Is this a prospect?

Year  Level  Age  G    AB    AVG   OBP*  SLG    H  2B   HR   BB   K
1998    R    18   10   38   .316  .366  .474   12   3    1    3   9
1999    A    19   69   254  .280  .346  .480   71  12   13   26  71
2000    AA   20   59   223  .287  .345  .439   64   9    7   20  75
2001    AAA  21   71   270  .222  .250  .367   60   6   11   10  85
2002    AAA  22   128  471  .240  .301  .435  113  30   18   37 151
2003    AAA  23   133  483  .234  .291  .412  113  40   14   32 122

1998-2001 OBPs approximated based on available data.
Lines after 1998 with few games at a level and Arizona Fall League omitted.

It’s worth noting that for reasons not related to baseball, playing time was limited up until 2002. The draft position of this player, as well as his contract status, are irrelevant to the question at hand: What do you see in those lines? And can you draw any conclusions based on those limited early years?

I look at them and see a guy who’s everything Prospectus traditionally doesn’t look for in a prospect. There’s obviously power, and a Branyan-esque strikeout problem. Throw in the early scouting reports: great athlete, big guy, great arm but bad movement in the infield, error-prone defense…interesting.

The Drew Henson Saga, of course, is more than that; it’s one of the most interesting stories in Prospectdom. He may not be six-year, $17 million interesting though, which is the contract the Yankees gave him to give up football.

And now we’re off to the races with what is one of the most-debated topics of prospect analysis: Can plate discipline be taught? Can someone like Henson, who’s extremely strong, shorten his swing, get the bat around faster so he can make more contact? Can he learn to recognize the curve and hit it? And will that help him stop swinging at bad breaking pitches, draw some walks, and get better pitches to drive? Are humans inherently good or evil?

I was the lone voice in favor of including Henson in BP’s Top 40 Prospects list, at least in the Honorable Mention section. The only thing that’s changed is that he’s had a repeat year, the highlight of which was that for a brief while we heard he was catching on and had a better approach at the plate. His defense at third is still bad.

What kind of improvement would have been required for Henson to be adequate, or even considered a good prospect again?

Say Henson spends the year with an ace hitting coach, and it helps his walk rate (which stands this year at about 6%). Say his walks reach the magical 10% of his plate appearances us statheads want to see. His 2003 line would be .244/.321/.391 (and I’ve dropped HBP entirely from these, so forgive me). Still not drool-worthy.

Now the contact-hitting part. Say Henson spends the year with an ace hitting coach and shortens up his swing, and turns some of those outs into hits–10% of his AB outcomes turn around, and he gets 48 more hits, all singles. His 2003 line runs about .290/.334/.431.

Toss them together and make another adjustment–figure those extra hits aren’t all singles, that between raking the ball more and getting better pitches to hit, he maintains his extra-base hit rates. His 2003 now runs .303/.374/.482 or thereabout.

For a 23-year old in Triple-A, that’d be sweet. That’s like Nick Johnson‘s year-23 2001 line in Columbus, where Henson toiled this season (though clearly Johnson’s an entirely different player than Henson, and I’m just tossing that out there for kicks).

I understand that this is a deceptive exercise. For any prospect you can say “well, if only he gets hits in 10% more ABs, and 20% more walks…voila, Joe Thurston is the best prospect in the history of baseball. But for Henson, this is exactly what everyone was forced to do, because his playing time up until 2002 was so limited by football and injury. And if he made a big leap, which for someone 23 with his athletic ability was a definite possibility, suddenly he could have been a legitimate threat to the Yankees’ starting third base job.

Henson didn’t improve this year. I don’t know if a year with Charley Lau would have made him hit, or if recognizing breaking pitches and making more contact is something Henson could have learned, even if he’d taken up baseball full-time early. Huge power prospects are rare, and since pitch recognition is something that can come with experience, it was easy to look at his weaknesses as a product of his lack of playing time, and so potentially improvable, while his strengths made it worth the risk.

Henson’s failure may tilt player evaluation thought even further toward selecting college-seasoned players. That way, you get more years of data, with decent competition against whom you can better adjust stats. You may pass up some potential stars this way, but your $17 million investment has a lot more information behind it. And that, in turn, may make guys like Henson lower-profile, less likely to be rushed and surrounded by constant media speculation, and more likely to pay off.

Drew Henson won’t be a prospect if he leaves baseball, obviously. But the conflict fought over him, potential against probability of achieving it, is going to go on as long as there are baseball players to develop.

Thank you for reading

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