July 7, 2006
By being in the business of reporting on prospects for some time now, I've developed a pretty enviable instant message buddy list of over 200 names. From most of the great minds at Baseball Prospectus to some of the other top baseball writers in the known universe, my laptop is constantly blinking with virtual conversations with writers, scouts, front office folks, agents and even a few players. They serve as one part entertainment, one part distraction and one especially large part of invaluable information for both me and my readers.
On the night of July 4th, as the annual amateur fireworks extravaganza made my apartment in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood sound like it was in a war zone, I had a late night conversation over instant message with a scout friend who was checking out the talent in the Florida State League. The subject has stuck with me and it has bothered me, so I'm writing about it.
The window popped open a little before midnight with a message from the scout: "Hey, what the [expletive] happened to Jonathan Figueroa?"
It took a couple seconds for it to register, as the name hadn't crossed my mind more than two or three times in the past couple of years. Once a top pitching prospect, he certainly was no longer that, but I had no real clue about why things went South, other than a fuzzy memory of some arm soreness. I replied simply and sarcastically with, "He started stinking."
The scout came back with, "That's [expletive]."
Before I could reply with a question as to what he meant, the scout explained himself much clearer.
"He was so hyped and now everyone just bails on him. He does stink, but it's completely brushed under the rug. Nobody mentions it. I just don't think there is enough examination of why we miss on guys."
And he was right. Playing the prospect game is very much about identifying the latest flavor of the month--once that flavor turns sour, the prospect needs to turn it around pretty quickly before moving on to relative anonymity. We place almost too much emphasis on guys in rookie ball and Low A and freshly drafted players, as they're still all potential. As long as somebody doesn't disappoint, that player is a prospect, and for those in the infancy of their careers, they haven't necessarily earned the praise as much as they haven't yet had the opportunity to let anybody down.
So what happened to Figueroa? Let's take a look.
A Venezuelan lefthander, Figueroa had a rarely-seen entry into pro baseball. Despite being an international free agent, Figueroa decided to draw attention by playing in the United States on the high school showcase circuit, where he proved himself among the top prep prospects in the country. The Dodgers won a bidding war for his services, paying him a $500,000 bonus--roughly second-round money.
A 6-foot-5, 220 pound monster, Figueroa had a fastball that sat in the low 90s and could get up to 94 mph, as well as a plus-plus curveball that gave him two swing-and-miss offerings. His pro debut was a stunning display of absolute dominance. In his first start for Great Falls in the Pioneer League, Figueroa allowed one hit over four shutout innings, striking out five. In his fifth start, he whiffed nine over five no-hit innings. After seven outings, the 18-year-old proved he was ready for a bigger challenge, with a 1.42 ERA in 31.2 innings with three times as many strikeouts (48) as hits allowed (16). The Dodgers decided to have him spend the last six weeks of the season with South Georgia in the Low Class A South Atlantic League.
Figueroa seemingly required no adjustments to succeed in the full-season league, as he had a strangely identical 1.42 ERA in 44.1 innings, while allowing just 22 hits and striking out 57. In his final game of the year, he pitched 5.2 shutout innings, with 12 of the 17 outs coming via strikeout.
By all accounts a star (or at least a future star) was born. Entering the 2003 season, Baseball America ranked Figueroa as the No. 2 prospect in the Dodgers system, the No.4 left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and the No. 35 prospect overall.
He would never dominate, or even pitch consistently well, again.
Following his stunning debut, the Dodgers decided to shut down their precious arm, informing him that he could not pitch in his home country's winter league. That decision may prove to be the tipping point in Figueroa's career.
Figueroa obeyed orders, and instead of pitching, he got married, and he got fat. I'm sure many of you can relate. He showed up for spring training in the spring of 2003 out of shape and quickly over-extended himself, which resulted in a painful shoulder. The Dodgers gave him an MRI, which turned out negative, and diagnosed him with tendonitis, which is a fancy medical term for, "his shoulder hurts and we're not really sure why." His season debut back in the Sally League was delayed by nearly two months, and when he returned to the mound, very little went right. Figueroa adjusted to the sore shoulder by changing his arm slot, and the 90-94 mph fastball was suddenly 84-88, the curveball had flattened, and his control, which was only average at best, regressed. He finished the year with a 1-8 record and a 4.94 ERA.
Despite being both healthy and in shape, 2004 was another step backwards. The Dodgers assigned him to High Class A and attempted to convert him to the bullpen, hoping a smaller workload would keep him healthy. In 23 Florida State League games, Figueroa had a 7.00 ERA while allowing 35 hits and 17 walks in 27 innings. He gained a little bit on his fastball, pushing it to the 88-90 mph range, but both the curveball and control continued to regress. Demoted to the Sally League and placed back in the rotation, Figueroa had a 6.90 ERA in 14 games, but showed some signs of life. He delivered a number of quality starts in the final weeks of the season, and finished the year with his best outing of the year, allowing two hits over five innings and striking out seven. Just as encouraging was the fact that he touched 93 mph in that outing.
The good feelings wouldn't last, as Figueroa began 2005 in the Vero Beach rotation and was back to his old ways, with the bad arm slot and the well below average stuff. He'd finish the year with a 6.00 ERA in 81 innings with more walks (53) than strikeouts (52) before being shutdown in August.
Once again suffering from shoulder woes, Figueroa had arthroscopic surgery in the offseason and didn't return until this June, back for his third year at Vero Beach. He had an 8.10 ERA in five starts before moving to the bullpen, and his fastball has been clocked at a well below-average 84-87 mph. While he is in his fifth year as a pro, he's still not very old at just 22, so there has to be some hope still, but there's no reason to think that he'll ever be the pitcher he was four years ago.
So why do we miss on guys? It's a good question, and one I plan on exploring over the next few months. My hypothesis going in is that the answer usually involves one or a combination of three factors:
1. Serious injuries. These can be a death knell to prospects. Players sometimes miss half a season or even an entire year, and then after that, they need another half-season to get back in the groove; next thing you know the prospect is 24 years old and barely in Double-A. Beyond that, certain injuries--such as major knee surgery and shoulder problems--can have a permanent impact on a player's physical tools. Figueroa had an injury, but it wasn't major and it didn't cause him to miss much time, yet it seemed to transform his stuff from plus to below average.
2. Makeup. Here we go again. What is makeup? What is good makeup? What is bad makeup? Those questions are the subject of much debate, but there are some generalities that we can agree on. There are a number of makeup related factors that can play into a prospect's failure--lack of effort, inability to adjust or take to coaching, or even in the case of someone like Josh Hamilton, self destruction. For Figueroa, his inability to stay in baseball shape during his first offseason led to the shoulder problems, which also illustrates how some of these factors can crossover.
3. Scouting misses. He looks like he can hit, but we've yet to see him face a professional breaking ball. The radar gun lights up, but we don't properly take into account location and movement. In the big leagues, a 100 mph fastball that is straight and down the middle is not a good pitch. Hitters are that good. For Figueroa, this doesn't seem to be the case, as a 6-foot-5 teenage lefthander with plus velocity and a devastating curve is a scout's dream--and with good reason.
Now, getting back to Tuesday night's conversation with the scout. He was right, we don't spend enough time going back and looking at why we miss. By default, our industry is forward thinking, always trying to measure what can be, while turning a blind eye towards what could have been. And that's a dangerous mistake, as I know I've learned far more from guys I've missed on then guys I was right about.
While the exercise on Figueroa was somewhat cathartic, we didn't really learn much. It's a fairly simple case of a player who had it, then due to injury and conditioning issues lost it, and never found it again. I need to find some more mysterious cases and ones where big league stars were consistently underrated as prospects. I need to talk to people in the industry and look for patterns. Since that July 4th wake-up call, it's something I've been thinking about a lot, and you can be sure I'll be reporting more findings as they come along. It's time to start evaluating our failures to better avoid them in the future.