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October 9, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

I’ve Been Thinking About...

by Jason Parks

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I’ve been thinking about….. prospect rankings. The time of year is near, and I’ve started to make calls and I’ve started to take notes and I’ve started to put the parts of the machine together. One of the reasons I was never keen on prospect ranking had more to do with the process than the finished product, which, I will admit, has value despite a shelf life that makes it obsolete before you can find comfort in it. The process is the real creature here, as the definition of prospect value is always up for debate, with some offering grand rewards for high ceilings, some for skill maturity, some rewarding proximity to the majors, and some ranking prospects based solely on statistical output. Because value is in the eye of the value beholder, there isn’t a wrong way to organize and rank prospects, as the subjective nature of the process keeps us tied to individual philosophies and category weights. But one shouldn’t assume that all rankings are therefore created equal, and that throwing darts onto a board with prospect faces is a better method of classification than picking up a phone and talking to the industry tasked with prospect evaluation.

Or is it? My eyes have been privy to a few teams’ internal prospect rankings, compiled by their scouts on the ground and their analysts in the office, and even though the process of the product is more complex, I’ve been just as bewildered looking at a team’s list as I have been looking at a Bleacher Report slideshow of the top prospects in the game. The truth is that I’m not sure how the new BP rankings will be received, and even though they will be thoroughly researched and examined, the weight I assign to any specific attribute or characteristic will be based on a personal preference, and as a result, the BP list that I put a bow on will look different than the one Nick would compile, or Jason, or Mark, or Chris, or anybody else who decided to make a list. That uniqueness is both valued and open to exposure, with the latter stemming from the aforementioned subjectivity of the process itself, as each list, regardless of author, is different and therefore inaccurate at some level when judged against the reader’s personal preferences and experiences.

Why do we like these things again? Oh, yes. We like to see inside the homes of our neighbors, partially out of curiosity, partially because we respect their tastes and are scared they have better taste than we do, and partially because we like to judge. It’s why I buy the BA handbook, or I read Mayo’s top 100, or Keith’s top 100. I respect the opinions and have a curiosity about the placements and explanation, but ultimately, it comes down to wanting to see which type of flooring they have in the kitchen.

I’ve been thinking about……CC Sabathia. As a prospect surveyor, I’m always on the hunt for the elusive “top of the rotation” talent, the arms that win Cy Young awards, pitch Game Ones, and put their teams on their back when it matters most. Almost mythical in lore thanks to the rarity of the skill set, for every ten that are cursed with the future label, does one actually live up to the standard?  

CC Sabathia might be the premier starter in the game, owner of all the attributes you require from an “ace,” with the hardware, the statistics, and legend all rolled into one package. I’ve never been a fan of the body, but the athleticism allows for repeatability and mechanical consistency. The arsenal is well above-average, with multiple fastball looks that feature quality velocity, movement, and location; the secondary arsenal is even better, with two breaking balls that he can throw for strikes, including a sharp slider with excellent tilt that is a money pitch. But the best weapon in the cache is a changeup that will fool even the best hitters in the game thanks to the deception created by throwing the pitch with fastball arm speed from the same delivery and same slot. It’s an 8 pitch on the 2/8 scale, and one of the reasons Sabathia is one of the few Loch Ness monsters of the pitching world.

Combine the repeatability and the arsenal with an intense competitive spirit and the focus to overcome setbacks and you have a special pitcher. Those who were fortunate enough to watch CC in action against the Orioles on Sunday night know exactly what a big game pitcher looks like. When the “name only” aces in the minors can step up on the October stage and show multiple plus-plus pitches, plus-plus command, and perform at a high level under the high pressure, then we can call them aces. Until then, it’s Sabathia, a few of his buddies, and a whole lot of wannabes.

I’ve been thinking about…..the delicate balance of beauty and sadness. It’s hard to find in this world. Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” is a good example of this balance. It’s so raw and earnest, and the intrinsic sadness in his vocal tone hits such an emotional chord that beauty just erupts from it. “And it's six in the morning, gave me no warning; I had to be on my way. Well there's trucks all a-passing me, and the lights are all flashing, I'm on my way home from your place.” Remarkable. It just crushes me.

I’ve been thinking about…..Josh Hamilton. I guess it’s easier to nominate a singular figure to play the leading role in a fall collapse than it is to assign blame to the entire team; after all, taking the time to assign specific weights and values to the performances of the final month, both in the dugout and on the field, can be a chore and, ultimately, not as fulfilling as casting just one villain.

As much as my rational side reminds me that it took an entire team to collapse and not just one man, I can’t help but find myself stuck on Josh Hamilton’s performance over the final month, curious as to what was really going on with the petulant star. The final numbers aren’t up to his MVP form, but you won’t hear many teams complaining about slash line, and after the first few months of the season, Hamilton looked like the best hitter to ever wear a uniform. But a summer slump and myriad strange excuses tarnished Hamilton’s shine, and, by the time the season had fallen off the edge of a cliff, Hamilton’s head seemed to be resting in the clouds above the field. I’ve been around Hamilton a lot over the years, and there has always been a strange aloofness about him. Whether that stems from his constant battle with sobriety, or his alienating faith, or his superstar status, I can’t speak to. But it’s not an uncommon sight in Surprise, AZ to see Hamilton standing alone on a vacant field, bat in hand, patrolling the empty grass of the outfield like it was the only patch of solace available to him. With the rest of the world existing around him, Hamilton would pace in the empty stadium, isolated from friends and fans alike, staring into the clouds, building walls around him with every isolated step. I never thought much of his solitary strolls, other than to acknowledge that “Hey, isn’t that Josh Hamilton walking around the outfield of an empty stadium with a bat in his hands? Cool. Most people don’t get to see that every day. Cool. Let’s get to the backfields.”

But the odd aloofness in Hamilton’s September/October game brought me back to those moments, where his foundation seemed planted elsewhere, and the focus that often defines a superstar was missing from the package. The sight of Hamilton lost in space troubled me, and not because he was the only player the Rangers needed to step up and shine when it mattered the most. I was troubled because he seemed troubled, either for professional reasons stemming from his relationship with the Rangers, or for personal reasons, which, for Hamilton, are anything but private affairs. From the uncharacteristic drops in the outfield, to the odd health excuses, to the distance he seemed to create with his coaches and teammates in the final battle, Hamilton looked like a man going through the motions, a man just playing the role of a baseball player. I get the feeling this story will continue to evolve as the former MVP tests the abusive waters of free agency, where every secret could become a weapon and every story will look to dig a little deeper than the last.

I’ve been thinking about the Josh Hamilton fairy tale, the redemption narrative that everybody attached to and sold like it was designed to solidify the belief in our own personal strength and struggle. The need to create heroes to help fortify our own vulnerabilities and failures is basic, but the consequence of such an action often sharpens the blade we turn on ourselves. When betrayed by the ones tasked with building us up, our mouths sting with the taste of blood and we search for retribution through sacrifice or indemnification, and the first to acquiesce to the charm of the story will be the first to ask for that story’s head. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the off-season, where Rangers fans will thirst for blood, and details of Hamilton’s demise could give it to them. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to see if this fairy tale’s third act is penned by a sensational voice selling further redemption, or by Bret Easton Ellis, selling the reality of excess and despair.

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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