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March 20, 2009

Future Shock

Peerless Prodigies

by Kevin Goldstein

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First, a quick admission of guilt-I have a fascination with the freak show, or as they're called in a day of more political correctness, "human oddities." Long gone are the days where they were the main attraction at the circus and cultural icons, and it's long forgotten that someone like Zip the Pinhead made the equivalent of millions of dollars a year, was as well known during his time as any celebrity is now, and, when he died, his obituary was printed on the front page of the New York Times. What we have now are specials on The Learning Channel, but let's be honest, you are watching those for the reason people lined up for a ticket to the show a century ago. Among my collection of memorabilia from that age is a one-sheet poster of the Ringling Brothers sideshow from the early 20th century that features, among others, "The Moss-Haired Girl," "The Human Skye Terrier," and "What Is She?" all under the label of "The Peerless Prodigies Of Physical Phenomena."

Baseball has its own peerless prodigies, players who are so unique on either a physical or ability level that projections become quite difficult. Whether you're a scout or a stathead, but hopefully a little bit of both, projecting the future is all about knowing your past. Our PECOTA system is based on finding comparable players as an insight for what to expect next, while scouts do the same-looking for physical and tools comparisons to help provide some patterns in the tea leaves to go on for future reference.

Still, there are those who are difficult to categorize, those without precedence. So, step right up folks, don't be shy, as we take you to a land where ballplayers break the mold.

The Giant Pitcher: One of the questions we've gotten the most over the offseason concerns CC Sabathia's workload. He threw 253 innings last year, 241 the year before, and the Brewers worked him very hard following the trade deadline blockbuster, averaging 111 pitches per start and crossing the 120 mark four times. Was this cause for concern? Standard logic would say yes, but big pitchers tend to have better stamina, and Sabathia isn't just big, he's huge. We just don't know how well 6'7" pitchers who weight over 300 pounds (yes, he's listed at 290, but c'mon, we have eyes) hold up. There are always a handful of pitchers who can handle consistently large workloads-Roy Halladay comes to mind-with little concern, and it's possible that Sabathia is one of them, but we don't have enough pitchers like him to really learn from a past.

The Tiny Pitcher: As big as Sabathia is, that's how small Tim Lincecum, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, is. He's listed at 5'11" and 160 pounds, but that's classic aggrandizing (just like Barnum used to do) on the scale of five to ten percent. Theoretically, you might believe that pitchers his size should never be able to throw 227 innings in a season, but Lincecum is one of the most unique pitchers in recent memory, with unteachable mechanics, arm speed that borders on the unreal, and just something about him that works in the sense that allowed him to rack up downright abusive pitch counts at the University of Washington without injury or even any soreness, as he'd often do without even icing his arm. Before he was drafted, one team dreamed on him as the next Mike Marshall, a high-leverage reliever who could throw 160 innings out of the pen over 100 appearances. His arm seems to be made of an inhuman material, and he's likely to pitch like this for years.

The Contact Machine: Every year, PECOTA thinks Ichiro Suzuki is going to hit around .290 or so. Of course, he'll likely be much better than that, as he enters the year with a career average of .331, and his .310 average last year was the second-lowest single-season mark of his career. As anyone familiar with PECOTA knows, the system is based on similarities to other players, and the system measures the quality of those comparable players with a value called Similarity Index. A score of 50 or higher means the player has many highly similar players, and anything lower than 20 is historically unusual. Ichiro's score is a lowly 17, and the players it compares him to are guys like Lance Johnson, Matty Alou, and Al Bumbry-hitters with generally similar skills, in that once in a while they might reel off a 200-hit season and a .320 batting average or better, but they could never do it on a consistent basis. Suzuki is a rarity, with his ability to put a bat on ball that is so off the charts that the system just doesn't know what to do with him. When it comes to PECOTA and Ichiro, always bet the over.

The Ageless Wonder: Randy Johnson could fit into this category as well, but he was a guy with some of the most dominating stuff in baseball history during his prime, so even the basic skill atrophy that comes with age would allow him to stay good for a long, long time. But Jamie Moyer is a different beast. He's never been dominating, averaging just 120 strikeouts for every 200 IP. He's only been an All-Star once in his twenty-two years. Yet he's been good, often very good, seemingly forever, this after looking like his career was all but over in the early '90s. Modern baseball has never seen a pitcher like him, and he's so unique that he practically broke PECOTA this year, as the system simply refused to provide a projection for him for lack of valid comparable players. He also creates a reverse psychology in the world pf prospects, as every organization has a lefty who is low on stuff but can throw strikes, spin a breaking ball and put up good numbers in the lower levels. More often than not, people start comparing him to Moyer without the knowledge that on nearly every statistical measurement we have, there has been only one Jamie Moyer.

The Metamorphosis: It's almost ancient history at this point, but Rick Ankiel was quite simply the best pitching prospect in baseball more than a decade ago-the David Price or Felix Hernandez or Josh Beckett of his day. Then came massive control issues in the spotlight of the postseason in 2000, and he was never the same again. In 2001, trying to work his way back all the way down in the Appalachian League, Ankiel asked to be used as a designated hitter on occasion, and ended up slugging .638 in 41 games with ten home runs. In 2005, after more injuries and control problems, Ankiel decided to give becoming a full-time hitter a shot, and put up impressive numbers at Low- and Double-A that were discounted by many, as he was 25 years old at the time. A knee injury in 2006 put him even further behind the age/development curve, and he entered 2007 in a make-or-break year as a 27-year-old in Triple-A, but 32 home runs in 102 games later, he was a starting outfielder in the big leagues, and one who delivered 25 home runs in the 2008 season. PECOTA gives him a high Similarity Index of 56, with comparable players like Henry Rodriguez, Dan Pasqua, Franklin Stubbs, and Geoff Jenkins making a lot of sense on the surface, but none of them took the extended path Ankiel did to get where he is now. While he turns 30 in July, he has roughly the amount of experience as a position player that your standard 25-year-old does, so you have to ask, is he still getting better, just getting older, or somewhere in between? We don't know, because we don't have enough (or really any) players in history to go by.

Down On The Farm: Three Up-And-Coming Oddities

  • Kyle Blanks, 1B, Padres: Listed at 6'6" and 270 pounds (but often heavier), Blanks' size is one thing, but so is a mechanically strange swing with very little load or step, making it an almost contact-oriented approach that still leads to 20-plus homers because he's just so huge.
  • Tim Collins, LHP, Blue Jays: At 5'7" (at best) and 155 pounds, Collins make Lincecum look like Randy Johnson, with one scout stating that the first time he saw him, he wondered why the batboy was warming up. After touching 94 mph in his full-season debut while striking out 98 over 68 1/3 innings as a 19-year-old, scouts still aren't sure what to make of him, but find it impossible to just write him off.
  • Angel Salome, C, Brewers: He's 22 years old and is coming off of a ridiculous .360/.415/.559 line at Double-A last season. So why isn't Salome at the top of every prospect list? Some just can't get past his 200-plus pounds packed onto a 5'7" frame. He's not even fat-he's just a sphere.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN InsiderInsider.

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

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25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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chico123

Blanks is like 180 of Pedroia.

Mar 20, 2009 10:17 AM
rating: -2
 
edsmedia

Jamie Moyer DID break PECOTA! His 10% forecast calls for -7 strikeouts!!

Mar 20, 2009 10:32 AM
rating: 1
 
Dr. Dave

Can we get the list of the lowest similarity scores in the current PECOTA? I checked the weighted means spreadsheet, but it doesn't include the similarity score -- just the top comparables.

Moyer is a 5, Ichiro a 17... Is anyone else close to that?

Mar 20, 2009 10:41 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

The PECOTA spreadsheet does have the similarity scores under the column 'SimIndex' -- most of the low scores are prospects without a lot of data, but you can find the veterans in there who are weird.

Mar 20, 2009 11:02 AM
 
Dr. Dave

D'oh! I looked 3 times, and still missed it. Thanks.

Mar 20, 2009 12:26 PM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

Felix Hernandez came out as a 1 a couple of years ago.

Mar 20, 2009 11:07 AM
rating: -1
 
bhalpern

Matt Wieters has a zero.

Mar 20, 2009 19:14 PM
rating: -1
 
fielding99

This is an awesome article! Great work, Kevin.

Mar 20, 2009 10:53 AM
rating: -1
 
Cromulent

Angel Salome: One of us, one of us.

Mar 20, 2009 11:31 AM
rating: 2
 
ashitaka

KG, your line about Sabathia and Lincecum reminds me of that Family Guy rip on Tim McCarver's analytic skills:

"In my view, as good as the Yankees were in the first half of this game, that's how as bad they've been now."

Mar 20, 2009 12:34 PM
rating: 0
 
basejaw

Great stuff Kevin! How about Pat Venditte, the switch pitcher? I've always wondered if anyone could ever make it in the big leagues doing that...what do you think about him, novelty act, or legit talent?

Mar 20, 2009 15:22 PM
rating: 0
 
ashitaka

Greg A. Harris plus three dudes from the 19th century did it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Harris_(pitcher,_born_1955)

Mar 20, 2009 16:16 PM
rating: -1
 
atocep

Best article I've read on here in quite some time (and that's saying something).

Mar 20, 2009 15:31 PM
rating: -1
 
Adam Madison
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Why?

Mar 20, 2009 19:20 PM
rating: -4
 
eamods

I could listen all day every day to people try and describe what Angel Salome looks like.

Mar 20, 2009 17:25 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Whenever I think of CC Sabathia, I think of his predecessor Bartolo Colon. Cleveland Indians with heavy workloads and high pitch counts, started their careers walking a ton of people before settling down and increasing their pitch efficiency, then alternated between dominance and injuries. Zambrano also seems to me like a comparable player to Sabathia and he's had injury problems the last few years too.

As far as Ankiel goes, I'd consider his development similar to how catchers tend to peak later. I think we already hit Ankiel's peak, and his numbers haven't been the same since the HGH accusation, which could mean that either he changed something in his approach (since we know he's a sensitive-kinda guy) or perhaps the league had begun figuring him out anyway. He should remain an above average player, especially considering his defense, and may have a minor career year left in him, but I don't think there will be another major step forward.

Mar 20, 2009 18:34 PM
rating: -1
 
Drungo

Do catchers peak late? I figured they'd peak early, since their attrition rate goes through the roof in their early 30s.

Mar 23, 2009 06:42 AM
rating: -1
 
swarmee

Generally they don't develop hitting until their mid-20s from what I've read, since most of their time in the minors from the time they're drafted is spent learning how to call a game, work with pitchers, etc. The hitting aspect lags as a result. Kind of like players that switch positions usually suffer prolonged hitting slumps until they're comfortable fielding.

Mar 24, 2009 10:21 AM
rating: -1
 
Linus

"Unique" is a binary state of being. Something (or someone) is either unique, or it isn't. There are no degrees of uniqueness; therefore, Lincecum cannot be one of the "most unique" anythings. In fact, three times in this article you qualify unique. What you mean is unusual. Maybe exceptional. Not unique.

/pedantic jerk

Mar 21, 2009 02:25 AM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

My dictionary disagrees with you. Third definition is "unusual" and the sample sentence uses a modifier. "we were fairly unique."

Mar 21, 2009 10:26 AM
 
James Martin Cole

Since we're being grammar nerds, from David Foster Wallace's notes to "The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus," whose command of the English language surely dwarfed... well, pretty much everyone:

---

[Unique] is one of a class of adjectives, sometimes called uncomparables, that present special problems. Among other uncomparables are precise, exact, correct, whole, accurate, preferable, inevitable, possible, false; there are probably two dozen in all. These adjectives all describe absolute, non-negotiable states: something is either false or it's not; something is either whole or it's not. Many writers, though, get careless and try to modify uncomparables with comparatives like "more" and "less" or intensives like "very." If you really think about them, the core assertions in sentences like "War is becoming increasingly inevitable as Middle East tensions rise," "Their cost estimate was more accurate than the other firms'," and "As a mortician, he has a very unique attitude" make no sense. If something is inevitable, it is bound to happen; it cannot be bound to happen and then somehow even more bound to happen. Unique already means one-of-a-kind, so the adjective phrase very unique is at best redundant and at worst stupid, like audible to the ear or rectangular in shape.

Uncomparable-type boners can be easily fixed— "War is looking increasingly inevitable"; "Their estimate was more nearly accurate"; "He has a unique attitude"—but for writers the hard part is noticing such errors in the first place. You can blame the culture of marketing for some of this difficulty. As the number and rhetorical volume of U.S. ads increase, we become inured to hyperbolic language, which then forces marketers to load superlatives and uncomparables with high-octane modifiers (special→very special→Super-Special!→Mega-Special!!), and so on.

A deeper issue implicit in the problem of uncomparables concerns the dissimilarities between Standard Written English and the language of advertising. Today's "Advertising English," which probably deserves to be studied as its own dialect, operates under very different syntactic rules than SWE, primarily because Advertising English's goals and assumptions are different. Sentences like "We offer a totally unique dining experience, Come on down and receive your free gift, and Save up to fifty percent, and more!" are perfectly OK in Advertising English, but this is because AE is aimed at people who are not paying close attention. If your audience is by definition involuntary, distracted, and numbed, then "free gift" and "totally unique" stand a better chance of penetrating their awareness—and simple penetration is what Advertising English is all about. The goals and assumptions of Standard Written English are obviously far more complex, but one axiom of SWE is that your reader is paying close attention and expects you to have done the same.

---

Perhaps your dictionary is broken. (There's a very good essay that DFW wrote about the way in which your dictionary is broken)

Mar 21, 2009 16:04 PM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

Yes, but I don't care about what David Foster Wallace wrote, and I do care about what Kevin Goldstein wrote.

Mar 21, 2009 17:42 PM
rating: -2
 
James Martin Cole

I like them both quite a bit.

Mar 21, 2009 18:39 PM
rating: -1
 
Hank Brockett

I can't wait for Goldstein's essays book, "Consider the Walrus"

Mar 22, 2009 11:53 AM
rating: -1
 
thecoolerking
(845)

Kevin, I'm curious about why you're so confident that Lincecum's arm won't fall off soon. I would have thought that there were many young phenoms who threw tons of pitches and felt fine afterwards, only to suffer career threatening/altering injuries.

Mar 23, 2009 06:08 AM
rating: 0
 
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