In this guest post from Kyle Matte, we’re treated to an historical review of the Jays’ top prospects, with the hope of divining some meaning from the fact that Aaron Sanchez now holds that spot. You can view some of the data Kyle discusses here in this Google Document. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @KyleMatte.
Baseball America has been around for a very long time, having been founded by Canadian Allan Simpson way back in 1980. In 1983, it was purchased by the owner of the Durham Bulls minor league franchise, and moved to Durham, North Carolina. It was then, in 1983, that the publication began their organizational top ten prospect reports. While I don’t necessarily agree with their rankings or their methodology of the rankings itself (they rely greatly upon team sources for the organizational reports, whereas other publications, like Baseball Prospectus, primarily utilize sources from outside the organization, as well as their own eyes, to avoid bias), it speaks volumes that they have been churning out content every year since. It affords us a rare opportunity to have over thirty years of organizational prospect rankings to reflect on, and I’ve taken advantage of this information in an attempt to uncover what exactly it means to be the Toronto Blue Jays number one prospect, as Aaron Sanchez was named for 2014 this past December.
What has our overall success rate been with #1 prospects? What level of Major League production did those players generate over their careers? How have we fared with pitchers versus hitters? I was able to answer all of these questions and more, and before the end I’ll offer a glimpse into the career Aaron Sanchez might have, if he develops like the average number one Blue Jays prospect.
As mentioned above, the first Blue Jays organizational report was released in anticipation of the 1983 season, so that will be the starting point for this exercise. For an end point, I settled on 2009. It’s not arbitrary – as the rankings are released prior to the season, ending the analysis in 2009 would supply us with five years of data from which to analyze that final number one prospect. If you wished to stretch the list to 2010 to include Zach Stewart who is most assuredly a bust, I could see your justification, but I felt five years was the bare minimum from which to fairly judge a professional career.
These parameters offer us 27 years of top ten rankings, on which 18 different names appear at the top. Five prospects rank number one twice, while two players repeat at the top thrice (and man, did they ever have different careers). The split is skewed heavily towards positional players, as of the 18, only 3 are pitchers, interestingly, all of whom are right handed. The Blue Jays have never had a left-handed pitcher rank number one.
I investigated a variety of factors in hopes of best encapsulating a professional career within one line of a spreadsheet. I looked at the year in which they played their first full MLB season (a designation loosely based around a minimum of 300 plate appearances for hitters, 100 innings pitched for starting pitchers, and 30 innings pitched for relievers, though exceptions were made), how many years after their number one ranking they achieved that first full season – which I termed the “lag” – and how old they were in that season. Using the value figures calculated by Fangraphs, I inspected the WAR they created in their first, second, and third full MLB seasons separately, as well as cumulatively. In addition to their career WAR, I also designated each player’s peak years – where I felt they performed at their highest level – and looked at how much value they produced over that specified time period. Finally, using the first year of the peak window and their first full MLB season, I was able to determine how many seasons of development at the Major League level it took for the prospect to begin playing at their best.
Because of the inclusion of players whose careers are still on-going, some of the averaged numbers, namely the career WAR, are being artificially held down. For this reason, when it comes to projecting the completely hypothetical career for Aaron Sanchez in the latter half of this article, I’ll only use the WAR for players who have officially retired (and Vernon Wells, because, come on Vernon, it’s over).