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May 8, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Third Base Prospects

by Nate Silver

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Excellent Prospects


Player (Age)                      Upside
Evan Longoria, Rays (22)          339.1
Andy LaRoche, Dodgers (24)        178.0

Evan Longoria, meet Ryan Zimmerman. Ryan Zimmerman, meet Evan Longoria. Rarely has there been such a natural-seeming comparison between two young players. Each player can be counted on to deliver a batting average in the .260s or .270s, 20-25 home runs, a solid walk rate, and outstanding defense. Indeed, if you took Longoria's .230/.341/.419 major league batting line so far in 2008 and appended 30 points of batting average to it (not quite a gimme, since Longoria's strikeout rate has been high), you'd wind up at .260/.371/.449, which is something straight out of the Ryan Zimmerman playbook.

Nevertheless, that performance might register to you as pretty ho-hum for a guy who's PECOTA's #1 prospect, but here's the thing to remember: this is what Longoria is capable of delivering at age 22, and it already qualifies as a better-than-MLB-average performance (Longoria's EqA so far this year is .280). Players who are above-average at age 22 are capable of doing almost anything once they hit 26 or 27. One such point of departure for Longoria is Cal Ripken; like Ripken, Longoria could probably play shortstop if he needed to, and maybe even play it pretty well.

Andy LaRoche has had a bad run of luck. It's one thing to have to compete with Nomar Garciaparra for a job. As stubborn as the Dodgers' front office brass can be about their young talent, Joe Torre has the gravitas to override the front office, and had he not been injured in the spring he'd probably have won the job by now. But Blake DeWitt is another issue. If you decide to bench the 22-year-old kid who's hitting .317, that's going to leave the kid wondering whether he's going to get a fair shake in your organization and may poison his development. So LaRoche is going to have to bide his time a little while longer, but make no mistake--he's the stronger prospect than DeWitt. DeWitt's 90th percentile batting line gives him a .273 EqA, roughly equal in value to LaRoche's 25th percentile batting line (.270 EqA).

Good Prospects

Ian Stewart, Rockies (23)          95.2
Neil Walker, Pirates (22)          92.0
Scott Moore, Orioles (24)          90.6
Joe Dillon, Brewers (32)           70.4
Angel Villalona, Giants (17)       60.1
Andy Marte, Indians (24)           51.8

Any time you've got a player who is 32 listed next to one who is 17, you've got a pretty fun list, but let's take it from the top. Ian Stewart might struggle to ever make the All-Star team, partly because he's got Zimmerman and David Wright in his league and partly because PECOTA regards him as more of a safe, Joe Crede kind of player than some kind of emerging superstar. Still, he's proven just about everything he's needed to at the Triple-A level, and he will provide an instant defensive upgrade for the Rockies the minute he takes over at third base. The Rockies will never do it, as they seem content to bask in the glow of their franchise's proudest season, but they need to consider trading Todd Helton and allowing Garrett Atkins to migrate to first base.

I was having a little trouble reconciling Neil Walker's projection with expectations, since there's no one skill of his that jumps off the page. So I went back to his 2004 draft day scouting report and found this homoerotic prose:

COMMENT: SOLID FRAME. STRONG AS A BULL. EXCELLENT PHYSICAL MAKE-UP. BROAD SHOULDERS. MUSCULAR ARMS & LEGS. []

You get the general idea. Anyway, PECOTA is anticipating a lot of growth down the line for Walker because of those physical attributes and his strong draft pedigree, but it might be a couple of years before he's ready to contribute at the major league level.

The rest of these players all require asterisks of one form or another. Scott Moore is not well liked by scouts and his defense is marginal enough at third base than he might prove to be a bit of a 'tweener, but he's done nothing but hit in the minor leagues. Regardless, even if Moore has only 60 percent as much potential as PECOTA gives him credit for, that would still be an awfully good pickup for the Orioles for four crappy starts from Steve Trachsel. In fact, even if Moore had only six percent as much potential as PECOTA gives him credit for, that would still be a good trade for the Orioles. Or 0.6 percent. Or a Dunkin' Donuts coupon.

Joe Dillon hit a combined .340/.434/.619 between his last two seasons in Triple-A, in 2005 and 2007; Dillon spent 2006 in Japan. No matter how much you hedge and qualify those numbers, that is someone who deserves a chance to be a regular contributor at the major league level. Granted, I have a soft spot for Dillon because he reminds me a little bit of Skeeter Barnes.

PECOTA's just guessing at this point on Angel Villalona, just like everyone else is. In fact, it has only has nine position players in its database that played a professional season at age 16. I'm just happy that it spit out a valuation that intuitively feels reasonable. As for Andy Marte, at some point I'm going to do a study about whether minor league prospects who get traded tend to underperform their projections. You'd figure that there's a little bit of an information asymmetry between a team trading a prospect and a team acquiring one, particularly when it comes to understanding a prospect's makeup.

Very Good Prospects

Billy Rowell, Orioles (19)         49.4
Mitchell Hilligoss, Yankees (23)   47.9
Rico Washington, Cardinals (30)    43.4
David Fresse, Padres (25)          42.4
Blake DeWitt, Dodgers (22)         41.2
Matthew Sweeney, Angels (20)       33.3
James D'Antona, Diamondbacks (26)  30.4
Matt Moses, Twins (23)             29.3
Daniel Murphy, Mets (23)           28.3
Mario Lisson, Royals (24)          28.0
Michael Costanzo, Orioles (24)     26.9
Joel Guzman, Devil Rays (23)       26.1
Chase Headley, Padres (24)         25.5

I've long thought about trying to set up a parallel contest to HACKING MASS called AYFKM ("Are You Frickin' Kidding Me?"). As in: "Wait, who is that little guy the Diamondbacks have starting at second base? Ordonez? Opeda? Ojeda? Augie Frickin' Ojeda? Are You Frickin' Kidding Me?"). The idea would be to select the player whom you had every rational reason to believe had long since departed organized baseball, but came out of nowhere to make a start at the major league level. When I saw Rico Washington starting at third base for the St. Louis Cardinals a couple of weeks ago, I had one of those AYFKM moments. He's probably going to win this year's title unless Mike Caruso makes a cameo appearance.

Otherwise, the most interesting players here are the guys at the top and the bottom of the list. PECOTA absolutely loved Billy Rowell a year ago, but the newer, harsher Davenport Translations tend to give a little bit less credit to guys who are extremely young but still have many rungs to climb on the developmental ladder. Rowell has not tripped on any of those rungs quite yet, but he's been slowed by them; the same can be said of someone like Fernando Martinez. Chase Headley is another guy who seems to get punished significantly by the harsher DTs, which take an awful lot of air out of his .330/.437/.580 batting line at San Antonio last year, noting that he was not particularly young for his league, that he played in a fairly good hitters' environment, and that his BABIP was unsustainably high. And then PECOTA kicks the guy once he's down because it regards him as fairly one-dimensional (that one dimension being power). I'd take the over on his projection, certainly, although Headley's numbers have been middling so far at Portland.

Other Notables

Chris Davis, Rangers (22)          22.4
John Whittleman, Rangers (21)      14.6

PECOTA is not particularly high on either of the Ranger prospects. Whittleman has a little bit too Shane Andrews in him for its liking, and Davis a little too much Russ Branyan. Davis is killing the ball once again at Double-A, however, and I like him better than this forecast.

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

 1. David Wright, Mets (25)          445.6
 2. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (23)   344.6
 3. Evan Longoria, Rays (22)         339.1
 4. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (25)      323.6
 5. Ryan Braun, Brewers (24)         276.3
 6. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers (24)       178.0
 7. Alex Gordon, Royals (24)         169.7
 8. Edwin Encarnacion, Reds (25)     144.7
 9. Josh Fields, White Sox (25)      103.0
10. Ian Stewart, Rockies (23)         95.2

I'd say that this is as good a collection of talent as the league has at any one position, except that Cabrera and Braun aren't really third baseman anymore. The operative question for Ryan Braun is where exactly the breaking point lies between being a very poor defensive third basemen and being an average-minus defender in left field. Our WARP calculations work from the FRAR/FRAA system and assume that there is roughly an eight-run gap between left field and third base over the course of a 162-game season. PECOTA projected Braun's defense as a -15 at third base, so what that means is that he'll have to be no worse than a -7 in left field in order for the position switch to have enhanced his value overall. So far Braun has been 4 runs below average on the young season, but he's inherently a good enough athlete who should be able to beat that -7 threshold once he accommodates himself to the outfield. PECOTA loves his bat; that much is for certain.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Ryan Zimmerman,  The Who,  Ian Stewart

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