Why Young Prospect Bats Struggle Early

Early in the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were getting criticized from all angles over their treatment of prospect Gregory Polanco. The 22-year-old outfielder carried a .400 average into May for Triple-A Indianapolis, while Travis Snider (82 wRC+ over the first two months) and Jose Tabata (84) struggled in right field for a Pirates club that at one point sank to 9.5 games out in the NL Central.

While Pirates general manager Neal Huntington indicated that he felt Polanco needed more time in Triple-A, the team was accused of being cheap — for reasonably wanting to ensure that they delayed Polanco’s free agency by a year — or overly conservative, watching the division slip away a year after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades. When Polanco finally came up in June and promptly set a Pirates rookie record by collecting at least one hit in each of his first 11 games, it seemed as though perhaps the dissenters had a point.

On Monday, Polanco was optioned back to Triple-A. He’d struggled so badly after his hot start that his wRC+ now sits at 88, 12 percent below league average and barely better than what Snider and Tabata had done. It’s a valuable lesson: No matter what the minor league stat line says, hotshot-prospect hitters often struggle in their first extended look in the majors. So why is that?

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

2 Responses to “Why Young Prospect Bats Struggle Early”

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  1. Rawson says:

    And then there’s Jurickson Profar: No. 1 prospect in baseball 2 years ago but it has taken so long for him to reach the major leagues (injury + GM/manager dispute) that a small but extremely vocal segment of the Rangers fan base is now claiming he’s a bust and clamoring to see him traded for pitching prospects.

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  2. PXF says:

    How about the other side of the coin: prospect arms? Should we expect that pitchers’ numbers improve when going from the hitter-friendly AAA to MLB?
    E.g., James Paxton (2013 AAA / 2013-14 MLB)
    K-BB% 11.4 / 11.5
    FIP 3.92 / 3.36

    We all know about minor-league-equivalency stats… would a simpler answer be league-specific +/- ratings (like FIP- and wRC+)? With the understanding that the error bars for the minors are wider.

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