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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Great read! (except the part about Rollins)