Prospect season rolls on with another fresh batch of “the thinking man’s buzzfeed” pieces that rank and collate and organize players into nice, discreet tiers.
The lists are fun and also informative. From fantasy owners to hardcore baseball nerds to those who know the tender touch of a spouse or partner, it pays to know about the future of the game. As Will Leitch demonstrated at Sports On Earth yesterday, compiling lists like this is an evolution – recent lists seem much stronger than the older iterations.
To hear the like of Keith Law and some of the Baseball Prospectus guys tell it, these lists are all about approximating future production – which players have the best chance of being the best, or most valuable, pros.
Production is measured in many different ways and created by a wide variety of players. It comes in all shapes and forms, something easy to forget when reading scouting reports and pigeonholing young players.
In some ways, these lists and the way players (not just prospects) are evaluated look like real world versions of the beloved/derided Wins Above Replacement stat. Quibble as we might over the inputs used to create stats like this, the framework is a fine representation of production, factoring in all pertinent matters.
Position matters. Defense matters. The defense matters in concert with the position. A great fielding first baseman is a nice thing to have but at the end of the day it won’t make or break that player as a prospect and an everyday player for a good team. The prospect lists reflect this reality – a distinct lack of first basemen. To break through as a first base prospect, the position demands a whole lot of bat. As the prospect mavens see it, few hitters in the minor leagues right now look like they can reach that level of offense.
There is this other side to production, as well. Not all great hitters are created equally. There was a real rush on patient hitters over the last decade or so – hitters who can work the count and draw a walk. Too often, the ability to draw a walk became shorthand for hitting skill. No walks meant a bad hitter.
This isn’t a fair or wise way to evaluate hitting talent – it takes all kinds. Nobody suggests a hitter like Adrian Beltre should walk more – just be Adrian Beltre and everybody goes home happy. Cardinals top prospect Oscar Taveras fits this profile in a way. The Cards OF is known as a great “bad ball” hitter, the kind of player who confounds opponents with his ability to put the barrel of the bat on just about every thing. It’s a rare skill but those who have don’t need to be forced into a more traditional approach when their talent carries them all the way to the bigs.
Joey Votto is one of the finest hitters in baseball, but fans in Cincinnatti seem perpetually aggravated with the manner in which he produces his offense. From the outside, Votto looks like a nearly ideal hitter. He doesn’t hit as many home runs as those fans want (though he still hits for plenty of power, boasting a slugging percentage of .541 over the last three years.) But he doesn’t drive in as many runs as some feel he should. His nearly innate knowledge of the strike zone leaves his bat on his shoulder in situations where a hitter of his prodigious talent might be better suited to swinging away and pushing over a crucial run.
Scouts attempt to quantify, or at least project, more esoteric measures when forecasting the offense of minor league ballplayers. Swing path, bat speed, and “barrel control” are the industry buzzwords used to describe that which does not appear in the box score. Hitters are lauded for their ability to take good at bats, often with the results coming a distant second on the priority list. Pitch recognition and the ability to simply hit the ball hard are harbingers of good things to come as bodies develop and opposing pitchers improve.
It takes all kinds. Light-hitting catchers with good defensive skills are valuable simply because there are so few catchers to even meet the “light hitting” criteria. Same with shortstops. Can a prospect handle the position defensively? If yes, let’s worry about the offense a little later. A player who profiles as a shortstop when the game is at its fastest with offensive skills of any kind? We’re talking about a potential star, somehow.
As the game changes and evolves, as home runs and offense becomes increasingly scarce (thanks to advancements and the evolution of Major League pitching) the way we evaluate both future big leaguers and current players must change as well. For fans, it’s all about expectations. League average is not a four-letter word. The shortstop prospect in your team’s system can’t hit. No, neither can that guy. But he can still player at the big leagues. It’s okay that player x rarely walks because he barrels up everything. It is not okay that this outfielder has 20 home run power but he folds up like like a lawn chair when it gets to two strikes.
The sooner we can all adjust our expectations and thinking to the new normal, the sooner we can stop lamenting the inability of some guy’s inability to hit and move on to lamenting the general manager’s inability to develop top talent. It’s all about evolution.