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March 28, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on First Base Prospects

by Nate Silver

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This article is the second in our (deliberately-paced) annual series of PECOTA-based prospect rankings. For the first article in the series, and a discussion of methodology, head back here.

Our first base rankings should be relatively non-controversial, so let's get started without much further ado. Over the weekend, we'll publish the final pre-season installment of our depth charts, and issue our PECOTA-based standings projections, before resuming our loop around the prospect diamond.


Excellent Prospects

Player(Age)               Upside
Daric Barton, A's (22)     190.3
Joey Votto, Reds (24)      145.1

PECOTA had never been the most enthusiastic Daric Barton fan; last year, he ranked just 57th on our Top 100 list, with an Upside score of just 73.7. This year, his score has more than doubled, and he'll be comfortably within our Top 10. So what has changed? For one thing, Barton had a pretty good year. Between his time in Sacramento and a very productive 84 PAs in Oakland, Barton's combined equivalent batting line was .276/.369/.441. For comparison, major league first basemen combined last season to hit .276/.357/.463. In other words, Barton performed last year as a major league-average first baseman-a little ahead of the curve in OBP, and a little behind in slugging. When a player does that in his age-21 season, he has a very strong likelihood of being a good major league regular, and some potential to be a star.

In Barton's case, though, the 'star' side of that equation might be lower than for some. Some of the names on his comp list aren't terribly impressive; John Olerud, for instance, is one of the more optimistic-seeming names (and Olerud did contribute more than 100 WARP over the course of his major league career). What you're paying for here is the certainty. One of the consequences of our newer, harsher translations system is that it tends to have more respect for good performances at the highest levels (Double- and Triple-A), as opposed to speculative performances further down the minor league food chain. The new translations help to establish just how rare it is to have a guy who can hit the major league average at his position at age 21 or 22.

Is this the Dustin Pedroia argument rehashed? Perhaps, but unlike with Pedroia, there are few scouts that doubt Barton's ability to be a major league regular. The question is whether Barton will be a good one, or a very good one. He probably won't be a great one, although Barton does have a couple of Hall of Famers (Gary Carter and Ron Santo) towards the bottom half of his comparables list.

In contrast, 24-year-old first basemen who have yet to break into the major leagues are not generally elite prospects, but Joey Votto simply couldn't have done much more in the minors, where he's combined for close to a .300 EqA over his past two seasons. On the other hand, Votto is pretty much a finished product, and it's high time for the Reds to quit wasting his time. What he needs is a right-handed platoon partner (Votto doesn't hit lefties at all), but there's no reason he should have to compete for playing time with Scott Hatteberg.

But just because Barton and Votto are valuable commodities does not mean that any laws of nature have been violated. First basemen are rarely excellent prospects, and after Votto and Barton there is a profound drop to the next tier.


Very Good Prospects
Lars Anderson, Red Sox (20)    64.7
Kyle Blanks, Padres (21)       53.9

Anderson hasn't really accomplished anything yet; in fact, if you go by his top comparable, his career will culminate in his backing up Jake Delhomme. Nevertheless, his particular combination of skills-a high walk rate, coupled with doubles power and a good scouting pedigree (Anderson was selected in the 18th round, but received a $850,000 signing bonus) can sometimes portend breakout potential in a 19-year-old, as evidenced by comparables like Jeremy Hermida and David Wright. Hermida and Wright are by no means representative of Anderson's typical development pattern-at least half of Anderson's comparables had no major league career at all-but when it comes to the first base position, we take what we can get.

Kyle Blanks does not look good in a pair of jeans, and his forecast may be inflated somewhat by PECOTA's tendency to mistake excess poundage for musculature. Blanks isn't actually a terrible athlete, however-he stole 11 bases in 13 attempts and had four triples in the California League, and he's certainly going to hit his home runs. The caveat is that PECOTA thinks he's going to take awhile to get going; it doesn't have him crossing the .270 EqA threshold until his age-25 season. With a player like this, you worry that everything will get blamed on his weight, and he'll struggle to get good coaching. Blanks has the profile of a player who will be someone's Rule 5 pick in four or five years.

Good Prospects

Craig Cooper, Padres (23)           38.4
Adam Rosales, Reds (25)             34.7
Steven Pearce, Pirates (25)         33.9
Aaron Bates, Red Sox (24)           33.5
Josh Whitesell, Diamondbacks (26)   32.0
Javier Brito, Diamondbacks (25)     29.4
Jordan Brown, Indians (24)          28.1
Jeff Larish, Tigers (25)            28.1
Gabriel Sanchez, Marlins (24)       27.1

The rest of these players are fairly similar to one another, and are your basic Peter Principle first base prospects: they've accomplished more or less what they're going to accomplish in the minor leagues, which in most cases is establishing that they're somewhere in between a second-division regular and a first-division reserve. Steven Pearce is the best-known among these players, but PECOTA is not quite ready to sign off on his big 2007, figuring that the high batting averages he hit for were inflated, and that his short, chunky frame gives him a little bit too much Ron Coomer potential. Aaron Bates is the only other name to have made Kevin's Top 10 positional list; his batting line was superficially extremely impressive (.332/.456/.592), but when you consider that those were California League numbers and that Bates was a 23-year-old in A-ball, you need to take an awful lot of air out of them. (Indeed, Bates' batting average plummeted from .332 to .198 in a brief promotion to Double-A.)

Other Notables

Kala Kaaihue, Braves (23)      22.3
Michael Aubrey, Indians (26)   22.0
Brad Nelson, Brewers (25)      18.7
Juan Miranda, Yankees (25)     11.4
Joe Koshansky, Rockies (26)    11.1
Christopher Carter, A's (21)    9.7
Mark Hamilton, Cardinals (23)   5.4

There are a couple of prospects here with reasonable reputations that PECOTA really, really doesn't like. The one that's a little hard to figure is the A's Christopher Carter, obtained from the White Sox as part of the Nick Swisher deal. Part of the problem is that Carter doesn't have a defensive position-he's cost his teams 22 runs over his last 132 defensive games at first base-and when that's the case, the threshold with the bat is incredibly high. Carter can hit a little bit, but his strikeout rates are high, and he's unlikely to ever progress to the point where he's one of the 14 lucky men in majors who deserves a DH job.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined with Non-Rookies 25 Years Old or Younger

1.Prince Fielder, Brewers (24)   223.0
2.Billy Butler, Royals (22)      213.9
3.Daric Barton, A's (22)         190.3
4.Joey Votto, Reds (24)          145.1
5.Casey Kotchman, Angels (25)    104.6
6.James Loney, Dodgers (24)       94.9
7.Lars Anderson, Red Sox (20)     64.7
8.Kyle Blanks, Padres (21)        53.9
9.Kendry Morales, Angels (25)     53.3
10.Craig Cooper, Padres (23)      38.4

It's interesting that Billy Butler has just about the same rating as Prince Fielder. Naturally enough, that's really just because PECOTA sees them as being essentially the same player (Fielder is sixth on Butler's list of comparables), with Butler simply being two years behind Fielder in his development pattern. Indeed, while Fielder had his huge 2007 (a season which PECOTA insists will be followed by a little bit of regression to the mean), Butler has generally run ahead of Fielder's performance on a matched-age basis:


        EqA (Level)    EqA (Level)
Age    Butler         Fielder
18     .224 (RK)      .242 (RK/1B)
19     .261 (1C/2A)   .258 (1B)
20     .270 (2A)      .249 (2A)
21     .287 (3A/MLB)  .275 (3A/MLB)
22     .284 (MLB*)    .282 (MLB)
23     .295 (MLB*)    .329 (MLB)
24     .303 (MLB*)    .308 (MLB*)
25     .305 (MLB*)    .308 (MLB*)
26     .307 (MLB*)    .312 (MLB*)
27     .300 (MLB*)    .306 (MLB*)
28     .303 (MLB*)    .311 (MLB*)
* Projected

The other surprise might be Casey Kotchman ranking ahead of James Loney. The two players are also pretty similar to one another but Kotchman has a definite edge in batting eye-most other players who walk as often as they strike out are slap hitters of the Placido Polanco variety-which to PECOTA's thinking is enough to make up for his being one year older than Loney.

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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