Identify Can’t-Miss Prospects Using This One Weird Trick

Recently, in these electronic pages, the author made a study of those hitting prospects who had been recognized by Baseball America for possessing the best of this or that tool (i.e. ability to hit for average, ability to hit for power, etc.) within their respective organizations. The study, specifically, was designed to identify how certain tools, on average, had translated to the majors. The results? While not exhaustive, the exercise in question seemed to indicate that those prospects who had been recognized either for their ability to hit for average or their plate discipline had produced markedly better numbers at the major leagues than those prospects who were recognized for their power, speed, or athleticism.

A sequel of sorts to that first piece focused specifically on those prospects who, during at least one of the years between 2005 and -09, had been recognized by Baseball America for possessing both the best hit tool and the best plate discipline within their respective organization. While, as noted in that second post, one doesn’t expect talent to have been distributed evenly among every minor-league system — and, accordingly, can’t expect the best hitter in a talent-poor system to match the skills of the best hitter in a talent-rich one — the value of the Best Tool designations is that they function as a reasonable proxy for more sophisticated data that isn’t available publicly.

That second post revealed that, on average, this collection of the best-hitting, most-disciplined prospects had fared quite well at the major-league level. To wit: of the 29 prospects who met the relevant criteria, 27 (93%) of them have recorded at least one major-league plate appearance — and 12 more of them (41%) have recorded at least 5.0 WAR over the course of their respective careers.

Below are the median figures for that prospect group by a number of relevant metrics. HRC% denotes home runs on contact (that is, home runs per ball batted into fair play). WAR550 denotes WAR for every 550 plate appearances of a player’s career.

PA BB% K% HRC% wRC+ WAR* WAR550
1981 9.2% 17.9% 2.8% 98 2.7 0.8

One observes that not every prospect between 2005 and -09 recognized both for his ability to hit for average and his plate discipline has succeeded in becoming a star-level major-leaguer. That said, “star-level major-leaguer” isn’t a particularly reasonable standard by which to adjudge these prospects — nor by which to adjudge the decisions made by Baseball America’s editors. Consider: not even those players designated as any given year’s top overall prospect have produced uniformly excellent numbers as major-leaguers. Delmon Young, for example, was rated as BA’s top rookie-eligible player prior to the 2006 season, and he’s actually recorded a slightly below-average park-adjusted batting line as a major-leaguer, in addition to compiling a negative WAR figure over his nearly 4,000 career plate appearances.

Again, the value of these findings — as they relate to the future major-league production of prospects recognized for this or that tool — is that they provide, I think, some idea of how one ought to best weight the various tools a prospect might demonstrate. “All things being equal,” one has perhaps asked before, “should I possess more optimism for the major-league future of a prospect distinguished for his plate discipline or his athleticism?”

“His plate discipline,” appears to be the answer, almost empirically.

Up until this point, I’ve considered only these best-hitting and most-disciplined prospects to the degree to which they’ve succeeded offensively. Of course, offensive performance is merely one of the performances. As such, for the remainder of this piece, I’d like to provide a slightly more robust examination of a brief remark made towards the latter of the two posts mentioned above — a point which concerns overall value, including defense.

That same remark, nearly in full:

“What,” the author wondered, “what if one were to reduce the list further — in this case to include only those players who were recognized for possessing their respective organizations best hit tool, best plate discipline, and then also best defensive skills, as well, at either catcher, the infield, or the outfield, such as the case may be?” In fact, using that more refined criteria one finds a small collection of excellent players: Michael Bourn, Andrew McCutchen, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Wieters. That group has averaged 3.7 WAR per every 550 plate appearances over their respective (and all still very active) major-league careers.

Re-stated: between 2005 and -09, only four prospects were recognized by BA for possessing the best hit tool, best plate discipline, and best defensive skills (at the relevant position) within their respective organization. Those four players, named above, have not only all graduated to the majors but have produced wins at a rate generally regarded as All-Star level. A small sample, that, but also an impressive one.

Given the positive returns of this three-pronged criteria, I endeavored to expand the sample of players considered. The Best Tool designations aren’t readily available online for years prior to 2005, but they are available from 2005 onwards — a timeframe which accounts for the sample already considered plus the 2010 to -13 seasons. Including Baseball America’s Best Tool designations for 2010 to -13, as well, produces six more prospects all recognized as possessing the best hit tool, plate discipline, and defensive skills within their respective organization, as follow (year of designation in parentheses): Jackie Bradley Jr (2013), Jason Heyward (2010), Desmond Jennings (2010), Buster Posey (2010), Jurickson Profar (2012), and Anthony Rendon (2013).

As in the case of the first four players, this second collection of hit-discipline-and-defense prospects is also impressive, as the table below illustrates. Note that Year denotes the year in which the relevant player was acknowledged as possessing his system’s best hit tool, discipline, and defense. The # symbol denotes the relevant player’s peak ranking on Baseball America’s annual top-100 prospect list. Columns marked by an asterisk (*) are expressed as a rate statistic per every 550 plate appearances. cWAR denotes career WAR.

Name Year # PA BB% K% HRC% BABIP wRC+ BsR* Off* Def* WAR* cWAR
Buster Posey 2010 7 1850 9.6% 13.8% 4.3% .330 140 -3.4 22.2 10.6 5.3 17.7
Andrew McCutchen 2006 13 3171 11.4% 16.7% 4.5% .332 139 3.1 28.0 -0.4 4.7 27.1
Dustin Pedroia 2006 77 4548 9.3% 8.9% 2.7% .314 119 0.5 12.8 9.1 4.2 34.4
Jason Heyward 2010 1 2170 11.4% 20.6% 4.9% .303 119 2.7 15.2 7.1 4.2 16.4
Desmond Jennings 2010 6 1476 9.7% 20.2% 3.6% .297 109 5.8 11.6 1.2 3.3 8.8
Matt Wieters 2009 1 2610 8.7% 18.4% 4.6% .283 96 -3.4 -5.7 16.4 3.0 14.4
Michael Bourn 2005 N/A 3941 8.5% 20.6% 1.0% .342 92 7.5 2.1 9.3 3.0 21.5
Anthony Rendon 2013 19 394 7.9% 17.5% 2.4% .307 100 1.3 1.5 1.5 2.1 1.5
Jurickson Profar 2012 1 341 7.6% 19.6% 2.8% .274 74 -3.7 -20.0 -5.2 -0.8 -0.5
Jackie Bradley Jr 2013 31 107 9.3% 29.0% 4.5% .246 69 3.6 -15.4 -11.8 -1.0 -0.2
Average 2061 9.3% 18.5% 3.5% .303 106 1.4 5.2 3.8 2.8 14.1
Median 10 2010 9.3% 19.0% 4.0% .305 105 2.0 6.9 4.3 3.2 15.4

The most obvious and relevant observation one makes with regard to this list is that it’s populated by talented ballplayers. The majority of them are currently in what might one might safely call the “middle” of their respective careers. One of them (Michael Bourn) has probably entered the beginnings of his decline phase. Three of the group, finally, have basically just begun to assemble their major-league resumes — a point made most clearly by how, after just three games and 11 plate appearances this season, Anthony Rendon has already improved his career WAR mark by 20%.

If it’s true that those prospects who’ve distinguished themselves by demonstrating the three relevant tools appear to have also generally produced wins at the major-league level, then it’s also necessary to acknowledge a legitimate critique of what amounts to this “one weird trick” I’ve used — namely, that these same players, when they were prospects, were mostly well-regarded. The median peak prospect ranking of 10 suggests as much.

Indeed, a study by Chris St. John reveals that 100% of players whose final ranking on a BA top-100 list was 10 or better — that 100% of those players eventually graduated to the majors. St. John’s work also indicates that players whose last ranking on Baseball America’s top-100 list was 10 — that those players have produced a career WAR figure of 25.0, on average. Some of the players above have already surpassed that 25-win threshold; other appear likely to do so in the not very distant future. As for the three junior members of the group, one can only reasonably say that they are promising young players.

In any case, the precise figures aren’t the point. The point is this: if, by assembling a collection of prospects noted for their hitting, plate discipline, and defense — if, by doing that, one has only succeeded in producing a convoluted proxy for identifying, or a means by which to reverse engineer, a list of top-10 prospects, then that is interesting, perhaps, but also entirely trivial.

What renders this exercise only mostly trivial, I’ll argue, is the presence above of certain players who’ve produced successful major-league careers despite having been less celebrated as prospects overall — namely, in this case, Michael Bourn and Dustin Pedroia.

Despite his virtues, Bourn never appeared among BA’s top-100 prospects — due to concerns about his power on contact, one assumes. Indeed, even his parent club at the time, the Philadelphia Phillies, appear not to have been particularly enamored of him: Bourn passed the entirety of the 2007 season as a member of the Phillies’ (admittedly strong) major-league roster, but recorded only 133 plate appearances in the process, serving largely as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. While there are surely exceptions, that’s generally not how a club utilizes its top prospects.

As for Pedroia, there were always concerns about his size, of course, and probably his ability to remain at shortstop (which he obviously didn’t, anyway). Pedroia’s status as a prospect is somewhat curious: he was ranked 77th by BA before the 2006 season, during which campaign he proceeded to slash .305/.384/.426 as just a 22-year-old at Triple-A. “Promising,” one says. A decidedly unimpressive 98 plate appearances following a late-season promotion to the majors, however — in tandem with the persistent concerns about his shortcomings — appear to have persuaded the editors of BA and the contacts upon whom they rely that Pedroia’s wasn’t so bright that shades would be necessary. Indeed, despite have retained eligibility for it, Pedroia was absent from the top-100 list BA published in 2007. That he received the Rookie of the Year award at the end of that season suggests that he possessed the relevant skills to succeed in the majors.

Given the paucity of the sample, the examples of Bourn and Pedroia serve not as proof of a systematic disconnect between a certain skill set and how prospect rankings are assembled, but rather merely as case studies. In each case, however, one finds a lesson — namely, that each player’s strengths (the hit tool, plate discipline, defense) more than compensated for perceived deficiencies (power on contact or size).

That lesson, it turns out, has some relevance as the 2014 season begins. In this year’s edition of their Prospect Handbook, the editors of Baseball America — again, with the aid of scouts and other industry contacts — appear to have identified three new additions to the fraternity being discussed here of prospects who possess the best hit tool, plate discipline, and defense (at the relevant position) in their system. Those prospects are as follows: shortstop Francisco Lindor (Cleveland), shortstop J.P. Crawford (Philadelphia), and shortstop Jace Peterson (San Diego). While Lindor is ranked 13th on Baseball America’s most recent top-100 prospect list, Crawford appears just at 78th overall (i.e. one place behind Pedroia’s top ranking), while Peterson is absent entirely.

If the trend identified by means of this exercise continues, one might reasonably expect two things: both (a) for Crawford and Peterson to appear closer to the top of BA’s list in the future and (b) for Crawford and Peterson (along with Lindor) to develop into above-average major-leaguers, regardless of their position on BA’s prospect rankings. This — one finds, in the final analysis — has been the case with players recognized for their hitting, plate discipline, and defense. It’s not unreasonable to expect some sort of favorable results from prospects who fit that profile currently.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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Ride the Apocalypse
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Ride the Apocalypse
2 years 1 month ago

Scouts HATE him!

Keegs
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Keegs
2 years 1 month ago

coming through the city side!

Jake
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Jake
2 years 1 month ago

Great song. So pumped I got to see them play it live a couple times on this last tour.

Mark
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Mark
2 years 1 month ago

After today I will no longer be coming to these “electronic pages” because of the shit eating way you write. I can’t take it anymore. So long Fangraphs…

SeaBass
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SeaBass
2 years 1 month ago

Huh? What am I missing here? Where are you gonna go for your in depth baseball analysis? Yahoo?

Tribe Fan in SF
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Tribe Fan in SF
2 years 1 month ago

His comment was so incredibly random that I found it amusing. It’s like someone’s pried Mark’s eyes open like at the end of clockwork orange and is making him read fangraphs all day every day. Hilarious. So is the phrase “the shit eating way you write”. It’s cracking me up… I don’t know why. Been a long week I guess….

Eric
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Eric
2 years 1 month ago

“what if one were to reduce the list further — in this case to include only those players who were recognized for possessing their respective organizations best hit tool, best plate discipline, and then also best defensive skills”

I guess the one commonality I noticed here is that when you add best defensive skill to the 3 pronged criteria, two of which are offensively based, All the players Carson mentioned in the exclusively narrowed list are UP THE MIDDLE POSITIONS, CF, C, 2B, or SS.

Since I have always thought that Position Adjustment contains more than a bit of bias, I think the results get skewed.

I mean, viewing the proposed narrowed list: Michael Bourn (CF), Andrew McCutchen (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2B), Matt Wieters (C), Jackie Bradley Jr (CF), Jason Heyward (CF), Desmond Jennings (CF), Buster Posey (C), Jurickson Profar (2B), Anthony Rendon (2B), Francisco Lindor (SS), J.P. Crawford (SS), and Jace Peterson (SS).

The “newest” 3 to this list are all shortstops. Its as though, with the addition of the defensive aspect, no corner outfielder or infielder can ever make it into this list by default.

Yet, MLB and every level of baseball for that matter has always been and will always be “IF you can hit, if you can flat out rake, we will find a defensive position for you.”

When they consider a “5 tool player” two of those tools are on offense. Even with these 3 criteria, best hit tool and plate discipline are 2 offensive criteria.

Yet it makes it seem that with this exercise defense is ultimately more valuable than offense. I just can’t agree, especially when the Cardinals go out and get Peralta due to the weak bat of Kozma, or Stephen Drew, who is still without a contract, due to injury prone and could not hit a lick in the playoffs, or the Nats dumped Danny Espinosa down in the minors right quick when he couldn’t hit a lick last year, even though in all these examples, every single one of these players have stellar defense and range. There are plenty more examples. I simply think this methodology slights corner fielders by default.

I suppose my point, if a player sucks defensively but can flat out hit, they will still be able to stay in MLB (with or without the DH you have 1st base too), however the reverse isn’t true, if a player sucks at the plate, but is awesome defensively, they are not long for staying in MLB.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 1 month ago

You’re omitting Heyward, the third best player on the list, who is a RF.

RC
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RC
2 years 1 month ago

” Cardinals go out and get Peralta due to the weak bat of Kozma,”

The Cardinals went out and got Peralta because hes a much better baseball player than Kozma. He’s at least as good defensively, if not better, and much better at the plate.

Stuck in a slump
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Stuck in a slump
2 years 1 month ago

Also, Rendon is a natural 3B rather than a 2B. But here’s where you’re missing the point. These are the players ranked as the best in their orgs for all three categories. This doesn’t mean that they are all going to be stellar defenders at the positions that they are playing now (I honestly don’t know much about Peterson or Crawford), or the clubs may have or get better players at their natural positions thus moving them off.

If you’re the best defender in an org, you will probably play an up the middle position because who else is better at those more difficult positions than you? That doesn’t mean that you wont be shifted off for various reasons into a corner position, just like how Jackie Bradley Jr has played more RF than CF so far this season.

Rally squirrel
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Rally squirrel
2 years 1 month ago

It’s time for the designated fielder! Somebody call the players union. the Brendan Ryans deserve job security.

NeverHit1stBase
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NeverHit1stBase
2 years 1 month ago

Do you actually criticize people ‘in real life’ this way? Because I’d be interested in seeing their response. I think, were you in a position where someone could respond back, you’re total lack of empathy or manners would have you smacked in the face, where, if recorded, we could view on these electronic pages and enjoy.

NeverHit1stBase
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NeverHit1stBase
2 years 1 month ago

Also, this article was neat. Thanks Carson.

H.Villanueva
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H.Villanueva
2 years 1 month ago

Dueces!

Johan Santa
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2 years 1 month ago

Are you kidding? Carson’s whimsical writing style is my single favorite thing here.

Nick
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Nick
2 years 1 month ago

Well, it can be bizarrely wordy and often detracts from the point. The focus should be on the data and analysis, not his writing. I feel that Carson makes it so that his style is the main focus of his pieces.

It works better on NotGraphs.

H.Villanueva
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H.Villanueva
2 years 1 month ago

You might be taking the “graphs” in Fangraphs a bit to literally.

Marco
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Marco
2 years 1 month ago

Sometimes the joy of reading lies not in immediate comprehension, but the process of getting to the point. I’d rather smile and be amused at what I read than slog through a boring bullet point style article. How many other writers can teach you new words while informing you about baseball?

tz
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tz
2 years 1 month ago

It’s definitely in my top five, along with the running “Johan Santa” joke.

The Foils
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The Foils
2 years 1 month ago

He knows his way around an ink and quill.

Slacker George
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Slacker George
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks, Carson. You bring more whimsy than a Wes Anderson film festival without the overbearing quirk.

Bobby
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Bobby
2 years 1 month ago

damn…i bet they are really to miss the $0 you pay for the recurring subscription fee…

FeslenR
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FeslenR
2 years 1 month ago

good riddance. Fangraphs is for free, did you know that?

They write very in depth articles sometimes without graphs!

Every Fangraph has their particular style/zest, and I like Carson’s humor. Why don’t you try and write a professional fantasy baseball article and let’s see how we like it?

Stormin' Norman
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Stormin' Norman
2 years 1 month ago

GURL BYE!

Jordan
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Jordan
2 years 1 month ago

I, like presumably many other Fangraphs/Notgraphs readers, love Carson’s droll writing style. I believe he is fully in command of his style. Therefore, it is not an affectation. This explains why I clicked on this article. If you don’t like him, why would you bother to do that?

MikeS
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MikeS
2 years 1 month ago

Oh my god! I will miss you so much, Mark. How will I go on knowing that you don’t read fangraphs?

Bobby Ayala
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Bobby Ayala
2 years 1 month ago

“shit-eating” should have a hyphen in-between “shit” and “eating”

“I will” and “can’t” used in same post- be consistent with your choice of using contractions or not

Nick
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Nick
2 years 1 month ago

Do you teach English at Harvard or something? There’s literally no rule that suggests consistent contraction use.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 1 month ago

One might argue that inconsistent contraction use qualifies as faulty parallelism

Dookie Monster
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Dookie Monster
2 years 1 month ago

Carson’s writing… **NOM NOM**

Billy
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Billy
2 years 1 month ago

If I were to give my own opinion about Cistulli’s writing, for whatever that’s worth, I’d say I usually like it, but occasionally don’t. I read articles like this for the baseball content, so it doesn’t strongly affect my experience either way. I find it entertaining and enjoyable most of the time.

Sometimes his philosophical musings on topics such as the meaningless nature of life, for example, are a bit depressing. As someone who actually seriously contemplates these sorts of things regularly, and can find them unsettling, it does inject a bit of a downer into something I use as a source of enjoyment. I otherwise like Carson and would change nothing else about his writing, and this particular sequence of pieces were particularly good reads for me.

Shrewd Cat
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Shrewd Cat
2 years 1 month ago

I hate Cistulli too- I never read his articles. And when I listen to the weekly Dave Cameron podcast I mute it every time Carson speaks- it’s exhausting but I can kinda make it work.

Cistulli. F__k that guy.

FeslenR
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FeslenR
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks for the article, Carson. I always wondered why some prospects make it and don’t, this answers some of those issues!

Ethan
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Ethan
2 years 1 month ago

That study about top-10 players final rankings making the big leagues seems incredibly misleading. The only possible outcomes are: getting called up (because you’re a top-10 prospect), having something catastrophic happen to drop off the list entirely rather than slide down, or quit baseball entirely like Grant Desme. Even a disappointing year for a top prospect won’t drop them off the list, just down it, so there needs to be something crazy happening for the final designation to not result in a call up.

Bill
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Bill
2 years 1 month ago

One of the problems that I see with an analysis like this is that each prospect is being measured only against other prospects within his own organization. Mike Trout didn’t make the list because he was behind Hank Conger and Kole Calhoun in 2011 and 2012 respectively for plate discipline. However, Trout still has outstanding plate discipline and would likely have achieved this “triple crown” in other organizations.

Similarly, you could certainly imagine a team like the Brewers adding a “pretty good” all around prospect to their system and having that player rank #1 for these three criteria because the team just doesn’t have a good minor league system.

I think the solution would be to create a system that looks for players that meet certain thresholds on the 20-80 scale for those three tools rather than being the highest ranked in his organization.

Lastly, I would be interested to see if there are any players who ranked #1 for Hit, Plate Discipline, and Power to see how they fared in the majors.

BMac
Member
BMac
2 years 1 month ago

Carson addressed this point:
“one doesn’t expect talent to have been distributed evenly among every minor-league system — and, accordingly, can’t expect the best hitter in a talent-poor system to match the skills of the best hitter in a talent-rich one — the value of the Best Tool designations is that they function as a reasonable proxy for more sophisticated data that isn’t available publicly.”

If you know of a way of getting that data, which Carson has identified as ‘not publicly available, feel free to demonstrate.

Thufir
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Thufir
2 years 1 month ago

Liked the piece. Most clickbaity title ever…

editor guy
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editor guy
2 years 1 month ago

Shakes head. So few points wrapped in so much dressing.

dlk1100
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dlk1100
2 years 1 month ago

The “dressing” is why this guy is a totally in-control, rad, powerful, and employed writer.

libradawg
Member
libradawg
2 years 1 month ago

And once again right on the money. Bradley has busted out a little bit, which surprises me as he is one of the guys I viewed as more athletic than anything. Lindor and Peterson will be a lot more interesting to watch than your idiotic post was to read.

Adam Waitt
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Adam Waitt
2 years 1 month ago

Hoping for a companion pitcher analysis.

randplaty
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randplaty
2 years 1 month ago

Jace Peterson definitely is climbing the prospect lists.

JohnOnTheSPot
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JohnOnTheSPot
2 years 1 month ago

24yo don’t tred too high on most ‘prospect’ lists…

Klements Sausage
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Klements Sausage
2 years 1 month ago

I’m tired of reading comments along the lines of ‘I hate Cistulli/Sullivan/Cameron’s writing style’. We get it, each has their own styles. Maybe Fangraphs could introduce a feature whereby it lists the name of the author next to the article, thereby preventing anyone from accidentally clicking on one of Jeff’s GIF-laden articles…

Slacker George
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Slacker George
2 years 1 month ago

I propose that free web sites make an oath to reject any ad that uses “one weird trick” in their teaser headline. Much like the virginity and drug oaths of the 1980-90’s, but exactly not like them, this will ensure a prosperous and intelligent future for us and our aftbears (the widely scorned but little-used antonym of forebears).

Joe Ruth
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Joe Ruth
2 years 1 month ago

The article was a bit hard to follow but it wasn’t fatal. If it weren’t for the stopping point sum ups, it would have been hard to tease the sense out if it.

Bd that as it may, I think something missed here is the legion of AAAA players who do well in the minor leagues but never make it. In Pittsburgh Pirate-land we’ve seen a lot of these players with Andrew Lambo and Travis Snider being current examples.

The writer mentioned the hits. What about the misses? They’re also highly ranked but flunk out. Gotta track them out too in order to get the full story.

RC
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RC
2 years 1 month ago

This seems like an awful lot of article to basically make the statment: “The guys who are the best at everything at once generally succeed”.

No shit.

libradawg
Member
libradawg
2 years 1 month ago

Because the most difficult projection transition EASILY in all of sports is something that was supposed to be simple to explain. Basketball and Football, from recruiting to Drafting, easiest thing in the world. I started getting into these articles just for a challenge.

Hint: The tool was indeed pointed out, as was its outliers and its exceptions.

Ha! Outlier and exception mean the same thing. I wanted to see if you’d spot it after the specific whining you did.

Vince
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Vince
1 year 5 months ago

At what point did BA become worthless? That point has already come and gone, and with it, this weird trick does not work going forward.

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