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March 1, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Shortstop Prospects

by Nate Silver

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We've got some 'splaining to do. PECOTA loves shortstop prospects. It's just that it doesn't love quite the same shortstop prospects as everyone else.

Excellent Prospects

1. Alexi Casilla, Twins (22)       171.8
2. Brent Lillibridge, Braves (23)  149.1
3. Sean Rodriguez, Angels (22)     129.0
4. Brandon Wood, Angels (22)       122.4
5. Reid Brignac, Devil Rays (21)   120.9
6. Elvis Andrus, Braves (18)       103.5

Let's start with a thought experiment: what would happen if Brandon Wood's strikeout rate were cut in half?

He wouldn't be the best prospect in baseball-Alex Gordon would still hold that distinction. But his Upside rating would zoom up to 203.5, which would put him squarely in the running for #2. We'd have him forecast for a .275 EqA in 2007 instead of .267, and a .289 EqA in 2011 instead of .274. In other words, he'd both start out from a higher baseline, and be projected to grow more; his top comparables would include names like Bob Horner and Paul Konerko and David Wright instead of Jason Stokes and Chad Hermansen and Russell Branyan.

Wood's major league equivalent strikeout rate worked out to around 200 K's per 650 plate appearances last season. Now, there are some guys with very high strikeout rates in the Hall of Fame… and then there are guys like Russ Branyan that take things to the next level and who will always have an uphill battle. Until and unless Wood is able to make some adjustments, he's in that latter category. Although he still stands to be a relatively valuable player at shortstop or third base, he's simply giving away too many plate appearances to reach superstar status.

Where I'm a little bit more optimistic than PECOTA is in the probability that Wood will in fact be able to make these adjustments. Wood has had the apparent good fortune to play in some very friendly hitting environments over his past two seasons, and that won't change next year when he advances to Salt Lake. I think those small ballparks and high altitudes are teaching him some bad habits; the extra-base hits are a little bit too easy to achieve. But I also think he's talented enough to overcome those bad habits. My guess is that Wood will fail to match his PECOTA projections over his first 500 plate appearances in the majors, but will wind up beating them-perhaps by a lot-by 2009 or 2010.

In fact, I've put my (charity) money where my mouth is, having spent a high draft pick on Wood in the BP-Kings league. But I don't know if I'm on to something, or making the same mistakes as everyone else, reading his glossy numbers in Rancho Cucamonga and Arkansas and underrating the importance of his league environments and high strikeout rates. He's certainly a very good prospect, but I'd tend to describe a great prospect as someone who has a more-or-less obstacle free path between where he is presently and being major league star. That description doesn't apply to Wood. Not yet.

Alexi Casilla is the anti-Wood. He almost never strikes out, and he has a skill set that rates to be more than the sum of its parts. Of particular importance is Casilla's outstanding speed, which allows him to leg out base hits, threaten the pitcher once he gets on base, and assists with his agility in the field. In fact, we can perform another thought experiment: what happens if we reduce his speed to league average? PECOTA says that his Upside rating drops by more than 30%, from 171.8 to 117.6.

Speed is important for any prospect, but it's particularly important for a put-the-ball-in-play guy who hits tons of groundballs. Kevin Goldstein describes Casilla as a Luis Castillo clone with good defense at shortstop, which is a perfectly fair assessment. But it's easy to underestimate just how valuable that might be. By virtue of his speed, low strikeout rate, and the Metrodome turf, Casilla can pretty count on a .300+ batting average in the major leagues. Add a decent number of walks to that, and you're healthily in the .360-.370 OBP range. Add good shortstop defense to a .370 OBP and you've got a championship-caliber ballplayer. I don't care if he's got less power than Steve Trachsel.

Let's perform one more thought experiment, this time with Brent Lillibridge. The main point of skepticism about Lillibridge is that he's been a little old for his leagues-so what happens if we take his DTs and pretend that they came at Triple-A rather than A-ball last year? His Upside rating jumps up from 149.1 to 179.3, which isn't quite as dramatic as the other examples, but it goes to show that PECOTA is penalizing Lillibridge for his levels, and still likes him a great deal in spite of that.

The thing that's a little bit vexing about Lillibridge is that his comparables aren't terribly flattering-names like Joe Jester and Edwin Maysonet don't even ring a bell. The thing to remember is that PECOTA isn't comparing prospects in terms of value per se, but rather in terms of skill sets. The basic 'shape' of Lillibridge's skill set-great speed, doubles power, and a pretty good batting eye-is not uncommon for a shortstop, but he has managed to execute on it better than most of his comps, posting higher EqAs in the process. What PECOTA seems to get out of this is that Lillibridge is already fairly close to actualizing himself and shouldn't be expected to improve very much-it's forecasting only five points of EqA growth for him between 2007 (.267) and 2011 (.272). That should still make him rather valuable in his arbitration years, however, and Atlanta is in desperate need of infield help.

The case against Elvis Andrus is basically built around the unhappy memory of Luis Rivas: being young for your levels doesn't mean very much if you're going to peak out as a .250/.300/.350 player. Indeed, Rivas is Andrus' #1 comparable. But look a bit further down his list and you'll find names like Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta. The point is, just about anything can happen to someone who was playing full-season ball as a 17-year-old. The typical prospect displays more improvement in the one year between ages 17 and 18 than the three years between ages 21 and 24; that's how steep the growth curve is. There are enough high-upside scenarios that Andrus comes out looking pretty good. In particular, it's not out of the question that Andrus develops fairly good power; he hit 25 doubles last year in a power-unfriendly environment at Rome, and he isn't a small guy by any means.

It might seem strange that Sean Rodriguez rates on the same plane as Wood, considering that Wood posted a .321/.383/.672 batting line at Rancho Cucamonga at the age of 20, while Rodriguez was at .301/.377/.545 in the same ballpark at the age of 21. The thing is, the California League didn't play quite as much of a hitters' paradise this time around: league averages dropped from .286/.357/.452 in 2005 to .275/.350/.414 this year. Couple that with Rodriguez' bang-up .354/.462/.662 performance in limited playing time at Double-A last year, and defense that Clay's system likes better than the scouts, and we can see where PECOTA is going with this, even if we don't quite agree with it.

Finally, there's Reid Brignac, whom I've saved for last because his rating is probably the least controversial. PECOTA buys into Brignac's power breakout and sees plenty of room for growth, but his struggles with his defense trim his rating quite a bit. There's an argument to be made, in fact, for having Brignac and Evan Longoria flip positions. Brignac also may have some plate discipline problems to overcome, which is why Brandon Wood is his #1 comparable.

Very Good Prospects

7. Adrian Cardenas, Phillies (19)   75.8
8. Marcus Lemon, Rangers (19)       69.4
9. Chris Valaika, Reds (21)         68.1
10. Joel Guzman, Devil Rays (22)    66.9
11. Paul Kelly, Twins (20)          62.3
12. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (22)   60.7
13. Joaquin Arias, Rangers (22)     60.2
14. Emmanuel Burriss, Giants (22)   57.3
15. Michael Hollimon, Tigers (25)   51.0

The one 2007 prospect that PECOTA is convinced is flat-out overrated is Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo's numbers were good but not great for the Texas League last year, and he didn't perform very well in his major league trial. He doesn't have any one skill that rates as particularly outstanding. That earns him a 'grinder' label, which is something that gets spun a couple of different ways:

  • If a player is well-liked by scouts, 'grinder' means that he's going to find some way to get more than the sum of his parts going-forward, so better-than-average growth can be expected.
  • If a player isn't so well-liked by scouts, 'grinder' means that he's already making the most of his skill set, so worse-than-average growth can be expected.

PECOTA tends to side with the second interpretation. It sees Tulowitzki stagnating, being a pretty good major league shortstop as soon as next season, but perhaps not being much better than pretty good at his peak. It is also skeptical about his defense. Tulowitzki's strength is supposed to be that he's steady rather than rangy, but he made 25 errors in 102 games at Tulsa. Moreover, with occasional exceptions like Bobby Crosby, it's rare to see a shortstop who plays plus defense without running pretty well, and Tulowitzki's speed is no better than average. Finally, because he's a large guy, the chance of a position switch is pretty high.

Basically, PECOTA is seeing a player who is a bit of a 'tweener, along the lines of Michael Cuddyer, and I'm not sure I disagree. Tulowitzki has an extremely high similarity index; there have been lots and lots of players like him. Some of those players did develop into stars, some crashed and burned, and most of them would up being just okay.

The rest of these players fall into a handful of predictable categories. Cardenas had an excellent debut, but is very unlikely to play shortstop in the majors. Arias, Burriss, and Kelly have little power projection. Guzman has had defensive and plate discipline issues. Hollimon was old for his levels and Valaika was a college player making his debut in the Pioneer league. Lemon had an intriguing showing, but in only 101 plate appearances, barely qualifying for this list. They all do things to recommend them too, of course, and the point is that you can tolerate a few flaws in a shortstop that you might not at another position.

Good Prospects

16. Tony Giarratano, Tigers (24)    47.1
17. Ryan Mount, Angels (20)         46.6
18. Alberto Gonzalez, D'backs (24)  43.7
19. Chin Lung Hu, Dodgers (23)      41.9
20. Mark Reynolds, D'backs (23)     41.7
21. Hainley Statia, Angels (21)     41.6
22. Scott Sizemore, Tigers (22)     39.4
23. Yunel Escobar, Braves (24)      37.5
24. Jed Lowrie, Red Sox (23)        36.4
25. Jonathan Herrera, Rockies (22)  35.3
26. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians (21)  35.2
27. Pedro Lopez, White Sox (23)     35.0
28. Erick Aybar, Angels (23)        32.9
29. Josh Wilson, Nationals (26)     32.2
30. Sharlon Schoop, Giants (20)     31.2
31. Robert Valido, White Sox (22)   30.5
32. Paul Janish, Reds (24)          30.2
33. Pedro Florimon, Orioles (20)    25.8

This list is the logical extension of that very principle: there are dozens and dozens of shortstop prospects who have some residual chance of having a major league career. Most of these players are good-field, no-hit types, though there are a couple of exceptions that are the other way around (notably, Mark Reynolds and Scott Sizemore).

The one player that I expected to be a fair bit higher is Erick Aybar, since PECOTA liked Aybar a good deal last year. But Aybar's batting averages have declined for three years in a row-from .330 to .303 to .283-which is troubling for a player who is going to need to hit for average to have much value in the majors. It seems to me that unlike Alexi Casilla, a superficially similar player, Aybar just isn't taking good at-bats: he doesn't draw walks, and he popped out in nearly 10 percent of his at-bats.

Average and Marginal Prospects (Players Ranked in Kevin Goldstein's Positional Top Ten or other noteworthy names with Upside scores below 25)

Preston Mattingly, Dodgers (19)   22.4
Chris Nelson, Rockies (21)         5.3

I don't see what's to like in Chris Nelson, who was repeating his level in one of the best hitting environments in the minors in Asheville, and still managed to hit just .260/.313/.416. PECOTA actually does see some development in Nelson's bat, but thinks it won't be enough to overcome defense that grades out very poorly. Speaking of defensive liabilities, here's Preston Mattingly, who makes the list of… Mattinglys. His defense rated so poorly that he'd actually have about the same Upside score if projected as an average defensive first baseman, which is probably where he's headed. Also missing is Ben Zobrist, who got too many late-season at bats to retain his rookie status; PECOTA likes him quite a bit.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger

1. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (23)     251.1
2. Jhonny Peralta, Indians (25)     237.0
3. Jose Reyes, Mets (24)            215.3
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins (22)        171.8
5. Brent Lillibridge, Braves (23)   149.1
6. Stephen Drew, D'backs (24)       133.7
7. Sean Rodriguez, Angels (22)      129.0
8. Brandon Wood, Angels (22)        122.4
9. Reid Brignac, Devil Rays (21)    120.9
10. Elvis Andrus, Braves (18)       103.5

A lot of people are going to be shocked to see Jhonny Peralta grouped in with Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. I'll defer to Marc Normandin for the deeper cut on Peralta; suffice it to say that I wouldn't take him ahead of Jose Reyes in a fantasy draft. But it's worth remembering that Jhonny-come-lately evaluations can be misleading: Peralta's .311 EqA in 2005 was quite a bit better than anything Reyes or Ramirez have ever done. Some of Peralta's high score is the result of the DT's optimistic take on his defense, but even if you regress his defense back to average (which is where David Pinto has it), he'd still rate comfortably ahead of players like Brandon Wood and Stephen Drew.

As for Reyes versus Ramirez, I think PECOTA is correct in breaking that tie in favor of the man in Florida. They had nearly identical batting lines last year, both finishing with a .294 EqA, but Ramirez is six months younger, is a steadier defender, and has a fair bit more power projection on account of his larger stature. They're both franchise players, but anyone that puts Reyes on a higher tier than Ramirez isn't being objective; if anything, the reverse is true.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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