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March 3, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Prospects, Part Four

by Nate Silver

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We're going to handle things a bit differently this time around, interlacing the commentary with the ranking list. It's tempting instead to break things down into left-handed versus right-handed pitching prospects, just to get the list down to a more reasonable size. But I have some philosophical objection to that, and I've seen no strong evidence that left-handed and right-handed pitchers develop differently. PECOTA does consider handedness, but it's one of the lesser factors, about on the order of something like height. You never hear someone say "Yusmeiro Petit is the second best short pitching prospect in baseball," do you?

Starting Pitchers

Player                                WARP     Upside     Comb
1. Francisco Liriano, SP, MIN (22)    19.9     118.9     318.2
2. Yusmeiro Petit, SP, FLO (21)       19.1     123.8     314.4
3. Philip Hughes, SP, NYA (20)        17.9     131.3     310.8
PECOTA identifies a top tier of six pitching prospects who are pretty clearly differentiated from everyone else. Within that group of six, there's a sub-tier of three pitchers that does especially well. Those three pitchers--Petit, Francisco Liriano, and Philip Hughes--couldn't be more different from one another.

There are few meaningful questions about Liriano himself, other than the more general issues that devalue all pitching prospects. Even those points might not be particularly relevant for Liriano, and what's been particularly impressive is how his strikeout rates (even the untranslated versions) have improved at every level:

        A+         9.6
        AA         10.9
        AAA        11.1
        MLB        12.5
If I were doing a Top 100 list that was allowed to consider more subjective valuation elements, Liriano would probably end up something like eighth or ninth. I don't think you can construct a sound argument for putting him ahead of Mssrs. Young, Hermida, Zimmerman, Kendrick, Wood, Marte, or Fielder, but everyone else is fair game.

Yusmeiro Petit is the pitching version of Dustin Pedroia. While I'd stake my poker bankroll on Pedroia being better than the 77th best prospect in baseball, the track record of "good stats, mediocre stuff" pitching prospects is not especially impressive; a short list would include names like Luke Prokopec (Petit's #1 comparable) and Ed Yarnall. Petit, arguably, doesn't belong in that group: everyone agrees that he has major league stuff, but it "projects" as third starter stuff, not ace material. And Petit's stats haven't merely been good, but really quite fantastic.

While we're on the subject, what about "great stuff, mediocre stats" pitching prospects? I compiled a list of all pitching prospects since 1997 who:

  • Rated among Baseball America's Top 50 prospects;
  • Pitched a significant number of innings in at least full season A-ball;
  • Had a STUFF score below 5 in their most recent season of performance. Keep in mind that, contrary to its name, STUFF is not an actual measure of velocity or anything like that; it is a purely statistical composite metric.

Here is that list:
35 Mike Drumright, 1997
43 Felix Heredia, 1997
44 Brian Rose, 1997

37 Rolando Arrojo, 1998
38 Roy Halladay, 1998
39 Braden Looper, 1998

32 Matt White, 1999
33 Billy Koch, 1999

10 John Patterson, 2000
20 A.J. Burnett, 2000
29 Francisco Cordero, 2000
45 Chad Hutchinson, 2000

8 Ryan Anderson, 2001
17 Juan Cruz, 2001
45 Wes Anderson, 2001

14 Ryan Anderson, 2002
19 Jerome Williams, 2002
33 Brett Myers, 2002
44 Jimmy Journell, 2002

9 Gavin Floyd, 2003
20 Jeremy Bonderman, 2003
24 John Van Benschoten, 2003
27 Rafael Soriano, 2003
30 Cliff Lee, 2003
36 Dustin McGowan, 2003
41 Aaron Cook, 2003

23 Gavin Floyd, 2004
40 Merkin Valdez, 2004
50 Taylor Buchholz, 2004

(2005 - none)

44 Mark Rogers, 2006
45 Adam Loewen, 2006
47 Adam Miller, 2006
48 Dustin McGowan, 2006
Certainly, the eyes are drawn to the success stories like Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, but this is generally not an impressive list. Also keep in mind that a number of these pitchers had good minor league stats somewhere along the line, but were coming off a rough, unhealthy season. I think that, if you're going to put a pitcher near the top of the prospects table, he needs to rate as at least "good" along both the stats and the scouting dimensions.

I have no doubt that Philip Hughes is overrated here, but that's because of his injury issues. It is very rare for a 19-year-old pitcher to come out with translations that rate as above major league average in all three of the major categories: strikeout rate, walk rate, and flyball/home run prevention. Those who do make up the names on Hughes' comparables list, which reads as a virtual who's who of recent pitching studs, from Jake Peavy to Rick Ankiel to Dontrelle Willis. Yes, I know that PECOTA only has 85 or so innings worth of performance to work with, but indicators like strikeout and groundball rates stabilize rather quickly.

Player                             WARP     Upside    Comb
4. Justin Verlander, SP, DET (23)  16.8     99.8     268.3
5. Anthony Reyes, SP, SLN (24)     16.2     92.1     254.3
6. Matt Cain, SP, SFN (21)         15.8     95.0     253.3
The second part of the top tier. I have no real problem with someone who wants to claim that Matt Cain or Justin Verlander is the #2 pitching prospect in baseball--the difference in valuation between these guys and the Liriano/Petit/Hughes group is really quite small. Cain and Verlander, in fact, are poster boys for the type of pitching prospects that I suspect that PECOTA underrates: guys with maybe one or two blips in their statistical record but great scouting reports.
Player                               WARP    Upside    Comb
7. Jeremy Sowers, SP, CLE (23)       14.8     65.8    213.6
8. Joel Zumaya, SP, DET (21)         13.2     80.2    211.8
9. Cole Hamels, SP, PHI (22)         13.5     69.9    204.7
10. Chuck James, SP, ATL (24)        13.3     65.8    199.0
xx. Brandon Erbe, SP, BAL (18)**     12.6     63.4    189.1
11. Chad Billingsley, SP, LAN (21)   12.7     59.1    186.6
** Small Sample Size Warning
Now we're getting into that grey area where pretty much everyone has some sort of issue. Chad Billingsley, easily the best regarded of the bunch, might be the exception; he doesn't have any particular red flags in his performance record, it's just that the perception runs a little bit ahead of his stats. Following are equivalent numbers for Billingsley, Cain, and Verlander, who are often lumped together into the same group:
                IP        EqK9      EqBB9      EqHR9        Level
Verlander      130        6.7        2.7        0.6        AAA/MLB
Cain           192        7.9        4.2        1.3        AAA/MLB
Billingsley    146        7.1        3.3        1.4        AA
Verlander is the easily most complete package of the bunch; that's how it should be, since he's two years older than Cain or Billingsley. Cain versus Billingsley seems like a closer matchup, with Cain winning in the strikeout department but Billingsley is superior in command. But Cain has a few things going for him. He was pitching at a higher level, including a good performance in the majors, and he survived a substantial jump in his innings pitched with no apparent ill effects. Perhaps more importantly, when choosing between two pitching prospects that look about equal, you should tend to pick the guy with the better strikeout numbers. The reason, simply put, is that while it's fairly routine for a young pitcher to improve his command, it's almost impossible for his raw stuff to get better once his body reaches full maturity at the age of 21 or 22. Strikeout rate is really quite a good proxy for "ceiling" for a pitching prospect.

We can see this more clearly in the case of Jeremy Sowers, whose UPSIDE ranking is proportionately much lower than his projected WARP. Among Sowers' top 20 comparables, only Ben Sheets (#20) stands out as a star, and Sheets is one of the rare exceptions of a pitcher who did significantly improve his strikeout rate after he'd spent a year or two in the big leagues.

Chuck James's groundball-flyball numbers are literally unheard of. His GB:FB ratio last year was 0.35; there has never been a major league pitcher who sustained a ratio like that for any length of time (Sid Fernandez is the closest, with a few seasons in the 0.50-0.60 range). Any time you see an aberration like that, a set of numbers that aren't on the major league Cartesian plane, you need to be skeptical. We talked before about how we need to discount Jeremy Hermida's walk rate significantly, since major league hitters simply don't draw that many walks unless they hit for much more power than Hermida does. It's the same argument, writ much larger, for James.

I decided, after some hemming and hawing, to exclude Brandon Erbe from the final ranking list. That's why you see the "xx" next to his name; I've included him where he would have slotted in as a sort of honorable mention. It's one thing to have a small sample size--Erbe has just 30 professional innings to his name--but on top of that Erbe was pitching professionally at the baseball age of 17, and there are only six other pitchers in our database who have done that while managing to have any kind of success at all. Two of those pitchers were Francisco Rodriguez and Felix Hernandez, so keep Erbe's name in mind.

Player                                WARP     Upside       Comb
12. Shaun Marcum, SP, TOR (24)        12.3     50.7        173.6
13. Fausto Carmona, SP, CLE (22)      11.9     52.8        171.9
14. Anibal Sanchez, SP, FLO (22)      11.7     51.8        169.0
15. Paul Maholm, SP, PIT (24)         12.0     45.6        165.5
16. Troy Patton, SP, HOU (20)         11.4     50.7        164.3
17. Dallas Braden, SP, OAK (22)       11.3     46.1        159.4
18. Andrew Sonnanstine, SP, TBA (23)  11.7     41.0        158.0
19. Cesar Carrillo, SP, SDN (22)**    11.1     46.5        157.5
20. Sean Gallagher, SP, CHN (20)      11.0     46.8        157.2
21. Gabriel Hernandez, SP, NYN (20)   10.5     47.4        152.1
22. Scott Olsen, SP, FLO (22)         10.8     42.3        150.5
23. Josh Banks, SP, TOR (23)          10.9     40.3        149.1
24. Justin Germano, SP, CIN (23)      11.1     38.1        148.7
25. Jon Lester, SP, BOS (22)           9.9     46.9        145.4
** Small Sample Size Warning
The rest of the Top 25, and about an equal mix of "stats" and "stuff" guys. Shaun Marcum is almost completely unknown, partly because he posted a 4.95 ERA in Syrcause, although with much better peripherals. Fausto Carmona is an extremely unusual prospect, with great walk and groundball numbers but very low K rates. He apparently throws hard enough (93-94). The scout speak for someone like this is that "he doesn't miss bats," which is a sexy turn of phrase but doesn't explain much of anything. I'd love to hear from any readers in Akron or Buffalo who know if there's something in Carmona's pitching philosophy that is producing these unusual results. Cesar Carrillo pitched just 56.3 innings after being drafted in June and PECOTA is punishing him for it; he probably belongs in the tier above.

We find Jon Lester, finally, at #25. I've beaten this particular horse to death, so let me refer you to what Dave Cameron said about him in a great discussion at U.S.S. Mariner:

Lester and Papelbon [are] solid, good pitching prospects. But these guys aren't special. Almost every organization has a guy like Papelbon or Lester. There's a lot of 90-94 MPH arms with developing secondary pitches and mediocre command running around out there.

This is in a nutshell what I've been trying to say all along. Papelbon (who ranks even lower) and Lester are solid, grade B pitching prospects.

The thing to keep in mind is that baseball talent is a pyramid (really, the right half of a bell curve); there are many more Grade C prospects than Grade B prospects, and many more Grade B prospects than Grade A prospects. Seemingly subtle differences in key indicators like strikeout rate and walk rate can prompt PECOTA to categorize a guy into a different tier. All these guys have "good" numbers, and many of them have reasonable scouting reports, too. But they aren't special, and solid grade B pitching prospects are not worth all that much.

Player                                WARP        Upside       Comb
26. Fernando Nieve, SP, HOU (23)      10.3        41.5        144.9
27. Abe Alvarez, SP, BOS (23)         10.1        42.5        143.1
28. Casey Janssen, SP, TOR (24)       10.4        37.6        141.6
29. Anthony Swarzak, SP, MIN (20)     10.1        38.7        139.8
30. Jonathan Broxton, SP, LAN (22)     8.9        47.6        136.8
31. Manny Parra, SP, MIL (23)         10.1        35.2        136.1
32. Gio Gonzalez, SP, PHI (20)         9.4        41.6        135.5
33. Jay Rainville, SP, MIN (20)        9.2        40.2        131.9
34. Hayden Penn, SP, BAL (21)          9.2        39.7        131.4
35. Jason Hammel, SP, TBA (23)         9.0        38.8        128.7
36. Adam Wainwright, SP, SLN (24)      9.3        30.3        122.8
37. John Maine, SP, NYN (25)           8.7        33.3        120.1
38. Elizardo Ramirez, SP, CIN (23)     8.7        31.0        118.1
39. Tyler Clippard, SP, NYA (21)       8.8        29.9        118.0
40. Boof Bonser, SP, MIN (24)          8.6        31.2        117.7
41. Jason Hirsh, SP, HOU (24)          8.4        31.1        115.5
42. J.D. Durbin, SP, MIN (24)          8.4        30.1        114.5
43. Ricky Nolasco, SP, FLO (23)        8.5        28.3        112.9
44. Homer Bailey, SP, CIN (20)         7.0        42.2        112.2
45. Jon Papelbon, SP, BOS (25)         7.9        32.4        111.6
46. Jamie Vermilyea, SP, BOS (24)      7.6        34.7        110.7
47. Thomas Diamond, SP, TEX (23)       7.5        34.3        109.4
48. Carmen Pignatiello, SP, CHN (23)   7.2        34.0        105.6
49. Chuck Tiffany, SP, TBA (21)        7.1        33.4        104.0
50. Matt Harrison, SP, ATL (20)        6.9        33.4        102.0
51. Jair Jurrjens, SP, DET (20)        8.0        22.2        101.9
52. Shane Komine, SP, OAK (25)         6.9        32.7        101.9
The great unwashed masses? Not exactly, and a couple of these guys will turn into stars. It's just that we don't really know which ones. It's almost certainly the case that PECOTA is mis-rating certain pitching prospects for certain reasons, but I doubt that it's underrating pitching prospects as a group. Nor does a scouting approach seem to do much better at this exercise.

Within the next five years, it's probable that we'll have detailed pitch-by-pitch data available at the minor league level; we'll actually be able to add something like "peak sustainable velocity" or "curveball break" to a player's PECOTA profile. In ten or fifteen years, we may be at the point where we can do systematic analysis of a pitcher's mechanics from video clips. In the meantime, we're going to have to settle for a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of disappointments for people who are expecting their favorite pitching prospect to emerge as the next Ben Sheets or Rich Harden.

Relief Pitchers

Player                             WARP       Upside        Comb
1. Andrew Brown, RP, CLE (25)       7.5        42.8        122.1
2. Kevin Whelan, RP, DET (22)       7.3        48.3        121.7
3. Dana Eveland, RP, MIL (22)       7.6        37.6        114.1
4. Craig Hansen, RP, BOS (22)**     6.6        47.5        113.2
5. Fernando Cabrera, RP, CLE (24)   6.3        37.2        100.3
** Small Sample Size Warning
No shocker that PECOTA doesn't have much regard for relief pitching prospects. It's actually somewhat remarkable that Craig Hansen manages to rate this well in spite of having only 15 or so innings to his professional resume, and there certainly scenarios in which he pulls a Huston Street for the Red Sox this year.

Almost Prospects

Player                            WARP      Upside        Comb
Felix Hernandez, SP, SEA (20)     29.8       292.8        590.9
Dontrelle Willis, SP, FLO (24)    26.7       166.0        432.6
Rich Harden, SP, OAK (24)         23.7       176.3        413.0
Jeremy Bonderman, SP, DET (23)    22.6       131.1        357.2
Zach Duke, SP, PIT (23)           22.0       131.4        350.9
Zack Greinke, SP, KCA (22)        18.8       101.8        289.8
Scott Kazmir, SP, TBA (22)        17.6        96.3        272.7
Brandon McCarthy, SP, CHA (22)    17.6        94.1        270.3
Ervin Santana, SP, LAA (23)       15.2        72.6        224.4
Kameron Loe, SP, TEX (24)         12.8        62.5        190.7
Scott Baker, SP, MIN (24)         13.0        59.3        188.9
Jason Vargas, SP, FLO (23)        11.8        56.2        174.6
Ian Snell, SP, PIT (24)           12.2        52.4        174.2
Oliver Perez, SP, PIT (24)        10.6        47.2        153.3
Kyle Davies, SP, ATL (22)         10.5        48.1        153.2
J.P. Howell, SP, KCA (23)         10.8        45.2        152.9
Jerome Williams, SP, CHN (24)     10.2        35.7        137.3
Tim Stauffer, SP, SDN (24)         9.7        27.6        124.6
Edgar Gonzalez, SP, ARI (23)       9.4        29.3        123.5
Ezequiel Astacio, SP, HOU (26)     8.3        40.5        123.4

Player                             WARP      Upside        Comb
Francisco Rodriguez, RP, LAA (24)  31.1       135.7        446.9
Huston Street, RP, OAK (22)        18.5        75.4        260.6
Marcos Carvajal, RP, SEA (21)      13.2        99.3        231.3
Chad Cordero, RP, WAS (24)         15.9        51.8        211.2
Chad Gaudin, RP, OAK (23)          13.9        53.6        192.6
Ambiorix Burgos, RP, KCA (22)      10.2        71.9        173.4
Chris Ray, RP, BAL (24)            12.2        39.6        161.4
Bobby Jenks, RP, CHA (25)          11.4        36.1        150.3
Chad Orvella, RP, TBA (25)         10.9        38.6        147.5
Andy Sisco, RP, KCA (23)            8.7        60.0        146.7
Ryan Wagner, RP, CIN (23)           7.6        48.3        124.0
Jesse Crain, RP, MIN (24)           7.6        44.7        120.2
Brad Thompson, RP, SLN (24)         6.9        38.0        107.1
Brandon League, RP, TOR (23)        7.1        30.1        101.0
As we can see, PECOTA has much less of a problem giving favorable ratings to young pitchers who have already reached the majors. Some of that has to do with the "hitting the wall" phenomenon that I discussed last week; the only way to know for sure if a pitcher is capable of throwing 200 effective big league innings is to witness him actually do it. Similarly, because there's so much uncertainty in determining which pitchers have an approach that is going to hold up well in the majors and which don't, the evidence of actual major league success means a lot.

Because almost any young pitcher who can pitch worth half a damn is going to be hyped to death, there isn't much in the way of sleeper candidates within this group. Ervin Santana might be an exception, and has a surprisingly good comparables list featuring names like Jake Peavy and Jim Palmer. The other pitcher in this category is Marcos Carvajal, the Rule 5 pick who managed to keep his head afloat while pitching as a 20-year-old in Coors Field. He deserves a purple heart for that, if not a circle around his name.

Felix Hernandez, if you're wondering, rates as the 3rd most valuable pitcher and 9th most valuable player in all of baseball. We'll get into that and all kinds of other fun stuff when we close out our series next week.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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