There were three dozen players taken in the first round of this year’s MLB Draft. Anyone who watched the coverage on MLB Network heard those draftees compared to more than 40 current or former MLB players, including Hall of Famers Robin Yount (Brendan Rogers), Tony Gwynn (Cornelius Randolph), and Ted Williams (Kyle Tucker).
No pressure, kids.
It’s hard to blame the hosts for making so many comparisons, because fans want to understand what they’re getting in their draft picks. Mark Anderson, TigsTown’s Director of Scouting, explains why player comps are made so frequently.
”I understand why people, particularly media and fans, explore this avenue,” he said. “It's easier to tell someone a player can perform like Player X than it is to try and fully understand the art of projecting young players and giving context around what their tools may allow them to do.”
And if the goal is to give casual fans some idea of what they may be getting in a prospect, it makes sense to compare him to recognizable stars rather than role players or kids who flame out in the minors. But history suggests one-third of all first rounders will never make the majors, and 50 years of amateur drafts have produced just 30 Hall of Famers.
Tagging kids with such lofty comparisons is unfair, and in most cases irresponsible. That’s why it’s rare to find prospect evaluators who like to use player comps at all.“I’m not a big fan of player comps for a couple of reasons,” said MLB Pipeline reporter Jonathan Mayo. “One is that I’m really not good at making them. The other is that it can often make for an unfair comparison. To say a high school player is like Mike Trout, for instance… that’s a hard one to live up to.”
“I personally hate comps,” said Chris Crawford, Senior Prospect Writer at Baseball Prospectus. “I think it's a ‘no snowflake is the same’ thing, and it also sets up unrealistic expectations for the player.”
Anderson shares a similar view.
”I don't like trying to comp one player to another player in total,” he said. “I find it a forced exercise that is often unnecessary.”
Disliking player comparisons is common among prospect writers, but it’s certainly not universal. Kiley McDaniel, the Lead Prospect Writer at Fangraphs, doesn’t mind making comps.
“I do, in general, but usually just for my own uses,” he said. “I'll often call a player ‘like Player X but with more speed,’ or something like that, with one qualifier.”
And Jeff Ellis, Scout’s MLB Draft Analyst, uses comps but understands why other writers are hesitant.
”I find it useful as a quick way to allow someone to get a lot of information,” Ellis said. “I think people dislike them more when trying to explain to the basic fan. You start to dislike giving comps because it’s more or less setting yourself up for failure, since every player is different.”
It’s easy to explain away comps as a tool of overly optimistic fans or uninformed talking heads who don’t grasp the intricacies of each player’s skills. But that explanation doesn’t work for another group that tends to use comps frequently: scouts.
“Teams absolutely use comps, for better or worse,” Crawford said. “Unfortunately, some scouts and front-office members don't have a ton of imagination, and it helps draw a more complete picture for them.”
It seems odd that two different groups who spend time evaluating prospects would, in general, have opposing opinions about player comparisons, but the differences may stem from the intended audience, and from a key distinction regarding comparisons.
Writers might be more hesitant to make comparisons because they produce content for fans, who aren’t terribly responsible when making comps. But scouts are making a specific kind of comparison for one another, or for other front-office executives, who figure to be more reasonable with their expectations.
One American League scouting director explained the nuances of making comps.
“To be clear, the industry mostly uses physical comps,” he said. “So there could be a player very unlike Jose Iglesias, but if he was a 5’11, 190 lb. right-hitting, right-throwing infielder with a similar build, you might make that comp.”
“You also might say a 6’3, 190 lb. left-hitting infielder will hit like Jose Iglesias,” he continued. “So there are physical and performance comps.”
Mayo elaborated on the benefits of physical comps.
’I think they (scouts) like to make comps more for body type than skillset,” he said. “Some do like to make comps in terms of skills, but more often than not they want to find a comparison in terms of what a player looks like. Especially when it comes to amateur players, if they can find a successful big leaguer who looks like the amateur player in question (body type/shape, stance at the plate, delivery on the mound), then there might be a bigger comfort level in taking him.”
“When you see comps in an industry scouting report, they are typically referencing the physical attributes of the player and trying to give you a visual of what the guy looks like,” Anderson said. “Comping a guy to Shane Halter sounds horrible, but if you focus on the physical comp, that's not such a bad thing.”
But while body comps are useful within the industry, they can be just as troublesome as performance comps when fans get involved and conflate to two methods of evaluation.
This happens with players who happen to fit a certain physical archetype -- for several years it seemed every right-handed starter who stood 6’4 and had a good fastball was compared to Justin Verlander. And, counterintuitively, prospects frequently get compared to some of the most unique players in baseball history. Any pitcher taller than 6’8 will at some point be compared to Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson. And minor league baseball is swarming with gritty, diminutive second baseman who were at one point compared to Dustin Pedroia.
“I think there's a misunderstanding when a comp is made,” the AL exec said. “Our job is to paint a picture to the person reading the report. In that regard, physical comps have real value, and they are often misunderstood without full context.”
Anderson has a fine example of the sort of hysteria that can result when fans misunderstand a simple physical comparison.
”I remember a scout throwing a body comp of Paul Molitor on Braves prospect Matt Lipka a few years back,” he said. “It was an anonymous quote in an article and the scout literally said ‘The body really reminds me of Paul Molitor when he was young.’ But that didn't stop fans from running with the idea that Matt Lipka was suddenly going to be a Hall of Famer.”
Despite the fan issues, comparing bodies and performance obviously provides some utility to scouts. But players also get compared to one another for a variety of other, less-helpful reasons.
Sometimes the comparison is as simple as position and geographic origin.
“The Garrett Whitley, Mike Trout comp is one I knew would come,” Ellis said. “Because even though one is from upstate New York and the other from New Jersey...that they were both athletic and from the general NY area meant a comparison would happen.”
And, perhaps most troublingly, race or ethnicity often play a large role in player comps. One prominent prospect evaluator recently mentioned the worst comp he heard leading up to the draft.
If even prospect experts are conflicted and confused about their own player comps, then it’s probably a good idea for fans to just stay away from the concept altogether.
Anderson offers a pretty simple solution that seems fair to everyone involved.
“If you can't think of an obvious full player comp,” he said, “then don't use one.”