May 1, 2014
PECOTA Takes on Prospects
PECOTA + Catchers 4ever
Does PECOTA love catchers?
After we released the PECOTA Top 100 prospects list last week, a few commenters remarked on PECOTA’s apparent catcher leanings. Eleven of them appeared on the list, some higher than nationally beloved prospects. How dare PECOTA! In comparison, Jason Parks’ top 101 featured eight catchers, suggesting a small discrepancy in the position distribution of PECOTA’s rankings.
Three additional catchers isn’t a significant difference, really, and with due respect to Jason and his exceptional team, it’s not like PECOTA must conform to our prospect authority. PECOTA’s methodology is completely different, meant to provide a complementary view, and if we trust its process, we should trust its results. If those results diverge from popular opinion, even better: maybe the stats are telling us something.
That doesn’t mean the process is perfect. All models have chinks in the code. I wrote about “positional upside” in the introduction:
Of the position players, UPSIDE, as it has in the past, rates shortstops and center fielders quite well. It may actually be overrating them, if we contemplate the trajectory of minor leaguers. PECOTA tends to compare players to others at the same position, but a shortstop in Low-A today might not be a shortstop in the major leagues, because he might not have the range for the position. Nevertheless, teams will keep that potential shortstop at that position in the minors, in hopes that he’ll develop at the position—he has positional upside, after all. That raises the UPSIDE of some shortstops and center fielders, because PECOTA doesn’t necessarily know who will eventually be forced to second base or right field. Attrition at the position happens slowly, and those who make it—the Starlin Castros, the Austin Jacksons—become comparables for current minor leaguers.
I should have included catchers here, because they change positions too: examples include Carlos Santana and Josh Donaldson. There’s a difference though, between catchers and other positions. Statistical efforts haven’t solved defense for catchers in the way that they have for positions 3 through 9. Despite baseball’s recent advances in measuring catcher defensive value, it’s still the position we know least about quantitatively. FRAA and other fielding metrics account for arm strength and accuracy, and we can translate pitch framing into runs (as well as plate blocking), but what about pitch calling? Discouraging baserunners from stealing? Mentoring pitchers? Misdirecting hitters? Positioning fielders?
The minor leagues aren’t generous with data either, which exacerbates this issue. We publish FRAA for every minor-league level, but you can see its conservativeness: there’s a five-run difference between the best and worst Double-A catcher. That isn’t a poor assessment of catchers—scouts tout Sebastian Valle, A.J. Jimenez, and Tucker Barnhart as stellar defenders—but I think you’d nod when I say some catchers must be worth more than half a win defensively.
All the ways in which catchers subtly influence the pitcher-batter interaction matter to scouts when they evaluate whether one can stick at backstop full-time. Often, they matter more than their offense. Russell Martin hasn’t sustained his offensive success from 2007–08, but his defense matters more than it would at any other position, and merits the $24.5 million he’s earned since 2012. Because PECOTA has no comprehensive way of knowing a catcher’s receiving ability, its favored catchers will inevitably be different from those of scouts, who can adjust their rankings for all sorts of defensive factors.
Therefore, PECOTA assumes a level of catching competency with a prospect who currently plays catcher and accordingly adjusts for that positional value, as well as projecting the defensive components we can measure—arm strength, accuracy, and fielding. But because that quantified defensive talent gap is so small, offense becomes the differentiating factor. If Johnny Catcher bats and fields competently, he’ll return a greater UPSIDE, and rightly so. Not many of those players exist. This explains why PECOTA “loves” catching prospects, but I don’t feel its alleged favoritism goes overboard in any way. It’s simply positional upside.
One day, we might have complete PITCHf/x data from minor-league parks and be able to release a smarter version of PECOTA—a version that knows each prospect’s framing skill and growth potential and applies a defensive aging curve. (We could also incorporate estimated minor-league framing.) That version might identify a poor receiver and incorporate positional liability into his UPSIDE, foretelling a move to third base or right field. That’d be neat. But will stats ever fully quantify a catcher’s ability to call a game? Handle a pitching staff? Position fielders based on the next pitch? Well, that’s why scouts have jobs.
You might say PECOTA’s catching prospect rankings are more offense-driven. Take that as a warning, but don’t overreact to it. PECOTA’s predictive machine understands offense quite well, and offense tends to be what generates upside: we tend to hear “6 potential hit” much more than “6 potential arm.”
That was a lot of preamble. As explained in the introduction, UPSIDE scores will be categorized into five tiers. Let’s go.
Very Good Prospects
We haven’t seen many elite catching prospects lately—Jesus Montero and Travis d’Arnaud are among the few scout-adored names of the recent past—and PECOTA did not deem any catchers worthy of an “Excellent” this year, either. Plawecki comes close, but not close enough. Instead, he headlines eight “Very Good” prospects.
Plawecki’s high UPSIDE rating isn’t that surprising: his .355 TAv in Single-A was the second-highest among catchers in any minor-league season dating back to 2011 (minimum 250 PA). He makes consistent contact and reaches base 39 percent of the time. While he lacks power, he doubled in nine percent of his Single-A plate appearances, enough to be the only minor-league catcher to post a .180 ISO without double-digit homers. In short, PECOTA sees a mature hitter completely deserving of his Jason Castro and Carlos Santana comps.
On the defensive side, Plawecki rates somewhat positively by FRAA. His reports don’t glow: the arm and glove are average and he receives well. That’s probably enough to carve out a catching career, but the Mets, nonetheless, experimented with him at first base (more likely because Travis d’Arnaud is their long-term solution). Plawecki’s bat is more than playable at catcher—but much less so at first base. Because the majority of his games were played behind the plate, his UPSIDE is run as a catcher, earning him the positive position adjustment. We don’t know if his ultimate fate is at catcher or at first, but for now, he gets the upside from being a decent catcher.
We know Christian Vazquez will definitely play catcher, and FRAA knows it too—he has the fifth-highest minor-league catcher FRAA over the past four years. Vazquez also hit well in Portland, batting .289 while walking more times than he struck out. PECOTA has always fancied this kind of contact-heavy, get-on-base-multiple-ways hitter, a title Plawecki qualifies for too. Of course, that’s not particularly special on offense, but Vazquez has Double-A under his belt and lauded catching credentials—enough to prove he’ll be a major-league regular.
On a list with several prospects carrying Double-A and Triple-A graduation certificates, Oscar Hernandez has taken it slow in the Rays organization. As a 17-year-old, he obliterated the Venezuelan Summer League with a .402 average and 21 homers in 294 plate appearances. He obviously hasn’t kept those numbers up, but PECOTA loves the power potential and his arm: he threw out 59 percent of runners last year in the New York-Penn League. At age 20, without a résumé above short-season A, Hernandez is a high-risk player, but that can still yield a high UPSIDE when balanced with raw power, an accurate arm, and some base-stealing ability—PECOTA loves the presence of multiple tools. PECOTA has less faith in the rating given the short and unprecedented track record, though, as evidenced by Hernandez’s low Similarity Index. He won’t appear on any top prospect lists now, but he’s a legitimate catcher whom you’ll want to keep an eye on for a power breakout.
Josmel Pinto is the only name overlapping the “top 8 catchers” of PECOTA and the eight catchers on the Parks’ 101, and his double inclusion demonstrates the nature of both lists: Pinto’s offensive profile easily impresses PECOTA, and his defense is solid enough for him to succeed Joe Mauer in Minnesota and earn points with Parks. Already nearing his power prime, PECOTA projects a .274 average with 18 homers two years from now. With a successful coffee run in 2013, Pinto is a surefire major-league product, and in light of the hit-and-miss nature of catching prospects, PECOTA always likes those.
Wynston Sawyer and Ryan Casteel are two curious cases of players who experienced power breakouts after nondescript seasons prior to 2013. Sawyer’s slugging percentage rose from .291 to .384; Casteel’s from .414 to .523, including a jump in home runs from two to …oh, 22. With ballpark adjustments—both played in depressed run environments—they produced TAvs of .297 and .311.
Casteel is the more intriguing of the two as the more likely to be “real”—in addition to his power surge, his on-base numbers aren’t anything to scoff at. As a high school draftee, he’s progressed slowly through the system, which may explain why he’s never before been mentioned in a BP article. PECOTA, though, can’t help highlighting his 56 extra-base hits in run-limiting parks. PECOTA has a strong case: Why has Casteel received such little attention? The Rockies’ catching influx might be one reason (Wilin Rosario in the majors, Tom Murphy the chief minor-leaguer), and the fact that Casteel hasn’t played at Double-A is another. If he puts on a repeat power performance in Tulsa, the national spotlight will surely shine.
Before I move on to “Good” prospects, I’d like to reiterate the concept of a “Good” prospect: they’re much more hit-and-miss than “Very Good” prospects. Most of them will probably miss, especially when it comes to catching. To illustrate this, we can review Nate Silver’s list of 2007 “Good” catching prospects:
Spot the hits and misses: only five are still catching in the major leagues, with three as regulars. Kevin Goldstein’s three-star catching prospects hit and missed similarly the same year, and both lists demonstrate the fickle nature of predicting future catchers from non-standout minor leaguers. It’s difficult because these players often feature skills on offense or defense, but not both, leading to “ifs” and “enoughs” like, if he receives just adequately enough for the bat to play… or if he can manage 10-15 homers, that’ll be enough not to sap his defensive value…
Nate summed up catching prospects in 2007:
Catching prospects are sort of like pitching prospects. There are a few guys who distinguish themselves, but mostly you're left with an unwashed mass of players with some residual value by virtue of the fact that there are just 60-70 catchers on major league rosters at any given time.
Welcome to the unwashed mass.
I’ll start with Austin Hedges, Jason Parks’ no. 1 catching prospect, who comes in at no. 26 with PECOTA. Hedges is the perfect example of the statistical approach’s shortcomings in rating catching prospects: PECOTA just doesn’t know that Hedges pops in 1.8 seconds, or that he displays tremendous game-calling aptitude, or that he frames and blocks with the best of them. PECOTA knows only that Hedges slashed .270/.343/.425 in High-A and fields well, which makes him sound good, but not great. PECOTA may learn those scouting details one day, but for now, this is the incomplete state of quantitative catcher defense.
Travis d’Arnaud barely missed the “Very Good” cut; injuries have slowed down his progress, and they’ve also reduced his UPSIDE. PECOTA doesn’t dislike d’Arnaud at all—his 2016 projection calls for a .268 TAv with 21 homers—but he’s now 25 with little major-league success to his name. I should note that his quirky injury history has left PECOTA unsure of how to compare him, as indicated by his low Similarity Index of 78. Proceed with d’Arnaud’s UPSIDE cautiously, as you would with his thumb, knee, and foot.
PECOTA’s long-term forecast for Tom Murphy is very promising, but his comparables are lousy, leading to his low UPSIDE. His main comps are catchers who share his body configuration (6’ 1”, 220 pounds), which is not one that many major-league catchers have succeeded with (though strangely, Chris Iannetta and Wilin Rosario are two exceptions who also came through Colorado’s system, the latter Murphy’s eighth comp). That’s not to say that Murphy won’t succeed; his offensive profile is just uncommon in a player with his body at this position.
Gary Sanchez’s career is so winding that even PECOTA is confused. The long-term home run totals project to be in the mid-20s—elite raw power that would play at catcher. But since his debut at age 17, he’s shown very little improvement, and PECOTA won’t rate a prospect highly if growth isn’t present. Yet at age 21, he’s the second-youngest regular in the Eastern League, with plenty of time to grow. But thus far, the only skill he’s proven to PECOTA is power—he doesn’t walk enough, nor does he field well. “I don’t know whom to compare you with,” says PECOTA. Factor in his low Similarity Index, and I’m inclined to lean more on his favorable long-term projections than his UPSIDE (that is, until someone tells PECOTA Sanchez might not even stay at catcher).
Elsewhere, Peter O’Brien is a case of FRAA knowing precisely how poor his catching is and consequently docking him despite the strong bat. (In fact, O’Brien has played outfield in Tampa this season.) Tyler Marlette completed two solid offensive (short) seasons before turning 21 and threw out 37 percent of runners in 2013. He might rise on this list come next year with a good full season in High-A. Andrew Susac sits higher on the “Good” list thanks to his Double-A accomplishments (.310 TAv); for catchers, that performance at that level comes close to assuring some major-league future, likely as a fringe regular. I’d put Jake Lowery in the same camp.
The rest of the list comprises prospects plopped into the following buckets: young, but likely too young for serious upside (Ortiz, Trahan, Coulter, and Fisher all showed good power in rookie league); nearing the age where the label becomes “non-prospect” (Casali, Kral, and Sanchez had fine 2013s, but at age 25); and normal, middle-aged prospects with middling seasons (the rest). Someone in the latter group will emerge one day; pick your lottery ticket.
Notable Average/Marginal Prospects
(Players ranked in Jason Parks’ Top 101 with UPSIDEs under 25)
My earlier diatribe about the limitations of catcher defense should cover the logic behind PECOTA’s low ranking of this quartet. Parks bestowed high praise on Bethancourt and McGuire for their defense; PECOTA mostly sees below-average bats. Alfaro, aside from his 8 arm, has crazy power upside, but that’s counterbalanced by his crazy-aggressive approach (0.25 BB:K ratio in A-ball).
Top 25-and-under catchers by UPSIDE
Derek Norris feels high, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he carries on a career mashing lefties—he quietly produced 2.4 WARP in 98 games last year. Otherwise, this list reflects how barren “elite catching prospects” have been for the past few years. It’s a trend that could easily continue. If the bat is too good, teams will want to prevent injury early (Bryce Harper, Wil Myers) by moving the prospect off the position. If the bat is too good and the defense can’t be passed up… well, how common are players who fit that description? Whoever drafts the next Joe Mauer, we’re waiting to see what you do with him. Given the cautiousness of teams today, the next Mauer might be moved to third if he suffers a similar knee surgery.