Do Prospect Busts Ever Reach Their Potential?

The top prospect label is a form of baseball tenure. No matter if the player is deemed a bust, what once vaulted him to the top of prospect lists will continue to earn him big league opportunities.

Players aren’t considered to be the best of the best by prospect mavens unless their skills project extremely well at the major league level. When a player of this ilk fails, analysts can usually point to a specific flaw preventing his success. If a former top prospect is struggling to stick in the big leagues, many organizations will take a flier on the player to try their hand at solving his problems. If successful, a team can reap the rewards of a cheap and effective player. Otherwise, the investment was minimal, and the team can cut ties without any real risk.

This is why players like Lastings Milledge, Brandon Wood, and Jeff Francoeur will continue to get signed. In covering all three of these players over the last month, I got to thinking about how frequently these prospects-turned-busts turned things around at the major league level. Does it happen?

It should be known upfront that the idea of taking chances on these players will remain sound even if the rate at which they turn things around is low. Any strategy is reasonable when little or no risk is involved, even if it is ineffective in the end.

To that end, the goals here involve investigating the success rate of perceived failed prospects making significant improvements at the major league level and identifying players who fit the mold. These players would conceivably give suitors of the aforementioned triumvirate hope that their low risk investments will reward them greatly.

I first pooled together all batters who debuted at, or before, the age of 23 years old, and after 1950, under the mindset that a player will not usually debut at such a young age if he wasn’t ready to produce in the majors. Players considered ready at that young age were more likely than not top-tier prospects. From there, I gathered together the WAR tallies for these players from their age 23-26 seasons. The resulting players were further filtered in the following manners:

a) at least 400 total plate appearances across the four seasons
b) had to play in the majors for at least parts of all four seasons
c) not once in the four-year span did they surpass 1.6 wins above replacement

The last criteria can hereby be known as “The Brandon Phillips Filter”, as the Reds second baseman was given ample opportunities to succeed in spite of his relative failures early on, never producing more than 1.6 WAR with the Cleveland Indians. After applying these restrictions, a grand total of 340 players emerged. Some noteworthy names on the list: Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Scott Speizio, Wily Mo Pena, Russell Branyan, Laynce Nix, David Ortiz, Jeremy Giambi. The players in the initial result set averaged the following:

23 yrs old: 171 PA, 0.04 WAR
24 yrs old: 240 PA, 0.14 WAR
25 yrs old: 255 PA, 0.18 WAR
26 yrs old: 253 PA, 0.14 WAR

All told, the group came close to collectively defining the replacement level in the formative years of its members. From there, I added in player statistics over the fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons of the spans, which would correspond to ages 27-29, a range in which players tend to peak. No plate appearance floor was explicitly applied, but the players did have to play in the majors at some point during all three seasons.

The sample dropped from 340 players to just 207 players, which makes a great deal of sense: given the low WAR averages from the ages of 23-26 years old, it stands to reason that many of the players were given up on, and not afforded further opportunities to turn things around. For the 207 players who survived all of my filters, here are their pertinent numbers from ages 23-29:

23-26 yrs: 240 PA, 0.17 WAR
27 yrs old: 289 PA, 0.82 WAR
28 yrs old: 294 PA, 0.81 WAR
29 yrs old: 273 PA, 0.68 WAR

The players who stuck around deserved to stick around. The average WAR marks are still rather low, but a smaller subset of players definitely turned things around and reached, or exceeded, their potential. A total of 21 players surpassed the Brandon Phillips filter by producing more than 1.6 WAR in each of their age 27, 28, and 29 yrs old seasons.* Here are the pertinent averages for these players:

23-26 yrs: 211 PA, 0.79 WAR
27 yrs old: 486 PA, 2.85 WAR
28 yrs old: 544 PA, 3.20 WAR
29 yrs old: 558 PA, 3.29 WAR

This group of players still averaged out to a below average player from the age 23-26 period, but improved drastically after being given further opportunities to succeed. But a group of 21 out of an initial resultset of 340 suggests a success rate of approximately 6.2 percent. It isn’t impossible for players like Wood, Milledge, or Frenchy to figure things out, but the odds are stacked against them.

As was previously mentioned, though, the low success rate in no way renders the low-risk/high-reward strategy ineffective. For every David Ortiz there may be 17 Ben Petrick‘s, but that means there is still one Ortiz. The production of the player that succeeds, over a few seasons, could potentially exceed what the team didn’t benefit from in the other 17 failed attempts.

Seeking these low-risk players is an apt strategy when constructing a roster, so long as the success of the team does not hinge upon such players resolving their issues.

*The full list of these 21 players: Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Damion Easley, Eric Karros, David Ortiz, Matty Alou, Don Demeter, Rick Dempsey, Jim Gantner, Larry Herndon, Jerry Lumpe, Mike MacFarlane, Dave May, Rance Mulliniks, Tim Naehring, Ben Ogilvie, Leon Roberts, Roy Sievers, Duke Sims, Charley Smith, Mickey Tettleton.



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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


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johngomes
Member
johngomes
5 years 1 month ago

how come Jeff Francoeur’s WAR in 2006 was 0.9, was everyone roiding so ther replacement was just as good as him? i think frenchies WAR in 2006 was at least as good as jheys rookie year, is it a system failure or typo-o pls look into it.

eckmuhl
Member
eckmuhl
5 years 1 month ago

Well, it took all of 10 seconds for me to look into it, and he posted a sub .300 OBP that season, so mystery solved.

Louis
Guest
Louis
5 years 1 month ago

The constant wave of Frenchy defenders continues to humor and surprise me.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel
5 years 1 month ago

It’s May 13th and Frenchy is still hitting .303/.350/.563. That seems worth defending to me.

Jason B
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Jason B
5 years 1 month ago

But THIS time it’s different!!!1!

Ory
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Ory
5 years 1 month ago

He didn’t have as many web gems that year. The most important component of WAR.

johngomes
Member
johngomes
5 years 1 month ago

thnx ory

Paul
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Paul
5 years 1 month ago

How do you operate the machine you used to send this message?

DJG
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DJG
5 years 1 month ago

Good article. I especially like that Rance Mulliniks made the list — great random 80s infielder. Jim Gantner was cool too.

TribeFanInNC
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TribeFanInNC
5 years 1 month ago

Rance Mullinks hit the first foul ball I ever caught. I love Rance sightings…or in this case, citings.

Michael
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Michael
5 years 1 month ago

I’d be interested to see how cost effective this strategy has actually been for teams, considering at the current value of 1 marginal win (between $4-5 million), a team just to break even in this strategy should never pay more than about $1MM* to any of these players for one year of service. Salary information is probably scarce for a lot of the sample, so it might not be possible to do this analysis, but I’d still love to see it.

If a lot of these players were getting minor league deals in their age 27 seasons, then this strategy was certainly cost effective, but I don’t know if that is what happened. I would think teams probably overpaid due to the allure of the top prospect aura, but I don’t know.

*0.06 x 3 WAR x $5MM = $900K
**I understand that historically a marginal win was not $5MM, so the actual threshold would have been much lower than $900K

Michael
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Michael
5 years 1 month ago

Forgot to add in the value of the 61% (207/340) of players who were still marginally successful, which should be (assuming the rest of the sample 33% was almost worthless).

0.61 * 0.8 WAR * $5MM = $2.44MM

Looks like the strategy actually does make sense up to about $3.5MM per year. Unless I did the math wrong again, which is entirely possible.

Jason B
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Jason B
5 years 1 month ago

“I understand that historically a marginal win was not $5MM”

It’s not now either, there’s just been a widespread enough acceptance of an errant convention to make it so in a lot of the SABR writings.

johngomes
Member
johngomes
5 years 1 month ago
eric_con
Guest
eric_con
5 years 1 month ago

Really like the article… 6% seems like a reasonable success rate for a turnaround.

Eric Farris
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Eric Farris
5 years 1 month ago

Hell, Ben Petrick’s numbers aren’t THAT terrible… .322/.401/.466 in 2000 was BABIP aided, but the .221 ISO in 01 is solid for a catcher.

IMFink's Pa
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IMFink's Pa
5 years 1 month ago

Petrick also contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1999. He now coaches at his high school in Oregon.

CJ
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CJ
5 years 1 month ago

It would be interesting to compare this success rate to the success rate for AAAA players who are given major league jobs in their late 20’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if their success rate is higher than 6%.

PGS
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PGS
5 years 1 month ago

Brandon Phillips isnt one of the 21? He doesn’t pass the Brandon Phillips filter?

MJ Recanati
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MJ Recanati
5 years 1 month ago

Just wondering but Eric Karros debuted in 1991, as either a 24 or 25 year old. Unless I’m reading this wrong, I thought the original pool of players was 23 or younger.

MGL
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MGL
5 years 1 month ago

I would guess that 5 or 6% of any group of players at any age, after meeting your criteria for 4 straight years, would show similar numbers for the next 3 years. If that is true, then the fact that these guys were presumably good prospects has nothing to do with what you found. Of course, a player who has done poorly for 4 years is most likely to do well subsequently during his peak years (27-29). Also, you have a self-selected sample since all of your players had to play in each of the subsequent 3 years (age 27-29) further increasing the chances that they will have had very good age 27-29 seasons. Frankly I am surprised at the 6% number. I would have thought it would be higher (given that the sample is self-selected and that you are looking at peak years). Heck, the aging curve alone plus the self-selection is enough to almost guarantee decent years at ages 27-29…

Eric Seidman
Guest
5 years 1 month ago

Actually, the self-sampling you described wouldn’t be in play. The first step was gathering everyone’s information for the four-year stretch. The subsequent 3 yrs (27-29) had nothing at all to do with that. Only after I found those players were the 3 subsequent years introduced, and that’s why the sample dropped from 340 to 207 –133 of the guys didn’t play in all of the next three seasons.

I’m onboard with everything else though.

evo34
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evo34
5 years 1 month ago

I don;t get this article at all. You’re looking at only the players who “stuck around” (presumably by not being that terrible) and then saying that yep, those guys who stuck around weren’t that terrible. Where is the information here? It’s the definition of selection bias.

bookbook
Guest
bookbook
5 years 1 month ago

Rick Dempsey? By the time I was around he was already a solid contributor to some very good teams. Funny to think of him as at one time being a busted prospect. Of course, it took him until age 41 to make his pitching debut…

I also wonder if the age range ought to be tweaked a bit for catchers since it takes them longer, as a group, to emerge from the fog of prospectdom.

siggian
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siggian
5 years 1 month ago

Interesting that Jose Bautista misses the final list only because he had a 0 WAR in his 27 yr season.

Blue
Guest
Blue
5 years 1 month ago

Looking at the list of “successes” I think the best that can be said is that a busted prospect has a chance to become a good, not great baseball player.

Bgaw
Guest
Bgaw
5 years 1 month ago

Question for Eric: Did you consider using any other criteria for determining who was a top prospect? Perhaps using some top 100 prospect list(s)? I realize this would limit the sample to players from the last few years or so, but I don’t think setting the standard at players that made their first appearance by age 23 is necessarily reflective of which players were perceived as top talents…

Eric Seidman
Guest
5 years 1 month ago

Yeah, definitely considered, but I didn’t want to limit the sample as you pointed out, and I felt it was more likely than not that a player debuting before 23 yrs old would be touted by the org. Sure, guys like Kyle Kendrick are also brought up early, but it seemed plausible that the majority were guys WORTH bringing up at the young age. Plus I wanted to find a way to keep age as a constant as opposed to using strictly the lists of others to fuel the sample. Your idea is def intriguing though.

AF
Guest
AF
5 years 1 month ago

I think this is a really questionable assumption. Intuitively, it doesn’t strike me as true at all — particularly if we’re focusing on highly touted prospects instead of just those considered potential regulars.

All this tells us is that sometimes, players struggle in their early 20s and then break out in their late 20s. I don’t think it in any way tells us that the players who do that were necessarily highly touted prospects.

kick me in the GO NATS
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kick me in the GO NATS
5 years 1 month ago

AF you do not get to come up unless you destroyed the minors. Destroying in th minors when your 20 or 21 will make you a top prospect.

Random Gay
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Random Gay
5 years 1 month ago

I am convinced that the writers on this site have some bizarre and unhealthy fixation on Jeff Franceour – have you noticed that these guys out of their way to mention him in almost every single article?

Conrad
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Conrad
5 years 1 month ago

No.

rob norton
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rob norton
5 years 1 month ago

no

DownLowenstein
Member
DownLowenstein
5 years 1 month ago

yes

Sun king
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Sun king
5 years 1 month ago

Um, Josh Hamilton was a totally busted prospect who became MVP later, I’d say that’s pretty great.

Merli
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Merli
5 years 1 month ago

Sure if you ignore the fact he never even got a chance to play in the majors. If he never had drug problems, he never would have even had a busted prospect label. That’s different from being a bust due to just not playing baseball well. Busted prospectus due to extenuating circumstances can become anything including stars such as Josh.

jorgath
Guest
jorgath
5 years 1 month ago

Huh.

I’d be interested to see a “later bloomers” version of this — instead of limiting to the three years after 26 years old, limit to players from the initial set who later put up three consecutive years in the majors with a WAR greater than 1.6.

I think that achieves the same aim, but allows for players who put up such years at 28-30 or 29-31 (etc.) instead of 27-29.

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