The Value of Impact Prospects

One of the annual rites of baseball’s offseason is the publication of top prospect lists, organizational rankings, etc.. Over the next few days, my own personal rankings of each team’s minor league systems will appear here on FanGraphs. First, though, I’m going to give you a feel for the methodology – and some of the philosophy – behind them.

Baseball talent evaluation is unique in many respects when compared to the other major sports. An amateur scout can be looking at players ranging anywhere from 16 to 23 years old, and has to somehow put those players into a singular context to justify an organization’s investment in them. With virtually no exception, no amateur player can compete at the major league level without navigating at least part of a minor league system consisting of six or seven levels, excluding the Latin American rookie leagues. Football or basketball draftees, even if they are leaving college early, must compete for NFL or NBA spots immediately – if they can’t, they stay in school, or don’t get drafted. In baseball, there is projection to take into account, or lack thereof. A scout is given a radar gun and a stopwatch to capture the measurables, but it’s his mind, his entrepreneurial spirit and his gut that sells him on the players he recommends, signs, and – hopefully – watches progress toward the major leagues.

About those measurables – any one of us could go to a local high school game and be reasonably well entertained. With any luck, the competition is fairly matched, some modicum of talent jumps out at you on the part of a couple players on either side, and you go home happy. Next time you do this, bring a stopwatch. Then consider that the average major league righthanded hitter gets from home to first in 4.3 seconds, the average major league baserunner takes 3.30 seconds from his lead at first base to arrive at second base, and that the average major league catcher takes 2.00 seconds from the time a pitch hits his glove until his throw arrives at the second base bag. If you have access to a radar gun, or someone who owns one, consider that the average major league fastball is about 91-92 MPH, and the best major league hitters can strike the ball with exit speeds peaking at 10 to 15 MPH higher than that.

Defensively, a player is expected to be able to cover a wide range of ground and convert balls hit that hard by humans who run that fast into outs. Hitting ability, power production, defensive ability, arm strength, foot speed – these are the five basic raw tools graded by scouts. The vast majority of the players you would be watching in that local high school game will never be able to do any one of those things at that level, let alone a combination thereof that would eventually enable them to reach the major leagues. And the final twist is that the one guy who might get there, just might be the youngest and smallest guy on that field, say a 5’7″, 140, freshman second baseman on the varsity team who can’t do any of those things now, but has mastered the nuances of the game at a young age, and who is just waiting for his physical ship to come in.

Now let’s turn away from the tools for a second and talk about performance. Bill James proved long ago that minor league statistics are a very good indicator of future major league success. Since you’re reading this site, however, you know that not all stats are created equal, and adjustments must be made for a age, ballpark, quality of competition, etc.. The farther you get away from the major leagues, the less stats matter. In the amateur draft, there is very little use for high school stats, though I sure don’t want to draft a high school hitter who’s striking out a ton against high school pitching, or a high school pitcher who isn’t striking out many high school hitters.

College stats are more helpful, but even then, there are wide variations in strength of schedule, among other factors. With the aluminum bat removed from the equation, real power stands out much better now, and the availability of more detailed batted-ball information helps you identify extreme ground ball or popup generators among the pitching population before they enter the professional game.

Stats start to really matter once a player is drafted and enters the professional ranks. It’s not necessarily just the traditional homers, RBI, batting average type stats, however. Can a player consistently put the ball in play against professional pitching? Can he hit it with major league authority, or at least project to do so once fully developed physically? Can he do so to all fields? The numbers, in conjunction with the scouting eye, can answer such questions. Can a pitcher miss professional bats? Can he do so with multiple pitches? How does he get the opposite hand out? How does he manage contact? Again, the numbers, with the assistance of the scouting eye can answer these questions.

Sometimes it’s the scouting eye that takes the lead when evaluating a prospect, sometimes it’s the numbers. Take a look at Sandy Koufax’s major league career – he didn’t become “Sandy Koufax” until late in his career, and in the modern era, would have likely left the Dodgers as a free agent before he did so. The stuff was always there, however, and experience, coaching and talent all eventually came together in the five-year flourish that punctuated his career. On the other hand, I think back to guys like Dustin Pedroia and Jered Weaver in the draft – their raw tools didn’t stand out, but their numbers sure did. Peeling back the scouting layers, you uncover things like Pedroia’s off-the-charts eyesight, and Weaver’s superior popup-inducing ability that marked them as standouts very early in the game. The numbers inform the eyes, and the eyes inform the numbers.

In the next few days, you are going to read the word “impact” a great deal as I refer to prospects and to minor league systems. This is what all 30 teams are striving to find in the amateur population – players that move the needle by themselves, who will be among the top players at their position for an extended period of time. You should be able to envision an impact prospect making an All Star at some point, or being a third starter or better, or being a quality closer. The amateur population is the only source of impact talent that is legitimately open to all 30 clubs, as not all can pay the going rate for free agent impact talent. People can talk about the deep pockets of the Yankees and other franchises, but just remember that the last time the Bronx Bombers were on top, they got there thanks to homegrown impact talent – the core group of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, etc., that made it possible for them to spend their millions on luxuries at other positions.

As much as teams strive for such talent, the fact is that there are very few impact players in any given draft, or class of Latin American signings. You are drilling a bunch of wells to hit oil just a few times. To have a strong minor league system, you need to have some impact – but you also need to have a critical mass of future regulars, or at least core contributors – guys who make the trains run on time, fill out the back of your rotation or the middle of your bullpen, or man the larger half of a platoon. My rankings will be driven by impact, but will guided by bulk, and underlying depth. Beyond that, you need your to have niche guys, bullpen specialists or limited-dimension bench players, or spare guys to add to trades to fill specific areas of need. Depth in niche types, more than anything else is a tiebreaker between systems with similar upper-end talent, and no more than that.

It’s the impact guys who can change organizations. No one remembers anyone else the Cardinals drafted within five years in either direction of when they selected Albert Pujols on the 13th round. He changed their organization. The Angels do not fare very well in my system rankings, but they took Mike Trout near the bottom of the first round a few years back – that changed their organization. In recent years, teams have begun to more carefully guard their impact prospects. Though the occasional Wil Myers will change hands, teams have come to realize the extreme value of homegrown, cost-controlled talent, to the point that they may even value it a bit too much. The fact remains, however, that free agent classes are getting leaner and leaner, as more and more teams are growing their own, and then locking them up.

An impact guy combines now tools and production with youth relative to the league, and gets bonus points for playing quality defense, especially at the difficult end of the defensive spectrum. If a prospect falls short in one or more of those areas, he needs to make up for it in the others. If he’s lacking in too many areas, he’s just not an impact talent. The farther away that a prospect is from the major leagues, the higher the bar to be considered an impact prospect. An awful lot can go wrong between the Appalachian League and the majors. The relative age aspect cannot be underestimated – that’s where the projection comes in.

A guy like Jimmy Rollins was always among the very youngest players at each minor league level. He didn’t hit many homers in the minors. His physical ship came in, and lo and behold, MVP Award, 30-homer season, may have a borderline Hall of Fame case someday. The line is a very blurry one between the bottom of the impact group and the top of the non-impact regular group. I had to make some tough calls, some of which I will almost certainly be wrong on – that’s just the nature of the beast in the baseball prospect evaluation business. When in doubt, go with your gut.

The object of the game is to win at the major league level. Some of the best organizations in the game, current contenders who use their assets most efficiently, are in the lower regions of these rankings, while some perennial major league also-rans rank much higher. No matter – this is just a snapshot at a point in time of where each team stands in a very significant area. It is now the job of each team to take the impact talent currently in their organization, develop it to the best of their ability, and hopefully make the right decisions as to who stays and goes. For a team with a good minor league system, there is always hope, and isn’t hope the one thing that just about every baseball fan has going for them at this time of year?

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12 Responses to “The Value of Impact Prospects”

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  1. Ian says:

    Great read! (except the part about Rollins)

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  2. Mike Green says:

    It is pretty difficult to identify “impact prospects”. When would Matt Carpenter have been reasonably identified as one? Josh Donaldson? Carlos Gomez? Chris Davis? Paul Goldschmidt? Those names aren’t randomly chosen; they are five of the top ten names on the 2013 WAR position player leaderboard.

    For pitchers, it is generally even harder because of the importance of arm health in prospect development, and the prevalence of pitchers who have had long and successful major league careers with stuff that was not particularly noteworthy. No one would have projected that Jimmy Key or David Wells would be “impact players”. In a sense that is a reflection of the fact that it is hard to find starting pitchers who can be above average and throw 200 innings because of the frequency of arm injury. “Bulk” probably matters more for pitchers than for position players.

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    • Vince says:

      You have a point, but neither Davis nor Gomez supports it.

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    • Wobatus says:

      John Sickels seemed to do a pretty good job on these guys. Judging more by the comments than the grades.

      Donaldson he had as high as his top 90 (not specific spot, but as a grade B in 2008 pre-season he was among 90 he rated B or better). The question at times was the glove at catcher. Even when he got older and was around a c+ John said he thought he was underrated and that he might have some “very good years in his late 20s”.

      Chris Davis he gave a B+ to also in pre-season 2008, which would have made him top 37 at least, and John called him a possible Dean Palmer type…could be a lot better than that.”

      Carlos Gomez he ranked 41 in his top 50 hitters pre-season 2007, saying he had great tools but not sure about the power (ha). Gave him a B borderline B+. Hard to project the power at that age I suppose. Funny thing is in 2011 when he reviewed his 2007 top 50, John wrote great glove but can’t hit a lick. The power really started showing up a year later I think.

      Goldschmidt he only gave a B- to. Worried about the california league Ks, despite great numbers otherwise, same as a lot of scouts. By mid-season 2011 he was in BA top 50 9and many others) and John was duly impressed, and he graduated before the next season.

      Carpenter he gave a B- to and noted he could hit. By the time he was playing in April 2012 he noted type og guy Cards find, not amazing tools but feel for the game and better major league numbers than you’d think simply by minors track record or draft position.

      He didn’t project many of them to become stars (Davis with the best chance) but he rated all of them at least a B- at one time or another and noted positive aspects about them. He particularly seemed to like Donaldson. There are lot of guys like these guys who flame out, whereas these guys are almost perfect world results for their skill sets. But there were glimmers they could have impact, even if it wasn’t deemed to be likely. And some of the impact wasn’t what you’d expect. Donaldson a great glove at 3rd, Carpenter a good 2b, Gomez with impressive power, but overall I’d say he did a good job.

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  3. Steve says:

    Probably completely offbase on this, but… would it be worth a team investing in say Trackman to set up data systems at high profile college stadiums, and some high school fields that commonly host top ranked teams, and keeping that data for only themselves?

    Or would the cost outweigh the limited amount of overall players you could capture data on?

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    • Eric R says:

      “After several years of negotiations with the MLB, Sportvision created an upgrade of K-Zone called Pitchf/x that uses a pair of cameras set along the baselines to capture every pitch roughly 40 times on its path between the mound and the plate. In 2007, MLB installed Pitchf/x throughout the league at a cost of about $2 million.”

      That is $2M for 30 installations; that is $65k per park. I didn’t find an estimated cost for hitf/x and fieldf/x, lets say the whole package would be no more than $250k per park plus $25k per year in maintenance, licensing, etc.

      If MLB has revenues of ~$8B, for 1% of that now [$80M] plus 0.1% of that per year beyond [$8M], they could be set-up in >300 amateur parks and share the data.

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      • Steve says:

        Good stuff, thanks. But the point is to NOT SHARE the data. One team could spend say $10M for 40 installations (also, possibly cost is well down from 2007) and have a whole network of data streams that other teams don’t have access to. That seems fairly valuable.

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        • Doug Gray says:

          Some teams have installed the Pitch F/X system in their minor league parks. So this idea has been used, at least at the minor league level.

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        • Burst Faceman says:

          Why share, when you can MONETIZE?

          Bling bling, baby!

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        • Eric R says:

          Perhaps flip it around– a college puts in $250k plus $25k annually for their own system and then sells the data to whichever teams are interested.

          At $25k per MLB team that wants to buy the data, obviously only one team buying, on average, would never break even. But with three teams on board, they’d break even in five years; with five teams, less than three years.

          As far as teams going after this alone or sharing it–
          they are sharing pitchf/x, hitf/x, fieldf/x already. The league and teams already decided that there was more value in doing it together than teams it on their own [or choosing not to do it].

          I’d guess the league would feel the same for this. Obviously the bigger market teams would be more likely able to afford a major roll-out, so letting the teams do their own would just serve to divide the haves and have-nots more.

          From the league perspective– if such installations could help the league as a whole do a better job of drafting the best baseball talent, they may see it as a good investment in the future health of MLB as a whole.

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  4. Jason Powers says:

    Good read. Putting it all in perspective. A lot of science, some art too.

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  5. ttnorm says:

    “As much as teams strive for such talent, the fact is that there are very few impact players in any given draft, or class of Latin American signings.” Looking at lists of players drafted early in past seasons and seeing the high failure rate, this point is often overlooked in winter discussions of the value and willingness to part with draft picks.

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