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March 15, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Center Field Prospects

by Nate Silver

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The past two weeks have been one of those Groundhog Day periods where I get up every day, do a bunch of work, get up the next day, and feel like I'm just as behind as the day before. It's all good stuff - I'm very excited about the chapters I've been working on for It Ain't Over, as well as all the new features we've been rolling out on the web side. But it's meant that the PECOTA Takes on Prospects Series has sometimes taken a back seat. Let's get back on track today by talking about center fielders, which is one of the positions where the PECOTA rankings are highly in tune with the scouting reports.

Excellent Prospects

1. Chris Young, D'Backs (23)      205.0
2. Felix Pie, Cubs (22)           158.5
3. Fernando Martinez, Mets (18)   132.0
4. Cameron Maybin, Tigers (20)    115.9
5. Adam Jones, Mariners (21)      113.5
6. Cedric Hunter, Padres (19)     104.0

If you don't like Chris Young, you don't like prospects. The running complaint - really the only complaint - against Young last year was that he struck out too frequently. But as if on cue, he cut his strikeout rate down from 23% in Birmingham in 2005, to 15% on in Tucson last year, a perfectly acceptable rate for a late-count hitter. Young hits for power, he swipes bags, he plays a good center field, he draws walks, and he plays for a team that knows how to develop young talent; this is a low-risk skill set that still carries huge rewards. His swing can get a little long at times, and the Mike Cameron comparisons still work - but increasingly, they're looking like a worst-case scenario.

I've blogged about Felix Pie recently so I won't go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that I don't think the noise he's making in spring training is a fluke. This is a player whose public perception involved a massive overcorrection after he was a little bit overrated this time a year ago.

PECOTA seems much more bullish this year on a handful of very young prospects. That could be because of some tweak or another I made to the system, but more likely it's because we have a group of players this year who simply don't come around every day. First and foremost among these is Fernando Martinez, who is the only player in the PECOTA minor league database (since 1997) to have registered at least 100 at-bats in High-A ball at the age of 17. Sure, he wound up being overwhelmed there - a .193/.254/.387 batting line in about 130 at-bats. But that came on the heels of a superior .333/.389/.505 performance in Hagerstown, and if you consider the hypothesis that the High-A performance deserves a bit of a mulligan because Martinez who was pushed so quickly...actually, I'm glad that we aren't considering that, because it might have short-circuited PECOTA. The variance here is crazy high, and Martinez is not a sure thing (his #2 comparable is Josh Hamilton), but the upside might be even higher.

I'm pleased with how PECOTA and the DTs handled Cameron Maybin. His raw numbers in West Michigan aren't that impressive on the surface, but the Midwest League is an awfully tough hitting environment, especially for power, and his performance was good enough for a .272 EqA. The catch is that Maybin's strikeout rate was high - not Brandon Wood high, but still very high - so it's probable that he'll face some growing pains in the near term. Perhaps he'll even, like Pie, wind up being underrated a year from now. Still, PECOTA expects him to get up to a .285 EqA by the time he's 24, with good defense in center field to boot.

Few teams push their prospects faster than the Mariners, so the fact that Adam Jones managed a .281 EqA as a 20-year old in Triple-A last year is extremely impressive, doubly so because he was making a transition from shortstop to center field. Jones's comparables are all over the map, ranging from Carlos Beltran and Vernon Wells to Brandon Phillips and Elijah Dukes, but he belongs in the discussion with guys like Maybin, and could wind up being a poster boy for making a proactive position change before defensive struggles begin to undermine a player's confidence.

The one nominal surprise on the list of center fielders is Cedric Hunter, but the real question is why statheads haven't created fan club for this guy. Hunter's OBP in the Arizona Summer League last year was .467; it came in one of the tougher parks in the league and was well-supported by contact-hitting ability, plate discipline, and speed. True, Hunter's BABIP was extremely high--.404 to be exact--but PECOTA is good about accounting for that kind of thing and it still likes Hunter a great deal. The only catch is that pretty much nobody thinks that he's going to develop double-digit power, so he'll have to make a living as a .300/.375/.450 guy. He's sort of the Dustin Pedroia of center fielders, in other words.

Very Good Prospects

 7. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (20)   80.8
 8. Gorkys Hernandez, Tigers (19)    80.3
 9. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (23)    78.6
10. Thomas Hickman, Marlins (19)     74.7
11. Jason Place, Red Sox (19)        71.8
12. Jermaine Mitchell, A's (22)      69.1
13. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals (20)     68.4
14. D'Arby Myers, Phillies (18)      65.1
15. Antoan Richardson, Giants (23)   63.6
16. Peter Bourjos, Angels (20)       58.1

Andrew McCutchen tends to get lumped into a group with Cameron Maybin, which makes a lot of sense because they had nearly identical seasons in A-Ball. That PECOTA makes a fairly tangible distinction between them is interesting, and boils down mainly to the fact that Maybin is a bit bigger and more physical. If you take McCutchen's numbers but plug in Maybin's body type data (6'3", 200), his Upside rating jumps to 101.3.

Gorkys Hernandez is one of my stock answers to the question that Jim Callis always gets asked: which player that you've never heard of has the potential to create a lot of buzz a year from now? His power bat doesn't get much love, but part of that is the illusion of short-season batting lines. His extra-base numbers last year prorate out to 27 doubles, 6 triples, and 15 home runs per 650 plate appearances, pretty impressive work for an 18-year-old. Hernandez doesn't walk a lot, but his strikeout rates weren't bad, and his speed is off the charts. He probably doesn't quite have the upside of Fernando Martinez or Jose Tabata, but he isn't far behind.

Jacoby Ellsbury gets an interesting projection, in that PECOTA thinks his peak is beginning basically right now. This is a logical consequence of Ellsbury's two primary skills: speed, which tends to peak early, and plate discipline, which doesn't peak early but tends to help a guy tremendously in his initial transition to the major leagues. The age 27 peak is basically the point at which the combination of physical and mental skills (including but not limited to experience) tends to be at its highest; the physical skills themselves probably peak a bit earlier than 27. Think of the running back position in the NFL, which is almost entirely about raw physical talent; most running backs peak between the ages of 22-25. Therefore, guys like Ellsbury and Hunter Pence, who have good approaches at the plate and don't have a lot of mental maturing to do, might not experience the same growth at the plate that other players do.

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We'll go through the rest of these guys in lineout form. Thomas Hickman is another guy that I've blogged about, and possibly one of the goofier projections in the system this year. Then again, his #2 comparable is David Wright, so I'll defer to the computer for now … Jason Place is in much the same bucket as Hickman, only he trades a little bit of athleticism for size and power; his speed metrics come out as below-average, so he may not stick in center field … Jermaine Mitchell is a guy to look out for. His rating would have been quite a bit higher if his defensive metrics had turned out better. He's sort of a Moneyball v. 2.0 prospect in that he's extremely toolsy but was still a college player who was old for his levels. PECOTA finds Curtis Granderson as a comparable, which makes a lot of sense to me … Colby Rasmus may be a bit overhyped because of the weakness in the Cardinals' system, but like Mitchell, his rating would turn out higher Clay had treated his defense more favorably … D'Arby Myers is one of those weird prospects that PECOTA and highly tools-oriented scouts tend to agree upon, but everyone else ignores. He had an excellent rookie ball debut while playing at age 17 last year, so he's someone to keep an eye on … Antoan Richardson is extremely undersized and was old for his levels, but he stole 66 bases in 75 attempts and has some modicum of on-base skills. Guys like this usually have trouble panning out, but he could be a Marvin Benard type for the Giants for a few years … Peter Bourjos is basically what you get when you take Richardson and subtract three years of age, but also subtract the plate discipline.

Good Prospects

17. Gregor Blanco, Braves (23)     46.2
18. Justin Upton, D'Backs (19)     46.0
19. Michael Bourn, Phillies (24)   44.2
20. Carlos Gomez, Mets (21)        42.1
21. Brian Barton, Indians (25)     42.0
22. John Drennen, Indians (20)     39.0
23. Jerry Gil, Reds (24)           35.1
24. Joe Benson, Twins (19)         33.6
25. Dexter Fowler, Rockies (21)    32.0
26. Sam Fuld, Cubs (25)            25.5

The big name here is Justin Upton . You might think that PECOTA is just taking mediocre statistics and spitting out a mediocre projection, but in fact things are a bit more complicated than that. It actually expects a fair amount of offensive growth, with Upton projected for a .275/.347/.476 batting line by age 23. On the other hand, it doesn't see him as being tremendously athletic; it's pretty easy to steal bases against A-Ball competition but Upton compiled just 15 steals on the season in 22 attempts. Nor does Clay much care for his defense in center field. There were almost undoubtedly effort issues here and I think Upton is going to beat his projection, but maybe not in the quite the way that everyone expects him to beat it. This is going to sound a little weird, but it wouldn't surprise me if he winds up looking a lot like Delmon Young within a couple of years. Interestingly, PECOTA also identifies Brandon Wood (before Wood's 2005 breakout) as Upton's #2 comparable.

Dexter Fowler is a guy that I've just had to agree to disagree with Kevin Goldstein about. Asheville, where he played last year, is a very, very good hitting environment - the Tourists hit .292/.370/.439 in their home part last year. When you deflate the numbers a little bit, his only real plus tool looks to be speed (though it's a plus-plus tool). Fowler is known to be an extremely bright guy and that probably counts for something. Then again, so was Doug Glanville.

Otherwise, these players are about evenly divided between raw tools goofs like Carlos Gomez and refined tools goofs like Michael Bourn . The former group tends to have age on its side, while the latter will try and make a living by drawing enough walks to put up a decent OBP.

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

Trevor Crowe, Indians (23)        8.6

Crowe is one of those guys that gives you a headache when you try and read his stat line. He did nothing at all in 2005, then was very good in Kinston in the first half of the year, and then went back to do doing nothing at all once promoted to Double-A. He's not that young and the Indians have been goofing around with him a little bit, including a brief trial at second base last year. Ryan Freel creeps on to toward the bottom of his comps list, which may be where they're trying to go with him, but a guy that has a 1-in-20 chance of being Ryan Freel and a 19-in-20 chance of being nothing isn't that bright a prospect.

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

 1. Grady Sizemore, Indians (24)     275.6
 2. Chris B. Young, D'Backs (23)     205.0
 3. Felix Pie, Cubs (22)             158.5
 4. Matt Kemp, Dodgers (22)          157.1
 5. Rocco Baldelli, Devil Rays (25)  153.3
 6. Lastings Milledge, Mets (22)     140.9
 7. Fernando Martinez, Mets (18)     132.0
 8. Cameron Maybin, Tigers (20)      115.9
 9. Adam Jones, Mariners (21)        113.5
10. Cedric Hunter, Padres (19)       104.0

The merits of Sizemore and Baldelli ought to be obvious, but PECOTA also has a great deal of affection for two guys that just barely lost their prospect status last year, Matt Kemp of the Dodgers and Lastings Milledge of the Mets. Kemp's speed-power-size combo is a real winner more often than not; sometimes it turns into Juan Encarnacion, but often the results are much better. PECOTA does ding Kemp a bit for his lack of plate discipline, only expecting seven points of EqA growth from age 22 to age 26. Then again, the projected age-22 batting line is .295/.346/.507. Even if you think that projection sounds high, it's worth noting that even Kemp's 25th percentile projection is comparable to that of Luis Gonzalez. As for Milledge, I will once again refer you to our blog.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Premium Article Lies, Damned Lies: PEC... (03/20)
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