Guidelines for Collecting Prospects

I’ve been told that there are 2 rules when it comes to prospects:

1. Don’t talk about prospecting

And…

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!

The Prospect Corner – Jacoby Ellsbury

This will be short and sweet because I think most people have been able to see the potential in Jacoby Ellsbury, but I wanted to make a few comments and give you a few comparable players. In some ways Ellsbury came as a surprise, bursting onto the scene just as the Red Sox were making their way towards another World Series title, but if you take a look at his minor league numbers his success is almost expected. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if he would come out of the gates putting up the solid numbers or just getting by, but sometimes a prospects initial response to being called up is hard to predict. He probably won’t sustain the batting average he had in ’07, but I think he’ll be very productive in the Red Sox line-up and Red Sox will soon forget Johnny Damon, if they haven’t already.

I really like several things about Ellsbury, including his speed of course, but I also really like his plate discipline. It’s pretty hard to find a hitter that will consistently maintain a BB/K rate of close to 1.0, and that along with his ability to make contact, will keep his on-base percentage up and make him a very valuable asset as the Red Sox try for a repeat. Leo Epstein and company have done a great job of drafting good young contact hitters that add depth and compliment their more established players.

Some of Ellsbury’s comparable came as a bit of a surprise for me, but I think Red Sox fans will be happy about them.

Reyes obviously went through the minors at a younger age, but with an adjustment for that age difference I think their numbers come out to be very similar. The only big differences I see are that Reyes showed a little more power, while Ellsbury showed better plate discipline.

Gonzalez (who is one of the most overlooked hitters in the National League) had a power surge at the age of 23 so he doesn’t provide quite the same comparison as Reyes, but the BB/K ratios, OBP and SLG numbers are all fairly close and it gives you a sense of the different directions Ellsbury’s career could go. Given the nature of the American League and where Ellsbury fits in with the Red Sox line-up, I think he’ll make a great top-of-the-order hitter, with an OBP and SLG close to what we see out of Reyes, and about 40-50 stolen bases in 2008. At 6’1” and 185 lbs, there’s always a chance that Ellsbury could hit for more power than Reyes, and I think he will, but it won’t be the type of numbers that Gonzalez is capable of putting up. So, here are my numbers for Ellsbury for 2008:

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR SB

.290 .360 .445 .805 15 45

Even though he won’t stay on the pace he set for himself in 2007, I think 2008 will still be a very good year for Ellsbury. I wouldn’t advise buying any of his cards for investment purposes, but if you want a few for a personal collection then just wait until some of the hype dies down and you should be able to pick up a few at a decent price.

The Prospect Corner – Tampa Bay Rays

With the recent release of Bowman Draft and Bowman Sterling, I took some time yesterday to make a short list of players from the 2007 draft I might be interested in. Aside from the fact that I think this year’s BDPP auto list is disappointing, I’m pretty excited about some of the cards out there right now. Anyways, while sifting through the top 30 or so draftees, I started looking back at the past several drafts and which guys drafted by which teams tended to come out on top. I feel secure in saying that some teams draft very well on a consistent basis, some only draft position players well, some only pitchers, and some teams might as well save their money and not bother with the draft because they don’t get anything right. I won’t name any names, but if you look at the past 5 drafts, you’ll see what I mean.One team that has done a good job in the draft in the past 5-8 years is Tampa Bay. They seem to be heading in a very positive direction and seem to recognize and develop players well. Right now they have 3 pitchers — Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, and Jeff Niemann — that are consistently ranked as some of the best pitching prospects in baseball, all while having recently drafted and developed a number of other young stars. Here’s a quick list of some of the young players the Rays have either drafted or acquired via trade, and developed over the past several years:

Evan Longoria
Scott Kazmir
B.J. Upton
Delmon Young
Rocco Baldelli
Josh Hamilton
Carl Crawford
Reid Brignac
Elijah Dukes

Of course, the Rays have had the good fortune of drafting in the top 5 picks most years, but on average they have had at least one stud prospect come through every year, and at least one or two above average prospects. The list above only goes back to 1999 and is certainly the envy of many a general manager. This year the Rays snagged another uber-prospect in David Price, giving them perhaps the best projected starting rotation for the next decade — Kazmir, Garza, Niemann, Price, Davis, McGee, Shields. Among that list you have 2 established guys in Kazmir and Shields, and then you’ve got 5 other guys to fill in the 3-5 slots that would usually project as #1, 2 or #3 starters on most teams. Absolutely amazing. Most clubs are lucky to have 1 good pitcher come along every other year or so.

Okay, enough drooling. Let’s get back to Wade Davis.

Following the 1st round selection of Niemann and the 2nd round selection of Brignac in the 2004 draft, the Rays took Wade Davis with their pick in the 3rd round. Sine then, Davis has outperformed even the Rays expectations, coasting through AA ball this year with a 3.15 ERA and a 81/30 K/BB ratio in 80 innings with a groundball percentage of 50%. To give you a comparison of what Davis has accomplished, I’ll use Niemann as the first comparable:

In general, Niemann has consistently kept his ERA under 4.00 (except for his 10 IP in AA at the age of 22), but his K% has also consistently dropped while his BABIP has steadily increased. Usually when you see a K% drop and accompanied with a rise in BABIP it means fewer hitters are being fooled and are making better contact which usually translates into a higher ERA. He also isn’t a big groundball pitcher, so he has to rely on pitch selection and control to get most batters out. However, Niemann has kept his ERA low by walking fewer batters, which means his control is getting better and he’s generally throwing strikes.

The next comparison I want to make is Tim Lincecum. Both Niemann and Lincecum were highly regarded pitchers coming out of college and Lincecum’s stats provide us with an upper ceiling with which compare Wade Davis against:

Lincecum didn’t spend much time in the minors, but he really didn’t need to. His K% in the majors as a 23 year old was higher than Niemann’s K% in AAA as a 24 year old. If that singular stat doesn’t tell you all you need to know, the rest of Lincecum’s stats pretty much tell you the same thing: dominant. His A+ stats blow away Niemann’s A+ stats, and the AAA stats aren’t even close. If you’re a Niemann fan, please don’t think that I’m down on Niemann. To his credit, he did have surgery on his shoulder in 2005, and I think he’ll be a decent starter at some point, but Lincecum will be a lot better.

Niemann and Lincecum provide us with developmental curves with which to compare Wade Davis to. Lincecum, of course, is the golden standard, with a very steep developmental curve while Niemann is the average “in-system” comparison since both Davis and Niemann have gone through the Rays system. With that in mind, we can finally take a look at Davis:

Looking at Davis’ stats, the first thing I want to draw attention to is the fact that Davis is playing a year ahead of both Niemann and Lincecum. So far he’s played at every level a year younger than the other 2 guys and has done a very good job. His K% isn’t as high as Lincecum’s but it has remained steady, meaning that he is adjusting well and seeing good results for his age level. His BB% is very impressive and his ERA has stayed lower than Niemann’s, which I accredit to better control and overall better talent. He also has averaged about a 50% groundball rate, which has helped keep his ERA low as he advances to higher levels of play. If Davis spends the first half of ’08 at AA, I think we’ll probably see stats close to what he posted in A+ ball this year, which would put him squarely between Niemann and Lincecum in terms of talent and projection.

In my opinion, Lincecum projects as a #1 starter, and is the type of pitcher that will force hitters to adjust often, and usually they will be unsuccessful. In comparison, Niemann is the type of pitcher that will probably have to make his own adjustments in order to last long in the majors. I think Niemann will get better, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest he’ll be more than a #3 or 4 throughout most of his career. He’s very comparable to guys like Jo Jo Reyes who have the ability to eat innings, but allow too many runs. Davis falls somewhere in between Niemann and Lincecum, and has enough talent to be a solid #3 in the near future. He’s very comparable to a pitcher like Adam Wainwright. He also has a large frame and youth on his side, so I think he’ll have plenty of time to make mechanical and command adjustments, which could make him a good #2 starter. There is a possibility that he develops into a #1 at some point, but I really think that he projects as a very reliable #2 or 3 starter.

Before I finish up with Davis, I thought I would make a quick comparison between him and his teammate Jacob McGee:

McGee doesn’t have the same control as Davis, but he’s got better natural stuff, so I think I give the edge to McGee based solely off of potential. But they are very close, and I think at the peaks of their careers they’ll make a nice #2-3 punch, and maybe even a nice #1-2 punch depending on how they develop. Either way, they are both solid investments and should be fun to watch. McGee is very comparable to guys like Erik Bedard and Chad Billingsley, and that’s some pretty good company to be in. As long as he keeps his pitches low in the zone and continues to improve on his change-up and curve, he’ll have a lot of success at the major league level.

When Dwight Gooden Was King

If scientists ever successfully build a time machine (which I think they won’t, because if anyone in the future actually built one, wouldn’t they have traveled back in time to show it off to us by now?), there are several players that I would like to have the opportunity to go back and watch at the peak of their careers. Of course the big names like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Ty Cobb come quickly to mind, but I’d also like to go back and watch a young Dwight “Dr. K” Gooden pitch in the minor leagues. Did you know that at 18 years old, Gooden struck out 300 batters in 191 innings in A+ ball? That must have been amazing to watch. The following year, at the ripe old age of 19, Gooden struck out 276 batters in 218 innings at the major league level for the New York Mets, and as the youngest All-Star ever he struck out all 3 batters he faced in the All-Star game. His 276 strikeouts crushed the record for most strikeouts by a rookie, which was previously set by Herb Score in 1955 with 245 strikeouts. If you consider how major league teams are moving towards restrictive pitch counts and caps on the number of innings pitched by their young pitchers, it’s very likely that Gooden’s strikeout record may never be broken.

At 20 years old, Gooden won 24 games and won the NL Cy Young Award while posting an ERA of just 1.53, and he captured the triple-crown of pitching by leading all pitchers in strikeouts, wins and ERA. New York City became obsessed with their new young ace, and counting his strikeout totals became a city-wide pastime. With all the hype and early success, can you imagine what Gooden’s rookie cards would go for if he was just now coming up through the minors? How about an autographed gold refractor? That would be one sick card.

Since no has invented a time machine yet, and we haven’t had visitors from the future bring us one, I’ll just have to settle for watching YouTube clips of Gooden. One of my favorite clips is his major league debut on April 7, 1984. The first two batters he faced hit weak-sauce grounders to second and the third batter struck out. He works fast and zips pitches right by those poor scrawny saps wearing those puke-awful early-80’s Astros uniforms and after watching just a few pitches, you already get the feeling that Gooden was going to be something special. Another clip shows Gooden returning from a stint in rehab on June 5, 1987 and the first batter he faces is a svelte looking Barry Bonds. Bonds fouls off the first pitch, but then Gooden comes back with a devastating breaking ball that freezes Bonds in the box. The next pitch is a high heater outside that Bonds stays away from, but the fourth pitch is an eye level fast ball that Bonds can’t catch up to and he goes down swinging. Watching those clips is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing Doc Gooden pitch in person, and I’m a little upset just thinking about it.

Unfortunately for the Mets, Gooden, and baseball fans all over the world, Gooden underwent a steady decline that stretched into his early-30’s and he never was able to live up to his early career expectations. The 1980’s weren’t kind to many ball players, and Gooden was no exception. He tested positive for cocaine use several times, and was eventually suspended for the entire 1995 season. He continued to struggle with alcohol and cocaine use, and was arrested several times, ultimately spending 7 months in jail in 2006 after he showed up at a meeting with his probation officer under the influence of cocaine. No one can say whether it was the extreme work load he endured early in his career, or it if was the drugs that led to his decline, but I think everyone can agree that the world of baseball was robbed of one of its brightest stars.

Every decade or so there comes along a player that is set apart from the rest, and like a foreordained deity, they rule the world of baseball and everything in it. The ball field is their footstool, the dugout bench their throne, and in their right hand sits a flaming baseball that will forever burn in the minds and memories of those who were blessed enough to worship at their cleated feet. Sometimes the baseball faithful are allowed only a few short seasons with their newest Diamond King, and so they must pass down their stories to their children because he who once was is now gone. If you ever have the chance to witness such a being, grab onto it and cherish every moment. Though you may not know it, you will be in the midst of angels with a trumpet in one hand and a bat in the other, who have come down from heaven to witness the paradisaical event. I missed out on Gooden the first time around, but time machine be damned, there is baseball in heaven, and I’ll go there just to watch him pitch.

The Prospect Corner – Fernando Martinez

Yesterday I spent some time looking at Carlos Gomez, so it only seems appropriate to follow that up by looking at Fernando Martinez who recently finished up a more than adequate year at AA ball as an 18 year old. The Mets are confident enough in their young outfield prospects that this off season they traded away Lastings Milledge, who was one of the most promising prospects they’ve had in years (I know there were a lot of issues surrounding his character, but in usual Mets fashion they bought high and sold low with Milledge). A lot of things have been said about Martinez, who has been dubbed F-Mart for short, and here are just a few of the quotes I found regarding this young slugger:

“Martinez looks like a young Ted Williams.” – Anonymous scout

“Fernandez has great posture for being so young.” – Rafael Bournigal, Mets’ director of international scouting

“What we saw in [Martinez] was a 16-year-old kid with power, great ability and great character, above everything else.” – Omar Minaya

“The 18-year-old has that special something that causes the ball to crack off his bat in an unparalleled tone.” – Adam Foster of projectprospect.com

Without having ever seen Martinez play in person, it’s hard for me to know if any of these quotes are completely accurate. To be called a “young Ted Williams” seems to be a bit of a stretch since I seriously doubt that there are any scouts still living that saw Williams play in the late 1930’s. However, all reports on F-Mart seem to be consistent with one another and it sounds like he’s a good kid with a nice power stroke type swing. Listed at about 6′ 2″ and 190 lbs, he has a good build for his age and if it weren’t for a BABIP of .200 at A+ in St. Lucie last year, F-Mart would have few doubters. He also recently had his season at AA ball cut short due to a hand injury that seemed to sap some of his power. Just from watching clips of him on YouTube, it looks like he has a nice quiet swing, but I think he often leaves too much weight on his back foot and as a result hits a lot of ground balls to the right side. If he learns to shift more of his weight forward I think his power numbers will improve.

Another important fact to point out is Martinez’s splits against lefties and righties. In 2006, he posted a .349/.482/.831 stat line against righties and a .289/.350/.639 line against lefties. That’s a fairly large disparity, especially when you consider that his BABIP against lefties was 80 points lower than his BABIP against righties and 9 of his 12 homeruns came against right handed pitchers. It’s not an unusual problem for a young hitter to face, and I think his stats versus LHPs will increase with time, but his advancement through the minors and his success in the majors will problem depend on how quickly that adjustment occurs.

As far as comparisons go, Martinez is a special case. Since he’s played through A and AA ball at such a young age, there are very few players that would provide accurate comparable stats to go by. F-Mart is the only player to have at least 100 at-bats in A+ ball that I could find, so that makes it very difficult to even begin a list of players to compare him to. Generally, we can expect a hitter that has played at AA by the age of 19 to reproduce those stats in the majors by the age of 22 or 23. As an example we’ll take a look at B.J. Upton, Jose Reyes, and Juan Gonzalez:

Of course these trends aren’t 100% guaranteed, but they give us a rudimentary baseline projection system that can give us an idea of what to expect from a young hitter. We also might want to consider that Martinez was injured in 2007, so his stats at AA ball weren’t as high as the possibly could have been. Taking that into consideration and applying his numbers to our trends to come up with a conservative projection for Martinez, we come up with something that looks like this:

There’s always a chance that Martinez will hit a growth spurt or make an adjustment that will increase his production, but he’s just as likely to flame out before he reaches the majors (see Andy Marte). If he stays on the projection course he’s on now, then I can see him posting a slugging percentage close to .500 and an on-base of about .350 with a few 30+ homeruns season during the prime of his career. I’ve heard that he’s fast and could steal a lot of bases, but his stats don’t support that rumor, so until he develops that skill set I think most of his value will come from what he does at the plate.

F-Mart has a lot of up-side, so these projection numbers are very preliminary, but I think he fits in with guys like Felix Pie, Hanley Ramirez and Cameron Maybin. That’s not a bad group to be in, but he’s definitely not the next Ted Williams and that will certainly come as a huge disappointment to a lot of Mets fans. In terms of card prices, as Martinez gets closer and closer to the majors, his prices will rise, but I think once he’s had 400-500 at-bats his prices will be significantly reduced. He might have a few good seasons early and that might translate into a rebound in prices, but for now there are much better investments out there. Wait to ick up some of his auto rookie cards after his first full year in the majors (the Mets are almost certain to bring him up before he’s ready) and then wait for his first big breakout performance and unload a few of them.

-Adam G.