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September 28, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Increasingly Optimistic Outlook for Pitching Prospects

by Sam Miller

At the time, I bet it seemed outlandish that David Nied was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft. Nied had put up a 2.84 ERA in Triple-A the previous season, his third straight year with a sub-3.00 mark in the minors, and in a late-season promotion to Atlanta he had a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings. Both expansion teams wanted him badly, and the Rockies snatched him up. After the draft, Sports Illustrated quoted a scouting director who called Nied "the one slam-dunk guy in the draft." Later, SI said “he's a can't-miss prospect who will probably be Colorado’s starter on Opening Day. More than one (scout) has wondered what the Braves were thinking when they left him unprotected.” He was the 23rd-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.

That was November 1992. Five years later Nied was the subject of a postmortem by Jerry Crasnick. Nied pitched 218 not-very-good innings as a big leaguer after that expansion draft, hurt his elbow, and retired young. When Crasnick found him, he was “working 10-hour days as a sales representative for Cylinder Heads International, the Grand Prairie, Texas, business owned and operated by his father, Glen.” Five years!

Shocking, but also not, because, you know. TINSTAAPP.

***

Rob Neyer noticed something about the Oakland A’s the other day.

According to Baseball Prospectus, they've got an 83-percent chance of winning a Wild Card. There is a considerable chance that, one month from now, the A's will be playing in the World Series. And I have to think, however far they advance in the tournament, they'll be the first team in postseason history with an all-rookie starting rotation.

I don't really have any analysis for you. It just seems like something everyone ought to know.

I've been wondering what the A’s rotation says about TINSTAAPP, or if it says anything about TINSTAAPP. Oakland’s staff is not exactly a group of top prospects who all cashed. Jarrod Parker is. Dan Straily was on Kevin Goldstein’s midseason top 50 this year, so maybe he is, but maybe he was too old to fall under the TINSTAAPP warning. A.J. Griffin isn’t; he’s a 13th-round pick who started this year, at age 24, in Double-A. Tommy Milone isn’t; he didn’t make the A’s top 20 before this season. And Travis Blackley is the guy they had in mind when they came up with TINSTAAPP: a former top prospect who missed a year with injuries, was bad, took a long route back, and is still a rookie at 29. Furthermore, the A’s need those rookies because of an injury to Brett Anderson, a top prospect who has started 38 games over the past three seasons; and an injury to Brandon McCarthy, a former top prospect who has found success only with his third organization.

What about the Rays? The Rays have graduated at least one pitching prospect into the rotation each of the past four seasons, with great success: David Price is a true no. 1; Jeremy Hellickson isn’t, but he has almost the same career ERA+ (122) as Price (124); and Matt Moore remains all sorts of good things after his first full year. Other Rays prospects, of course, have missed, but even they have contributed: Wade Davis and Jake McGee are now shutdown relievers, and Jeff Niemann produced a bunch of wins as a league-average starter getting paid the minimum. Do the misses validate TINSTAAPP?

Or the Giants, who will try to win a second World Series behind a core of pitching prospects made good: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, all first-round picks taken almost consecutively (David Aardsma broke up the streak) in the middle of the last decade. Or are the Giants just the franchise that had Foppert, Ainsworth, and Williams and reaped nothing from them? It’s hard to say.

But all of these are just anecdotes. Anecdotes that suggested (to me) that young pitching is getting safer than it used to be, but just anecdotes all the same. So I went and got some numbers.

***

First though, back to 1993, the year of David Nied. David Nied was, relatively speaking, one of the big successes of that year’s pitching prospects. There were 19 pitchers in Baseball America’s top 50 prospects before the 1993 season. Brien Taylor was considered the best of them, then Todd Van Poppel. Great start! Jason Bere and Allen Watson (eighth and ninth overall) had relatively long, replacement-level careers. Tyrone Hill (10th) and Kurt Miller (11th) did not. Tavo Alvarez was 17th. Brad Pennington was 18th. If we look at the six years after this list came out, the most productive pitcher in the top 50 that year was Bobby Jones, who made one All-Star team. The next two best pitchers were relievers. Nied, the guy who was selling cylinder heads for his dad within five years, produced the sixth-most WARP in the six years after these rankings came out.

TINSTAAPP is credited to the great Gary Huckabay, and, according to a 2003 piece by Joe Sheehan, it was born sometime in the latter half of that decade. In the context of the time, TINSTAAPP made all sorts of sense. Just look at those prospects! Look at how bad they all turned out! Nineteen names, and we get Bobby Jones, for goodness' sake. Wrote Sheehan, a few years later:

Then again, I'm dogmatic about TINSTAAPP. I pretty much believe that you can throw all pitchers into a bin until they're 21 years old or in Triple-A. (If a pitcher is at Triple-A at 20, that's a warning sign as well.) It's not a performance analysis thing, because even great numbers from teenagers aren't going to sway me. It's just a concession to what we know about physics and physiology, and how the two intersect at the corner of Jobe and Andrews.

In the latter half of the 1990s, there was good reason to doubt pitching prospects. Pitching prospects turned out terrible.

***

Okay, finally, to the numbers. I looked at the pitchers in BA’s top 50 each odd-numbered year since 1993. I limited it to odd-numbered years because there’s so much overlap from year to year, and for some reason that I couldn’t pinpoint I didn’t want to deal with the implications of that. I looked at how each group did in each season from the year they were ranked until the fifth year after they were ranked—six years in total, long enough that all would have a chance to be impact pitchers in the majors if their abilities and ligaments held, but not so long that we’re going to capture the successes who flopped about, switched teams, had surgery, switched teams, learned a cutter and finally contributed.

The 1993 class was hysterically bad. Over the six years following the BA rankings, the 19 pitchers produced just 31.8 WARP, 10 of them by relievers Troy Percival and Todd Jones. That’s 1.67 WARP per prospect, spread out over six years*. As for the rest of the prospect classes:

Prospect Class Average WARP Average IP
1993 1.67 290
1995 3.99 484
1997 4.34 392
1999 4.15 428
2001 4.57 362
2003 5.42 459
2005 5.05 528
2007 5.31 552

There’s a bit of stagger there, but for the most part it’s a line moving ever upward. Most of the gain is in quantity; on a per inning basis, the pitching prospects aren’t doing any better now than they had been (excluding the terrible 1993 class, at least). It's about one win per 100 innings. But there are more innings, which has always been most of the point.

The question of why prospects are prospectier is fertile ground for a follow-up. It could be modern medicine. It could be pitcher protection. Maybe pitchers are contributing earlier, before their arms explode. It could be (my unresearched hypothesis) that pitching in the high-offense era of the 1990s created all sorts of physical stresses, the way that growing up in poverty makes people more likely to get heart disease 50 years later. Heck, it could just be that Baseball America is getting better at picking prospects. Or it could be noise. The 2009 class, for instance, lags behind its predecessors, though the story of the 2009 class is still well incomplete.

But an extra win per prospect, if we’re talking about a real phenomenon, and especially if we're talking about a phenomenon that continues going up, sure isn’t nothing.

***

On the other hand, batting prospects still vastly outperform pitching prospects, at least by WARP. The position players on BA's list in 1993 produced an average of 6.7 wins per player. The 2003 class might have been the best year for pitchers, at 5.4 wins per prospect, but the hitters still outperformed them, at 7.2 wins per player. And the most recent class to matriculate through all six years, the 2007 class, has produced a whopping 8.9 WARP per player in six years. Ryan Braun alone has produced nearly as much value in six years as the entire class of 1993 pitching prospects did.

So either pitcher wins are much more valuable than hitter wins, or pitching prospects remain the worse bet.

***

“I really hate TINSTAAPP,” a friend told me Thursday. “It’s just lazy analysis.” I loved TINSTAAPP, and I’m not sure I don’t still love it, because sometimes it’s harder to be pithy than it is to be literally correct. But I also never knew what to do with it, and I don’t know now what to do with it. Does it mean that every pitching prospect should be traded just as quickly as a pitching-prospect sucker can be found? Does it mean that the 20th-best prospect on Baseball America’s prospect list (or our’s) is always better than the 19th-best, if the 19th-best is a pitcher? Is it, as in the dogmatic suggestion offered by Sheehan, that nearly all pitchers are equal until they’re old enough to play poker at the Bellagio? Or is it just a clever way of describing the world around us?

Probably mostly the last one. And, promisingly, the world around us seems like it might be changing.

*The 1993 class is somewhat disadvantaged by the strike, but not enough to make a noticeable mark on these numbers. The 2007 classes are, of course, a week short of completing their six-year cycle.

Thanks to Bradley Ankrom and Ben Lindbergh for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Prospects,  TINSTAAP

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