As November ages into December, the baseball season continues its transition from full throttle to dead air before thrusting forward again with the push of free agency, the Winter Meetings, and the countdown to report dates for pitchers and catchers. As many in the industry work to contextualize the previous campaign (while simultaneously setting up sales pitches for the eventualities of tomorrow), I find myself already bored with the conjecture and rumor of the winter. What shall I do until my eyes can once again open and focus on live play? Oh, how I already long for thee.
In the coming months, I plan on revisiting a series I started last offseason, where I take the top five prospects in each system and explore the weaknesses in their skill set that could lead to setbacks or stumbles in the 2012 season. We in the prospect prognostication field tend to paint pretty pictures of young talent, choosing to package the dream instead of the reality. Not that hope requires a big marketing push, but focusing on the conceptual world of peak potential is so much easier and palatable than focusing on the negatives.
Here’s a sample from last season’s series, taking a look at Wil Myers, a player who was approaching the top tier of prospects heading into the 2011 season.
Prospect #4: Wil Myers
Who: The third-round selection in the 2009 draft, Myers has well above-average offensive potential, and if I thought he had a future behind the plate, I would rank him higher in the Royals' system. In two stops in ’10 he showed both a mature approach and the ability to hit for average. He also delivered in-game power by slugging 54 extra-base hits in 126 combined games, including 10 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League.
What could go wrong in ’11: Despite being the owner of many plus offensive attributes, most notably his hands/wrists and raw strength, Myers has some minor exploitable holes in his swing, showing some vulnerability on the outer half of the plate. I’m not in love with Myers’ hitting mechanics, as he starts open and has a noisy transition into hitting position; despite a quick trigger that allows him to get into the zone quickly, the overall balance and fluidity isn’t always there. So far, Myers has been able to use his excellent hand-eye coordination and above-average pitch recognition skills to minimize the exploitation, but more advanced pitchers will force the issue until Myers adjusts, which could lead to some statistical setbacks, especially if the adjustments require a more complex restructuring of his swing mechanics.
The hard truth is that the majority of immature talent in the minors will fail to develop into the mature talent we witness in the majors. I want to explore some of the present deficiencies found in that immature talent, and use those shortcomings to set them up for failure rather than fame. I think it will be a fun series. I’ll probably go in alphabetical order with the teams, but I’m open to suggestions.
A Rant about Accountability
As a member of the prospect prognostication machine, I must stand alongside my opinions in the firing line of accountability. People in this particular field often use sourced information in their reports, drawing on opinions from evaluators up and down baseball’s food chain. But that sourced material is often used as a shield against outcomes, should those outcomes run opposite from the opinions expressed by that source. “Hey, I had a trusted source provide me with that trusted info. He was wrong. I was just passing along the trusted info. I never said I agreed with the trusted source. I’m so handsome and blessed.”
However, should the solicited opinions prove prophetic, the aggregator of said opinion can ride into the sunset of awesomeness, taking credit for showing the wherewithal to print those opinions in the first place. It’s win-win, and trust me, I enjoy riding into that sunset of awesomeness more than anybody I know. But that particular approach creates an insulated environment where the writer can never be wrong. After all, if you are merely propagating the opinions of others, how can you be wrong when those opinions decay? It’s smart, and it’s also unavoidable given the nature of the position: You can’t see every prospect in person, and you can’t formulate your own opinion on every player in the minors. In most cases, your opinions probably aren’t up to the standards of those who act as sources, those that have been evaluating talent longer than I’ve been in the business of feeding myself. Shouldn’t their opinions matter more to the reader than those that originate from my own eyes?
Over the last few years, I’ve been on a poorly-designed particleboard soapbox, bouncing my tongue up and down on the importance of seeing prospects in person. This isn’t a cause specific to me; any registered prospectphile should support such a movement and encourage more first-hand accounts and subsequent first-hand accountability. But I’m also a registered hypocrite, because like everybody else in the industry, I’m not able to witness all the talent first-hand, so when I decry those that fail to live up to my sanctimonious standards in this regard, I’m actually speaking from a weakness rather than a strength. I blame my parents. It’s not fair to judge someone who can’t put everything in the real world [read: significant others, children, day jobs, etc.] on the backburner in order to watch teenagers play a game. It’s just not realistic.
Why Seeing is Believing
Context established, I’d like to start a discussion as to why seeing prospects in person is a vital part of the overall evaluation equation, and why I tend to be such a blithering asshole when the topic comes to the surface. Even in this modern age that allows those in the know to establish an immediate connection with baseball front offices, to establish an immediate connection with those standing on the backfields of a team complex, and even to establish an immediate connection with those watching the next seven-figure talent on the Latin American landscape, the speed and accessibility of information has become so efficient and practical that the eyes of others have replaced the eyes of the writer. I get it. It makes sense. It’s like calling a cousin to get Grandma’s recipe for chicken fried steak rather than making the trip to Texas, standing over this crazy woman while she makes the dish, documenting her every move to the best of your limited ability, and then flying back home with information you could have obtained with a phone call or an e-mail.
As I mentioned, people looking for information on players would probably rather read a sourced opinion from a respected baseball industry insider than a first-hand observation from someone whose wall isn’t lined with the same skins of experience. I understand and respect that. But I think when we build a profile of a player in a conceptual sense, writers often fail to capture who the player really is. In my opinion, you can only truly appreciate the skill set of a prospect if you have shared a space with that prospect, if you evaluated a prospect at the epicenter of the action.
Scouting players solely from reports is like formulating an opinion of a potential mate based entirely on their internet dating profile. You have the image, you have the vital characteristics; you have the basic construct of their existence, ranging from their positive attributes to the ones that are conveniently missing from the profile. It’s very abstract and impersonal, but with enough data, you can create the basic backbone of the aforementioned potential mate and you can sell it accordingly. But all that data and all those reports can’t tell you how that person actually exists in the world—how they formulate words with their lips, how they react when they get nervous, how their idiosyncratic behaviors make them unique. Or, if you prefer to dip back into the previous analogy: standing in that kitchen watching those crazy old hands of my grandmother maneuver around those ingredients, pretending you didn’t hear her latest racist remark as you study her breading technique first-hand is not an experience you can have via e-mail. You might not understand the process, but you appreciate the experience, and that means something.
Seeing players in person gives you the ultimate context for evaluation. You can see how the player actually moves, how his tools actually function in game action. You can see how a blue-chip prospect performs against another blue-chipper, and not just read about his production that may or may not have come against an opponent with major-league potential. You can see the ball explode from a pitcher’s hand and actually understand the magnitude of that experience. You can hear the ball come off the bat and recognize the different between a normal prospect and the shotgun blast that is associated with Bryce Harper’s swing. You might not be a 20-year industry evaluator, someone capable of dissecting the finest details of a player’s physical characteristics, but what you might lack in history you can make up for with honesty. What you see with your own eyes is true and pure, and it can’t be wrong even if it’s wrong. The conclusions you draw from those observations might prove to be wrong, and in that regard, people might prefer that you keep them to yourself. But putting yourself into that experience brings you closer to the reality of the evaluation more than anything you could possibly read in the abstract.
Again, I don’t want this to read as an indictment on those that have paved the prospect road on which I now walk. People like my friend and prospect mentor, Kevin Goldstein, or Baseball America’s Jim Callis, or Deric McKamey, or Keith Law (just to name a few) have set the industry standard for excellence in the field of national prospect evaluation, and without their influence (both personally and professionally), the prospect fire that burns within me would barely be a spark. And like my aforementioned superiors in this field, putting out the best product is always first priority, whether that means working the phones or working the fields; the goal has been to satisfy the audience, to provide them with the best possible information our access can offer. I just don’t always like the way the current product or the current process makes me feel as an evaluator, and I want to change that somewhat. I want to offer more transparency when it comes to the evaluations themselves, standing behind the eyewitness accounts and taking on the blame if those accounts turn out to be woefully inaccurate.
As much as I enjoy writing about prospects for this site, honing my chops as an evaluator is the only way I am going to reach my goal of becoming one of those evaluators on the other end of the line. Taking personal responsibility is a good start, as is spending more time watching the players I write about. But it’s also about the product that is presented. With this new series, I want create more dialogue about the realities of the players in the present, not just from my opinions or the opinions of those I so often depend on in the industry, but from your opinions as well. Just as every player is unique, every account of that player should be. We all view things through a different lens, and I think your opinions often get discounted because you aren’t in the industry or you don’t have a wealth of player evaluation experience. When this series kicks off, I want to hear back from you on the players profiled; I want your first-hand observations, if applicable. I want to start sincere discussions that don’t devolve into binary proclamations of right and wrong. With prospects, everything depends on the context of the now and the promise provided by tomorrow. With that being the case, the discussion of evaluation, both in the present and in the future, is always up for interpretation.
*Coming up after the Winter Meetings, the first installment of the “What Could Go Wrong in 2012” series will kick off with a detailed look at what could go wrong with my own documented prognostications in 2012.
Thank you for reading
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After reading the old Myers excerpt I expected some kind of assessment of the report, but you went right into the rest of the article.
Myers certainly had a statistical set back, but was it for the reasons you suggested or something else (injuries?). Those kinds of distinctions are tough for people trying to go down the accountability path.
As mentioned at the end of article, the next piece will focus on what can go wrong with some of my existing prognostications in 2012. You will get examples of the accountability I speak of at that time. I see it more as taking personal ownership of opinion and standing in the heat when those opinions are called into question. I don't really view "accountability" as the need to clarify every distinction made on every prospect you ever write about unless a specific question is posed or the report itself was called into question. When that is the case, I will answer those questions or clarify those positions/opinions to the best of my ability.
Myers did struggle with some injuries and that certainly affected his overall approach to the game; his hands weren't as explosive and his mechanical profile at the plate was inconsistent. The level also played a role, as making adjustments against Double-A pitchers is a tougher task than making adjustments in A-ball. It was a combo of injury and development.
In my opinion, the combination of injury and professional advancement were the culprits in Myers's struggles in '11. I thought he looked great in the fall, with a swing that was fluid and powerful, without much effort or hesitation. A healthy Myers is still a top tier prospect in the minors. I'll soon write what might go wrong for him in '12 (when I reach the Royals), but I'm a big believer in his future.
Which is not to say that you would change or edit their information when presenting it to readers, but that you might be able to filter some of it out? I'm sure you already do plenty of this, but I'd love to hear to what extent this sort of scout evaluation factors in.
As I mentioned, I want to provide the readers with the best possible information on players, and given the experience of my sources, they can help me provide that. But I also want to grow as an evaluator, and I can't do that if I always defer to their opinion. I want offer more of my thoughts when applicable, which folds into the accountability aspect I ranted about. But even when I go forward with an eyewitness account, behind the scenes I'm always asking sources about prospects. You can never have too much information. I might not present their thoughts when I present my own, but just because I see a player in person doesn't mean the process stops after my eyes catch the prize. Players are constantly changing and its important to get updates as frequently as possible.
PECOTA (as an example) is likewise a system. The types of data it uses is different. It has a repeatable level of accuracy (whatever that is) and it doesnâ€™t gain any additional level of accuracy by sitting in the stands. Yet, it still can tell you much about projection (and that, after all, is what the â€˜prospectingâ€™ game is all about.
Other â€˜expertsâ€™ in the industry have built a network of trusted resources, collect their data from these resources and understand how to work with those data points to make their projections. They tooâ€”over timeâ€”establish a repeatable level of accuracy (whatever that may be).
My point is that the â€˜prospectingâ€™ business is all about results. How soon in the development curve do we realize that a particular prospect is likely to become a Major League player, what type of ceiling does he have and what type of value is he most likely to produce at the next level? The only thing that truly matters is how well your â€˜systemâ€™ does at answering those questions. Instead, you want to argue about what is the best method to collect data.
One question, though: as video becomes more pervasive, how much can it supplement being there in person? For those who have have a day job, significant others, and children (or are day traders, are compelled to go to strip clubs, and have dogs) can't seeing video allow you to *look at* many more players that would be possible just by going to live games? Admitting that the video *experience* is far less richer than being at a live game, can it give you useful information anyway?
Often times with national coverage (some writers more than others) the genesis of an evaluation just isn't clear. That is problematic when readers are trying to assign weight to an evaluation, and particularly so when two national writers are expressing conflicting opinions.
Helping readers to more regularly understand how an opinion is formed on a player can only improve prospect discourse, both online and at the field.
This assessment is full of win. It could not have been only me that echoed back to a former BP'er who did exactly this. It also applies to every fantasy owner who takes credit for his own wins and blames RotoSuperGeniusGreatness for his failures.
I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I think the meta-analysis - whether by design or not - pushes readers to be smarter. I find these presentations charming.
As a side note, I appreciate the acknowledgement that outcomes matter. If you stick to a #6org theory where you don't even care what the outcome is, then it's a little hard to change the paradigm that got you there. That's not to say good decisions can't end very badly through nothing but bad luck, but outcomes just have to matter.
Any of the methods that I outlined (or any combination of them) has the capability to produce sound results. I would venture to guess that a number of â€˜stats onlyâ€™ methods would outperform many of the more traditional scouting approachesâ€”and vice versa. Something that was able to effectively combine both approaches is possibly able to outperform any of them individually. But, the value comes from the proper analysis and interpretation of the data rather than the approach used to collect it.
The problem is that we often do not know how accurate any particular method is or isnâ€™t for maybe 5 â€“ 10 years or more down the road. Perhaps, if the industry as a whole were held more â€˜accountableâ€™, we might be able to make empirical arguments on the subject rather than Jasonâ€™s normative one.
Thanks for the back-and-forth.
Doing it by altitude would be pleasing, too.
"...Heisenberg uncertainty principle states a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be simultaneously known. In other words, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known." (ellipsis mine)
Your scouting fills in the blanks that stats cannot be measured by stating precisely a player's stats as a proxy for talent, ambition, character, etc. It's really not helpful to be told a prospects stats are inflated by playing in Lancaster. A scout can tell the reader why the stats are what they are...superior skills or park effect. He can also distinguish and report if a player is Elijah Dukes or Justin Pedroia. But the more precisely one relies upon scouting only... there's room in the world for sabremetrics and scouting, and either should be enough to override the other.
Great article, Jason, but yours always are. You set a darned high standard for yourself. Writing skills 75-80, with a drive to excel that shows in every sentence.