John Sickels on Skills over Tools

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, I wrote at-length about my personal process for ranking prospects, which is to look for "skills" over tools; or in other words, tools that have already developed into a major league skill.

SB Nation's lead prospect writer is John Sickels, who has been hard at work this off-season publishing his own rankings, and has done so professionally for many years. His rankings for the Rays are forthcoming, but in the mean time, I asked John for his thoughts on my process:

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Do you think "skills" should be valued more highly than "tools"? Is that a proper mindset?

Well, ideally you need both tools and skills to be a successful player, but I try to think of it like this.

Most star-caliber players have both skills and tools, but how many successful players are out there who have great skills but mediocre tools -- as opposed to guys with great tools but mediocre skills? Nobody was ever that impressed with Matt Carpenter's physical tools, for example, but his baseball skills are so strong that they helped him overcome non-wonderful physical tools.

My thinking is that, the higher in baseball you go, the more important the skills are.

If you are looking at rookie ball, tools are more important than skills. There are many examples of tools players who don't perform well in rookie ball but who are young and eventually figure the skills part out. But if you are looking at Double-A and Triple-A players, a guy with great tools who doesn't have skills is less likely to grow into productivity. Double-A is the big dividing line in my mind.

So for me, it isn't so much valuing tools over skills, or skills over tools. You want both, but as an analyst, the higher the level the player; and the older the player in question, the more important skills become in the equation. At least that's how I look at it. Other people disagree and value nothing but tools even at higher levels.

How important are the vocabulary of prospect "ceilings" and "floors" to your evaluation process?

I tend to be attracted to players with high floors, but that is because I tend to be risk-adverse as a person. That's a personal bias, and I try to be aware of it.

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The perspective that lower levels don't have a strong necessity for "skills" is an interesting distinction.

A player like Andrew Toles, for instance, isn't perceived on our end to have many skills ready for the majors, but he's no less incredibly athletic and a great prospect for the system. In practice, he doesn't need to have those skills ready as he enters High-A ball, nor should I be underrating him for not being there yet.

There was a subtle distinction in my rankings to still let tools out weight a lack of "skills" (such as my ranking of Guerrieri in the Top-5, even if he too would not be beyond A-ball), but I would mentally chalk my low-rankings for these "low level, heavy tool" players like Toles or Nick Ciuffo or Ryan Brett as "risk" -- a function of the time it will take for the player to be ready.

Using guidance from Sickles, and from many in the comments, perhaps I should be giving more weight to tools and less weight to this "risk" as I perceive it for players in the lower levels. I've called this suppression of far off prospects tempering optimism -- like Sickels, in attempts to remove personal bias -- but I could paint a better picture in the future.

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