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November 1, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

The Baseball Prospectus Prospect Rankings Primer

by Jason Parks

It’s that time of year again, when the failures of all but one team are forgiven and the dreams of a better tomorrow supplant the stinging agony of defeat. Please allow me to sell you hope, packaged in promise, tied with a bow of unlimited possibilities. I know of a player who can solve all your problems and keep your sleep patterns regulated, and if you buy a subscription to Baseball Prospectus, you can read about that player. I’m a prospect prognosticator: the Zoloft salesmen of baseball. How may I comfort you?

In all seriousness, prospect rankings aren’t about selling hope or compartmentalizing a future joy to lessen the ennui of the offseason months; rather, prospect rankings are pop-up art shows, galleries of photographs that capture a particular moment in time. Not to lessen the appeal or diminish the importance of the work, but snapshots don’t have lungs and they don’t crawl to land and progress over time. Rankings throw a net over a designated slice of the calendar, and then shine a bright light on the apprehended prospects. But the ebb and flow of player development has a chance to wash away any static snapshot when the mood sees fit, and the player who was cast in a starring role is quickly reduced to the fringes of the spectrum. The hope that was sold in the fall often confronts the reality that exists in the spring, and by the following fall, hope has officially transformed to helplessness.

I mention these things not to weaken the product, but to remind people that players change, opinions change, and rankings most certainly change. While its important to document the moment, it's even more important to keep perspective on the long-term realities of the process, and the ultimate goals inherent in that process, which are to acquire, develop, and promote talent in order to strengthen the major-league team. That journey to maturity is different for every player; the obstacle course is tailored to a player’s individual strengths and weaknesses, so the achievements and the failures will also be unique. When we swoop in with our fluorescent lights and our prospect tweezers looking to expose deficiency, the end result of that probe is often quite superficial and narrow in its range.

Just keep that in mind when you see a player “written off” for the sake of a limited ranking. You can remove the sensationalism from the approach--and we’ve tried to maintain a high level of professionalism here--but you can’t remove the shallow nature of the exercise itself. This is not an exercise of right/wrong or good/bad. When evaluating and projecting human behavior, it’s a fool who frowns on unpredictability in favor of a standard script. You might suggest that prospect no. 10 is superior to prospect no. 1, and I can call you ill-informed and unqualified to make such a pompous claim. But what I can’t say with any certainty is that you are wrong, as only time will tell if you hold an advantage in that argument. Until then, all we can do is present our point of view and sit on the sidelines and wait for the outcomes.

The Process
Putting together rankings is a subjective act, and the product is better served if you just admit that personal experiences, biases, and preferences help define the list as much as the raw tools of the players in question. In the past, Kevin Goldstein was the only man at the wheel on the rankings front, and his product was a doozy, respected by fans and the industry alike. The current product might feature my name at the top of the page, but the process in which it is compiled stands in contract to the lists of the past, as a team of writers helped hammer out the details that you will read. Instead of one voice and one subjective stance, we want to offer you multiple voices, a choir of subjectivity and preference that will help shape the rankings in a unique way. This is how we put them together…

It all starts with a casual email to the minor league staff at Baseball Prospectus, with the team-of-the-moment’s name in the subject line and a flypaper request to throw any thoughts that might exist into the thread. Participation is welcomed but not mandatory, and those who have interest in the team or a particular experience with the prospects will respond and the ball starts rolling. As names get thrown into the mix, I’ll start working the phones, calling scouts and industry sources to get as many outside opinions as possible. My desk is too small to house Goldstein’s Rolodex, but over the years I’ve built up a respectable network as well, and I feel very comfortable with the quality of opinion emanating from these sources.

After a few days of intense information reconnaissance, I start making up my list. I love my sources, but I tend to rely heavily on my own eyes and my own thoughts; not because my opinions are superior to those I receive information from, but because I like to see talent in person and I trust my own evaluations and I’m not looking to produce a list that is strictly source driven. I like to take my in-person accounts and make a sandwich with the scout sources and then serve the product to the BP minor league staff so they can add their own delicious deli meat to the plate. Too much?

Debate ensues, numerous emails, IMs, and text messages get exchanged; frustration, annoyance, and name calling get a moment in the sun, and then the list is whittled down to the top 10 prospects, the three prospects on the rise, and three prospects likely to contribute at the major-league level (in some capacity) in 2013. A volunteer steps forward to create the top talent under 25 list and subsequent breakdown, and then I’m left to fill in the scouting information on the players chosen for inclusion on the actual prospect list. This is when I will contact the organization of the moment, but only to confirm tool profiles and to get developmental updates on players that we haven’t put eyes on. I think it’s important to leave the organization out of the rankings discussion. It’s one thing to ask about makeup or tools or developmental progression, but it's another to seek evaluation advice from a team that can’t remove itself from the tether of the organization or the agendas that are often along for the ride. It’s like asking a parent to give an honest answer to the question: “How ugly is your son?”

All told, the process takes anywhere from 25-40 hours per team, and that’s from first contact to last paragraph. The reports are thick, running anywhere from 3500 to 4000 words, so I’m not anticipating any feedback suggesting the content is underweight. We aren’t reproducing Goldstein’s model, although the format is similar, and we aren’t making any apologies for only ranking the top 10 prospects rather than drifting into the gray areas that exist in the 20s and 30s. This is the new BP model, and I think going heavy on the details of a top 10 has more value and relevance than going thin just to go deep into a system. This is a sample of what a player profile will look like:

Carlos Correa

Position: SS

DOB: 09/22/1994

Height/Weight: 6’4’’ 190 lbs.

Bats/Throws: R/R

Drafted/Acquired: 1st round, 2012 draft, PR Baseball Academy (Santa Isabel, PR)

2012 Stats: .232/.270/.355 in GCL (39 games); .371/.450/.600 in short-season Appalachian League (11 games)

The Tools: All of them; 8 arm; 7 power potential; huge makeup

What Happened in 2012: After creating impressive buzz on the amateur showcase circuit, Correa was selected 1:1 in the 2012 draft by the Houston Astros and quickly became the highest-ceiling player in the entire organization.

Strengths: Massive factory of physical tools; great size and fluid athleticism; highly skilled hands; has necessary fielding actions to stick at position; huge arm (8); solid-average run that plays up; plus bat speed; middle-of-the-order power potential; super young; plus-plus makeup.

Weaknesses: Hit tool is currently underdeveloped in relation to other tools; swing can get long and setup unbalanced; game power could be slow to come; fast-twitch athlete, but body could escape him and limit range at position; massive collection of raw tools that need to find game refinement.

Overall Future Potential: 7; all-star

Explanation of Risk: High risk because of age and current level of tool refinement; huge makeup and instincts keep the risk from being extreme

Fantasy Future: Could end up among the best players in the game, with a future 6 hit tool, 7 power, and the baserunning instincts and quickness for stolen bases. At his peak, he could be a .280/.380/.500 shortstop with above-average defensive chops.

The Year Ahead: Correa could stumble and it could look ugly before he blossoms in professional ball. Tool refinement and utility can take time, and Correa will play the 2013 season at the age of 18, where he should get his first taste of full-season ball and full-season level pitching. I don’t expect an explosion yet, but don’t jump off the bandwagon if Correa happens to stumble. He has legit star potential at the highest level.

Major league ETA: 2016

Pretty cool, huh? I like it and I really hope you do as well. One of things we decided to do was produce the lists in a manner similar to professional reports, which is just another way of saying we decided not to alter some of the language in order to make it more palatable to people outside of the game. We aren’t working in baseball front offices, but we are well-versed in the vocabulary of the game and I want to stay true to the communication and expression of the world this derives from. If you are looking for a watered down prospect list written for the casual fan, this isn’t it. But even the most die-hard prospect fans will run across terminology that is either specific to the field or specific to the author in question; admittedly, it’s hard to keep up with all the ridiculousness that comes out of my mouth and ends up on a page. To make things easier, here is a glossary of terms that might appear in these reports:

Terminology
2/8: Scouting scale; often used as the 20/80 scale; used to denote physical tool grades both in the present and the future. The scale can also indicate a future player role, i.e., future major league grade (overall) at tool maturity. This is the breakdown:

2=Very poor

3=Well below-average

4=Below-average

5=Average; major-league regular

6=Above-average (plus); first-division

7=Well above-average (plus-plus); all-star

8=Elite; bacon

Big Raw: Power (or the power tool) is often just referred to as “raw.” 

Bore: A pitch that shows intense arm-side movement into the hitter standing in the arm-side box (RHP/RH; LHP/LH).

First-division: A player that could start for a playoff-caliber team 

Life: action/movement on a particular pitch; usually used to described the late movement on a fastball.

Makeup: For me, makeup is about work ethic and the desire to improve and maximize the potential suggested by the raw physical tools. Makeup is not about being a jerk or being likeable or being a sweetheart to fans in the stands. Makeup is a major component in a player’s ability to respond and adjust to failure and setbacks on the field. 

OFP (Overall Future Potential): The measure of all tool futures based on the projected growth and maturity of those tools. The individual grades are calculated and assigned proper weight, and the result of that division is the player’s OFP, or projected ceiling.

Pitchability: Put simply, the overall command and feel for the act of pitching. It’s a broad term, but its usually used to describe pitchers with instincts for their craft, sequencing ability, understanding of how to get hitters out, how to pitch east, west, north, and south, etc.

Run: Another way of describing the speed tool; also used to described a pitch that will show movement to the arm-side of the pitcher, hence running away from a hitter in the opposite box.

#Want: The manifestation of human desire and physical yield; when the yearning for perfection becomes visible to the naked eye. 

*If you are unsure or unfamiliar with any scouting term or phrase, please let me know and I’ll add the definition to this glossary.

I have to say, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the start of this series since Kevin told me he was hanging up his public prospect spikes. I consider the work to be a challenge, but it goes deeper than that. It’s an honor and privilege to have this platform and this audience to work with. The level of baseball knowledge that exists on this site sits comfortably in the plus-plus range, and the readers have high expectations as a result. You can’t get away with hanging breaking balls or flat changeups at this level, and that motivates me more than anything else. In my rapid progression from Baseball Prospectus reader, to part-time contributor, to full-time writer, to the person fortunate enough to take over the reins of this particular task, I’ve neglected my own enjoyment in the reflection of the journey. Now that the time has arrived, I can finally let a smile tickle my face. I get to write about prospects for Baseball Prospectus. Man, that’s really cool. I hope you enjoy the series. The Astros list will be published on Monday.

My electronic door is always open for feedback that wears any face.

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:  Prospects,  Carlos Correa

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