May 22, 2014
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
What Did I Miss: Brandon Nimmo
The 2011 amateur draft was a talent smorgasbord that could satisfy the most esurient of appetites, the significance of which we are only beginning to scratch the surface of. Starting up top with Pirates’ ace Gerrit Cole, the players taken in the first round read like a who’s who for the next generation of baseball—names like Bundy, Bradley, Lindor, Baez, Fernandez, Gray, Meyer, Springer, and Stephenson. Sandwiched between these hyped warriors of the future is Brandon Nimmo, the 13th overall selection in the class, taken right after Taylor Jungmann and right before Jose Fernandez. At the time, Nimmo was a relatively unknown prospect from the relatively unknown state of Wyoming, a player without a high school team and a narrative that was more focused on his lack of playing experience than his exploits. At the time, it was a head scratcher given the talent still available on the board, and even years later the revisionist commentary has been easy to come by. Brandon Nimmo over Jose Fernandez? Really?
I first put eyes on Brandon Nimmo in the summer of 2012 in the New York-Penn League, and despite recognizing and appreciating his obvious athleticism, I didn’t see a first-division type. In August of that year, I wrote the following about Nimmo, after a long summer of watching him in Brooklyn:
“Excellent physical profile; plus athlete; very strong top half; wide/angular shoulders; fluid movements/coordination; at the plate, very high hands in setup (above shoulder blade); long journey to get into hitting position (has to drop down before going back); loses some bat control and swing efficiency; in FB counts, has a tendency to trigger early; off-speed exploitation as consequence; shows quality bat speed; can square velocity; shows ability to use all fields; good hip movements; good hands; easy pull-side power; swing has slightly elevated plane; 4 present/High-5 future power; not as sold on hit tool, which is present 3/future 5; good overall approach; seems to track pitches well; uses plus speed well, but mistake-prone with routes and angles in center; more raw athlete than instinctual defensive player; arm is average; better defensive profile in a corner (probably LF); shows all five tools; potential for average hit, average power, plus run, average arm, and average glove; possible role 5 player in majors; really nice young player with upside, but not a first-division talent.”
That offseason was my first at the helm of the Baseball Prospectus prospect lists, and I was extremely low on Nimmo when I compartmentalized the Mets’ system, pushing the toolsy outfielder to ninth on the list, behind the likes of Michael Fulmer, Gavin Cecchini, and Domingo Tapia; it should be noted that at the time, I didn’t even like Cecchini and mentioned it ad nauseam on podcasts, radio spots, the site itself, and to strangers on the street. I remember an off-the-record chat I had with a member of the Mets front office after the list was finalized, where it was brought to my attention that I was too low on Nimmo, that I was not giving him enough credit for his professional performance despite the lack of experience against quality opponents. I took the propitious hype as organizational justification, and I stuck to the story told by my own eyes. I saw a tweener type emerging at the short-season level, and despite the physical tools I wasn’t willing to bet on the ultimate ceiling. It made me think then—and even more so now: If Brandon Nimmo was a teen-aged Dominican outfielder with the same physical gifts, would I be more likely to dream on the ceiling? More on that later.
Nimmo moved to the full-season level in 2013, and despite a tough home environment and a lingering hand injury that limited his power he managed to hit for a respectable average and draw 71 walks in 110 games. Scouting sources were mixed on his performance, as the significance of the hand injury was still unknown, but the overall athleticism still received high marks, and given the fact that he was more than holding his own at the full-season level as a 20-year-old, the year should have been viewed as a developmental success. But apparently I’m the old man standing on his porch yelling at the sun for being hot, as I ignored the context of the season and continued to question Nimmo as a prospect—at least as he compared to other high-ceiling talent in the minors. In the Futures Game that summer, I was parked behind the batting cage watching the never-ending assembly line of freakshow talents take their rips in the cage. Not a surprise, I wasn’t fond of Nimmo’s performance and singled him out for it:
“Because of the talent surrounding him on the field, Nimmo’s bat stood out, but not in a positive way. I’ve never been a huge fan of the swing [itself], mostly because of the hand location and the path he takes into the zone, but the bat speed [or lack thereof] stood out in his cage sessions, magnified because of the plus bat speed that was on display before and after him. I thought it was a slow stick.”
Perhaps the stick was slow in the cage that day, but the point is that I chose to negative scout instead of finding something of value to document, or better yet, just ignoring his performance all together; the latter option making the most sense given the extraordinary talent I could have highlighted instead. I was now convinced that Nimmo just didn’t belong on any of the prospect tiers I had assembled in my head, and once you are out, subjective bias can be quite the armed guard against scouting-report emendation.
More of the same that offseason, as Nimmo once again landed ninth on the Mets’ prospect list, this time behind an 18-year-old Dominican shortstop with 58 games of professional experience at the rookie level, and Dominic Smith, another teenager with around 50 games of professional experience, who offers a nice bat but a debatable power future with an extremely limited defensive profile. I’m not even high on Dominic Smith and I think he’s incredibly overrated nationally, yet he was an easy choice over Brandon Nimmo, a [then] 20-year-old with plus athleticism that plays a premium position coming off a more than acceptable full-season debut in a tough hitter’s park. Nice work. Nice process.
At times, we [read: me] can get a little too cute when it comes to analyzing talent, searching for prototypes that rarely exist instead of scouting what it right in front of you. Nimmo isn’t without warts, and I’m not the only source on the internet to undervalue the player based on less-than-stellar scouting experiences. But at what point is it prudent to admit that you were wrong about a prospect? It’s certainly too early to suggest Nimmo has become the star the Mets envisioned when they popped him 13th overall in such a delicious draft, and it’s certainly too early to suggest my tweener projection has fallen short of the mark based on his solid run in the Florida State League to start 2014. But it is starting to look like Nimmo is a much better prospect than I originally gave him credit for, and this is proven true with each new scouting update I receive from my sources in the industry or the prospect staff at Baseball Prospectus. Speaking of which, here’s a recent scouting report on Nimmo courtesy of Jeff Moore.
I’m okay with missing on a prospect—or being late to the party on a prospect—but it frustrates me when my process fails, something I write about frequently and place a tremendous amount of significance on. In this case, my process was not only flawed but contained a scouting bias that I was slow to recognize and react to. I spend most of my time fawning over athleticism—which is just a way of saying I love tools—and projection, with a particular fondness for raw Latin American talent. I cut my teeth learning from industry evaluators specific to this market, and as a result, my tastes are more often of the high-ceiling/high-risk variety than the safety found in the high-floor floor/low-ceiling types. While I won’t apologize for being attracted to impact types on a baseball field, it’s the particulars of these types that can get me into trouble and allow players like Nimmo to catch my ire instead of my eye.
I should absolutely love Brandon Nimmo. Physical? Check. Plus athlete? Check? Unrefined skills at present but a lot to dream on? Check. Defensive profile at an up-the-middle spot? Check. Young for the level? Check. Aptitude for the game? Check. We just checked off all the things I tend to salivate over when looking at a young toolsy prospect. As silly as it sounds, if Brandon Nimmo was a prospect from the Latin American market, there is a strong possibility that I might have been higher on him coming into the season. I ranked Rockies outfield prospect Raimel Tapia as the top position player in that system, and pushed him on the Baseball Prospectus 101 based on his projectable profile and 66 games of stateside baseball. He is far less physically composed than Nimmo, far less refined when it comes to approach and matters of swing execution, far less refined when it comes to his reads/routes in center, is more likely to bust than Nimmo given the amount of physical projection involved in his ultimate profile, and Tapia is only one year younger than Nimmo, yet he might as well be on another prospect planet as far as I’m concerned; Tapia is the best thing that ever happened to baseball and Nimmo is just some guy in the Mets system drafted ahead of Jose Fernandez.
This makes sense to me on most levels, and I’m not wavering on Tapia because I might actually be in love with the kid. But this seemingly divergent interpretation of prospect status concerns me as someone who takes player evaluation very seriously, and it’s something I want to be more mindful of going forward. This shouldn’t suggest that Nimmo has the same potential as Tapia and therefore belongs on the same tier; rather, this is a critique of the rationale to which I tether when blowing a player up on prospect lists based on some abstract prototype at the expense of a similar player just because he doesn’t fit all the specifics of said prototype, which in this case, has more to do with ethnicity and prospect provenance than the physical characteristics on the field.