The Myth of The Golden Generation

In Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano the Minnesota Twins have two of the very best prospects in baseball. It’s probably no surprise that they then also arguably have the best prospect in the game at two different positions. Buxton is the best prospect in the game – full stop. So he’s obviously the best outfield prospect in the game. For my money, there’s no better third baseman than Sano in the minors either. This got me curious about how often this sort of thing happens, and more importantly how often this situation leads to success.

Fans often have this ideal in their mind of a group of talented young prospects coming along, developing into homegrown stars and leading their team to glory. It’s a common theme to pretty much every sport. People all over the World share this sentiment. In soccer, when supporters see a strong group of youth players coming through the junior national ranks they often term that group a “Golden Generation.” That’s where the name of this article comes from. There’s more than one way to build a champion of course, but the path of homegrown stars rising to glory is probably the most satisfying from a fan (and baseball ops!) point of view. After all, drafting, signing and developing amateur talent is to many people the “right way” to run a baseball team. It’s certainly not the only way. Teams have succeeded through free agency and trades as well. Yet, the most popular players in baseball ever seem to be the homegrown heroes. I wanted to see just generally how often this scenario plays out successfully in recent history. How often does a golden generation of prospects develop and lead a team to a title – or at least some success?

 

Individual Careers

I started with the Strike year of 1994 as I find it a pretty good demarcation line for the most recent era of baseball. The economics of the game and the amateur draft changed with the strike.  The run scoring environment flip flopped dramatically from the pitching dominant 80’s as we entered the offensive explosion of the steroid era. From there I looked at when teams had two prospects regarded as elite. This relies on some aspect of human error both on our part and in the industry’s estimation, but that’s ok.  The alternative is to retrospectively look back at who turned out to be successful and I think that path has even more pitfalls. Presented below are the players I included with their career WAR totals. Totals are only next to the first appearance of players who appeared multiple times.

 

As you can see, the group as a whole has been fairly successful. That’s not a huge surprise since they were regarded by the industry as exceptional talents. Excluding players still in the minor leagues who haven’t debuted in the majors we find 132 players. The average career WAR among them comes out to 15.23 and that’s a pretty respectable number. 14 of the players (9.42%) went on to win a title with the team they were ranked with for a total of 21 rings. That number is inflated some by Mr. Jeter, to be fair.

Here are the players ranked individually by career WAR in graph form:

Individual Career WAR Totals by Members of the Group

Individual Career WAR Totals by Members of the Group

 

Team Context

I wanted to see generally how well the players’ teams did, too. As a disclaimer, there are far too many variables to find any legitimate statistical correlation here and even if we could I don’t believe it would imply causation. This is largely for fun… and because both my readers and myself like looking at stuff like this. Further, it does speak to “the plan” that both front offices, fans, owners and players have in these cases. Here I looked year by year at teams with multiple highly ranked players. I compared their win totals in the 5 years previous to having a pair or set of elite prospects to the 5 years following. We would expect teams to improve after having a couple elite prospects ready to break through, but has that been the case?

1994 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 1995 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls

1996 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 1997 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 1998 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 1999 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2000 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2001 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2002 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2003 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2004 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2005 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2006 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2007 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2008 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2009 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls 2010 Top Prospect Duo Team Ws & Ls

I stopped the graphs with 2010 since I’m not sure we’ve had enough time to see anything worthwhile after that. Also, please do note that I’ve graphed but generally ignored the 1994 strike shortened season. You can still generally see from the graphs that teams appear to have largely improved. What do the numbers actually bear out? In the 5 years prior to having multiple elite prospects teams averaged 80.14 wins – a .494 winning percentage. In the 5 years following they averaged 86.18 wins – a .531 winning percentage. That’s not insignificant. Having a couple or three elite prospects does seem to generally be a good indicator of future success as we would intuitively assume. Yet, with only a little over 9% winning a ring, the chances of those homegrown stud prospects leading you to glory is still mostly wishful thinking. Then again, championships are always hard to come by.

Don’t draw a false conclusion here – I’m certainly not arguing that teams shouldn’t try to accumulate great young prospects! I’m just saying that as fans we should probably temper our expectations. Baseball players as a group are difficult to predict and prospects as a subset of that are perhaps the most difficult to project & predict. If anything, this makes accumulating as much young talent as possible all the more important.

 

Buxton & Sano

I do see these two as impact major league talents. Sano has tremendous power and is a surprisingly good athlete. I’m confident he can play third base long term – although his recent elbow problem is worrisome. I don’t know he’ll ever hit for a high batting average. He takes huge cuts at the ball, lacks bat head control and expands his strike zone. In the end, I think he has enough natural hitting ability to overcome his flaws and still be a very good player. Buxton is… well, Buxton is Superman, more or less. He’s built like Superman, at least. He runs, throws and fields like Superman. The bat might be a little less advanced than some think, but I definitely believe in it all the same. Some question his power, but he’s a big, strong, athletic kid with tremendous bat speed. That mix of tools can accidentally run into a 50 power grade. I thought I’d leave you with some video I got of both guys this past season:



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Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.


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Stringer Bell
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Stringer Bell
2 years 6 months ago

Drew Henson was an elite prospect?!

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 6 months ago

Counting Japanese veterans as prospects is silly.

Anon
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Anon
2 years 6 months ago

Why not have the graphs show W% rather than total wins? That would put the shortened seasons of ’94 and ’95 on an equivalent scale as all the other seasons.

Dylan
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Dylan
2 years 6 months ago

We seem to have gotten better at scouting recently. The most successful classes have all been in the last 10 or so years: Rangers (Blalock-Tex), Indians (Phillips-Martinez), Twins (Mauer-Morneau-Cuddyer), Mets (Reyes-Kazmir), Brewers (Weeks-Fielder-Hardy), D-Backs (Upton-Drew and Upton-CarGo), Reds (Bailey-Bruce), Rays (Longoria-Price), Red Sox (Ellsbury-Buchholz, although Clay is still a bit of a TBD), and Giants (Posey-Bumgarner).

I’m too young to remember, how did nobody find Matt Drews to be worth taking a shot in the Rule V?

gabriel syme
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gabriel syme
2 years 6 months ago

The most successful classes have all been in the last 10 or so years

Let’s try to be a little more accurate. Each member of these groups had at least 20 WAR: Chipper/Klesko/Lopez (ATL, 94); White/Floyd (MTL, 94); Chipper/Andruw Jones (ATL, 95), Andruw/Schmidt (ATL, 96); Garciaparra/Pavano (BOS, 97); Konerko/Beltre (LAD, 98).

On the other hand, I Blalock didn’t even get to 10 WAR; and Bailey and Stephen Drew are very much question marks to get to 20. Maybe scouting has improved, but this kind of misleading data doesn’t show it.

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
2 years 6 months ago

Just a cursory look at the history of the draft, just in the first round, will show you that very, very few top prospects even make it to the majors.

NS
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NS
2 years 6 months ago

Breaking news.

Caveman Jones
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Caveman Jones
2 years 6 months ago

Seeing this list makes me sad thinking about how Nomar only got the ring after being traded away mid-season.

The Foils
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The Foils
2 years 6 months ago

“In the 5 years prior to having multiple elite prospects teams averaged 80.14 wins – a .494 winning percentage. In the 5 years following they averaged 86.18 wins – a .531 winning percentage.”

Isn’t that how you get multiple elite prospects in the first place? By having a sub-500 win percentage in the 5 years prior? And given some sort of parity, you’d naturally expect that to rebound in the five years after?

Maybe? I don’t know.

Matt
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Matt
2 years 6 months ago

Jason Isringhausen was elite along with Pulsipher and Wilson. They were going to take over the world! I have a Topps baseball card with all three of them on it telling me so!

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