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March 23, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Corner Outfield Prospects

by Nate Silver

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Excellent Prospects

1. Delmon Young, Devil Rays (21)      135.2
2. Billy Butler, Royals (21)          125.9
3. Jay Bruce, Reds (20)               118.1
Delmon Young is the best corner outfield prospect in baseball. There isn't much debate about that. The question is where he fits into the overall picture. Kevin Goldstein and Baseball America each have him rated at #3, whereas PECOTA thinks he's more in the range of #15.

You might think that the discrepancy results from the fact that Young lost a bunch of playing time to his suspension last season, but in fact this makes barely any difference. PECOTA is designed to be extremely tolerant of playing time discrepancies for minor league players, because there are a whole host of reasons that prospects can miss parts of the season, many of which have little to do with their ability. They can get called up to the majors only to spend a lot of time on the bench, for instance, or they can be selections from the June draft. But even if we add 150 plate appearances to his line in Durham, it affects his Upside score by just a handful of points.

Instead, the answer boils down to the more banal matter of valuation. It's not that Young isn't advanced for his age, or that PECOTA doesn't expect him to grow--he's projected for a .308/.354/.513 equivalent batting line at age 25. But you have to hit an awful lot to be a championship-caliber player in the corner outfield, particularly when your defense is likely to be a hair below average. The average American League right fielder hit .286/.349/.468 last year, and Young doesn't figure to be that far ahead of the curve unless he can either start hitting for Albert Belle-type power or increase his walk rate. He's certainly capable of doing one or both of those things, but as comparables like Ruben Mateo and Claudell Washington indicate, it's far from a guarantee.

The other two names on this list should surprise absolutely no one. Billy Butler is what you get if you take Young, subtract a significant amout of athleticism, but mix in a better plate approach. PECOTA has come around on Butler after being lukewarm on him last year, to the point where I think it might overrate him slightly. Although Butler's defense in right field was tolerable last year, he's probably a DH by the time he's 28, and it's rare to see a player who is this slow this young. The bat is an awesome tool--Butler is a pure hitter with a relatively low strikeout rate, not a Russ Branyan type--but he looks like a guy who might be at his most valuable at age 24 or so.

Jay Bruce has a profile that's fairly straightforward to read. He's very young, he hit for a ton of extra bases in a pretty tough league, and he isn't a bad athlete, having stolen 19 bases last year and played a fair amount of center field. That means monster upside.

Very Good Prospects

4. Elijah Dukes, Devil Rays (23)        92.5
5. Travis Buck, A's (23)                86.1
6. Jose Tabata, Yankees (18)            83.0
7. Chad Huffman, Padres (22)            82.4
8. Hunter Pence, Astros (24)            80.8
9. Adam Lind, Blue Jays (23)            77.1
10. Travis Snider, Blue Jays (19)       75.3
11. Ryan Sweeney, White Sox (22)        71.1
12. Daniel Dorn, Reds (22)              62.3
Elijah Dukes is supposed to be one of those guys that a computer program should love, since a computer won't know anything about his problems away from the diamond. But PECOTA is fairly tepid on him, failing to anticipate a ton of growth between now and his peak. One subtle reason why is that Dukes hits a lot of groundballs, which tends to be inversely related to power development. He certainly has a chance to be a good player in the .300 BA, 15-20 HR mold, but unless he can play a good center field--and the DTs haven't liked his defense when he's played there--there probably isn't a ton of All-Star potential.

Apart from Dukes, these players fall pretty neatly into three different bundles:

  • The Ready Now Guys: Hunter Pence, Adam Lind, and Travis Buck. All three are roughly the same age, all three have had success at the higher minor league levels (Buck and Pence at Double-A, Lind at Triple-A), and all three have advanced, professional hitting approaches. That tends to translate in PECOTA terms into low-risk, medium-reward; indeed all three have low Beta scores, and have little growth left in their EqA tracks. I tend to like Pence the best out of this group, as he has had the most idiosyncratic background, and is probably the only one who has a chance to play center field in the big leagues.

  • The Young Guns: Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. It might not be fair to lump these two players together because they have rather different profiles. Snider is a pure slugger type who has 30 HR potential, whereas it's hard to pigeonhole exactly what Tabata is going to be; he's simply very young and very interesting.

  • The Sleepers: Chad Huffman and Daniel Dorn. Huffman looks like your classic polished Moneyball hitter who demolished a level (.343/.439/.576 in the Northwest League) that he was probably overqualified for, but there's a little bit more to the story here. He's a fairly good athlete, having played second base at Texas Christian and serving as the Horned Frogs' backup quarterback. He didn't come out of nowhere, as he was a second round draft pick this summer. And his numbers weren't just good--they were really, really good, even after you let a little bit of air out for a high BABIP. PECOTA doesn't give him especially favorable comparables, finding a fair number of Scott Hairstons and Paul McAnultys, but I see no reason to think that its overall assessment of him is misguided. He's a true sleeper, and basically this year's Hunter Pence. Dorn, whom PECOTA isn't quite as excited about, had fairly similar numbers but does not have the same pedigree, as he was just a 32nd round pick out of Cal State Fullerton last year.

The one guy who we weren't able to fit into any of these groups is the White Sox' Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney's not as young as Tabata or Snider, but he's much more of a high-risk, high-reward guy than players like Pence and Lind, as reflected in his relatively high Beta (1.13). The power hasn't been there so far, but Sweeney is a big guy and PECOTA agrees with the scouts that it could come. More likely, however, he'll be a guy who can hit .310 a couple of times in the big leagues, and if he can combine that with playing a decent center field, he'll be a pretty interesting asset for the White Sox.

Good Prospects

13. Jonathan Jay, Cardinals (22)       47.8
14. David Espinosa, Tigers (25)        45.0
15. Carlos Gonzalez, D'Backs (21)      41.3
16. Christopher Pettit, Angels (22)    39.8
17. Chris Parmelee, Twins (19)         39.7
18. Jeff Fiorentino, Orioles (24)      38.1
19. Chris Lubanski, Royals (22)        37.0
20. Cole Gillespie, Brewers (23)       35.9
21. Anthony Raglani, Dodgers (24)      33.1
22. Cyle Hankerd, D'backs (22)         29.6
23. Nate Schierholtz, Giants (23)      29.3
24. Sergio Pedroza, Dodgers (23)       29.0
25. Brandon Moss, Red Sox (23)         28.5
26. Justin Ruggiano, Devil Rays (25)   26.5
This is generally a dull lot of players, but there's one exception in Carlos Gonzalez, who, along with Troy Tulowitzki, is a one highly-regarded position player that PECOTA just doesn't like at all. This one is entirely about park effects. Peep these numbers:
                                      BA        OBP      SLG
Lancaster Jethawks        Home       .335      .395     .562
Lancaster Jethawks        Road       .272      .342     .403
Wow. I don't know that I've seen something like that before, not even in the California League. And Gonzalez' splits were even more extreme than those of his teammates:
                                      BA        OBP      SLG
Carlos Gonzalez           Home       .361      .414     .693
Carlos Gonzalez           Road       .239      .295     .433
If any of you were in the Lancaster neck of the woods last year and have some idea about what was going on out there, feel free to drop me an e-mail. In the meantime, I think the DTs are right to apply a lot of skepticism to Gonzalez' numbers, especially when his performance looked almost exactly like his road stats once he was promoted to Tennessee (.213/.294/.410).

Average and Marginal Prospects

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

Brandon Jones, Braves (23)            17.3
Nolan Reimold, Orioles (23)           15.1
Reimold was old for his levels and had a lot of problems making contact; he's the sort of guy who could be someone's Rule 5 pick in a couple of years. Jones is considerably better rounded and has more of an excuse for his low rating, as he's spent a lot of time on the shelf in the past few years. He's got more of a shot than PECOTA's giving him credit for, but he needs to have a huge year.

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

1. Delmon Young, Devil Rays (21)        135.2
2. Carl Crawford, Devil Rays (25)       133.4
3. Jermey Hermida, Marlins (23)         131.5
4. Nick Markakis, Orioles (23)          130.1
5. Billy Butler, Royals (21)            125.9
6. Jeff Francoeur, Braves (23)          119.4
7. Jay Bruce, Reds (20)                 118.1
8. Melky Cabrera, Yankees (22)          110.8
9. Kelly Johnson, Braves (25)            96.9
10. Corey Hart, Brewers (25)             96.1
Not to take anything away from players like Carl Crawford, but we're in a bit of a lull with respect to exciting young corner outfield talent. Delmon Young's 135.2 Upside rating is the lowest highest Big Picture score at any of the positions that we're covering this year. He is also the only true rookie to top his positional list:
C      Mauer                  500.0
3B     Wright                 379.7
2B     Kendrick               282.9
LHP    Liriano                279.5
CF     Sizemore               275.6
RHP    Bonderman              269.2
SS     Ramirez                251.1
1B     Fielder                164.5
OF     Young                  135.2
Some of this is a natural offshoot of the fact that the corner outfield is where players tend to end their careers, not where they tend to start them. Nevertheless it's been awhile since we had a Vladimir Guerrero or a Manny Ramirez come into the league. We've already hit the point where third basemen are hitting nearly as well as corner outfielders, and if that trend picks up any further momentum, we're going to have some interesting problems in player valuation on our hands.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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