Prospect Evaluation

The question always presents itself during the offseason as prospect lists start showing up ad nauseum. "How do you evaluate a baseball prospect?"

The answer isn't that easy to come by because It depends on who you ask. Tossing the inquiry to Baseball America will get you the following answer:

Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel.

If you ask the average scout, he might tell you "I look for upside first." Which is a pretty common priority.

InsidethePark.com's prospect rankings will reflect the simple thought that upside is first. But it's not the only criterion and is just one of many areas taken into consideration.


Some of the Basics
The very first thing I do is note the player's ceiling and floor. What is the very best-case scenario for the player? What is the worst-case scenario?

But if I stopped there, I'd tend to favor the toolsy players over those who simply perform – so there's more. A lot more.

What has the player done in his career so far? Has he put up good numbers in a challenging league or is he older than his competition? If he's struggled, what are the most likely reasons and in what areas did he have trouble?

Using Jose Lopez as an example, you can see why many thought so highly of the Venezuelan from the get-go.

As a teenager, Lopez was putting up all-star, or near all-star offensive numbers in Advanced-A and Double-A. This is a bigtime blue flag.

It's very typical for prospect evaluators to take statistics and run with them, and while you can go pretty far with numbers, it doesn't tell the whole story – and often leaves the evaluator wearing a blindfolded view of the player in question.

Also, basing most or all of your evaluation on what others say and the stats you can find on dozens of sites on the internet isn't an intelligent formula, either.

You have to use your own brain, and preferably after seeing the player play in person as much as possible.

But even if you aren't able to watch him, use your own ways of coming up with your conclusion.

To get around this, talking to others is imperative. What are the scouts seeing in the same players? What does the players' own organization think of his performance? What do other teams say about his abilities?

It's easy to watch a player and decide whether he has the athletic tools to be a big-leaguer. It's not rocket science.

What's not easy is seeing through a player's tools and see his work ethic, among other intangibles. This is another reason why I continually speak to others who have seen and studied the players.

Picking the brain of dozens of scouts and talent evaluators is essential in what InsidethePark.com is trying to accomplish every winter with the annual prospect rankings.

After the ceiling is comfortably established, and the absolute worst is concluded to the satisfaction of ones brain, the performance vs. age vs. level is next.

Jose Lopez was younger than the average player in both the California and Texas Leagues in 2002 and 2003, and put up all-star numbers in '02 and quality stats in 2003 with the league champion San Antonio Missions.

Lopez was doing the job versus pitchers two and three years his senior, not just in age, but some in professional experience.

This is why every soul known to baseball was predicting a lot of major league success for Lopez way back in 2002 and 2003.

But, there are other areas to consider.

Other factors in the equation include;

  • Progression: Is the player making progress from year to year? Is he improving in the areas in which he graded out poorest the previous season? How much improvement has there been?
  • The Wall: What are the obstacles that could stop the player from reaching his ceiling, how many are there, and how big of an obstacle is it? Is the player injury-prone? Does he have a reputation for lacking strong work habits?
  • Position: What position does the player play, and will he remain? A player that profiles at a premium defensive position always possesses more value than a similar offensive prospect that projects away from a defensively valuable spot on the field.

  • The premium positions on the field are as follows; Catcher, shortstop, center field and then second base. The corners of the field are typically last, with left field bringing up the rear, while third base tops first base in the infield.

    A hitter that bats from the left side or from both sides of the plate will get extra credit if pitted against a very similarly skilled hitter.


    What Are The Most Important Tools?
    The single most valuable tool is hitting for power. Many times, a prospect capable of hitting for plus power can drown out deficiencies in a prospect's game that allow him to grade out higher than a five-tool player, who fails to grade out as high in the area of power hitting.

    The 20-80 scouting scale, which is also used as a 2-8 scale and sometimes known as the profiling scale depending on who you talk to, is a basic tool used to weed out the more valuable and promising player in a scenario where a multi-tooled player is involved.

    The scale's low mark at 20 is considered poor, while 30 is well-below average, 40 is below average, 50 is major league average, 60 is better than average, 70 is well-above average and 80 is outstanding.

    Scouts look for a two-tool total of 120 and a three-tool total of at least 170. This typically assures the player to have three average or better tools.

    A good example to use to examine this scale is Bobby Crosby versus Manny Ramirez. In Crosby's tool chest, he grades out average or better in all five areas, including hitting for power, where most project him to hit between 20 and 25 homers per season.

    Crosby also has a rather large advantage in the areas of speed and defense. His five-tool totals range between 280 and 320, while Ramirez may tally a mark of only 230-260. But nobody believes that Crosby is a more valuable asset than Ramirez, right?

    Right.

    Using the scale's profiling method of two and three-tool totals, Ramirez's 80 for power, 80 for hitting for average and 30 or 40 for speed, defense and throwing arm would give him a minimum three-tool total of 190.

    Crosby's best three-tool total is with defense, throwing arm and hitting for power, which likely puts him in the 70, 60 and 50-55 range, giving him 180-185, pretty close to where Ramirez sits. The two-tool totals is where these two all-star caliber talents get separated.

    Crosby's absolute best grades are from defense and throwing arm, giving him a total of about 130. Ramirez's two best tools happen to be the two most valuable tools, where he tallies a 160.

    After hitting for power and hitting for average, defense would rank third, followed by throwing arm and speed to round out the five tools and their importance to a prospect's value.

    Lastly, the total body of work comes into play. Two players of similar to equal value may differ in rankings based on one's advantage in big-pitcure accomplishment.

    A player with three straight years of blue chip play, at say Wisconsin through Tacoma in partial seasons, at levels that exceeded his age and experience, will likely grade out slightly better than a player with a year or less of parallel production.

    Why? Because Player A simply has proven more than Player B, and at higher levels of the minors. An equal talent that has performed at high levels in Double-A and Triple-A has a risk advantage over the player with a year or two of similar numbers in A ball.

    Too much can go wrong, and if Player B is significantly younger, his skills are still more likely to plateau before the upper minors. It's no comparison. Player A wins out here.


    Avoiding Disaster
    It's easy to fall helmet over spikes for a player's style of play or his character on and off the field. But the last thing you can do is let those ideas affect the way you evaluate a player.

    Personally, I've really taken to certain prospects in the Mariners' system. At first, I found it difficult not to overrate them and feel okay about it. But every time I got to the final draft, I just couldn't convince myself that my favorite was the better prospect.

    Letting personal feelings get in the way is a disaster. As much as overrating a player's ability as you defend your stance in a discussion of "who's better?"

    Never let your emotions take you too far. This is a very common mistake made and is one that is not made here at InsidethePark.com. The grades and rankings attributed to each prospect are the true evaluations of the player, without any outside influence in any fashion.

    Basically, If I publish a list that says Sebastien Boucher is a better prospect than Adam Jones, you can bet that it's because I truly feel that way, not because I just really like the way Boucher plays the game.

    At all costs, homerism is also avoided to best of my ability. I realize, just like most everyone else, that the M's prospects are not automatically better than that of any other club's prospects. The pure fan tends to overvalue their own.


    Outline
  • Ceiling Upside
  • Performance vs. Age vs. Level
  • Proof in the Entire Body of Work
  • The Risks, i.e. Injury, Lack of progression
  • Position

  • Pitchers are a tricky breed. Their injury risk is much, much higher than position players, and therefore you will often see pitcher's who project as frontline starters ranked behind a position player with a somewhat lesser value attached to his talent package.

    This is why Felix Hernandez was ranked behind Delmon Young in just about every publication that cared to rank prospects.

    It's why most will again have Young at the top, ahead of arms such as Minnesota's Francisco Liriano, who ended 2005 with the second nastiest stuff in minor league baseball – behind Hernandez.

    Injuries are a thorny subject with any ballplayer. They are impossible to predict, but being smart about them is key.

    No observer in their right mind would take Ken Griffey, Jr. over someone like David Ortiz , even if finances were pushed aside, and even when considering that Ortiz is a pure DH.

    Griffey's long history of injury makes him an enormous risk, like Chris Snelling. Getting injured over and over plummets a prospect's chances of making an impact in the majors, as well as the likelihood he'll ever make it to the show.

    Injuries are one of the few areas of evaluation where you have to base it on the nature of the injuries and the frequency of them, and then take your best shot.

    I'd surely take Snelling over a healthy Ryan Freel, for example, simply because Snelling's upside is worth the risk, even though Freel doesn't share any of the injury concerns that the Aussie has over the past five years.

    Snelling has shown the ability to handle pitching at the highest levels of the minors, and in his short stints in the big leagues.

    Freel, on the other hand, has shown he's a valuable piece of a roster, but not a talent you want to hand 500 at-bats to on a championship caliber club.

    Bottom line is, Freel is replaceable. He's a common in the wax pack of talent. Snelling offers special skills. Skills that aren't easy to find. Even when you buy the whole set.


    But, Remember
    Talent evaluation is not an exact science. Heck, it's not even a science, really. There are some scientific-style evaluation methods, such as sabermetrics, but that is where the science ends.

    Anyone can toss out a top 10 list and call it the bible of rankings, but don't be fooled. Do some research, and if you find that they haven't done their homework, the rankings and evaluations probably aren't worth the five minutes it takes to read.

    Mistakes will be made on any and every list, however, just as they are in every front office in baseball. There are far more unforeseen scenarios that occur than there are truly predictable futures.

    InsidethePark.com does not seek the safest list. Safe is for umpires and DuraGuard flame retardant combination boxes.

    There are risks in prospect evaluation and if they are all avoided, the fun and the accuracy will fail to show.

    In the end, the players that have the best chance to make the biggest impact for the longest period of time at the major league level are the best prospects.

    And as you skim through the lists all winter, remember one thing: Position prospects don't typically field their way to the big leagues and pitchers are unpredictable. Be careful where you place your value.
    Jason A. Churchill is the Executive Editor at InsidethePark.com and encourages feedback of any kind. To contact Jason, send an e-mail to Jason A. Churchill

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