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June 14, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Searching for a Prototype

by Jason Parks

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It started innocently enough with a series of questions thrown my way on Twitter, questions that I wanted to answer but stumbled when I tried to arrive at an answer. It was the first evening of the amateur draft, and the Texas Rangers had just selected an absolute toolshed, a player that national pundits were quick to point out had one of the highest tool-based ceilings in the entire class. The player’s name was Lewis Brinson, a high school outfielder from Florida; to quote Kevin Goldstein, “monster athlete; sashimi raw.”

As the scouting reports rolled in, fans started to put the Brinson puzzle together, a gifted athlete with well above-average defensive tools at a premium position, plus speed, impressive power potential, a questionable hit tool, and a lot of game/tool immaturity. It was said that Brinson had the type of talent to be taken at the top of the draft, but his lack of refinement almost caused him to slide out of the first round. On the surface, it appeared that the fans offering comments and questions on my timeline were excited enough about the ceiling to be patient with the sashimi. I put my electronic pen down on the electronic page and suggested that a player of Brinson’s physical talent will be well worth the wait, even if he requires several years in the low minors to start showing signs of life. I praised the Rangers for going the high risk/high reward route, taking a raw athlete with tools over a more refined product with a higher floor at the expense of a lower ceiling. I praised myself for praising the pick. I put on a Peter Cetera record, American flag swimming trunks, and I praised myself to sleep.

As I slept in my cocoon of praise and self-righteousness, I thought back to the questions I was unable to answer the night before. I felt empty inside and cold outside, despite wearing a thick blanket of security and warmth provided to me by the soothing tones of Cetera. “Is Brinson raw like Jordan Akins was raw?” “Do you expect their struggles to be similar?” Can Jordan Akins still be a star?” “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” The last question was Light Cycle in my head, a linear race of thought that provided no maneuverability or escape. I was trapped in my head. I could hear the outside world in its full existence, but I couldn’t participate. My mind populated itself with every toolshed prospect in recent memory, their backgrounds, their minor league records, and their developmental failures consumed all my mental energy. “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” ……..

I finally awoke from my psychosis, and my focus had sustained its edge throughout the evening hours. I activated my standard article process, pulling up my industry contact file and selecting fifteen names to probe for opinion. The list included several scouts, several scouting directors, a few front office types, and even a former player, all of whom have an appreciation for toolshed prospects and a history of providing exceptional information when asked. The topic was nagging me, first because the answer didn’t slide off my tongue, but then because I realized the weight of the subject was more substantial than I had initially recognized. A pleasant evening and an innocent question had grown in size and spirit.

The subject is heavy because baseball is locked in a fierce competition with other sports for the top athletes in the country, and in case you haven’t paid attention to the landscape of the game, baseball isn’t exactly winning the fight. The laundry list of reasons for this dilemma is the subject for another article, but at its most reductive core, talent acquisition is paramount to the survival of the game, therefore the quality of that talent itself is of the utmost importance. The better the individual athlete, the better the sport as a whole, right? Well, this rant was on repeat in my head as I continued to seek enlightenment, hoping to stumble upon the “right” answer so that I could drop a clever comparison or establish the prototype for the described toolshed prospect, an example of success whose triumphs might eventually encourage and influence a new generation of athlete to pick baseball over basketball or football.

If you follow me on Twitter or listen to the Up and In podcast or read my articles on this site, you know that I have a huge prospect crush on Rangers outfielder Jordan Akins. I’ve been watching him since he entered professional ball, and his raw tools are as impressive as any player in game. I’ve actually drooled in his presence. I apologized for it immediately. He asked the coaches why I was on the field. They didn’t have a good answer. A few months ago, I wrote this scouting report about Akins, which is further evidence that I want to have a figurative (and perhaps literal) love affair with his skillset:

Near-elite athlete with excellent size, excellent strength, and excellent speed; projects as an above-average center field; shows a plus arm; aggressive approach at the plate with some contact ability; power could be plus-plus; low floor/high ceiling; profiles as a 7 player if tools reach potential.

Akins remains a dream, but the ceiling on this player is higher than any player in the Rangers system. This is a superstar if everything clicks, and it needs to be said that everything rarely clicks. I don’t get to see many players with this profile, and I consider it a privilege when I get that opportunity. It’s easy to fall in love with this particular skillset, mainly because it’s the type that can change the game itself. He’s a long way away and the road to his future will no doubt feature setbacks, but the potential is so extreme that it’s not a futile act to allow your mind to dream big.

Jordan Akins could end up being one of the most important players in baseball, and not just for the reasons you might think. Yes, five-tool talents are rare, and that would no doubt enhance the quality of the game, but Akins has a chance to emerge as the prototype for the modern super athlete in baseball; an American-born player of color that turned away from the allure of other sports to play baseball; a player that entered the professional game with top-shelf athleticism but minimal feel or instinct for the game; a player that struggled mightily on the field, spending several years in the lower levels of the minors; a player that eventually put it all together, transitioning from raw athlete to skilled baseball player, narrowing the gap between present and future grades until the projection became a reality.

As of this writing, Akins is still flashing Kempian tools in Low-A, but his feel for the game is very much a work in progress, and the road to being the prototype for the modern super athlete isn’t even on the map. Once again, this brings me back to the question that was asked on draft night: “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” It’s a question that is more specific than the surface might suggest, and it sparked the curiosity of the majority of the industry sources I polled. Akins obviously fits the model we’ve constructed for this particular essay, but he is still in the early stages of his journey, and since he can’t attach his name to the most important aspect of the prototype, he falls short of the mark.

Matt Kemp might appear to be an easy choice given his background, his impressive tools, and his major league production, but the Dodgers’ center fielder showed impressive feel and instincts for the game early on, crushing in the minors after his “disappointing” debut season in the GCL, where he still hit .270 as an 18-year-old. Kemp is perhaps the finest example in the game of a high-ceiling tools-horse who actually lived up to his immense projection, but he falls just short of the prototype I’m chasing for the question that was asked.

Jimmy Rollins is another quality candidate, fitting the criteria like Dwight Yoakam fits into pants, but something about his early minor league statistical failures seemed peculiar. While it’s true that Rollins struggled at the plate, hitting .238 in rookie ball, he did managed to walk more than he struck out, an impressive achievement for a 17-year-old in the Appalachian league. He followed it up with a move to full-season ball the following year, and even though the slash line might not scream superstar, he walked 50+ times and had 151 hits in 139 games. Based on the scouting reports at the time—and as the numbers can back up—Rollins showed a mature approach at the plate and good overall feel for the game at a very early age. In contrast, Jordan Akins has stepped to the plate over 500 times so far in his minor league career, and as of this writing, has walked a grand total of 18 times spanning three minor league seasons. There is young and unrefined, which is to be expected in some form at the lowest levels, and then there is raw and overwhelmed, which is a distinction that needs to be made here.

It’s pedantic and specifically tailored, but my hunt for answers only created more questions. Every source brought a few candidates to the table, but as they would freely admit, they were all flawed in some regard, and that the prototype I was seeking might not exist to under the parameters I’ve set. Some in the game believe that acquiring multi-sport athletes out of high school with unrefined baseball skills is a market inefficiency, one that could produce superstars at bargain prices. This is a high risk/high reward plan of attack, and it places an almost unrealistic responsibility on the player development side, giving them the finest material in the world to work with, but asking them to encourage intrinsic qualities that might not be present in the athlete. When I asked a member of a player development team why players fail, the answer was direct and to the point: “Players fail because of bad makeup and they fail because they lack the instincts for the game. You can teach athletes the fundamentals, but you can’t teach an athlete the feel for the game.”

It remains to be seen if Lewis Brinson requires an Akins-like tour through the lower minors, or if his feel for hitting is really as unremarkable as some sources have suggested. Like any team, the Rangers do their homework and target players that are likely to survive and thrive in the developmental process. It’s been mentioned that Brinson has a natural feel for defense in center field, owning instincts for the game that can’t be taught.  The makeup, tool potential, and present instincts (at least on defense) are what made Brinson a first round talent, despite some questions about the quality of the hit tool. It’s too early in the process to put him in a developmental category, as he could take the path of an Akins, or an Abercrombie, or a Span, or a Starling, or a Golson, or a Maybin, or even a Kemp, or any other high-ceiling athlete that entered the pro game with questions about their level of refinement or feel for certain aspects of the game.

I wasn’t satisfied with the candidates in my prototype search, but it inspired even deeper questions that I received great intellectual joy in discussing with my friends in the field. I like looking forward, and I’m fascinated by a future game that has a chance to fill its rosters with the best athletes in the world. The drawback to a boom or bust approach is failure and frustration, a necessary price when the reward has the potential to be so extreme. Finding a way to get the multi-sport athlete into the professional game is the first step, just as patience in the process—even in the face of developmental stagnation—is a necessary step in the same journey. If the modern game is to feature modern athletes, modern prognostication will require a modern approach, one that can stand firmly behind a projection even without a prototype to prove it's possible. “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?”  Not yet.

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

Related Content:  Matt Kemp,  Jordan Akins,  Lewis Brinson

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

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philly

“Players fail because of bad makeup and they fail because they lack the instincts for the game. You can teach athletes the fundamentals, but you can’t teach an athlete the feel for the game.”

Honestly, that feels like a "it's not us, it's them" style cop out. An organization "smartly" loads up on players with virtually no chance to succeed - perhaps even smugly claiming to be on the leading edge of finding new market inefficiencies - and then when they players predictably fail, they blame the players for being what they've always been. Guys who aren't actually good at playing baseball.

And while you may be thrilled with "intellectual joy" from the process of asking these questions, a sceptic might say (hey, this one will!) that your joy comes not from deep introspection on difficult questions, but from simply refusing to except the negative answers to the questions that you've asked.

Interesting article, but please keep in mind that "not yet" in the face of failure may very well be naivete.

Jun 14, 2012 04:09 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

I see your point, but there are a lot of athletes in professional sports that never reach their potential because of their in-maturity, lack of desire to learn, substance abuse, or criminal activity.

Also, you have to keep mind that baseball is unlike any other professional sport. Nowhere else do you see an 18 year drafted that is not expected to help the team for 4-5 years (if not longer - just got to be put on 40-man by end of year 5). Even players with great makeup and good instincts might never have the talent to make it to the majors, but there is no way to know what a player can be without investing the resources on them in the draft.

Jun 14, 2012 06:35 AM
rating: 2
 
Jquinton82

That's not a cop out... How do you teach someone to know what to do in an odd circumstance that has never happened before to them? You have to have a feel for the game to know what do in those instances, that's why its instinctual. You can learn certain things along the way from those mistakes, but if you have a feel for the game and those instincts - those mistakes never happen.

Jun 14, 2012 10:41 AM
rating: 2
 
fawcettb

Good article, good question. Love it when you're serious.

Jun 14, 2012 05:01 AM
rating: 2
 
SaberTJ

Could not agree more. These are my favorite kind of Professor Parks pieces.

Jun 14, 2012 06:35 AM
rating: 0
 
Leg4206

Nice topic and read. Interesting to focus on that area of the talent pool, both from scouting of individual players and the idea of market inefficiencies. Players in that group likely elicit contrasting opinions which illuminate the fundamentals of scouting theory and how each scout and GM balances competing factors.

From an organizational standpoint, mining that area of the pool must be alluring, but also quite risky for the career of scouts and GMs.

Jun 14, 2012 06:35 AM
rating: 1
 
MikeMcD

Is Ronald Guzman in the raw 'toolshed' area under discussion or is he too accomplished or refined already?

Jun 14, 2012 07:20 AM
rating: 0
 
sportspopery

Re: Philly--I think the point you bring up is both valid and interesting to think about. That said, it's important to note that most of the amateurs a team acquires and attempts to develop fail: at least 3/4's of them, including a high % of single-digit round talent. When applied to baseball, pure athleticism can mask a multitude of sins, even to some extent at the major league level. And it also makes sense, from the viewpoint of development, to acquire players who have the capacity to learn physically and replicate the actions necessary for their chosen sport (indeed, this is what athleticism is, to an extent).

It's also important to note, though, that failure happens to good people who work hard and have talent. Sometimes, things just don't go right. Baseball is cruel like life that way. It's really effing hard.

The "intellectual joy" comment does give me pause, though, not because it is not genuine but because a boom or bust approach may not be the healthiest approach. It's important to take risks, obviously, but it's also important not to only take risks.

Jun 14, 2012 07:21 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I certainly wouldn't advise a full-throttle boom/bust approach to talent acquisition, despite my appreciation for the risk. The ultimate goal of a minor league system is to produce major league quality talent, and that can be found in multiple forms. A good system has balance, with mixtures of high floor, high risk/high ceiling, and makeup org types.

Jun 14, 2012 07:39 AM
 
Behemoth

It's also easier to take risks if you have a nice, deep system like the Rangers.

Jun 15, 2012 07:56 AM
rating: 3
 
Jivas
(649)

Very interesting stuff, Jason. I have to say, though - the utter lack of ability to find a comparable player whose tools actualized leads me to believe that some teams in the industry are not correctly "pricing" the risk inherent in these sashimi raw "assets" and are overvaluing them to some extent.

Jun 14, 2012 07:22 AM
rating: 0
 
Tythelip

Carlos Beltrán started off pretty raw in the Kansas City organization. He was down to hitting .229/.311/.363 in his third season at age 20 in A-ball. He was taken with the 48th pick back in the day.

Jun 14, 2012 07:27 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I spoke to a source who mentioned Beltran. He was certainly a raw toolsy prospect, but he did show feel for the game early, both in the field and at the plate. His bat struggled initially in short-season ball, but his approach was applauded for its maturity. Scouts would rave about his instincts for the game, showing natural feel for defense and a mature overall approach at the plate, despite not being a very good hitter at the time. As a 19-year-old he looked very promising in Spokane, but he was promoted very quickly to the Carolina League the following year, where he struggled. Being a 20 y/o in Advanced High-A is a challenge, one that he wasn't ready for. His bat was overmatched, but his approach was still impressive, as he managed to walk a healthy amount of times despite the problems with the bat.

I like the idea, though. I think he's a solid candidate, although one with more feel/instincts for the game than the players I was targeting.

Good stuff

Jun 14, 2012 07:53 AM
 
Scott44

Adam Jones struggled in his first year of A-Ball.

Jun 14, 2012 08:04 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Did he? Jones was an 18-year-old in a full-season league, and he had more hits than games played. He had a lot of miss in his bat, but he was already showing game power, with 41 extra-base hits on the year. He was still raw, but a .717 OPS in that league at that age was actually quite impressive.

Jun 14, 2012 08:19 AM
 
basejaw

While not a star yet by any means...Anthony Gose is a guy that appears to be making slow and steady progress. I think he would certainly be considered a toolshed. Great piece Jason, a lot of fun to look to the future!

Jun 14, 2012 08:11 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

He could be the one.

Jun 14, 2012 08:21 AM
 
Karl Hungus

Great article. I'm wondering if it is possible to deconstruct other 5 tool sashimi grade players that come up early and see if they were developmentally shorted. Maybe there aren't comps, because it takes too long? If a team has a five tool prospect, and three tools are truly valuable to that specific orginazation at that time, do they begin steering the kid towards developing a feel at the expense of a tool or two? If so, there might be five tool comps that had to cut it back to three to focus on feel? I keep thinking that some organizations tend to Stanfordize raw players to get something out of them in the near term rather than everything out of them in the long term, something that may have happened with a few White Sox propsects like gordon Beckham.

Jun 14, 2012 09:34 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Tools are raw physical characteristics. A player either has those physical gifts are they don't. It's quite common to see one tool refined at the expense of another (in the short-term), but it seems unlikely that a team would purposely and permanently retard the development of a physical tool in order to coerce feel out of another, at least as far as five-tool position players are concerned. Pitchers are another story.

Jun 14, 2012 09:48 AM
 
yadenr

The successful toolshed stories that struggle early seem to have a feel for drawing a walk early....is Aaron Hicks one to keep in eye on?

Jun 14, 2012 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Hicks is a toolshed that hit very well early on in his career. His bat isn't anything special, but his approach has always been advanced.

Jun 14, 2012 09:50 AM
 
AirSteve01

Frank White.

Jun 14, 2012 10:12 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I didn't go back that far (the early 1970s) to find a prototype for the modern athlete. His numbers MiLB numbers weren't that bad, though. Solid candidate.

Jun 14, 2012 10:21 AM
 
comeonletsgo

Mike Cameron maybe?

Jun 14, 2012 11:08 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

He's a good candidate. He showed a lot of feel for the game, especially on defense, but his bat was raw and he stumbled statistically.

Jun 14, 2012 11:14 AM
 
Allmanjoy15

While I'm not sure if I can think of a specific prototype, two of the closest in my mind (who played minor league ball in my area) during the 80s, is Jesse Barfield and Ron Gant. Of course Gant walked a little bit more and had a monster season his 4th year in the minors, but both initially struggled early on in their career and made adjustments.

Jun 14, 2012 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
Sal T

Bo Jackson

Jun 14, 2012 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

Tons of players had awful first (usually partial) seasons in the low minors, but literally everyone I could think of who went on to have a Major League career showed at least some skills by their second season (usually notable power, and/or OBP). The "best" I could come up with was Bill Hall, who sandwiched a mediocre year between two awful ones before breaking out.

I think the implications for team building are deceptively complex. While it's true that most raw toolsy players don't plan out, it seems like the ones that do show some aptitude right away -- Matt Kemp, Jimmy Rollins, Mike Trout, etc. So it's not that taking flyers on these guys is bad, it's that a team usually gets a pretty early indication whether or not that player is going to pan out. So the question is, what to do with the ones who make it through their first full year without showing much?

Maybe teams should "give up" on these guys asap and give the roster spot to someone else, if another prospect at the same position comes along? Or maybe the opposite, they should play more? Like, arrange a pre-game scrimmage before every actual game or something, instead of doing drills? I feel like there's an inefficiency that could be exploited here...

Jun 14, 2012 12:50 PM
rating: 0
 
AirSteve01

Suggested reading on this subject:

"Why Michael Couldn't Hit, and Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports"

(or, Why Jason Parks is Having Trouble Finding Good Examples.)

Jun 14, 2012 12:52 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I had a source suggest the same book. I ordered it immediately. Kudos.

Jun 14, 2012 13:34 PM
 
faithdies

Danny Espinosa?

Jun 14, 2012 13:39 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Not a player I would classify as a star.

Jun 14, 2012 13:42 PM
 
faithdies

Ha. Neither would I. I honestly can't find anyone drafted in the first two rounds who didn't succeed in the beginning and then killed it. They either bomb out entirely or at the very least carry their own early on.

Also, in my research I have uncovered that the 1996 was the WORST first round of draft picks in the last 18 years. Holy crap.

Jun 14, 2012 13:50 PM
rating: 0
 
cdgarosi

Torii Hunter is a guy that comes to mind only because he spent parts of three season at high A and three season at AA. He played football, basketball and ran track in high school in Arkansas (as well as baseball). Looking at his MiLB numbers it looks as though he figured things out as he moved along, but certainly took more time than might have been expected.

He certainly isn't a HOFer, but he was an All-Star certainly.

Jun 14, 2012 14:52 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

It's a good choice, one that several sources brought to the debate as well. He's one of the better examples of a multi-sport athlete that developed slowly before turning into an all-star.

Jun 14, 2012 14:56 PM
 
ChrisCalo1

It's funny. I thought to myself, "I hope Yorman Rodriguez is that next guy." But he really hasn't struggled much until this year, and he isn't even 20 yet. He had quite a year as a 17 yo in the Pioneer League, and had just an OK year as an 18 yo in a hard to hit in Midwest League.

I hope he bounces back after a rough start to this season.

Jun 14, 2012 15:05 PM
rating: 1
 
adamcarralejo

I've been in the same mind-funk over James Baldwin - I came up with the already-mentioned Mike Cameron. A more current example (although he has yet to pan out) is Trayvon Robinson.

Jun 14, 2012 15:29 PM
rating: 0
 
marctacoma

Magglio Ordonez comes to mind.

Sometimes I doubt he'd ever put it together, but I always drooled watching Greg Halman (RIP). Man. Weird stats in first few years, but you had mix of swing-and-miss with attitude things like breaking his hand in a brawl, the massive struggles in A and AA, sandwiched around good lines.

Not a true toolshed, but Mike Morse was pretty mediocre for a while before the power that some thought might come finally showed up.

What's sort of amazing is how rare it is; we overrate the possibility of a tools prospect "getting it" and reaching his ceiling.

Jun 14, 2012 15:48 PM
rating: 1
 
genehuh

How about Preston Wilson? It may be stretching it to say that Wilson was a star, but he eventually put up solid numbers in the Majors during about a 6-year stretch. As a prospect, Wilson was definitely a raw power/speed player with a bad approach who struggled in the minors, until the light sort of came on.

Jun 14, 2012 18:10 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

He was another player mentioned by several sources. He's very close to what I was looking for.

The comments in this thread have been awesome. Many thanks. Great discussion.

Jun 14, 2012 18:14 PM
 
Lastblues

Rickey Henderson was best friends with M.C. Hammer growing up in Oakland. He wanted to play football but his mom thought it was too dangerous. Maybe there's some insight to be gleaned in there...

Jun 14, 2012 19:56 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Josh Shepardson
BP staff

Fun article, Jason. Gave me a perfectly good excuse to blow through roughly an hour searching random players minor league stats. Did anyone toss out the name Devon White in your polling of sources? He's about the best I was able to come up with, and he still doesn't feel like fits your prototype.

Jun 15, 2012 00:33 AM
 
stoltzs2s

Justin Upton comes to mind as a guy who really underwhelmed statistically in his first year, and then totally took off.

Jun 15, 2012 01:22 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Justin Upton hit .263/.343/.413 as an 18-year-old in a pitcher friendly full-season league. That's exceptional.

Jun 15, 2012 07:48 AM
 
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