Welcome to the DRaysBay prospect primer! With voting for our community prospect list underway, we thought it could be helpful for fans not as familiar with following prospects. It covers a number of topics to hopefully get more interested in prospects and minor league baseball. Veterans probably won't learn anything new here, but maybe it can be used as a reference in the future.
There are a number of great places to get information on prospects. In house, we recently completed a 2013 review of every minor leaguer in the organization. The last post in the series is here, and the links to access the rest can be found at the top of that post.
In network, John Sickels, Matt Garrioch and a host of others run Minor League Ball. The off-season features top 20 rankings for each team, and there is daily discussion and player notes when the season rolls around. An active community complements each post.
Baseball America is the industry standard for prospects, minor leagues and amateur baseball. A subscription opens up a world of content, but there is still plenty available for everyone even without paying, including the organization top 10 lists. Their annual prospect handbook is an indispensable go-to guide for all the top players in the minors.
As the league's official site, MLB.com should have prospect coverage, and they bolstered that in 2013 with the addition of Baseball America's Jim Callis. Aside from lists of top prospects by organization and position, the duo of Callis and Jonathan Mayo regularly generate content and answer questions from readers.
Jason Parks leads a deep roster of prospect analysts at Baseball Prospectus. With a mix of subscriber and free content, the BP team provides extensive daily coverage in addition to the usual off-season lists. Contacts within the industry supplement their emphasis on in-person scouting and evaluation.
Keith Law headlines ESPN's prospect and draft coverage, all of which requires a subscription. He covers the majors quite a bit too, and his insight may be worth the price of admission alone. His top 100 capsules and team top 10 lists should be released within the month, and he also does weekly chats open to everyone.
There is no one size fits all approach to looking at minor leaguers. There could be two identical 22 year old left fielders with a .750 OPS. However, one did it in the International League, and the other did it in the Arizona League. One is a pretty neutral environment against the highest level of minor league competition. One is (usually) a hitter's paradise against players new to professional baseball. One could be a prospect, and the other probably won't be.
The runs/game columns are for one team only and not combined in a game (with their opponent).
For Rays prospects purposes, knowing the average OPS in the Texas League isn't all that relevant, but the table shows how each league is different. Generally, Rays affiliates play in the lower scoring leagues.
It's important to keep this in mind when looking at stats. A player from Hudson Valley with a .700 OPS may not stand out, but in the New York-Penn League these days, that's well above the league average.
That's not even getting into individual park factors. Minor league stadiums can have quirks too, leading to variations within a league. The Cal League is rightly known for its offense, but that's skewed heavily because of two parks: High Desert and Lancaster. Modesto is one of a few northern division teams that play in more pitching friendly environments.
For an example pertaining to the Rays, the GCL South division is even more favorable to pitchers than the rest of the league.
Taking an even broader view to context, it's important to keep in mind how expansive minor league baseball is. At any given time, there are 750 major league players. At any given time, there are almost 5,000 minor league players. An individual player could be having a really good year, but in the grand scheme of things, a lot of players are having really good years. Only the best of the best make it.
Statistics are an incredible tool in analyzing major leaguers. In the minors though, they can be misleading in any number of ways, some of which have already been discussed. However, to laypeople like us who don't have a scouting eye or see enough action to hone one, stats are a key and necessary tool for analysis. That's why knowing the pitfalls is important.
For years now, RBI and wins have been known to be poor indicators of success. That's especially true in the minors. The goal is to determine a player's ability while removing as many outside factors as possible.
For batters, I think the slash stats (BA/OBP/SLG) are an okay place to start. With average, of course BABIP should be considered to get an idea if the average is sustainable. OBP is key for prospects as it is for big leaguers. SLG obviously shows power output.
In a way, OBP and SLG are tethered to a player's average, so digging a little deeper leads us to walk rate and ISO. Walk rate (BB/PA) is a simple measure of how often a player walks, and ISO (SLG-BA) is helpful for seeing the rate of extra base hits from a hitter.
One more stat for hitters is strikeout rate (K/PA). I'm of the school that for the most part, strikeouts are just outs, but that's to a point. If a player is having a hard time with stuff in the lower minors, it stands to reason that those difficulties will continue climbing up the ladder.
For pitchers, strikeout rate is key. Stuff is so important for pitchers. In the majors, pitchers can have success without missing a ton of bats, but a pitcher who's not missing them in the lower levels is probably going to get hit harder and harder as the hitters improve.
Walk rate is important for pitchers just as it is for hitters. I prefer K% and BB% to the more commonly used K/9 and BB/9, and Beyond the Box Score is one of many sources that can explain why. In most cases the difference is probably negligible, but K% can help us reach our goal of isolating an individual's performance.
Any stat involving balls in play, whether it's H/9, WHIP, GB% or anything else, can be dicey. The effects of a bad defense can clearly be seen in the majors, and the effects are often even greater in the minors. The quality of defense and even field of play can vary wildly. A line drive to an official scorer in Bradenton could be a fly ball to one in Visalia.
Ground balls that should be fielded, or double plays that should be turned simply aren't sometimes, and those can affect a pitcher's statline. That's why I value the strikeout and walk rates just a little more; the pitchers are more in control of those. Some pitchers, though, are just too hittable, and a high BABIP or bad defense can only explain away so much. Keep in mind that Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS) theories and the stats that come out of them (FIP, xFIP, etc.) were developed in and calibrated for the major leagues. They do not necessarily apply at lower levels.
The term "five tool player" is often overused. When looking at batters, it's still important to know about the tools though. The tools are as follows:
The hit tool is almost certainly the most important one for position players. More than any other tool, it can carry a player up the rungs of professional baseball even if none of the player's other tools stand out.
A lot of factors go into the quality of a player's hit tool, including bat speed and hand-eye coordination to put bat on ball. Ultimately, the question is this: can the player consistently make the hard contact necessary to hit for a high batting average?
The power tool is simple. How many home runs can a player hit? Power hitters create their power in a couple ways; they can have the raw strength to just muscle the ball over the fence or having the swing path and bat speed to generate it.
Power is greatly affected by the hit tool. A player can have all the power in the world, but if he swings and misses a lot or can only make weak contact, it's never going to show up in games. Players can compensate for that though with something at times mistakenly thought of as a tool: plate approach.
Although it's not one of the five tools, a player's plate approach is key. A poor one can prevent a quality hit or power tool from ever being utilized in a game. The ability to make consistent, hard contact doesn't matter much if the player is always swinging at pitches not conducive to good hitting. On the other hand, a slugger who doesn't have the hands to regularly put the ball in play can at least be patient enough to find himself in favorable counts where he gets pitches he can drive.
To shift back to tools, speed couldn't be simpler; it's a measure of how fast a player runs. Evaluating it isn't as abstract as hit or power. It's graded on how fast a player gets to first base after making contact. Ideally, the player should be timed on a batted ball that demands the player to run down the line, but not a jailbreak bunt where the batter is 'cheating' and getting a running start.
Inversely similar to how plate approach isn't a tool, the speed tool is purely about the physical and does not include baserunning ability. A fast player who can't read pitchers or defensive alignments won't be able to take advantage of his athleticism.
Unlike speed, defense may be the toughest tool to evaluate because it encompasses a lot of factors, not to mention all the positions on the field requiring different abilities. In no particular order, a player's instincts, first step quickness, footwork, range, reactions and hands all play a part in the grade. Here are some of the qualities key for each position:
First base: Soft hands
Second base: Range
Shortstop: Instincts, range and soft hands
Third base: Reactions
Corner outfield: First step quickness and instincts
Center field: Instincts, first step quickness and range
All that said, the final tool is a huge component of a defensive profile, and that's the arm. For a handful of positions, first base, second base, left field and center field, a team can probably live without a strong arm. Players that could otherwise play the left side of the infield find themselves moving to another position because of arm strength.
Accuracy matters too, although that sometimes seems to take a backseat to strength. Accuracy is something that can be improved though since the root of problems is typically something mechanical and not some Knoblauchian mental block. Fixing footwork can be done by coaches and through increased work at the position.
Tools are graded on the 20-80 scale (some teams prefer 2-8.) 50 is considered to be an average major leaguer, although that can be a bit unintuitive in some situations.
30: Well below average
40: Below average
MLB.com's prospect coverage has grades for prospects. First round pick Nick Ciuffo's profile looks like this:
40 and 60 are generally considered to be one standard deviation below and above average, and so on. Normally, one would assume this would make for a standard bell curve, but that's not necessarily the case. That's particularly true with the speed tool. The average grade for speed is tied to a specific home to first time (BP, $), but it probably doesn't take a stopwatch to see half the hitters in baseball can't get to first base in 4.3 seconds.
Speed is skewed heavily toward the bottom of the scale, and on the top half, the number of 80 grades vary between different tools. In the minor leagues, 80 grade speed isn't too rare. Many of those players never make it out of a short-season league though because they're athletes who don't possess many baseball skills.
Generally though, those 80 grades are few and far between. Bryce Harper has 80 power and an 80 arm; in his prime, Ichiro probably had a couple 80 grade tools too. Giancarlo Stanton also has 80 power, and of course Billy Hamilton has 80 speed, and then some.
The 80 grade picture can get a little murky in the minors because scouts put two grades on prospects: one for present ability and one for future ability. This is where there's debate about the use of "five tool player". Players could potentially have five average or better tools, but often times players just never reach those peaks. Even star players might not be playing to the best case scenario scouts project.
A lot of potential grades are actually derived from batting practice or even fielding warm-ups. It gives scouts an idea what players are capable of in a perfect environment. Swing mechanics should be at their best with a friendly pitcher not trying to get him out.
Whether players can show that idealized ability in actual game action is how their present grades come to be. A lot of times, game action proves unfriendly, and it becomes clear that potential will remain just that. That gap between present and potential can persist throughout a player's career. Even today, Delmon Young looks like a prodigious power hitter in BP. In the games though, he's proven to be a 5 o'clock hitter.
Floor and ceiling
If a lot of scouting reports sound rosy, it's because they are. Often times, an absolute best case scenario is presented. If these were likely outcomes, there would be a lot more aces and middle of the order hitters. That's a player's ceiling, or what happens if absolutely everything in his career comes together.
The floor is more of a worst case scenario if the player carves out a big league role. Maybe a changeup doesn't develop, forcing a would-be starter to the bullpen, or a hitter never refines his plate approach to take advantage of his hit and power tools. Taken to extremes, a player's floor would be 'lucky to replace Don Mattingly on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team,' and his ceiling would be the best player of all-time, but that's a bit silly.
Recognizing floors and ceilings is helpful for developing more nuanced views of players. If someone is only looking at ceilings, nearly every prospect is going to seem like a disappointment, but that's a pretty bleak perspective to have on things. It helps manage expectations expectations if hype around a particular player gets out of control.
A lot of players in the majors are set in their positions, but there's a lot of fluidity in the minors before big league fans see the finished product. Baseball Prospectus has a nice, simple view of how a lot of career paths look.
Players that come into professional baseball, particularly out of high school, are usually the best athletes on the field, so they play the toughest positions, catcher, shortstop or center field. The bar for playing those positions is set higher and higher in college and as players progress through the minors.
But while the bar for defense is set higher at those premium positions, the bar for their bats is set higher as they move down the spectrum. Teams (rightly) value defense at the up-the-middle positions over bats, but the production has to come from somewhere. To be an above average player at a corner position, the standard for offensive production is higher.
That's why prospects up the middle often times have more value than corner position prospects even if the offensive numbers don't look as good. Quality bats at those positions are harder to come by, especially with the defense needed to play them well.
If there are two equal players with a .800 OPS, one being a shortstop with average defense and one being a right fielder with average defense, the shortstop wins out because he's a much rarer commodity. A team with these two prospects might actually have a greater need in the outfield, but when comparing individual players, it should be done in a vacuum not considering need.
I start with a big list of players (comically large, in fact. This year's has 77 players.) to consider. Most of these are longshots at best to get ranked, but I just want to cover every player possible.
Combing through the organization, in addition to the big names people expect, I look for top performers, even ones that are a bit old for their level or on the wrong side of the defensive spectrum. Poor performers with pedigrees, like being drafted early or getting a high bonus, make the cut too; there's still a chance a player like that turns it around.
I throw all the batters into one list and all the pitchers into another. To get a starting ranking for each, I weigh a number of factors on a scale of 1-5. For hitters, those factors are ceiling (this is where scouting information comes into play), age relative to level, performance and defensive ability.
This is very informal. Three in each category would be an average everyday player, a player at the league average age, a league average performance, and a player that can play adequate defense at second or third base or a corner outfield spot.
It's not much different for pitchers. On the same scale, I consider ceiling, age relative to level and performance. A three in each would be a number four starter or late inning reliever, a player at the league average age, and a league average performance. If I don't like how these rankings turn out, I make adjustments. It gives me a starting point and sometimes helps me see a player in a different light.
Once those two lists are complete, I put them next to each other to start the merge into the top 30 list. I compare the top hitter and top pitcher, and the player I prefer takes the next spot on the list. I do this until I reach 30.
Check your list twice, but no more
Seriously, for me, maybe the hardest part of the entire process is just being satisfied with the end product. Every time I look at it, I want to tinker with it and make one or two last adjustments. At some point, I just have to stop changing the rankings and go with what I have.
That's just how I do things though; with the right tools, anyone can make a credible list. When the writers post their individual lists as the season approaches, I hope they'll share their thought processes. There are a lot of ways to approach making a list and judging players, which is why they're so good to start discussions.