My Prospect Philosophy

So, you’ve found my site. You’ve read some of my articles and looked at some of my lists. But I think it’s important you understand my philosophies on the game, how I view players, things I look for, things that worry me, and everything else that goes into how I rate and evaluate prospects. Then you can determine whether or not my method has value and if you’re going to believe me going forward. I’ll try and break this up into easy to read sections.

Scouts vs Stats….a debate not even worth having

Simply put, its not a choice of one or the other. Any list made up of strictly stats based analysis will be severely limited, while any list that uses simple scouting reports will often times be wildly off the mark. At the highest level, you don’t get points for just looking like a ball player, you actually have to produce. From my point of view, and the way I approach minor league prospects, I look at the statistics first, then supplement that with scouting reports. Player X has an excellent stat line, but how is he doing it? Is he beating up on younger competition? Is he tricking inexperienced hitters with a pitch that major leaguers won’t chase? These are the things that don’t show up in the box score, but come from scouting reports. Of course, you have to trust your source. A bad scouting report is about as valuable as no scouting report at all.

The other thing you need, when looking at minor league statistics, is context. There are 4 main levels of minor league baseball: Rookie ball (separated between the complex leagues (AZL and GCL) and the advanced short season leagues), A Ball (separated between low and high A), AA and AAA. Players are dispersed across these levels based on skill level, age and experience. A 3 slash line of .250/.350/.400 doesn’t tell you anything by itself. You need to know the player’s league, his age, his home park, and his position. But you also need to know if his scouting profile indicates something that would lead you to believe he is better than his numbers, or if hes performing over his expected long term abilities.

Age Related to Level, and why it is so important

Age related to level (ARL) goes along with the context blurb above. A stat line tells you very little without knowing how old a player was, and what league he was in. A .300/.400/.500 line is impressive. Its more impressive if an 18 year old put up that line in a full season league like the South Atlantic League. Its less impressive if a 22 year old put up the same line in the same league. The timeline I use is based on a prospect getting drafted out of high school at age 18, and I then adjust it to consider JuCo and College guys. This is the scale I use:

RK Level (GCL, AZL, APPY) – 18 years old is average (subtract value for 19+ ages, add value for 17 and under)
A- Level (NYPL, PIO, NWL) – 19 years old is average (subtract value for 20+ ages, add value for 18 and under)
A Level (SAL, MWL) – 20 years old is average (subtract value for 21+ ages, add value for 19 and under)
A+ Level (FSL, CAR, CAL) – 21 years old is average (subtract value for 22+ ages, add value for 20 and under)
AA Level (EAS, SOU, TEX) – 22 years old is average (subtract value for 23+ ages, add value for 21 and under)
AAA Level (INT, PCL) – 23 years old is average (subtract value for 24+ ages, add value for 22 and under)

Simply put, if you were drafted out of high school and moved one level at a time, you should be 23 years old in AAA and ready for your big league call up. The best of the best will move faster, and in some cases, much faster, and they should get credit for that. If you’re 20 years old in AA and put up a batting line that is better than league average, your prospect status should reflect that. On the flip side, if you’re 22 and stuck in A ball, beating up on guys 2-3 years younger than you on average, your prospect status should reflect that. College guys normally enter the NYPL, Pioneer or Northwest Leagues, and are often times competing against each other, as well as prospects younger than them. A college player should put up better than average numbers in these leagues, because they have 3+ years of experience in college ball, which rates at a level similar to A/A+ ball in the minors. A below par performance in a short season league should be counted against their record, even if its simply a case of fatigue from a long season. There is no way to really quantify fatigue. Unfortunately.

So what is important when looking at a player’s skills?

When evaluating position players, I focus on 3 key factors:

Plate discipline/power/contact skills: Essentially, does the player have a good idea of the strike zone? Does he generally only swing at strikes and let the balls go? This is evident in a player’s walk rate. I look at walks as a percentage of plate appearances, with a rate of 10% or higher generally considered a plus. For power, you want to use ISO, or isolated power, because it removes singles from slugging percentage. An ISO of .145 or .150 is considered MLB average, and the more demanding offensively the position is, the higher the ISO should be. In terms of contact skills, the easiest and least complex method is to look at strikeout rates, with strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances. Anything over 20% is a concern, over 25% is a red flag. Strikeouts at the major league level aren’t that big a concern, but if a guy is striking out in more than 25% of his plate appearances against guys who will never make the major leagues, its something to worry about. You are looking for progress here, guys who improve their walk rates and lower their K rates as they get more plate appearances.

Speed value: More than just raw stolen bases, I focus on a combination of stolen base totals and stolen base proficiency. Generally speaking, 70% success is the threshold for guys providing positive value via the stolen base. Above 80% is preferable. A guy who is only stealing 10-15 bases per year and getting thrown out 40% of the time is really not helping you in that department. In addition to stolen bases, I look at a player’s number of triples. While this isn’t a fool proof indicator (defensive scoring in the minors is, well, inconsistent) a player who consistently racks up 10+ triples in a season is probably pretty fast.

Defensive value: The defensive spectrum is incredibly important when assessing prospect value. The defensive spectrum works hand in hand with offensive expectations of a player. Shortstops and catchers are the most in demand defensive positions, because they are the toughest to play at a high level, and with it comes less offensive expectation. On the opposite side, first baseman and left fielders provide the lowest defensive value, and thus, the bulk of their worth will be what they do with a bat in their hands. Thus, when trying to value a prospect, its important to understand what position he plays now, what position he will likely play in the majors, the level he will play the position at defensively, and how much offense he will contribute. A slugging catcher or shortstop with gold glove potential is pretty much the most valuable position player commodity, and they should be rated as such.

How do I apply these when looking at minor league batting stats?

A basic checklist:

BB% of 10% or higher is good, above 15% is excellent. Less than 5% is a big red flag
K% of 20% or higher is cause for concern, 25% or above is a red flag. A K% of 12% or less is generally excellent, and 10% or less is elite.
An ISO of .150 is about average. An ISO of .200 or better is excellent, and .225 or higher is elite. On the other side, .125 is below average, and under .100 is a big red flag.

What about pitchers?

Pitchers and hitters are evaluated differently, because their skill set is completely different…obviously. For pitchers, I consider 4 key factors

Arm strength/fastball: Simply put, pitchers with more arm strength are much more likely to become star level pitchers than guys with average or below arm strength. More is needed than just being able to bring it at 97 mph, but its tough to become an ace with an 88-90 mph fastball. One of my biggest pet peeves is comparing a guy with average velocity to Greg Maddux. In his prime, Maddux threw 92-95 mph with excellent movement. That’s an upper echelon fastball, coupled with his elite command and control. He lost velocity past his peak, and eventually ended up in the 87-90 range with his fastball, and his numbers came down with it, but he retained his elite command. Comparing any prospect to Greg Maddux is setting them up to fail. He’s a one in a generation talent. Along with the raw velocity of a fastball, the movement of the pitch is key. A straight 96 mph fastball is less valuable than a 93 mph fastball that features cut, sink or tail with command. Roy Halladay is a good example of this, as his fastball sits anywhere in the 91-95 range, but he can make it move both ways with precision.

Secondary pitches: To make it as a starter, you generally need at least one above average secondary pitch. A secondary pitch, just to define it, is a changeup, curveball, slider, splitter, etc etc, basically anything other than a fastball. I consider a cut fastball to be a derivative of a fastball, and thus I evaluate it with the fastball. If you lack an above average secondary pitch, but have two average secondary pitches (a breaking ball and a changeup) you’ll probably make it as a starter. Pitchers who can’t develop above average or even average secondary offerings are ticketed to the bullpen.

Command/Control: If you can’t throw the ball where you want it, better hitters are going to make you pay. Inexperienced, poor minor league hitters will generally chase garbage breaking balls in the dirt, because their pitch recognition stinks. But more experienced upper minors hitters won’t, and throwing quality strikes and commanding your breaking ball becomes vital.

Mechanics/Durability: While I’m not a video analysis expert, there are simple things that are noticeable on video that could be read flags. These include throwing across your body, landing on a stiff front leg, recoiling on your follow-through, and pinching your shoulders together to generate additional velocity. None of these indicators are surefire injury causes, and some guys with sub-par mechanics will never get hurt, but its still less than optimal.

How do I apply these when looking at minor league pitching stats?

Unlike hitting stats, pitching stats tell you less of the story. Generally speaking, however, I consider these to be solid rules of thumb:

K/9 rate of 7.50 is roughly average. 8.5/9 is above average, and anything above 10.0/9 is elite. Less than 7.0/9 is below average, Less than 6.0/9 is a red flag
BB/9 rate of 3.25 is roughly average. 2.75/9 is above average, and anything under 2.0/9 is elite. More than 3.5/9 is below average, More than 4.0/9 is a red flag
HR/9 rate of .50 is roughly average. 0.3/9 is above average, and anything under 0.15/9 is elite. More than 0.65 is below average, more than 0.80/9 is a red flag
Groundball rates: Anything above 50% is solid, anything below 40% is sub par, and anything above 60% is elite.

I tend to weigh strikeout ability at a higher value than the other three categories, followed closely by groundball rate. Getting swings and misses, and keeping the ball on the ground when contact is made are two absolutely vital skills for pitchers. Control can improve as mechanics are refined and pitchers feel more comfortable with their breaking ball. High home run rates are normally a sign of poor command and missed location.

What about league and park adjustments?

Adjusting minor league statistics is extremely important if you are going to use them for comparison purposes. You can look at league averages for all minor leagues at baseball-reference.com. In 2010, the average batting line in the Gulf Coast League, a rookie complex league, was .247/.321/.349. Contrast that with the more hitter friendly AAA level Pacific Coast League: .277/.348/.432. You also have to consider park factors, and this page is the resource for looking at weighted, three year averages from 2008-2010. Park factors are important to consider, moreso for hitters, because a tough hitting park can artificially deflate a hitter’s line. Since we are focusing more on peripherals for pitchers the importance is less noticeable, but the approach of a pitcher can be impacted by his home park, and a park can inflate or deflate a pitcher’s peripherals.

From a Phillies perspective, use this as a guide

RK Ball – GCL Phillies: The GCL is a very pitcher dominated league. Many of the parks serve as spring training homes for the parent clubs, and thus the dimensions are large.
A- Ball – Williamsport: The New York Penn League is a pitcher dominated league, and one of the toughest hitting environments in the minors. Williamsport has generally played as a neutral park.
A Ball – Lakewood: The South Atlantic League is a fairly neutral offensive/pitching league. FirstEnergy Park, however, is one of the best pitchers parks in the entire league.
A+ Ball – Clearwater: The Florida State League is a notorious pitcher’s league, but Brighthouse Field allows its share of home runs.
AA Ball – Reading: The Eastern League is fairly neutral offensively, but FirstEnergy Stadium is a very good hitter’s park.
AAA Ball – Lehigh Valley: The International League is neutral offensively, with Coca Cola Park playing as a moderate pitcher’s park.

Is it better to have high upside or high probability guys?

The obvious answer is both. Generally speaking, it is much tougher to become a superstar with subpar physical tools. The best of the best in baseball are normally those who had exceptional raw tools, they hit for power, they hit for average, they could run, they were great defenders, and eventually their talents plateaued and then they declined. But at the same time, the attrition rate of prospects as a whole is very high and the flameout rate for high upside, ultra raw potential superstars is off the charts. Thats what makes this so damn difficult. Like they say when it comes to the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. So its good to play (ie, drafting these potential stars), but just like you wouldn’t base your livelihood financially on winning the lottery, its good to draft guys who you feel have well rounded skills and will play at the major league level. Much like life, the proper balance is essential.

The inevitability of being wrong

This is a good place for a closing statement. I love the minor leagues, because I think its a part of the game that is still underreported on, but is as important as ever. From the first time a player is scouted, till he is drafted, till he ends up in the majors or retires, opinion will likely change about his prospects and future. Baseball scouts, especially when they are scouting high school players, are really guessing in a lot of ways. You’re looking at a 6’4/180 pound kid without much power now, and thinking that in 5 years, he’ll be 6’5/215 and hitting 30 HR a year. You’re looking at a 6’2/170 pound righthanded pitcher throwing 88-90 and thinking that he’ll be throwing quality fastballs in the 92-94 range in 3 years, while maintaining perfect health. And if you’re right 1 in 10 times, your team is getting an all-star, and you’ll keep your job. And this is the people out in the trenches, who get to see kids a bunch of times. Most of us who like writing about prospects get to see a few minutes of grainy video, and we then have to try and figure out what we’re watching. I’m not an expert on video analysis, and I’d never claim to be. I see things that “look right” in my head, and things that look wrong. Sometimes I’m right, many times I’m wrong. But everyone hits, and everyone misses, its just the nature of the beast. And its a lot of fun. Thanks for stopping by and reading my ramblings.

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