I’ve been told that there are 2 rules when it comes to prospects:
1. Don’t talk about prospecting
2. Don’t talk about prospecting.
Lately I’ve been a really poor prospector mostly because I love to talk prospects. There’s something about being able to take a players very first stats and turn them into a bunch of little equations and then break it all down some more until I’ve found just the right early career trajectory. Sometimes I stress over it too much, but in the end it’s very rewarding to be able to come up with my analytical conclusion on a player and then watch him play throughout the year and post the kinds of numbers my system had predicted. It’s not a perfect system, and I could go out and spend a little bit of money and just buy the projections and other information from bigger, more scientific sources, but that would be way too easy and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.
Anyways, I wanted to toss out a few ideas about things I look for when analyzing a prospect and if you have your own ideas, feel free to add your own comments. One of the first things I look for and have based some of my projection formulas around is a hitters pitch selection, because if a hitter strikes out a lot and rarely walks, they usually have a much lower chance of succeeding at advanced levels. Yesterday I had a chance to read Ted Williams’ book called The Science of Hitting. In it, Williams says that the best two pieces of advise he ever received as a young ballplayer were “to get a good ball to hit” and “whatever you do, don’t let anybody change your style.” The first piece of advice came from Roger Hornsby, who had a lifetime batting average of .358 with 301 home runs, and the second piece of advice came from Lefty O’Doul, who had a lifetime career batting average of .349 and had a walk to strikeout ratio of almost 3.0. If those two pieces of advice were good enough for Williams then their good enough for me, and they should be good enough for any young ballplayer that cares to succeed. When looking at a prospects stats, even from rookie ball level, look for guys who don’t throw away at-bats and are generally under a 20-25% strikeout rate with a walk rate that is not too far behind. Those types of stats can be a huge indicator of how well a hitter can see and judge the strike zone and how much he really wants “to get a good ball (he) can hit.”
The second thing I look for in a prospect can also be found in Williams’ book. Williams loved hitting, and he didn’t just love the act of hitting. He loved to talk about hitting, think about hitting, write about hitting and really dig down and analyze hitting. In his book, he claims that he could tell you every little detail about his first 300 home runs, including who the pitcher was, what the count was, what the pitch was and even where the ball landed. Williams could differentiate between as little as half an ounce difference between two bats simply by holding them in his hands and he would frequently take his bats to the post office to weight them, noting minute changes in their weight due to dust, moisture, or pine tar. He was so meticulous about it that he would take his bats home every night and clean the tar and dust off with alcohol. If you find a hitter that loves hitting as much as Williams did, you’ll know it just by watching him at the plate and looking at his stats. A hitter that loves hitting will work so hard at it that they won’t waste at-bats flailing at pitches they know they can’t hit and they’ll make sure that whatever weakness they have is worked on daily.
As quick examples, you can compare Albert Pujols and a guy like Andruw Jones. Both are very gifted hitters, but you can tell just by looking at Pujols’ stats that he love hitting and that he works at it constantly, otherwise he wouldn’t care if he struck out 150 times a year. If you spent 4 or 5 hours a day preparing for 3or 4 at-bats that would last a total of maybe 15 minutes, wouldn’t you want to make the most of those at-bats? Wouldn’t you want to squeeze every little bit of opportunity out of every pitch that came at you? I’m sure Andruw Jones thinks that he works hard at hitting, but he only works at the physical side of it. I’ve heard from multiple people that Jones rarely takes advice from anyone, including his hitting coaches. If Andruw Jones loved hitting, he would have learned to lay off outside breaking stuff by the age of 25, or else he would have learned to wait for it and drill it into the right field bleachers. If Jones loved hitting, he would have keep himself in better shape during the off season and he wouldn’t have to wait until mid-June to get his swing going. When you look for a prospect to follow, look for a guy that loves hitting. If you ever get a chance at a minor league game or Spring Training, ask your prospect what he thinks about hitting. If his face doesn’t light up or his answer is something along the lines of, “Uh, it’s good I guess” then you need a new prospect.
The last thing I look for in a hitting prospect is power. I really don’t care how big they are, or what their stance looks like. If they get the bat moving quickly and hit the ball hard in all directions, that’s good enough for me. But I only look for power after I’ve seen good pitch selection and a love for hitting, and I’ll take a guy with no power who loves to hit over a pure power guy any day and so should you.
There are lots of other guidelines to go by when considering a hitting prospect, but these are just a few that I like to use. Feel free to share your own and good luck!