Leave it to Fangraphs readers to supply thought-provoking questions worthy of an entire post. After last week’s prospect chat, reader “GrittleTooth” belted a grand slam in the comments area with this gem:
I get that age is very important when evaluating prospects, but isn’t it also true that guys develop at different speeds and some ‘get it’ latter than others? What I’m getting at is that when you compare, for example, Collin Cowgill & Brett Lawrie the numbers they put up in the PCL last year were rather similar (.442 vs .460 wOBA over roughly same # PA’s in same league). Yes, Lawrie is 4 years younger, more highly regarded, and plays a different position. But how can you argue with the lesser prospect’s numbers?
Two-hundred words into a response, I realized this would make for an excellent post topic on age-versus-level and how that effects player projection at the major league level – especially given the statistics for both Brett Lawrie and Collin Cowgill were eerily similar in the same league.
Before delving into this topic head on, it’s important to mention the fact that exceptions do exist for every rule and that the best scouts are able to identify those. Having not scouted Lawrie or Cowgill as prospects, I’m only able to speak from prior experience and an understanding of the general rules and timelines for prospects establishing themselves at the big league level and how that impacts projection. It’s also important to understand Kevin Youkilis, Jose Bautista and others who become stars in their late 20s are examples of the exceptions and that their ascent is quite rare in terms of player development.
At 25, Collin Cowgill utterly dominated the PCL en route to a .354/.430/.554 line with 13 home runs and 30 stolen bases. In posting one of the most impressive stat lines in minor league baseball, he earned 100 big league plate appearances in Arizona before being included as a part of the Jarrod Parker-plus for Trevor Cahill trade. However, for as strong as Cowgill looks on paper, he’s already lost the race against the prospect time clock, as the vast majority of big leaguers who surface for good at 26 or later wind up as bench pieces and not first- or even second-division starters at the Major League level.
In comparison, Jays Brett Lawrie also torched PCL pitching to the tune of .353/.415/.661, including 18 home runs and 13 steals prior to accumulating a stunning 2.7 WAR in only 171 plate appearances spanning 43 games. This production has earned Lawrie a place amongst the best young players in baseball, supported by the fact 2012 will only be his age-22 season – an age at which the majority of star-level big leaguers establish themselves.
For me, projecting based on a basic 22-24-26 rule helps keep it simple when at the ballpark scouting. If I can project a player to establish himself for good at 22, then the potential is there for him to be a star. At 24, a player is likely to be a solid regular, but will fall short of star-level status. At 26, a bench role is the most likely outcome. This is not to say it’s a perfect system, as players will occasionally buck the general trend, but I’ve found it serves me quite well in practice. Additionally, it’s important not to forget that prospects flame out more often than not on the whole for a variety of reasons, so any system of projection will ultimately be imperfect.
As for Lawrie versus Cowgill, the difference in how both are viewed is a product of the age difference between the two prospects. For Cowgill, 2012 will be his age-26 season and it’s a generally accepted fact that a player’s prime begins at 26. This means Cowgill will be learning the ropes at the Major League level while already in his prime, so Collin Cowgill at 500 plate appearances may very well be similar to Collin Cowgill at 1,500 plate appearances or more. Beyond making minor adjustments to his approach at the game’s highest level, room for maturation both physically and mentally is limited due to his advanced age.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, projecting Brett Lawrie for 500-600 plate appearances during his age-22 through -25 seasons leaves him with a projected 2,000+ plate appearances to grow and adjust both physically and mentally at the big league level before entering his prime. This drastically increases the likelihood Lawrie becomes an impact player at the Major League level. Like any profession, the longer one is able to compete and learn at its highest level, the better the prime of the career is likely to be.
One caveat to this argument I hear quite often is that a player like Cowgill can’t be penalized for going to college, which is simply not true. Having been drafted at a young 22, Cowgill spent his age-19 through -21 seasons playing approximately 60 games per season at the University of Kentucky plus whatever summer ball college leagues he may have latched onto. For comparison’s sake, Lawrie has appeared in 369 games as a professional in the same amount of time, plus off-season instructs. The added development time is priceless as exemplified by Rany Jazayerli’s piece on the MLB draft and how younger is better.
Lost in this discussion is the fact, regardless of production, the expectation of a fifth-round college pick versus a first-round high school age pick should be different. When the Diamondbacks and Brewers drafted Cowgill and Lawrie, respectively, each could not have hoped for a more desirable outcome in terms of player development. Putting Cowgill’s success at the triple-A level into perspective is not meant to dismiss his success as a minor leaguer. If anything, that production is responsible for his projecting to have a Major League career at all as he was likely drafted with the intent of being more of a strong organizational piece.