How Many Good Players Were Good Prospects?

Usually you see this the other way around — how many good prospects became good players? It’s the foundation of any worthwhile prospect analysis, and based on the research, what we indeed observe is that higher-ranking prospects have worked out better than lower-ranking prospects, thereby granting validity to the prospect rankings themselves. If we didn’t see any differences in future performance, we’d have to think, welp, someone’s doing something wrong.

But when you focus just on the future of prospects, you ignore a massive part of the player pool — those players who weren’t considered good prospects. Now, professional baseball is selective for good baseball players. The majors are even more selective. Everyone with a job in baseball has a job because he has some amount of promise, and there’s no such thing as an untalented big-leaguer. But there are the guys who had a lot of hype, and there are the guys the hype never touched. So we return to the headline question: how many good players were good prospects?

There’s no perfect way to analyze this, but there is a simple way to analyze this. I decided to use a cutoff of 3 WAR. For position players, this was regular WAR; for pitchers, this was 50/50 FIP/RA9-WAR. So, for me, a good player was a player worth at least three wins above replacement. Now, about the prospect part. I used the Baseball America historical top-100 lists. They’re an authority within the industry, and they’ve made it easy by providing rankings going all the way back to 1990. So, for me, the definition of a good prospect was a top-100 prospect. I don’t care when the guy was a prospect; as long as he was a good prospect at least once, that counted.

I know that the top-100 doesn’t include all the good prospects. There are always intriguing players left off. But these are supposed to be the best 100 prospects, averaging more than three per organization, and when you get into an organization’s middle-tier prospects, they’re usually not expected to have big futures. They’re not supposed to become 3-WAR players. There are, to me, good prospects, more fringey prospects, and non-prospects. That’s an oversimplification, but the point is that, what I did is what I did, and now you can look at some numbers.

We’ll cover the last three years. The information for 2012:

3warplayers_2012

In 2012, there were 114 players worth at least 3 WAR. So, by my definition, there were 114 “good” players. Of those, 54% had at one point ranked in the BA top 50. Another 18% had at one point ranked in the lower half of the BA top 100, so, 72% of the good players had previously been considered good prospects. The 3-to-1 ratio isn’t nuts — we know the better prospects have higher odds than the lower-ranking prospects. But then there’s the other 3-to-1 ratio — that of good prospects to unranked prospects. There were 32 3+ WAR players who never appeared on a list, and seven even had 5+ WAR seasons. I didn’t come into this expecting any particular number. A few years ago, 28% of good players hadn’t been too highly thought of as minor-leaguers.

Now, the information for 2013:

3warplayers_2013

Now you should know enough to walk yourself through the data presented. There’s not very much of it. The unranked slice got bigger, at the expense of the 51 – 100 slice. This time, there were 134 3+ WAR players. That’s a jump of 20 from the year before.

At last, the information for 2014:

3warplayers_2014

Check out that slice of the unranked! Out of 132 players worth at least 3 WAR, 51 from last season had never appeared on a BA top-100. So last year, 61% of good players had been good prospects. I don’t know if that’s more than you expected, or fewer, or exactly the same. It just is what it is. The 2014 numbers are different from the 2012 numbers, and it isn’t yet clear if that’s in any way meaningful.

Mike Trout? He was a prospect. Felix Hernandez? he was a prospect. Clayton Kershaw? Real good prospect. Yet there were 10 5+ WAR seasons posted by previously unranked players. The leader of all of them would be Corey Kluber. Kluber was at one point traded for Ryan Ludwick. He never showed up on a Padres top-10, nor did he show up on an Indians top-10. Then there’s Michael Brantley, a seventh-round pick who was at one point included in a trade as a PTBNL. He topped out at No. 5 on an Indians top-10. He never ranked with the Brewers. Jonathan Lucroy topped out at No. 5 on a Brewers top-10. You know that Josh Donaldson is an overachiever. Even Robinson Cano was never ranked; he was the No. 2 Yankees prospect before 2005, but that wasn’t considered a strong Yankees system. Cano was something of a tweener, and this future was never forecast for him.

Just averaging the last three years, you get this breakdown:

  • 52% had ranked No. 1 – 50
  • 15% had ranked No. 51 – 100
  • 33% had been unranked

So to answer the question, based on the method explained above, two-thirds of good players were at one time good prospects. Which means one-third of good players were not considered good prospects. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were non-prospects — it just means they’ve overachieved, relative to prior expectations, and this might be of some consolation to fans whose teams don’t score real well in farm-system rankings. Good players are typically seen coming, to some degree. But, not all the time. Not even close to all the time. Players will surprise you, and there might be no better evidence than Kluber beating out Felix for the 2014 AL Cy Young. There is a whole lot of ways to be good, and there is a whole lot of ways to get better.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Wall Five
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Wall Five
1 year 3 months ago

Awesome.

I wonder if the back end of top 100s tend to bet more on high risk/high upside teenagers in R/A ball while overlooking guys with higher floors who occasionally surprise, or maybe players who would have been comfortably in a top 100 prior to a year filled with injury or hiccuping on the first shot at a new level following a jump or skipped level.

jdbolick
Member
Member
1 year 3 months ago

Not just the back end. TOOLS! guys always populate a hefty percentage of any top 100 list due to their immense potential if they develop the skills to harness those talents. Javier Baez as the 5th best prospect and Archie Bradley as the 9th best last season are two good examples. Both already had glaring flaws and skill deficiencies, but their natural talent is so high that you have to acknowledge that potential. I imagine it’s the notion that skills can be taught whereas talent cannot that causes highly skilled players to be consistently underrated.

Steven
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Steven
1 year 3 months ago

Same sentiment, but guys who are labeled as “pure athletes” often get higher rankings than they deserve. Baseball is the one sport where being the best athlete doesn’t really correlate to how good you are at the sport.

nitpiglet
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nitpiglet
1 year 3 months ago

I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s no correlation. No direct relationship, sure. But being a good athlete is necessarily correlated with being a successful professional athlete.

Jay Stevens
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Jay Stevens
1 year 3 months ago

I think these lists are also biased against players who make big leaps in skill sets during the course of a season, like Mookie Betts. If Betts had not been called up to the majors, he’d be sitting atop the prospect rankings right now; instead, his highest ranking is #75. That is, I don’t think unranked players lack ranking because they are “skilled” as opposed to “toolsy” — I don’t think it’s evaluator bias at work — but because players develop new skills after the rankings occur.

These lists are snapshots of player talent at a certain moment, and growth happens during the course of a year.

Cheese
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Cheese
1 year 3 months ago

So would someone prefer to be unranked as opposed to 51-100?

Dan F
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Dan F
1 year 3 months ago

No.

Seagram's Gin
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Seagram's Gin
1 year 3 months ago

Darn, I wanted a second look at some classy flat rimmed mesh backed baseball caps.

Wes
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Wes
1 year 3 months ago

Interesting read. Perhaps would’ve been better if you’d crosschecked BA’s list with list from the likes of Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus. Now your article can also be a testament to BA’s relative incompetence, rather that the prospect status of a certain player.

Hoff
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Hoff
1 year 3 months ago

Baseball America is the preemptive source for prospects. No site or analyst goes into the depth that BA does. No disrespect to Kylie McDaniel, Keith Law, or BP. And as Jeff points out, they have more experience in the field.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
1 year 3 months ago

I think that it shows just how competent BA is. Identifying 2/3 of all “good” MLB players while they are in the minor leagues is impressive. Especially given the huge numbers game they are up against by only selecting 100 each year (with lots of overlap).

Loren
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Loren
1 year 3 months ago

Any idea how many of those good players who were never ranked prospects were Japanese or Cuban players who skipped the minors and the prospect lists?

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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1 year 3 months ago

Generally, if they were any good, they would have been ranked in the off-season before their MLB debut, even if they skipped the minors and went straight to the majors. For example, most lists had Tanaka in their prospect lists last season, for a more recent example. And I’m sure Moncada will be added to lists once he signs with someone.

Jeremy Dahlstrom
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Jeremy Dahlstrom
1 year 3 months ago

Interesting article. Of the +30% of previously unranked players I wonder how many have a disproportionate amount of their WAR derived from one particular skill or group of skills, such as defense & speed.

Jeff Zimmerman
Member
Member
1 year 3 months ago

Personally without looking at the list, I bet they didn’t have one good to great tool or they would be noticed. They were just average across the board (David Dejesus comes to mind).

JKB
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JKB
1 year 3 months ago

Which slice was Zobrist in?

Jeremy Dahlstrom
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Jeremy Dahlstrom
1 year 3 months ago

I don’t think Zobrist was ever a top 100 guy, was he? So he’d fall into the unranked – unless I’m “mis-remembering.” I think Brignac was the expected to be the guy at SS for TB.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

I was thinking the same thing. I totally see what Jeff says about no great tool, that makes a lot of sense.

The characteristic I was thinking, as that seems to be a factor in Giants prospects that people miss is the ability to make contact (i.e. don’t strike out that much). Sandoval and Panik were not highly thought of (relatively) despite that ability in the minors.

Jeremy Dahlstrom
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Jeremy Dahlstrom
1 year 3 months ago

Generally, if a guy just has a good hit tool I think they don’t get ranked, unless they play one of the more challenging positions – C, SS, CF – and project to stick there in the majors. Or if they also project to hit for power as well.

KK-Swizzle
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

Probably just noise, but its interesting that the percentage in the unranked group has grown the last two years.

Sabertooth
Guest
Sabertooth
1 year 3 months ago

To detect a trend, it would be of interest to plot the average total mlb seasons played by 3 win players, as well as their minor league playing time.

Gary
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Gary
1 year 3 months ago

What’s the distribution look like when broken out by pitchers vs. hitters. I’m speculating that there’s a much higher percent of unranked pitchers who develop into good players just due to the variability of pitcher performance.

Brian
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

I was hoping someone would make this comment. I agree completely.

Jeff Zimmerman
Member
Member
1 year 3 months ago

It is the complete opposite. Good pitchers are easy to spot, not so with hitters.

BMarkham
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BMarkham
1 year 3 months ago

This jives with what Kiley says as well, about the difficulty of projecting the hit tool

dirtbag
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dirtbag
1 year 3 months ago

Jibes. JIBES!!!!

Barbara Billingsley
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Barbara Billingsley
1 year 3 months ago

I speak jive!

BMarkham
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BMarkham
1 year 3 months ago

haha, noted

BMarkham
Guest
BMarkham
1 year 3 months ago

This is very interesting stuff, and deserves a follow up article on the characteristics, if any, that the unranked good players group shares at higher rates than good players as a whole. I know you mentioned being rated average all-around, wonder what else.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

That seems to be true, from my limited experiences watching the Giants promote their pitchers. For example, the Giants immediately after signing Bumgarner stated that they expected him to reach the majors in two years, and he did. They have also aggressively promoted some pitchers from the lower minors, like Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, though there have been those who faltered once reaching the majors after a quick ride up.

In addition, just from our base knowledge of how talent is distributed, things are different. Obviously, with hitters, we have no idea how they will handle certain pitchers, as the minors are populated with mostly with pitchers who don’t have the repertoire of MLB pitchers. Whereas, while that is true to an extent for pitchers as well, as the hitters are not as good, there are a lot of hitters who can handle fastballs in the minors and fastballs remain the key part of most pitchers’ arsenal, and thus the view of how they might make the leap to the majors involve less projection for pitchers, since one can see how opposing batters handle their best pitches, which tends to be fastballs.

Colin_NL
Member
Colin_NL
1 year 3 months ago

I’m fairly sure that I wasn’t ranked this year, and I was starting to get worried that I was never gonna contribute 3+ WAR at the major league level. Good to see I still have a chance.

dl80
Guest
dl80
1 year 3 months ago

So you’re saying there’s a chance!

michael
Guest
michael
1 year 3 months ago

I would be interested to know how long did it take for a prospect (on average) to achieve an above average WAR? Would the results differ between the 1-50 and the 51-100 class?

Timbooya
Member
Timbooya
1 year 3 months ago

I would’ve interested in having this broken down, per team! Even could go in depth within each team’s ranks, how many were out of the top X in the organizational rankings, etc.

Wall Five
Guest
Wall Five
1 year 3 months ago

Another factor might be the WAR cutoff. For example, Bruce Rondon grabbed 95 in 2012. How many relievers ever approach 3 WAR in their careers… Chapman, Kimbrel, and…

The More You Know(c)
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The More You Know(c)
1 year 3 months ago

“Another factor might be the WAR cutoff. For example, Bruce Rondon grabbed 95 in 2012.”

Rondon’s 95 WAR season fits the 3 WAR cutoff so don’t worry about that. Also, I had no idea he reached 95 WAR in 2012. How did David Price win that year’s AL Cy Young?

Bill
Guest
Bill
1 year 3 months ago

Writers strongly suspected he used some sort of performance enhancer that year. My guess is gama rays or a radioactive spider bite.

Chris
Guest
Chris
1 year 3 months ago

Not being a top 100 prospect doesn’t mean you’re not a “good prospect”. Josh Donaldson is really the lone exception as to completes coming off the grid

Hank
Guest
Hank
1 year 3 months ago

Is there a way to look at average age in the groups when the player broke into the majors?

Speculation – Are teams pushing players (especially pitchers?) to the majors faster these days, making it more likely the player has not climbed into the top 100 or top 50 lists prior to cracking the bigs?

Also, is there a pitcher vs hitter shift in any of the data from year to year (specifically the unranked group)

Evan
Guest
Evan
1 year 3 months ago

I see where you’re coming from in terms of very quick risers, but I think this would actually work the opposite way. 100 players have to appear on the list each year. The faster teams push players to the big leagues, the fewer lists each individual player is to going to appear on and therefore that would increase the percentage of active players that would’ve appeared on the list at least once.

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas
1 year 3 months ago

I’m not sure if I agree, or at least I don’t think it’s totally clear that you’re right. Cano is an exception to your theory — he was never ranked through 2005, jumped in and played 130 games with a 105 wRC+, and was never a prospect again.

James
Guest
James
1 year 3 months ago

Another really good player off the top of my head that came from nowhere was Goldschmidt. I don’t ever recall seeing him on a topp list anywhere (BA, BP, KL, Sickles, etc.).

Do we tend to favor age/level too much over production? I can understand it a little more at lower levels, but A+ and AA I think we have an idea on the tools and should be more curious about how the tools are developing and producing, not whether they tend to still have them.

Brian
Guest
Brian
1 year 3 months ago

Keith Law had Brantley in his top 100. This method seems a bit flawed considering the use of only one list. Prospects 75-150 are often considered interchangeable, so I would be more interested in seeing a study that uses all of BA, BP, Law, and Sickels rankings. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine the number of non ranked prospects would drop significantly if we used a wider range of prospect opinions.

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes
1 year 3 months ago

Feel free to do your own analysis with as many lists as you’d like..

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
1 year 3 months ago

Well obviously it would if we include more than 100 guys each year. It comes down to numbers, I think these data are a good reflection on prospect lists, not a bad one.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

Of course there would be a wider range, that’s just a function of incorporating more rankings.

I think it would be more interesting to use Jeff’s methodology and apply it to each of the sources you listed, BP, Law, Sickels, and see how they do vs. what BA did.

Brian
Guest
Brian
1 year 3 months ago

Also, defense is only now being valued appropriately on most prospect lists. Correct me if I am wrong, but a large part of WAR is related to a players defensive capabilities. Plenty of players boost their WAR on defense alone.

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes
1 year 3 months ago

If only BA knew about this “defense” component you speak of…

M W
Guest
M W
1 year 3 months ago

A very good chunk of these nonprospects were likely in the top 101-250 prospects in the game. Had BA ranked more than 100, we’d know that for certain.

Preston
Guest
Preston
1 year 3 months ago

Yeah, an unscientific way to look at it would be to take each teams top tens. Not all systems are equal. But that would at least give you a pool of 300 players that were positively regarded, if not necessarily the top 300. I’d want to know how many 3+ win players didn’t make even a top ten list. I’d guess not a lot.

M W
Guest
M W
1 year 3 months ago

A better idea, would be to take all of the players who showed up on anyone of BA’s top 150 rankings (the top 100 is a consensus composed of 7 different writers). Each of the past 2 seasons (possibly more) BA has released all of the players names who were named on a top 150 list but failed to make the consensus top 100 list.

Michael
Guest
Michael
1 year 3 months ago

I’d be interested to know what the injury rate was for the ranked prospects..

gusopenshaw
Guest
gusopenshaw
1 year 3 months ago

Original and fantastic premise for a column! Thank you!

Vince
Guest
Vince
1 year 3 months ago

I think it pretty common perception that BA has done a very poor job of covering prospect lists recently. You can see it on the increasingly unranked 3 WAR players. That being said, it looks like they made real effort this year.

M W
Guest
M W
1 year 3 months ago

I would suggest that perception is dead wrong. They do a better job than anyone else IMHO.

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes
1 year 3 months ago

I think it’s pretty common perception that [insert unsubstantiated opinion of some entity]. You can see it on the [insert data point with no context]. That being said, [insert back-handed compliment to aforementioned and disparaged entity].

shthar
Guest
shthar
1 year 3 months ago

In 2012, there were 114 players worth at least 3 WAR. So, by my definition, there were 114 “good” players. Of those, 54% had at one point ranked in the BA top 50.

How many players ranked in the BA top 50 WEREN’T worth 3 WAR?

If we don’t know that, this really means nothing.

Is the 114 all the players ever ranked in the top 50? Half? 10%?

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes
1 year 3 months ago

Maybe you skipped over the very first sentence? The one where Jeff specifically says that “Usually you see this the other way around” and then explains why he thinks this particular analysis might be interesting?

shthar
Guest
shthar
1 year 3 months ago

He was wrong.

paying for FG+
Guest
paying for FG+
1 year 3 months ago

Hmmmmmmmmm. This feels forced. A few thoughts.

1. I think every year a huge percentage of top 100 prospects are right handed pitchers. At least 30 each year and as high as 34-39 I have seen. Another 10-15 percent are left handed pitchers. Pitching attrition due to injury/non-performance is pretty high. Relievers are often former top prospects and rarely rate highly by WAR.

2. Distribution of prospects is not uniform and therefore opportunity to play will vary base on the organizational strength, depth, and philosphy. Some organizations will have 7 and others will have zero. The dudes with 0-3 still promote prospects and let them play.

3. The argument that Baseball America’s list is more accessible is poor given you are not going back to 1992. It would have not taken long to aggregate multiple lists (as they vary greatly) given that the underlining premise is to question the validity of prospect lists. I would argue that Baseball America has lost significant credibility of late.

4. The findings actually support the value of the lists i.e. the higher the ranking the great the probability. Given that you must play to become valuable and at the highest level the difference between being good and bad is often tiny and playing time can change trajectories.

Anyway, interesting read. Thanks

Jason Lukehart
Guest
1 year 3 months ago

This is a topic I find interesting because many seem to dismiss prospect rankings because so many top prospects don’t pan out, which seems like a backwards way of assessing prospects lists to me.

Last year at Let’s Go Tribe I went through a somewhat similar process, concluding that while most top prospects DON’T turn into good players, most good players WERE top prospects. If anyone is interested in more reading on the topic, here’s what I wrote:

http://www.letsgotribe.com/2014/2/5/5379248/mlb-news-baseball-america-prospect-rankings?_ga=1.70241616.1766080274.1373922015

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes
1 year 3 months ago

100% agreed. I have no idea if there is a widespread dismissal of rankings, but if there is i KNOW that I have never heard a reasonable alternative. I mean, the draft is a ranking. The tiered minors are rankings. “Your” favorite team is ranking them. And even “you” are subconciously ranking them…. So why piss on BA, et al for trying to systematize and set it in history?

BranchRickey11937
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BranchRickey11937
1 year 3 months ago

This is a very useful analysis from a fantasy perspective. It suggests that you’re sliding down a very steep probability curve when you draft prospects down the rankings or off the rankings.

As to extensions of the analysis, I’d like to learn more about the shape of that curve. The top 50 cutoff is pretty arbitrary. Are the 3+ seasons concentrated among the top 10s or 20s of BA’s ranking, with a pretty flat probability thereafter? That’s what I would guess– it may be easy to separate a #1 from a #60, but maybe not so easy to distinguish a #30 from a #90. I look forward to reading of more along these lines…..

Corey
Guest
Corey
1 year 3 months ago

What percent of all players in each of those years are 1-50 prospects, 50-100 prospects, and unheralded as prospects? This is some nice initial work, but I think needs some expansion to really tell a story.

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