Friday, November 24, 2006

What's In a Prospect?

As I enter the cream of the Yankee prospect crop, I'd like to talk a little bit about what I look for in a prospect. I am a little unorthodox in my methods, but I believe that in a few years my predictions will hold up.

I try to reframe from cliches when analyzing prospects. I hate it when people say "He's a #3 starter", without really defining what they mean by #3 starter. 1-5 means different things for different people. Some people will say that a #1 starter is a 3.50 ERA or better guy, while some will insist that the only "#1" starter in the league right now is Johan Santana. I try not to use the term.

What do I look for in a prospect? Well, I ask myself a few questions first.

I. Does he have a pedigree? How good is it? What kind of numbers has he put up? In what context?

I am a stat-head. I can't help it. I want to see the numbers on a prospect. I really don't care about high school numbers, because any decent prospect is going to dominate so thoroughly that the difference between a .450 batting average and a .420 one is minimal. College numbers are different, as certainly conferences can have levels of competition close to A+ leagues. Of course, you have to consider the difference between aluminum and wooden bats when talking about college pitchers. Power pitchers tend to fair significantly better against wood. You have to consider the age of the prospect putting up those numbers, because Eric Duncan's age 20 season at AA was encouraging for a 20 year old, but would be a major failure for an older player.

What numbers specifically? I am very, very high on control of the strike zone. The strike zone is the most important factor in baseball, and those who utilize it best will succeed. For pitchers, this means two things: not walking people and striking them out. Walks lead to big innings, and strikeouts prevent hits. There is a lot of luck involved with batted balls, and strikeouts prevent the whims of fate from ruining a game for a pitcher. I look at ERA, but I don't take it in to account too much. Look at a guy like Jeff Marquez. Marquez has freakish ground/fly splits, but his defense has always hurt him. As he improves, the ERA will normalize.

For hitters, I look for a couple of things. First off, a very important factor that people forget is park and league factor. Tampa is a big ballpark in a pitchers league, which makes performances like Cody Ehlers' go underrated. I mentally add about 20% to all hitter numbers in Tampa. Next, I think about position. Good numbers for a 1st baseman translate into amazing numbers for a CF. Finally, the actual numbers themselves. I like prospects who take a lot of walks. If a prospect can maintain a respectable batting average while taking his fair share of walks, he is a pretty sure bet to have at least a major league bench career. I look for power, but a lot of prospects (like Shelly Duncan or Mitch Jones) like to sacrifice the ability to prevent outs by going for the sexy home run numbers. Again, the numbers have to be put in context.

Battings averages are weird things. A player could do everything right but end up hitting .260 over 600 plate appearances. Balls bounce weird or defenses can make an inordinate amount of excellent plays against a batter. However, a player can do a few things right to keep his batting average high. He can put the ball in play, since a strikeout is a near automatic out. Simply by putting the ball in play every time, a very mediocre player will hit at least .270 or so. In addition, hitting ground balls will lower your batting average. Yeah, a batter can aim for a hole, but very often the ball will reach an infielder. Line drives are much better, as over 70% of them fall in for outs. Fly balls will create a lot of extra base hits, but will lower your batting average as a lot of them end up caught for outs. In addition, a player's batting average can be raised by taking walks. Speed can help too, especially on ground balls.

I don't like to look at batting averages, but I do like to look at their context. If a player hits .240 with 160 strikeouts and 60 walks, then he has a problem. Look at Tim Battle for example. However, if a guy hits .260 with 90 strikeouts and 60 walks, then I don't worry too much. Younger players tend to struggle with batting averages, despite strikeout and walk numbers.

II. What do the scouts say about a player? Is he ahead of his curve? For pitchers, what does he throw? Does he have control of his pitches?

For me, this stuff comes second. I draw a distinction between how a prospect has performed and their means to that performance. Yes, the means to the performance is very important, but it is also highly subjective. I do not doubt that a skilled scout can tell the difference between the next Manny Ramirez and the next Drew Henson, but most people who call themselves by that label are not as skilled as they would have you think. Performance is a much better way of evaluating prospects.

But of course, all performance has context. A pitcher who dominates A ball based on his 96 mph fastball but has poor control and no secondary pitches will not succeed in the high minor leagues. A guy who does very well with his 84 mph fastball and trick curveball does not have major league stuff, even if he can fool 19 year olds.

I like changeups. Everybody these days has a slider or a curveball, and major league hitters are getting much better at hitting them. However, the ability to throw a plus changeup is not something common to pitchers, and it adds velocity to the fastball. Everybody can throw hard, but can everybody change speeds? Pitching is about deception, and a changeup is the best way to decieve hitters. In addition, I like smart pitchers. Athletes often try to turn their brains off when playing their games (which seems to extend to broadcasters and sports writers these days), but that is not always the best approach. Scouts put no faith in guys like Matt DeSalvo (who is actually literate, unlike most baseball players), Ian Kennedy, or Tyler Clippard, because they have trouble understanding how they manage to achieve their results. Again, this is why performance-based analysis is so much more accurate than means-driven analysis.

For batters, I sometimes have to rely on scouting for younger prospects. Guys like Jose Tabata and Jesus Montero are young and so raw that they simply have not played enough to determine their worth.

III. Is he healthy? For pitchers, how many innings has he managed to pitch so far? Does he have any lingering health issues?

This is pretty self explanatory. Between the ages of 18 and 21, a huge portion of the pitching prospects out there fail. Why do they fail? They blow their arms out. A lot of these guys have been pitching since they were 11 years old and have thrown far too many breaking balls. My sister pitches in softball, and she very nearly blew out her elbow because her pitching coach taught her a riser too early. Pitchers are the same way. Most High School pitchers throw little more than 60 innings in a season. A full minor league season will include 27+ starts for a pitcher, a huge increase. This increased workload kills off a lot of arms. College pitchers have a huge advantage in this regard in that they have been exposed to 90-140 inning workloads, and their arms have grown past the stage where injuries occur. This eliminates a lot of risk.

IV. What position does he play? Does he have the tools to hold it down? Does he have the bat? The secondary pitches?

I can easily find a 25 home run 1st baseman. Guys like Lyle Overbay aren't anything special. However, you can count the number of 25 home run shortstops on one hand. I look at all positions on a line. The line goes DH-1b-LF-RF-3b-CF-2b-SS-C. Offense is less valueable to the left and more to the right. Players who have trouble playing defense will much more likely move left than right. A shortstop with a bad arm can play 2nd, and a CF with poor range can slide to left. However, their offensive contribution suffers. A guy like Eric Duncan, who may be able to put together a few .270/.375/.500 years, suffers in prospect status by moving to 3rd. Instead of competing against a few guys like Mark Teahen, Alex Rodriguez, and David Wright, he is at a position where 40 HR Richie Sexton is considered poor. Defense is a distant third in importance to pitching and hitting, but it is neccessary.

V. Gut feelings.

Sometimes I just feel really good about a guy. Ian Kennedy, George Kontos, and Cody Ehlers are that way for me. It is a gut feeling that I cannot put any logical reasoning behind. My gut feeling on Dellin Betances moved him from #11 to #5. I am no professional scout, but I have been a baseball watcher for long enough to get a real feel for some of these prospects.

Maybe this all makes my rankings more sensible. Maybe it does not. Tomorrow, we move on to #4, Tyler Clippard.