One of the advantages of writing your introduction last is that you can eschew the verbosity if your column is running 4,000+ words. Let’s get started.

First Basemen: Real Prospects

Player                            WARP     Upside     Comb
1. Prince Fielder, 1B, MIL (22)   18.5     224.1      409.6

2. Mike Jacobs, 1B, FLO (25)      16.0     129.3      288.9
3. Jason Stokes, 1B, FLO (24)     14.8     123.0      270.6
4. Justin Huber, 1B, KCA (23)     15.2     117.1      269.3
5. Ryan Garko, 1B, CLE (25)       14.9     108.2      257.2
6. Conor Jackson, 1B, ARI (24)    15.2      94.2      246.2
7. Daric Barton, 1B, OAK (20)     13.6     103.4      239.1
8. Kendry Morales, 1B, LAA (23)   12.1     113.0      233.6
9. Ryan Shealy, 1B, COL (26)      12.8      91.5      219.7

10. Wesley Bankston, 1B, TBA (22) 11.4      67.8      181.3

11. Garrett Jones, 1B, MIN (25)    9.8      58.4      156.1
12. Mike Aubrey, 1B, CLE (24)      8.7      49.6      137.1
13. Casey Rogowski, 1B, CHA (25)   9.6      38.7      134.2
14. James Loney, 1B, LAN (22)      9.4      39.8      133.8
15. Brandon Sing, 1B, CHN (25)     8.5      44.9      130.3
16. Larry Broadway, 1B, WAS (25)   8.7      41.7      128.8
17. Chip Cannon, 1B, TOR (24)      8.0      36.8      117.2
18. Chris Duncan, 1B, SLN (25)     7.2      36.0      107.8
19. Scott Thorman, 1B, ATL (24)    7.3      32.9      106.1

Prince Fielder‘s presence atop the list will surprise nobody, especially those who grew up watching him take batting practice with his daddy at Tiger Stadium. Fielder is less one-dimensional than his father at the plate, with a good batting eye and an ability to go the other way. Throw in the obvious power potential, and his pure offensive upside is as high as any prospect in the game. What may or may not be surprising is that PECOTA also identifies a fair amount of risk in Fielder. Take a look at his Five-Year Performance chart, and you’ll see that the gap between his 75th and 25th percentile EqA forecasts is very large, particularly as we advance. Much of that, needless to say, is because of his body type. You’ll see the adverb “surprisingly” a lot in connection with Fielder (“a surprisingly good athlete,” “surprisingly nimble around the bag”), but the fact remains that we’re in uncharted territory when it comes to a prospect with this combination of bat and braun.

In any event, while Fielder is number one at his position with a bullet–or a burger–it’s beyond him where the controversy ensues. In particular, you’re going to see both Conor Jackson and Daric Barton place higher on some other lists.

The fundamental issue with both players is how much power they’re going to develop. Jackson posted one of the more impressive untranslated statistical performances in all of baseball with a .354/.475/.553 line at Tucson, but it’s also one of the stranger ones, featuring 38 doubles against just eight home runs. It’s become something of a cliché in prospect analysis that a young player’s doubles “turn into” home runs down the line. But is that really the case?

Let’s do a little bit of thinking about doubles. When people talk about doubles turning into home runs, they’re probably thinking about a double that hits high off the wall, when only a little bit more muscle would get it out of the park–a Green Monster double. But this is really only one of three common types of doubles:

  • First, we have “power doubles,” doubles that either hit off the fence or go over the outfielder’s head, but don’t quite make it out of the park.
  • Second, we have “gap doubles” which land in between the outfielders and roll far enough for the hitter to advance to second base. I suspect that this is the most common type of double.
  • Finally, we have “foul line doubles” which scream past the third baseman or first baseman, and either carry fast enough or take a funny enough carom that the hitter is halfway to second base before a corner outfielder picks the ball up.

Of the three types of doubles, only the first type are really indicative of home run power. The other two are more a result of line drive power, which is certainly a good enough thing unto its own, but is often a sign of a different type of swing plane and a different type of plate coverage than a classic home run hitter is likely to have.

The other thing about doubles is that there’s really no such thing as a doubles hitter. Of the six “major” types of batting events–singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, and strikeouts–doubles are by far the least stable from season to season. Here are the year-to-year correlations for each of those statistics, for all hitters since World War II with at least 500 PA over two consecutive seasons:

Singles/PA     .68
Doubles/PA     .43
Triples/PA     .51
Home Runs/PA   .81
Walks/PA       .81
Strikeouts/PA  .88

Take park effects out of the equation, and the gap becomes even wider. The leader in doubles in any given season is usually just a good hitter who plays in a park that’s conducive to doubles hitting (like Fenway, or an artificial turf park), and has a lot of luck on his side. Both Jason Giambi and Mark Grudzielanek have led their league in doubles within the past ten seasons–and it’s hard to think of two players who have less in common than Giambi and Grudzielanek.

We can also test this proposition more directly. I looked at all players in our Davenport Translations database who were no older than 24, and evaluated how their power numbers turned out three years later. (The players had to have at least 300 PA in both seasons n and n+3 in order to qualify). Here are the correlations between various power metrics, and home run rate three years down the road:

Home Runs               .67
Doubles                 .24
ISO (PECOTA definition) .67
ISO (trad. definition)  .65
Slugging Percentage     .57

The PECOTA definition of isolated power (ISO) treats triples as doubles, figuring that triples are more an indication of speed than of additional power. In any event, the correlation between doubles today and home runs tomorrow is quite weak. Moreover, neither the PECOTA nor the traditional formulation of ISO correlates better with future home run output than home run rate all by itself. If you want to be a little bit more sophisticated about it, using the sort of multivariate regression techniques that PECOTA does, you’ll find that doubles have some predictive relationship with home run rate, but it isn’t a lot–it takes four or five doubles to equal one home run.

Now, there certainly are young hitters who start out with some power and go on to develop more power. PECOTA, though it isn’t particularly keen on Conor Jackson, identifies a few of them on his comparables list, guys like David Ortiz and Mo Vaughn. But doubles aren’t a particularly good indication of just which hitters those are going to be. Something like body type, for example, is a better predictor in this category.

If Jackson is treated unfairly by this analysis, it’s not because of his doubles, but because his projection suffers a fair bit from his very poor first 100 PA in the majors. The Davenport Translations understand that we need to discount performance significantly when a player spends too long at a given level. Is the converse also true? Should we give a hitter a certain grace period while he’s adjusting to a new environment? This is a good direction for future research.

Daric Barton is four years younger than Conor Jackson, but he’s also a fair bit smaller, and his comparables are probably less impressive than Jackson’s on balance. His Stars & Scrubs Chart contains an awful lot of yellow, indicating a hitter who is quite certain to become a major league regular but is unlikely to become a star. Nor does PECOTA see as much growth as it gets out of most other 20-year-olds. In short, it finds a player who is more remarkable for his maturity than his upside potential–a view that is almost eerily similar to the prevailing opinion of scouts.

I suspect that some people won’t be as bothered by the placement of Jackson or Barton on this list as they will be by the names of some of the hitters who rank above them. Ryan Garko and Mike Jacobs are Shane Victorino All-Stars; Garko in particular is underrated because of the tough offensive environments in the Cleveland system. I’m less confident in Jason Stokes‘ placement on this list, and recall my earlier concerns about PECOTA’s funky treatment of injured players.

Center Fielders: Real Prospects

Player                               Age    WARP     Upside     Comb
1. Chris Young, CF, ARI (22)          22    22.5      212.9     437.8

2. Brian Anderson, CF, CHA (24)       24    16.1      104.4     265.7
3. Franklin Gutierrez, CF, CLE (23)   23    14.6      100.8     246.8
4. Felix Pie, CF, CHN (21)            21    14.0       94.4     234.5
5. Lastings Milledge, CF, NYN (21)    21    12.8      100.8     228.4
6. Hunter Pence, CF, HOU (23)         23    14.3       70.8     214.2
7. Melky Cabrera, CF, NYA (21)        21    12.5       78.9     203.4
8. Brad Snyder, CF, CLE (24)          24    13.2       69.1     200.9
9. Elijah Dukes, CF, TBA (22)         22    12.9       70.6     200.0
10. Andrew McCutchen, CF, PIT (19)**  19    12.9       69.4     198.8
11. Brian Barton, CF, CLE (24)        24    13.1       51.4     182.2
12. Val Majewski, CF, BAL (25)        25     9.9       81.7     180.4
13. Chris Denorfia, CF, CIN (25)      25    13.2       46.3     178.2
14. David Krynzel, CF, MIL (24)       24    11.3       52.0     165.0
15. Angel Pagan, CF, NYN (24)         24    13.0       34.3     164.1
16. Frank Diaz, CF, WAS (22)          22    10.7       48.0     155.3
17. Jeff Fiorentino, CF, BAL (23)     23    10.3       50.8     154.2
18. Javier Herrera, CF, OAK (21)      21    10.9       44.4     153.6
19. Jeffrey Salazar, CF, COL (25)     25    11.6       36.0     152.3
20. Michael Bourn, CF, PHI (23)       23    12.4       24.0     148.3
21. Rajai Davis, CF, PIT (25)         25    10.7       33.6     140.1
22. Anthony Miller, CF, COL (25)      25    10.1       34.3     135.7
23. Timothy Battle, CF, NYA (20)      20     9.2       37.4     129.6
24. Jason Pridie, CF, TBA (22)        22     8.1       47.5     128.4
25. Mitch Maier, CF, KCA (24)         24     9.7       27.7     124.5
26. Gregor Blanco, CF, ATL (22)       22     8.1       41.7     122.8
27. Chris Lubanski, CF, KCA (21)      21     8.3       34.0     117.4
28. Joseph Gaetti, CF, COL (24)       24     7.9       37.4     116.1
29. Sebastien Boucher, CF, SEA (24)   24     8.7       21.8     108.9
30. Chris Aguila, CF, FLO (27)        27     7.4       32.5     107.0
31. Steve Moss, CF, MIL (22)          22     7.5       26.2     101.5
** Small sample size warning

For digestibility’s sake, I’m going to break the outfielders up into center fielders and corner position players. This is not a judgment call about which players are likely to end up at which positions in the majors. As with all of these lists, the positional listing is simply a reflection of where a guy played most frequently over the course of the last year or two.

Chris Young and Brian Anderson might have seemed interchangeable to people who were more casual followers of the White Sox, but Young (now a Diamondback) is the better prospect by a long shot. He has two years on Anderson, and his skills rate is vastly superior in every department except throwing arm (not a substantial consideration for PECOTA) and contact hitting ability. PECOTA sees Young growing into a .300 EqA guy, with about a 30% chance of becoming a true superstar. There’s some risk involved because of Young’s strikeout rate–it takes a “special” prospect to get both Willie Mays and Chin-Feng Chen on his comparables list–but we’ll save that discussion for the next installment.

Franklin Gutierrez falls into another group of underrated prospects, the What Have You Done For Me Lately crowd. Gutierrez, it’s true, had the most disappointing year of his pro career in 2005. He’s had injury and plate discipline issues. But he’s also a guy who posted a .263 EqA as a 20-year-old in the Florida State League, and that still means something. Sometimes, being young for your league means you’re on the Fast Track to Francoeur. Other times, it buys you a mulligan on a year like this one.

PECOTA takes Felix Pie reasonably seriously as a prospect, as least as much as it can for a guy whose number one comparable is Corey Patterson. We do not make this stuff up, folks. I’d be reluctant to read too much into Pie’s power breakout at Double-A, as it came in only 59 games worth of playing time. Although Pie is built differently than Patterson, he’s presently a little bit undersized for a power hitter. Lastings Milledge belongs in the same broad category as Pie, and shares some of his comparables. PECOTA sees growth potential for both of these guys, but reminds us that it might not come immediately; either could very easily have a Franklin Gutierrez type of season next year (at which point they’ll go from being overrated to underrated).

I used Hunter Pence as my whipping boy in the PECOTA essay in this year’s book, so I won’t pick on him too much more here. Suffice it to say that his initial ranking–he rated as something like the tenth best prospect in baseball under the old version of PECOTA–was one of the things that prompted us to investigate (and eventually implement) the minor league levels adjustment. PECOTA thinks Pence could be about an average major league player right now, but his growth curves are absolutely flat.

I don’t understand the complete lack of regard of Melky Cabrera‘s prospect credentials. I wonder how much of that has to do with his disastrous six-game trial as a Yankee, and the general slowness to catch up with a developmental system that has undergone nearly a complete overhaul within the past couple of years. Cabrera’s certainly not a sure thing–if we were assigning letter grades here, a rating of 200 or so would probably correspond to a B/B-. But almost anyone who holds his own in Double-A at the age of 20 deserves more than a six-game look.

Corner Outfielders: Real Prospects

Player                                Age     WARP    Upside     Comb
1. Delmon Young, RF, TBA (20)          20     23.6     247.3     483.1

2. Jeremy Hermida, RF, FLO (22)        22     22.1     157.8     378.7

3. Corey Hart, RF, MIL (24)            24     19.0     124.8     315.2

4. Alexander Romero, LF, MIN (22)      22     17.8     110.6     288.1

5. Nathan McLouth, LF, PIT (24)        24     15.4      87.7     241.8
6. Carlos Quentin, RF, ARI (23)        23     16.5      72.9     238.2
7. Billy Butler, LF, KCA (20)          20     11.4     108.1     221.8
8. Jason Botts, LF, TEX (25)           25     12.5      96.6     221.2
9. Brandon Moss, RF, BOS (22)          22     13.3      73.9     206.5
10. Matthew Kemp, RF, LAN (21)         21     12.7      79.6     206.4
11. Kevin Thompson, LF, NYA (26)       26     13.8      57.7     195.9
12. Chris Snelling, RF, SEA (24)++     24      9.9      92.4     191.4
13. Ben Johnson, RF, SDN (25)          25     12.7      57.0     184.3
14. Jason Kubel, RF, MIN (24)          24     10.4      73.0     177.4
15. Nelson Cruz, RF, MIL (25)          25     12.1      50.5     171.9
16. Carlos Gonzalez, RF, ARI (20)      20     12.4      46.8     171.3
17. Cody Haerther, LF, SLN (22)        22     10.9      61.4     170.3
18. Nick Markakis, RF, BAL (22)        22     10.8      51.8     159.5
19. Douglas Deeds, RF, MIN (25)        25     11.1      42.8     153.8
20. Daniel Ortmeier, RF, SFN (25)      25     12.2      29.8     151.8
21. Josh Kroeger, RF, PHI (23)         23      9.9      50.9     149.7
22. Eddy Martinez-Esteve, LF, SFN (22) 22     11.1      36.0     147.4
23. Nate Schierholtz, RF, SFN (22)     22     11.0      37.3     147.2
24. John Raglani, LF, LAN (23)         23     11.5      30.5     145.3
25. David Espinosa, RF, DET (24)       24     10.3      42.2     144.9
26. Tony Blanco, LF, WAS (24)          24      8.1      63.7     144.2
27. Andre Ethier, LF, LAN (24)         24     11.2      28.5     140.8
28. Matt Diaz, LF, ATL (28)            28      9.7      43.0     139.8
29. Jason Cooper, LF, CLE (25)         25      9.5      37.1     131.6
30. Prentice Redman, LF, SLN (26)      26      9.5      35.1     130.5
31. Matt Watson, RF, OAK (27)          27      9.4      35.9     129.8
32. Nicholas Stavinoha, RF, SLN (24)   24      9.2      35.2     126.8
33. Jay Bruce, RF, CIN (19)**          19      8.2      41.8     124.1
34. Brian Stavisky, LF, OAK (25)       25      8.6      32.3     118.4
35. Justin Ruggiano, RF, LAN (24)      24      8.3      28.7     112.1
36. Paul McAnulty, LF, SDN (25)        25      8.1      31.4     111.9
37. Nolan Reimold, RF, BAL (22)        22      8.6      25.5     111.3
38. Brad Nelson, LF, MIL (23)          23      7.6      31.0     106.7
** Small sample size warning
++ Injury adjustment

PECOTA thinks that Delmon Young is one of the three best prospects in baseball; I’ll leave you hanging as to the identities of the other two. Nevertheless, I suspect people understate the risk associated with Young. In Young’s case, that risk isn’t a complete washout, but that his plate approach doesn’t mature and he winds up as a .270/.300/.500 guy, which wouldn’t be especially desirable coming from a right fielder. Now, there’s nothing about Young in particular that triggers this dose of skepticism; his plate discipline will probably improve. It’s just that, almost by definition, every prospect has some sort of issue, and Young is no exception. While some prospects are more likely than others to overcome that issue, it’s never a sure thing to assume that a human being is going to start doing something in the future that he isn’t doing in the present.

Jeremy Hermida is supposed to be a stathead darling; this is a very good ranking, but it might disappoint a few people. There are a couple of issues here. Firstly, Hermida’s walks have constituted a good chunk of his value in the minor leagues, and a walk rate that high isn’t going to translate completely to the majors. This is about as close to a fact of life as it gets for a hitting prospect. Hermida walked in about 22% of his plate appearances at Carolina last year; we’re projecting that number to drop to 13% in the majors.

A major reason for the decline is that Hermida’s power hitting ability is good, but not great (just yet). We’re projecting Hermida to post a .439 slugging average. I went into our database and ran a search for the highest walk rates in the past decade among hitters who had a slugging average of .450 or less.

Highest Walk Rates Since 1996; Maximum .450 SLG, Minimum 500 PA:

Player             Year    Age    Height     BB%    SLG
Rickey Henderson   1996    37      6'0"     19.2%   .344
Tony Phillips      1996    37      5'10"    19.2%   .399
Gary Sheffield     1997    28      5'11"    18.6%   .446
Rickey Henderson   1998    39      6'0"     18.2%   .347
Jose Cruz Jr.      2003    29      6'0"     15.7%   .414
John Olerud        2000    31      6'5"     15.7%   .439
Tony Phillips      1997    38      5'10"    15.7%   .391
Erubiel Durazo     2003    29      6'3"     15.4%   .430
Rickey Henderson   1997    38      6'0"     14.9%   .342
Jose Offerman      1999    30      6'0"     14.8%   .435
Tim Salmon         2001    32      6'3"     14.8%   .383
Mark Grace         2000    36      6'2"     14.6%   .429
Barry Larkin       1999    35      6'0"     14.3%   .420
Brandy Anderson    2000    36      6'1"     14.2%   .421

It’s very rare for a major league hitter to draw walks in more than 13 or 15 percent of his plate appearances if he doesn’t represent a very significant power threat. Pitchers will simply throw him too many strikes, especially if there are some holes in his plate coverage. The guys who proved the exceptions to the rule were either very old, savvy hitters, or were short players who didn’t have as much of a strike zone to defend (Hermida is 6’4″). Most of the exceptions came before the strike zone was enlarged in 2001.

On top of the magically disappearing walks, it might also seem that PECOTA doesn’t expect Hermida to grow very much; it has his EqA increasing by just 11 points from age 22 to age 26. I thought at first that it took Hermida as a low risk, medium reward guy–sort of a supercharged Daric Barton. But that isn’t actually the case; there are quite a few high upside career paths in his forecast. The problem is that there are also a lot more complete bust-outs then you’d expect to see in a prospect of this stature.

The issue may be with the comparables selection; Hermida’s similarity index of 20 is on the threshold of what we’d call “highly unique”. Once again, this comes back to his walk rate. Players who walk this often this young are rare enough to begin with. Those who do are almost invariably poor athletes, ranging on the spectrum from John Olerud to Jack Cust. But Hermida is much more athletic than someone like Olerud or Cust, and virtually all of his comparables require making some sort of less-than-comfortable compromise. Still, I stand behind this forecast, especially considering that there are scouting concerns about his taking too many hittable pitches, something that could become more of a problem against major league pitchers who are better at hitting the corners.

Rany Jazayerli asked me whether Corey Hart is this year’s Jonny Gomes or Wily Mo Pena. He might be, but only if Geoff Jenkins gets hurt again, or the Brewers move back to the American League. It shouldn’t be that hard to see why PECOTA likes Hart; he has the combination of skills and tools that the system has always favored. There’s nothing especially goofy about Hart’s batting line; his strikeout rates are highish, but well within the tolerable range. I suspect that some of the reason he’s remained off the radar screen is because his defensive position has been changed so many times, including some rather brutal experiments at third base (something the Brewers saw fit to recreate in the AFL this year). Hart runs well enough that he almost certainly should make an adequate corner outfielder, and PECOTA thinks he’ll develop the bat for the position. Then again, having Corey Koskie on my 25-man roster would make me do some strange things too.

Alexander Romero is another guy who has remained incognito. The development in his power bat is more impressive since it came at a tough hitters’ environment in New Britain, and his good batting averages are supported by his low strikeout rates. The buzz against Romero is that he’s a “tweener,” which is often scouting speak for “we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we don’t like this guy very much.” PECOTA, instead, sees a guy who will be just 22 next year, and whose offensive skills could develop in a couple of different directions. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between Romero and Nick Markakis, who has been (almost) a year slower in moving up the ladder, and who has played in substantially easier hitting environments.

It’s hard not to look at Billy Butler‘s batting lines without being impressed, but PECOTA manages the trick. It’s not that it doesn’t expect his bat to develop–it has Butler getting up to a .294 EqA by age 24. But Butler could hit that well and still not be especially valuable. At some point, Butler’s defensive problems could also come back around to hamper his offensive development. There are only fourteen DH jobs in baseball, and it’s hard to commit a 23-year-old to one of them unless you’re absolutely certain that he can mash. Butler could very easily lose a developmental year or two to Buddy Bell’s doghouse, or to riding the bus between Kansas City and Omaha. It’s telling that PECOTA has his playing time trailing off much more than it does for most prospects.

One note about Chris Snelling‘s ranking. I’ve warned that there’s very little that we can do to help PECOTA out with players who have severe injury situations. But we do have one rather draconian alternative, which is to zero out a player’s numbers, age him by a season, and rerun his forecast; this is what we did with Jason Kubel last year. I’ve decided to do the same with Snelling, considering that he isn’t expected back until the All-Star Break at the earliest, and that he hasn’t exactly been a quick healer. Although you can’t see the fix on his PECOTA card, his rating here reflects that downward adjustment.

Almost Prospects

Player                          WARP     Upside    Comb
Ryan Howard, 1B, PHI (26)       22.8     259.2     487.0
Chris Shelton, 1B, DET (26)     17.6     151.3     327.7
Daniel Johnson, 1B, OAK (26)    14.5      93.4     238.5
Bradley Eldred, 1B, PIT (25)    10.7      70.7     177.5
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, SDN (24)   11.0      58.8     169.1
Casey Kotchman, 1B, LAA (23)    11.7      50.7     167.8

Player                          WARP     Upside    Comb
Grady Sizemore, CF, CLE (23)    26.5     231.9     496.7
Curtis Granderson, CF, DET (25) 23.8     150.9     389.0
Rocco Baldelli, CF, TBA (24)    19.2     101.2     293.2
Shane Victorino, CF, PHI (25)   20.4      84.7     288.8
Willy Taveras, CF, HOU (24)     17.2      34.1     205.9

Player                          WARP     Upside    Comb
Jonny Gomes, RF, TBA (25)       18.9     179.2     368.6
Jeffrey Francoeur, RF, ATL (22) 18.7     144.2     331.3

Most of these ratings look pretty sane–I know that not everyone is quite this sold on Ryan Howard. The two numbers that stand out are Curtis Granderson‘s on the high side and Casey Kotchman‘s on the low side.

As I discuss in Baseball Between the Numbers, players tend to develop better and hold up longer when they have a variety of different skills, rather than putting all their eggs in one basket. Granderson fits that billing very well, and he combines it with tremendous center field defense. I’m glad that Bobby Abreu has a high place on his comparables list, because that’s what I’ve always thought we could get if Granderson’s skills all come together.

The defense’s first argument on behalf of Casey Kotchman is that his wrist injuries have hampered his power output. Although I’ve acknowledged here and elsewhere that injuries make it harder to profile a player, I also believe that performance is performance. Nick Johnson had wrist problems, but he always hit his way through his wrist problems. J.D. Drew has single-handedly increased my Blue Cross premium by 15 dollars or so, but his performance has always been very good when he’s played. Even someone like Jason Stokes has never stopped hitting his home runs. At some point, if the injury avoidance skills aren’t there, we need to ask at what percentage of his max a player can perform without being 100%. That’s particularly important when dealing with something like a wrist injury, which can be fairly chronic. Right now, Kotchman looks like he won’t be much of an improvement over Darin Erstad, and either Kendry Morales or Dallas McPherson could have his job by the end of the year.