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November 6, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Prospect Ranking Regrets and the Importance of Instinct in Scouting

by Chris Mellen

Everyone loves a good prospect list. Before each season and at various points throughout the year, prospect lists give us a preview of the talent on the way for each team and allow us to see how each system stacks up against the others. From the reader’s perspective, these lists might seem to spring fully formed from their authors’ minds. But a good prospect list is the product of weeks of behind-the-scenes work.

When Jason Parks wrote about generating prospect rankings in his most recent “I’ve Been Thinking About…” article, he got me thinking about the process—specifically, my process. I love putting rankings together. Beginning a list or making an update summons a palpable sense of excitement. It’s a chance to sum up one’s work over a given period and to step back and take a high-level look at the progression of a group of prospects. But there’s also a sense of apprehension. Ranking prospects can be a daunting task, and the final product is forever attached to your name. It’s that apprehension that always brings me back to two factors that shape my process after I’ve reviewed all of the notes I’ve made and reports and nuggets of information I’ve collected: gut feel and instincts.

All lists and points of view on prospects are unique, and each author stresses certain angles of analysis—a blend of scouting and statistical performance, say, or a heavy focus on one or the other. Some creators place more of an emphasis on ceiling, while others look closely at proximity to the majors. Whatever an author’s approach might be, readers get a feel for it over time with continued exposure to the work, developing a context with which to evaluate the rankings.

Over the course of the season, through both my first-hand reports and ones passed on from contacts within the industry, I lean very heavily on scouting and evaluating tools, along with developmental progression toward reaching an assessed projection. Each time I put rankings together, I look back on two particular instances from my time in the field, relying on them as reminders to fully execute my process.

Ranking prospects isn’t a matter of always being “right.” If you’re looking for certainty, ranking prospects is a bad business to be in. Baseball is famously a game of failure, and the odds for players coming up through the minors are against them from the moment they’re drafted. As a result, erring on the side of caution when evaluating prospects isn’t a bad idea, but it can come back to bite you, as it did during my first formative rankings experience. It was a turning point in shaping my process and heightened my awareness of my “gut feel.” By nature, I tend to be more methodical when making a decision or strong recommendation, so tapping into intuition isn’t something that has always come easy for me. But it’s something I’ve learned to be more comfortable with since my first experience seeing and evaluating Red Sox shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts.

I had never seen Bogaerts before a four-day scouting opportunity during Fall Instructs in 2010, and I had no basis for assessment heading in. The overall package during drills and batting practice immediately jumped out: elite bat speed with leverage in the swing, strong athleticism, fluid movements, room for growth on the frame, and a solid-average-to-better arm. Bogaerts’ transition into game action was even more impressive, despite his inexperience and youth relative to the competition. The ball jumped off his bat, and the contact was loud. Against a curveball, he kept his hands back during his stride to unload a deep drive with plenty of backspin off the wall. It was a good sign for a young hitter, and something I hadn’t often seen in players his age. All of my markers that say a talent has a chance to be something special were being met, and my gut was screaming “top 10,” even with the amount of development to come. However, I ended up playing it safe and recommending a more moderate initial upward trajectory.

So what happened? And specifically, what lead to my lack of trust in my gut feel? Looking back, I believe that my instincts—another factor I’ve learned to tune into—were clouded by another episode a few years earlier. Instincts can be enhanced by experience, but also suppressed dwelling too much about what’s happened before. It’s important to have a balance, and my initial attempt to evaluate Boston third base prospect Michael Almanzar had thrown off that balance.

Almanzar’s had been a high-profile signing; a $1.5 million bonus for a 16-year-old will do that. The first time I saw Almanzar served as the base against which I would evaluate him in the future. He was rough, as expected, but there were tools that could develop into skills: top-line power potential, a plus arm, leverage in the swing, and a developing body. However, the swing mechanics were raw, and there was some stiffness in the overall movements that needed to be ironed out. I had some aspects of his development to focus on when following up.

Months passed before I got to see Almanzar again, but by then he had gained some traction through reports during the season and chatter from various sources that had pushed him into my top 10. I developed an expectation before seeing him that he had made progress since my first look. But over a four- or five-day stretch, I zoned in on Almanzar, and many of the same problems were still there, notably very messy swing mechanics. I tried to fit the player into a box and didn’t balk at continuing to place him in the top 10, but something about it didn’t feel right. I placed the bonus, chatter, and initial performance ahead of what my eyes were telling me.

Maybe you know or have already guessed the subsequent development paths each prospect took: Bogaerts has gone on to become a top-10 prospect, and Almanzar has lagged behind. It’s not so much what ended up happening with these two players that makes them so memorable, but how the experience of seeing them in person and following their progress from afar has influenced my present thinking about prospect rankings. If the steps are followed and there’s still a miss, so be it. I’ve learned through experience that staying true to the process is the most rewarding approach, regardless of the final outcome.

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

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