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December 1, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Seeing is Believing

by Jason Parks

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As November ages into December, the baseball season continues its transition from full throttle to dead air before thrusting forward again with the push of free agency, the Winter Meetings, and the countdown to report dates for pitchers and catchers. As many in the industry work to contextualize the previous campaign (while simultaneously setting up sales pitches for the eventualities of tomorrow), I find myself already bored with the conjecture and rumor of the winter. What shall I do until my eyes can once again open and focus on live play? Oh, how I already long for thee.

In the coming months, I plan on revisiting a series I started last offseason, where I take the top five prospects in each system and explore the weaknesses in their skill set that could lead to setbacks or stumbles in the 2012 season. We in the prospect prognostication field tend to paint pretty pictures of young talent, choosing to package the dream instead of the reality. Not that hope requires a big marketing push, but focusing on the conceptual world of peak potential is so much easier and palatable than focusing on the negatives.

Here’s a sample from last season’s series, taking a look at Wil Myers, a player who was approaching the top tier of prospects heading into the 2011 season.

Prospect #4: Wil Myers
Who: 
The third-round selection in the 2009 draft, Myers has well above-average offensive potential, and if I thought he had a future behind the plate, I would rank him higher in the Royals' system. In two stops in ’10 he showed both a mature approach and the ability to hit for average. He also delivered in-game power by slugging 54 extra-base hits in 126 combined games, including 10 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League.
What could go wrong in ’11:
 Despite being the owner of many plus offensive attributes, most notably his hands/wrists and raw strength, Myers has some minor exploitable holes in his swing, showing some vulnerability on the outer half of the plate. I’m not in love with Myers’ hitting mechanics, as he starts open and has a noisy transition into hitting position; despite a quick trigger that allows him to get into the zone quickly, the overall balance and fluidity isn’t always there. So far, Myers has been able to use his excellent hand-eye coordination and above-average pitch recognition skills to minimize the exploitation, but more advanced pitchers will force the issue until Myers adjusts, which could lead to some statistical setbacks, especially if the adjustments require a more complex restructuring of his swing mechanics.

The hard truth is that the majority of immature talent in the minors will fail to develop into the mature talent we witness in the majors. I want to explore some of the present deficiencies found in that immature talent, and use those shortcomings to set them up for failure rather than fame. I think it will be a fun series. I’ll probably go in alphabetical order with the teams, but I’m open to suggestions.

A Rant about Accountability
As a member of the prospect prognostication machine, I must stand alongside my opinions in the firing line of accountability. People in this particular field often use sourced information in their reports, drawing on opinions from evaluators up and down baseball’s food chain. But that sourced material is often used as a shield against outcomes, should those outcomes run opposite from the opinions expressed by that source. “Hey, I had a trusted source provide me with that trusted info. He was wrong. I was just passing along the trusted info. I never said I agreed with the trusted source. I’m so handsome and blessed.”

However, should the solicited opinions prove prophetic, the aggregator of said opinion can ride into the sunset of awesomeness, taking credit for showing the wherewithal to print those opinions in the first place. It’s win-win, and trust me, I enjoy riding into that sunset of awesomeness more than anybody I know. But that particular approach creates an insulated environment where the writer can never be wrong. After all, if you are merely propagating the opinions of others, how can you be wrong when those opinions decay? It’s smart, and it’s also unavoidable given the nature of the position: You can’t see every prospect in person, and you can’t formulate your own opinion on every player in the minors. In most cases, your opinions probably aren’t up to the standards of those who act as sources, those that have been evaluating talent longer than I’ve been in the business of feeding myself. Shouldn’t their opinions matter more to the reader than those that originate from my own eyes?

Over the last few years, I’ve been on a poorly-designed particleboard soapbox, bouncing my tongue up and down on the importance of seeing prospects in person. This isn’t a cause specific to me; any registered prospectphile should support such a movement and encourage more first-hand accounts and subsequent first-hand accountability. But I’m also a registered hypocrite, because like everybody else in the industry, I’m not able to witness all the talent first-hand, so when I decry those that fail to live up to my sanctimonious standards in this regard, I’m actually speaking from a weakness rather than a strength. I blame my parents. It’s not fair to judge someone who can’t put everything in the real world [read: significant others, children, day jobs, etc.] on the backburner in order to watch teenagers play a game. It’s just not realistic.

Why Seeing is Believing
Context established, I’d like to start a discussion as to why seeing prospects in person is a vital part of the overall evaluation equation, and why I tend to be such a blithering asshole when the topic comes to the surface. Even in this modern age that allows those in the know to establish an immediate connection with baseball front offices, to establish an immediate connection with those standing on the backfields of a team complex, and even to establish an immediate connection with those watching the next seven-figure talent on the Latin American landscape, the speed and accessibility of information has become so efficient and practical that the eyes of others have replaced the eyes of the writer. I get it. It makes sense. It’s like calling a cousin to get Grandma’s recipe for chicken fried steak rather than making the trip to Texas, standing over this crazy woman while she makes the dish, documenting her every move to the best of your limited ability, and then flying back home with information you could have obtained with a phone call or an e-mail.

As I mentioned, people looking for information on players would probably rather read a sourced opinion from a respected baseball industry insider than a first-hand observation from someone whose wall isn’t lined with the same skins of experience. I understand and respect that. But I think when we build a profile of a player in a conceptual sense, writers often fail to capture who the player really is. In my opinion, you can only truly appreciate the skill set of a prospect if you have shared a space with that prospect, if you evaluated a prospect at the epicenter of the action.

Scouting players solely from reports is like formulating an opinion of a potential mate based entirely on their internet dating profile. You have the image, you have the vital characteristics; you have the basic construct of their existence, ranging from their positive attributes to the ones that are conveniently missing from the profile. It’s very abstract and impersonal, but with enough data, you can create the basic backbone of the aforementioned potential mate and you can sell it accordingly. But all that data and all those reports can’t tell you how that person actually exists in the world—how they formulate words with their lips, how they react when they get nervous, how their idiosyncratic behaviors make them unique. Or, if you prefer to dip back into the previous analogy: standing in that kitchen watching those crazy old hands of my grandmother maneuver around those ingredients, pretending you didn’t hear her latest racist remark as you study her breading technique first-hand is not an experience you can have via e-mail. You might not understand the process, but you appreciate the experience, and that means something.

Seeing players in person gives you the ultimate context for evaluation. You can see how the player actually moves, how his tools actually function in game action. You can see how a blue-chip prospect performs against another blue-chipper, and not just read about his production that may or may not have come against an opponent with major-league potential. You can see the ball explode from a pitcher’s hand and actually understand the magnitude of that experience. You can hear the ball come off the bat and recognize the different between a normal prospect and the shotgun blast that is associated with Bryce Harper’s swing. You might not be a 20-year industry evaluator, someone capable of dissecting the finest details of a player’s physical characteristics, but what you might lack in history you can make up for with honesty. What you see with your own eyes is true and pure, and it can’t be wrong even if it’s wrong. The conclusions you draw from those observations might prove to be wrong, and in that regard, people might prefer that you keep them to yourself. But putting yourself into that experience brings you closer to the reality of the evaluation more than anything you could possibly read in the abstract.

Again, I don’t want this to read as an indictment on those that have paved the prospect road on which I now walk. People like my friend and prospect mentor, Kevin Goldstein, or Baseball America’s Jim Callis, or Deric McKamey, or Keith Law (just to name a few) have set the industry standard for excellence in the field of national prospect evaluation, and without their influence (both personally and professionally), the prospect fire that burns within me would barely be a spark. And like my aforementioned superiors in this field, putting out the best product is always first priority, whether that means working the phones or working the fields; the goal has been to satisfy the audience, to provide them with the best possible information our access can offer. I just don’t always like the way the current product or the current process makes me feel as an evaluator, and I want to change that somewhat. I want to offer more transparency when it comes to the evaluations themselves, standing behind the eyewitness accounts and taking on the blame if those accounts turn out to be woefully inaccurate.

As much as I enjoy writing about prospects for this site, honing my chops as an evaluator is the only way I am going to reach my goal of becoming one of those evaluators on the other end of the line. Taking personal responsibility is a good start, as is spending more time watching the players I write about. But it’s also about the product that is presented. With this new series, I want create more dialogue about the realities of the players in the present, not just from my opinions or the opinions of those I so often depend on in the industry, but from your opinions as well. Just as every player is unique, every account of that player should be. We all view things through a different lens, and I think your opinions often get discounted because you aren’t in the industry or you don’t have a wealth of player evaluation experience. When this series kicks off, I want to hear back from you on the players profiled; I want your first-hand observations, if applicable. I want to start sincere discussions that don’t devolve into binary proclamations of right and wrong. With prospects, everything depends on the context of the now and the promise provided by tomorrow. With that being the case, the discussion of evaluation, both in the present and in the future, is always up for interpretation.

 *Coming up after the Winter Meetings, the first installment of the “What Could Go Wrong in 2012” series will kick off with a detailed look at what could go wrong with my own documented prognostications in 2012.  

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

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