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June 5, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

Projecting the Top of the Crop

by Nate Silver

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This was the first year that we attempted to run PECOTA forecasts for players with no professional playing time whatsoever. It was a decision born out of necessity: because of all the brinkmanship in the signing bonus negotiation period last year, a large number of elite draft picks either did not start their seasons until August, or didn't play professionally at all.

So we put together a big database of signing bonus information going back to 1987, and combined that with a player's height, weight, handedness, age and position to provide some kind of a baseline forecast for our virgin prospects. These numbers are not based on college translations; I've never tried to do college translations, and from everyone I've spoken with who has, it has proven to be something of a quixotic task. Rather, we are trying to make the best use of extremely limited information.

What surprised me a little bit is that PECOTA nevertheless made some relatively bold judgments about different players. It loved Mike Moustakas, for example, while greatly disliking Josh Vitters, two players with superficially similar pedigrees. It's going to be years before we can tell whether this level of discernment has any basis in reality. In the meantime, let's check in with last year's Top 10 draft picks (as well as Rick Porcello, who received a Top 10-sized signing bonus), and see how they've progressed according to Clay Davenport's very nifty real-time translations.

#1. David Price, LHP, Rays
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
5.89, 4.3, 5.1
2012 Projection: 4.78, 3.2, 5.2
Upside Score: 69.1
Top Comps: Mark Mulder, Paul Wilson, Mark Prior, Dewon Brazelton, Justin Verlander
2008 Performance: 0.73, 1.7, 6.2 EqK9 (High-A, 18 IP)

Would the Rays rather have Matt Wieters? I don't know, but they can't be unhappy with what they've seen so far from Price, who has yet to allow a run in his first 18 professional innings pitched. Price's PECOTA was fairly tepid because a lot of his comparables would up succumbing to the injury bug; there's still no such thing as a completely safe pitching prospect, no matter his signing bonus or pedigree. But the early returns are that Price is on something resembling the Justin Verlander career path.

#2. Mike Moustakas, SS, Royals
2008 Projection (EqBA/EqOBP/EqSLG):
.217/.271/.329
2012 Projection: .264/.328/.427
Upside Score: 117.6
Top Comps: B.J. Garbe, Dave Krynzel, Matt Tuiasosopo, Derek Jeter, Felipe Lopez
2008 Performance: .194/.235/.276 (Low-A, 230 PA)

We wrote a little bit about Moustakas in the last installment of the PECOTA Takes on Prospects Series (which has now officially had more stops and starts than Billy Martin's managerial career). His performance hasn't been a complete and total disaster this year, but it hasn't been good either. The thing to key in on, however, is that PECOTA didn't expect him to be much good out of the gate; instead, it expects rapid growth over the next three or four years as he grows into his body. Case in point? Derek Jeter, Moustakas' fourth-highest comparable, had a .210/.297/.314 untranslated batting line in his first professional season.

#3. Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs
2008 Projection (EqBA/EqOBP/EqSLG):
.204/.253/.303
2012 Projection: .232/.286/.358
Upside Score: 8.7
Top Comps: John Oliver, Corey Smith, Ben Davis, Trevor Plouffe, Billy Rowell
2008 Performance: .143/.143/.286 (Low-A, 14 PA)

PECOTA really took a disliking to Vitters. For whatever reason, high school third basemen taken toward the top of the draft haven't been particularly successful (college third basemen, meanwhile, have a pretty fantastic track record). The reason, I'm guessing, is that playing third base (rather than shortstop) while you're still in high school connotes at least a slight lack of athleticism. College third basemen usually make up for that with big power bats, but high schoolers aren't usually fully developed physically, so you're talking more about the potential to hit for power, rather than the already-achieved article.

In any event, that plus Vitters' underwhelming 55 professional plate appearances last season (PECOTA does consider these, but discounts them heavily) was enough to push PECOTA past some sort of a tipping point where it didn't take Vitters seriously at all. There's no way to render a verdict based on this year's performance because Vitters has been out since April with tendonitis.

#4. Daniel Moskos, LHP, Pirates
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
6.98, 5.9, 4.8
2012 Projection: 5.28, 4.2, 5.7
Upside Score: 19.6
Top Comps: Jacob Marceaux, Greg Whiteman, Derick Grigsby, Cesar Ramos, Daniel Moore
2008 Performance: 9.68, 3.9, 2.9 (High-A, 50 IP)

I didn't like this pick last June, PECOTA didn't like it this winter, and the Pirates can't be liking it much now. Moskos' strikeout rates at Lynchburg simply aren't adequate for a player who is relatively old for his league and whose selling point was his polish.

#5. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
2008 Projection (EqBA/EqOBP/EqSLG):
.238/.307/.384
2012 Projection: .267/.345/.459
Upside Score: 105.2
Top Comps: Jose Cruz Jr., Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Kelly, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria
2008 Performance: .263/.348/.413 (High-A, 207 PA)

Wieters isn't especially young for his level, so his performance hasn't been that amazing. Still, we're talking about a 22-year-old who could probably outhit half the league already. We're also getting a better idea of what sort of hitting approach Wieters prefers to take: his walk rate is very high, and his strikeout rate is relatively high, so we're talking about a late-count hitter. PECOTA had trouble identifying any catchers as comparables (Buster Posey will get Wieters next year) but thinking of a Carlos Pena-type bat appended to a catcher's body should give you roughly the right idea.

#6. Ross Detwiler, LHP, Nationals
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
7.14, 5.0, 4.3
2012 Projection: 5.31, 3.9, 5.1
Upside Score: 15.8
Top Comps: Cesar Ramos, Kelly Wunsch, Jason Young, Matt Burch, Kyle McCulloch
2008 Performance: 7.98, 7.0, 5.9 (High-A, 46 IP)

This was a relatively "normal" PECOTA because Detwiler signed reasonably quickly and pitched quite a bit as a professional last year. This year, both his walk rate and his strikeout rate have been higher than anticipated. That's a tradeoff you'll generally take with a young pitcher, because the former can sometimes improve dramatically with age, while the latter does so less often.

#7. Matt LaPorta, 1B/OF, Brewers
2008 Projection (EqBA/EqOBP/EqSLG):
.236/.300/.424
2012 Projection: .261/.328/.494
Upside Score: 27.8
Top Comps: Todd Dunn, Khalil Greene, Xavier Nady, Ryan Braun, Ben Broussard
2008 Performance: .263/.351/.522 (Double-A, 259 PA)

PECOTA had no trouble envisioning that LaPorta would develop a major league-quality bat, but the question was whether it was going to be a materially valuable one. The bar is set quite high for a player with such limited defensive value; hence the Nady and Broussard comps. But LaPorta has been creaming the ball this year, and should figure into the Brewers' plans more or less immediately. One caveat: to the extent you can gather anything from minor league range factors, the number of putouts he's made in the outfield has been extremely low.

#8. Casey Weathers, RHP, Rockies
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
5.47, 5.7, 6.8
2012 Projection: 4.79, 4.1, 6.0
Upside Score: 35.5
Top Comps: Dustin Hermanson, Chris Macca, Royce Ring, Mike Zimmerman, David Aardsma

2008 Performance: 3.24, 5.1, 6.3 (Double-A, 22 IP)

I wonder how often teams wind up being happy five years after having taken a reliever with one of the top ten picks. Gregg Olson worked out pretty well, I guess, but the Matt Andersons of the world are more common. With that said, Weathers' performance has been roughly in line with PECOTA's expectations at Double-A this year, and he's likely to have some kind of reasonably valuable major league career.

#9. Jarrod Parker, RHP, Diamondbacks
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
6.95, 6.1, 5.2
2012 Projection: 6.45, 4.0, 5.2
Upside Score: 43.4
Top Comps: Clint Everts, Brian Barber, Luis Cota, Gil Meche, Matt Belisle
2008 Performance: 6.43, 3.5, 2.9 (Low-A, 36 2/3 IP)

On the other hand, this is the opposite of the Detwiler case. While Parker's command has been pretty good, he's not missing as many bats as you'd like to see for a player with this pedigree. Parker is still only 19, and there is some minority of pitching prospects that take until the age of 22 or 23 to really develop an out pitch. But Parker is somewhat undersized for a pitching prospect, which makes an improvement in his strikeout rate less likely.

#10. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
9.19, 7.2, 3.6
2012 Projection: 5.75, 4.2, 5.1
Upside Score: 13.6
Top Comps: Trever Miller, Scott Elarton, Brian Barber, Jacob McGee, Onan Masaoka
2008 Performance: 4.41, 2.7, 5.1 (Low-A, 51 1/3 IP)

PECOTA isn't a huge fan of high school lefties. I've never looked at this, but I'd guess that left-handed pitchers are over-drafted relative to their right-handed counterparts, as teams are willing to tolerate lower velocities for no particularly good reason. But Bumgarner has been outstanding this year, with a 51/9 untranslated K/BB ratio. There's something about his mechanics (see below) that bug me, but he should be getting a very nice PECOTA next year.

#27. Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers
2008 Projection (EqERA/EqBB9/EqK9):
7.13, 6.8, 4.8
2012 Projection: 6.50, 4.6, 4.7
Upside Score: 35.7
Top Comps: Jon Garland, Kurt Miller, Clint Everts, Sam Marsonek, Gil Meche
2008 Performance: 5.95, 3.1, 2.7 (High-A, 62 2/3 IP)

This has been a very disappointing debut. Striking out a batter an inning is really sort of a minimum for someone who wants to be considered an elite pitching prospect. Porcello has struggled to strike out half that many, with 36 Ks in his 62 2/3 IP. There is some good news: the Tigers had him skip straight to High-A ball, and Porcello's ground-ball rates have been quite strong. His build and repertoire ("he's more of a sinker-ball guy at 91-92") sound a lot like Jon Garland's, and Garland was a guy who became a pretty good major leaguer in spite of middling minor league strikeout rates. Even so, the Tigers were hoping for a little bit more than Jon Garland-level upside here.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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