May 16, 2014
PECOTA Takes on Prospects
UPSIDE at Second Base
Here’s a chart of production by position in 2013:
Last week, I talked about the offense required from first basemen to offset their negative positional adjustment. This week, we explore second base, whose occupants hit 20 points of True Average worse last season but produced the same total WARP. This demonstrates the defensive gap we’re familiar with while also illustrating the low offensive bar for second basemen. One needed to produce a TAv of only .261 while playing average defense to be a “league average” second baseman last year (league-average TAv is always scaled to be .260). Gregor Blanco personified the league average hitter in 2013—and he had the 114th-best TAv out of 141 qualified batters.
Very Good Prospects
If you peruse Betts’ long-term forecast on his player card, you’ll note that PECOTA projects him to eclipse 4 WARP annually, with 10 years of All-Star caliber production. His UPSIDE tells a less optimistic story: he’s a very good prospect, yet barely. Prospects with his forecast would normally sit in the UPSIDE top 10 with twice his score of 52. This divergence between the long-term projection and UPSIDE happens occasionally, and uncommon players like Betts tend to cause it. His minor-league career thus far has been nothing but hit after hit after hit, with power, contact, and speed included. Projecting that forward is no problem for PECOTA, but finding comparables is. Betts is listed at 156 pounds, and I need not calculate the league weighted (no pun intended) average to know that’s historically light (210, if you’re wondering).
Let’s find some crude comps for Betts using just that information. Here’s a list of major-league players born after 1970 and weighing 160 pounds or less:
That’s an incomplete list, as 37 others qualify but none accrued over 1 WARP in their career (some still active, like Billy Hamilton). You can see why PECOTA hits a roadblock comparing him: Betts, forecasted for 37 WARP through 2023, has no precedent, and the players who simply matched his body type weren’t very good. Basically, his stature isn’t found in successful major leaguers, but such positive projections must be considered. So PECOTA ends up comparing him all over the board according to his multiple skills—he gets Alexi Amarista and Jose Altuve, then he gets Wil Myers and Billy Butler.
Do I think PECOTA is handling Betts correctly? I think PECOTA is finding the right comparables and smartly flagging the rarity of Betts’ profile (his Similarity Index is just 69). I’ve mentioned the importance of being cautious in cases with low Similarity Indexes a few times in this series, and while it may feel like a cop-out, it’s also important to recognize when the variance is larger. Mookie may ultimately succumb to the limitations of his size—that’s the low end—or he might continue to hit like he has and achieve his potential.
In a way, PECOTA’s treatment of Betts matches Jason Parks’ initial skepticism about his physique. Just as Betts has re-proven his chops in 2014 to earn a spot in Parks’ midseason top 50, PECOTA would find even more favorable comps for Betts knowing about his .368 TAv thus far for Portland. Betts already compares to several major leaguers—the way into UPSIDE’s heart, as minor-league comps rate lower—and his advanced hitting in Double-A would demand further big-league comparables. Until he establishes himself in the majors, though, he’ll carry some risk with him as an undersized player.
Fielding, speed, and contact are Jose Ramirez’s calling cards. The presence of multiple tools, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive outlook. Ramirez projects as a below-average hitter, the kind who hits for average and runs well yet lacks power. At second base, a team could do worse. Ramirez compensates for his below-average bat with solid fielding, which makes him a two-WARP player if he plays a full season. At a low-depth position, many teams do, in fact, do worse (looking at you, Yankees, Jays, and Orioles).
Devon Travis was old for High-A, but his .341 True Average undoubtedly stands out; moreover, the power complemented with favorable contact numbers charms PECOTA. The Astros, in a possible organization-wide initiative, own two prospects here in Torreyes and Kemp with solid BB:K ratios. The UPSIDE score for Rougned Odor is rather low given that PECOTA likes him very much—just not immediately, it seems, as he doesn’t project to break a league-average TAv until his age-26 season. Joe Wendle slugged .513 last year, but his comps aren’t so power-friendly and, unlike Betts’, PECOTA is confident about them.
More Good Prospects
A great list if you love quirky names. Next to Betts, Kolten Wong has PECOTA’s best long-term forecast. His 2015 projection (.257/.307/.380) barely beats this year’s second base average (.256/.321/.375), and PECOTA expects Wong to flutter around average/above-average like this for 10 years. Because he lacks an impact tool, his UPSIDE is hurt from his comps including many tweener types who fall on the “under” side of average. Wong doesn’t have any particular skills to utilize as fallbacks if he declines—PECOTA doesn’t know about his makeup—and he doesn’t have any skills that might “break out” either. That equates to a low-variance profile overall, which lacks upside, but reducing risk is never a bad thing. I haven’t mentioned that PECOTA projects him to save 9-10 runs each year at second base; combine that with his average offensive production, and you’ve got a stable three-win player.
Robert Refsnyder has an emerging bat, but PECOTA doesn’t think he’s a good second baseman. Switch-hitting Breyvic Valera ascended past Low-A only this year, but he’s hit for contact wherever he’s been; with five defensive positions to his name and at just 21 years old, he could provide sneaky value for the Cardinals down the road. Joe Panik is another contact-heavy hitter who’s succeeded in Double-A; like those of many others on this list, his stats spell utility infielder.
Notable Average/Marginal Prospects
In general, UPSIDE is lower on prospects who display aggressive or swing-and-miss tendencies—patience and contact rate are two primary components of comparables—and this triplet suffers slightly as a result.
Top 25-and-under second basemen
Altuve, like Betts, doesn’t compare well historically. Even though we’ve seen over 1,500 of his plate appearances, he went from a four-win player to below replacement level last year. PECOTA opts for the middle and calls him above-average in the short term, and he’s rebounded thus far, improving his contact rates.
PECOTA ignored Scooter Gennett’s .308 first-year TAv quite readily. It’s a reminder that taking walks remains an important skill; very, very few hitters can walk at a four percent rate and compensate just by hitting for average (Altuve couldn’t manage it in 2013). Even though Gennett has shown an aptitude for it, last year’s .324 batting average was largely “empty,” and also higher than his minor-league performances. As a result, he came out with an UPSIDE of 9.2, and PECOTA forecasts his batting average to fall further.