethic, competitive drive, leadership and baseball IQ helps allow players to get the most out of their tools, and vice versa.
JP: Teams are going to evaluate makeup using different methods than third-party observers, so the task becomes more difficult, and yes, ultimately very subjective and open to misinterpretation and/or error. From an outside perspective, positive makeup labels can be attached by word of mouth (talking to coaches, teammates, etc), and watching a player in workouts, drills, prep, game action, post-game action, etc,. For me, makeup isn’t about personality, or affability, and certainly don’t give a shit if a player is a good person, whatever that means. I want to know if a kid can handle the professionals rigors of the game, ranging from daily preparation and execution to daily setbacks and triumphs. You can learn a lot about a player by watching them succeed and by watching them fail. Baseball is a grind, and in the minors, that grind has a way of weeding out those that can’t handle the vicious ups and downs associated with their daily life. If you spend a healthy chunk of time around a player(s), you start to get a sense of how they approach the game, which is a major part of the makeup equation. It’s far from perfect, and obviously leaves outside observers making assumption based on superficial influence, but if you watch a player enough, talk to his coaches/player dev, and pay attention to some of the small things, you can start to define a player’s overall dedication and approach to the game, which can greatly affect how their physical characteristics manifest on a field.
MW: The biggest baseball rat/motivated/confident/hard-working prospect I’ve seen in several years is Nick Franklin. How did this affect your ranking of Franklin? Was his motivation enough to keep him where he was given the assumed position shift? Or was that again more about talent and left-handed pop from a middle infielder?
CG: Personally, I’ve loved Nick Franklin as a player ever since I first saw him in high school and his ranking is based on talent. Obviously there are questions with him as a prospect—especially whether or not he can stay at shortstop and if he’ll ever be able to figure things out as a right-handed hitter. But even with those question marks, I think he’s going to be a solid big league regular.
JP: It was a major part of the evaluation puzzle. Baseball rats know how to play baseball, and that’s what it comes down to. You can have all the tools in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, what good will you be to a major league team? We get lost in tools and the dreams of projection, and I’m a recidivist when it comes to falling in love with promise, but the search for loud tools can often cause evaluators to close their eyes to actual baseball skills. Franklin is a gamer with drive and instincts for the game, and I’ll take that every day of the week.
MW: Conor, you had to know this was coming. Last year Phillips Castillo, Chance Ruffin and Francisco Martinez were in the top 10. Today, they may not make a top 20. Is the whole enterprise too focused on the last year of stats/last games watched? Or are lists volatile because baseball players (esp. at lower levels) are volatile?
CG: Good question. And you’re right—Ruffin and Martinez both dropped into the 20-30 range for the Mariners’ 2013 chapter in the Prospect Handbook after having bad years, while Castro dropped off the list completely. I stuck with Ruffin because even though he had a down year, he’s still been in the majors before and still is a pretty low-risk bet to be a middle reliever. With Martinez, scouts have always liked his tools, but he really had a poor year at the plate. Still, with his athleticism, he could be an interesting utility player with a chance for more if the bat comes around (and he’s shown flashes in the past). Getting to your actual question, I think it’s more of the latter. Projecting teenagers 10 years into the future is very difficult. Tools and scouting information still drive the majority of our rankings, but statistics certainly factor in, as well. It makes sense to use as much information as possible when, as you said, prospects are so volatile.
MW: And Jason, you knew THIS one was coming: Luiz Gohara and Tyler Pike. These are two guys who don’t show up anywhere close to the top 10 on other lists. What do you think is different about your process that led to what some might see as an anomalous result?
JP: I spend five weeks every year at spring training facilities, two weeks every summer watching the complex leagues, and two weeks every fall watching the instructional league, so I have access to a lot of lower level talent. As a result, I have been able to build sources at those levels, ranging from the amateur markets of Latin America to the stateside complex leagues. I spoke with roughly ten sources for the Mariners article, and every single source was high on Gohara. He’s super young, and obviously there isn’t a professional record, but that’s what makes the scouting more challenging. I’m not looking at their stats or crimping from ubiquitous reports online, I’m simply making calls to people who watch the players and starting a conversation about what they like or dislike. The reports I received on Gohara were so thorough that I was able to build a profile without a statistical record.
MW: With Gohara, I’ve seen quotes about him being essentially where Victor Sanchez was; that is, a highly, highly advanced arm for his age. But like Sanchez, that uncommon polish comes without Felix Hernandez-level raw stuff (from what I know). Is his ranking based more on ceiling or on the “snapshot in time” of how people view him approach?
JP: The Gohara ranking is weighted heavily towards ceiling, but the context of the present is also very important. Here is a kid that is a true 16-year-old, flashing three quality pitches from the left-side, with a big, strong frame and a feel for the craft. Just like a young, first-round draft pick, you look at the promise and the potential more than anything else, but just because he’s 16 and lacks a professional record doesn’t mean his present profile shouldn’t be a factor. What this kid can do at the present is abnormal.
MW: What pushed Gohara (#7) over Sanchez (#8), who, one could argue, represents a best-case scenario for Gohara over the next year? Is it handedness?
JP: Present/projected size, handedness, and present/projected stuff. Gohara might not even match the on-the-field results of Sanchez in year one, but you don’t find many players with his specific skills at that age very often. He’s a monster left-handed pitcher with the potential for high-end stuff. Sanchez is a stud, but he doesn’t have the same projections as Gohara. Gohara could be very abnormal.
MW: Tyler Pike drew raves for his command, competitiveness and polish in the AZL, but he too seems to lack the high-end stuff of other pitchers, or the bat/position of a guy like Brad Miller. Talk me through how you deal with reports on complex-leaguers: what do you need to hear to give a guy like Pike a major bump up the ranking? We’re dealing with leagues where the numbers don’t offer much assistance, and where so much development remains ahead of a just-drafted high-schooler – are make-up comments as important as, say, velocity readings?
JP: At the lower levels of the minors, it’s difficult to evaluate young pitchers without taking the developmental process into account. Young arms, especially those coming out of HS or Latin America, will often spend the first few seasons building up their arm strength via four-seam fastball repetition and working to refine command. They might have high-end out pitches that get put on the shelf, or immature/underdeveloped secondary pitches that get thrown into the sequence that will affect their on-the-field production. It’s important to find out the whys even more than the whats at that level. When it comes to complex league reports, I want to know how often certain pitches are being thrown, how a pitcher responds to getting hit, getting squeezed, on top of getting all the raw data on their arsenal. The better arms are the ones that show feel early, despite working within a developmental plan that might retard some of their best raw stuff. When a pitcher can show that feel, and show stuff, and show the necessary makeup and drive to handle the process, that’s when you have something to work with.
MW: How do you handle ranking guys in complex leagues and instructs, Conor?
CG: With younger guys, scouting reports are a lot more important than statistics. With the guys in complex leagues, we generally have a lot of information on those guys heading into the start of the league, as many are coming in straight out of the draft, which we cover extensively, or are coming in as international signings. Our international writer at Baseball America, Ben Badler, covers that beat better than anyone in the business, and it’s not close. And then we still cover those leagues the same way we do each league for our end of the year top 20 prospect list.
MW: Obviously, you’ve heard a lot about a kid from the draft, but are there things that really get your attention if you hear them from a scout in the AZL? What would cause you to increase (or drop) your assessment of a kid from the #100-150th best kid in his draft class to something like a top 10-15 kid in his org? I’d assume wood bats is a big test, as is dealing with the grind of playing so often. What kind of a report really grabs you as you’re contemplating a Tyler Pike/Timmy Lopes/Edwin Diaz?
CG: For those players, it was mostly the same stuff we heard heading into the draft. But the biggest attention grabbers typically in those leagues—both positive and negative—are pitchers who show a boost in velocity and hitters who rack up a lot of strikeouts.
MW: Particularly with the youngsters, you have to rely quite a bit on what your sources throughout the game have to say. Is part of doing your job well knowing which sources to trust, and which to discount?
CG: Very true. Scouts are the backbone of baseball and talking to scouts is crucial to pretty much everything we do at Baseball America. Contrary to an odd and frustrating misconception, we are not scouts at Baseball America, we’re journalists. We cover hundreds of games in person throughout the year and five former staff members have gone on to scout for teams (Josh Boyd, Alan Matthews, Chris Kline, Matt Blood and Kevin Goldstein), but at our core, we’re journalists. Doing my job means talking to as many different people as I can, do get an accurate sense of the overall feeling on a player. I try to take everything I hear about a player and weigh it accordingly. In some cases, that’s no problem because the opinions are all pretty similar. When there is a difference in opinion on a player, I try to reflect that as well.
JP: I like to watch players in person, and that’s how I like to build the profiles. I do have a lot of sources, and I don’t always agree with them, but I try to stay true to my feelings on a player if I’ve been fortunate enough to see them on a field. I can’t see everybody, and obviously a seasoned major league scout will be able to provide a more seasoned take on a prospect, but I don’t just want to be an aggregator for industry opinion. I love to scout and I like propagating my own evaluations when applicable. The more games I watch in person, whether that comes at Perfect Game amateur showcase, or international showcases (I’m headed to the DR on Tuesday), or minor league games, the more selective I become when using the opinions of scouts in my reports. You can tell when a person has a good handle on a player, just as you can tell when a person doesn’t. I prefer to build the prospect skeleton based on my own observations, and then fill in the frame with as many outside opinions as I can find.
MW: Do you ever feel like you have a better feel on some teams/leagues than others? Like you’ve got a couple of 70-80 grade scout source in the AZL/complex leagues, but the Grapefruit league guys are 50-55s?
CG: Mostly during the year, I do draft coverage, so I’m calling scouts about high school and college players more than pro guys. While I have a very good network of sources, there are some areas of the country where I have more guys than others. But that’s the great thing about Baseball America—our coverage is a collective effort. When we split up the country for our state-by-state breakdowns before the draft, I do my regions, Jim Callis does his, Aaron Fitt covers Southern California, John Manuel does the Southeast and Nathan Rode does the Carolinas on up, so we all have different sources all over the country and the same thing is true for pro scouts and pro coverage.
JP: Sure. A scout can’t bullshit me when it comes to complex league action. I spend too much time watching that level not to recognize quality info from flimsy crap. But I’m very fortunate to know a lot of really good talent evaluators at all levels. Obviously, some are simply better than others, but that’s not unique to the scouting industry. I tend to gravitate towards sources that view the game the way I do, which is both helpful and easy, and counter-productive when our opinions are in lock step.
MW: The growth of interest in prospects the past 10 years or so is largely due to the explosion in popularity of fantasy baseball (and keeper leagues in particular). Does this influence what you do at all? Do you just ignore it, or is that not a real possibility given the reason so many readers are buying subscriptions? Do you care?
JP: I’m glad more people are invested in the prospect world. I’m not overly familiar with the fantasy side of it, and I think it puts too much importance on statistical output, but whatever starts the prospect fire works for me. I’d rather answer prospect questions than fantasy prospect questions, because again, its not always about the numbers at those levels, but I love the discussions regardless.
CG: Thanks for teeing one up for me, Marc! The best fantasy baseball players already knew about Baseball America and were winning leagues last year because they already stashed away guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, guys we’ve been writing about since high school. Well…their secret’s out now, as Baseball America just released its first fantasy guide. It hit newsstands on Jan. 8 and can also be ordered here.
MW: Do you ever think the focus on fantasy as opposed to “real” baseball value (where individual defense means more than just position eligibilty) gets in the way?
CG: The fantasy magazine is a separate deal, but I think with the writing in our magazine, on our site and in the Prospect Handbook, we’re still writing about these guys as all-around baseball players, not fantasy players. We write about things like defense and makeup and things that scouts talk about that have virtually no value to fantasy players in most leagues. Before we had a fantasy magazine, we just left it up to our smart readers to figure things out from a fantasy perspective. But, no, I don’t think it ever gets in the way. I’m happy anytime someone wants to read our content, whether it’s to get a leg up for fantasy purposes, for baseball card collecting, or just because they want to be more informed as a fan of the game.
MW: How do you factor in a guy’s player development context? That is, do you assume a player has a higher chance of reaching his ceiling in organization A rather than organization B? Should people do more of this? Have your years in this field given you a decent idea of who’s building a better development mousetrap?
CG: That’s a tricky one. Some organizations have better scouting departments and some have better player development departments, but it’s like a bell curve. So, it doesn’t factor in much, if at all, which I think is a good thing. In fact, I think sometimes prospects tend to get overrated because they’re part of certain organizations. Going back to what I said earlier about prospects being so volatile, it’s really difficult to pinpoint why players don’t turn out. So, if anything, working at Baseball America for four years now has led to more questions than answers when it comes to player development. That’s why baseball is so awesome, so humbling, and why I always cherish picking the brains of scouts and executives with infinitely more experience and wisdom.
JP: For me, it has to start and end with talent. The best developmental system in the world isn’t going to take a role 4 player and make him a role 7 player. It has to start with the talent. Any org that tailors their plan to the individual is running a good system, in my opinion. Each player is unique, so treat each development plan with the same approach. You can’t expect two players from two different backgrounds and two different skill-sets to develop in the same manner, at the same time, using the same approach. Teams that have tried that have failed to maximize the talent of the players in question. That’s what player development really is. You can’t teach talent, but you can coerce that talent to mature through the process of instruction and guidance.
MW: One of the keys in evaluating guys like SS prospects is evaluating how their defense will play 3-4 years down the road. How good is the industry at doing this? How big are the error bars around a statement that says Brad Miller will play average-ish D at SS in MLB?
CG: A lot of scouts take a negative approach and are quick to write guys off or downgrade them for one reason or another. If they say, for example, “Well, he’s not going to play shortstop,” or, “He’s not going to be a starting pitcher,” or, “I don’t think he’ll ever make the big leagues,” chances are, they’ll be right. That’s just the nature of the game. Baseball is a game of failure—from batting averages to the success rate of draft picks. With shortstops and catchers, there’s always extra critique on their defensive skills, because they’re the two most important positions on the diamond. But it’s always a sliding scale with those guys…if they hit enough, you’ll give them a pass on their defense to a degree. You have to hit like Mike Piazza if you’re going to catch like Mike Piazza. You have to hit like Derek Jeter if you’re going to play shortstop like Derek Jeter. On the other hand, you have to play shortstop like Brendan Ryan if you’re going to hit like Brendan Ryan. Nick Franklin has more offensive upside than Brad Miller, but there’s a split camp on which one is the better defender. I think it’d be accurate to say that either one could be a fringe-average defender at shortstop.
JP: I think the industry is very good at evaluating shortstops, but the offensive needs of the game can throw a wrench into the profiles, when bat first players remain at a position despite defensive limitations. Some teams will sell the promise (or average promise) of a defender in order to justify the value of the overall package, which is most likely driven by their offensive value at the position. If the industry was completely honest, fringe defenders would be called fringe defenders regardless of the offensive promise. But its hard to remove that aspect from the equation.
MW: Danny Hultzen came to the org with the reputation for brilliant command and polish. But like a number of pitchers, he had a bizarre command breakdown in AAA. Is it better or worse when a prospect’s ‘top’ tool becomes a problem for a short while? Does that make you question the ‘command’ reputation, or make you even more sure that the AAA problem was just the result of fatigue, randomness, etc.?
CG: The explanation I got was that when he got into jams, he would try to work harder instead of smarter. In doing so, the at-bats would snowball on him, which led to a string of bad outings. It’s easy to give him a pass because of the fact that he was in Triple-A a year after leaving college. The silver lining is that his stuff wasn’t down. Obviously you’d rather see players do well, but with his track record and makeup, I’m not concerned about this blip on the radar.
JP: His command was most likely always overrated. What appears to be elite command at the lower levels of professional baseball might not look so elite when you are facing more advanced hitters that can affect your overall approach. It’s common in AA and AAA because pitchers have to hit their spots more to avoid barrels, and the stuff can diminish as a result. It’s also common for pitchers to start aiming the ball more than they have in the past, which can produce a paradoxal effect; control slips away. With Hultzen, fatigue could certainly be a factor in the equation. But what some people are shy to mention is that its also entirely possible that Hultzen just isn’t as good as his draft position or initial hype might suggest. He might “only” be a quality number three/four starter rather than something else. Either outcome will offer tremendous value, but he isn’t without warts and the setbacks in Triple-A might be a preview of what is to come at the highest level of the game, where even the best arms struggle to stay ahead of the curve.
MW: What do you make of Hultzen’s ability to maintain his K rate? His velo seemed in line with what we heard from AA, but he often struggled not to hit spots, but to get the ball out of the other batter’s box. When he walked guys, he walked them in bunches, often on 4-5 pitches. Again does that give more or less confidence?
JP: He certainly had some release point issues, which (in theory) he should be able to iron out if the mechanical profile is sound. When pitchers lose their release, the ball can land anywhere. Because his arsenal is more solid-avg than plus, he will need to hit his spots to be effective at the highest level. He’s not going to miss MLB bats at a high clip; at least I think its unlikely given the intensity of his arsenal.