Is There Value in Ranking Baseball Prospects?
ALSO: NEW JERSEY SABR MEMBERS SUGGEST COOPERSTOWN CANDIDATES
Did you know…
The Atlanta Braves, seeking to recapture their 2021 world championship trophy, head to spring training next month with a giant question-mark at shortstop, last occupied by Dansby Swanson. The favorite is Vaughn Grissom, 22, but his big-league experience is limited to 41 games and his defensive skills needed winter refresher work with coach and infield guru Ron Washington. The alternative is light-hitting veteran Orlando Arcia, once a regular for Milwaukee.
In addition to Swanson, the Braves lost another icon this week when long-time broadcaster Chip Caray (employed by Bally’s) jumped ship to return to his hometown of St. Louis, where grandfather Harry once worked. Skip Caray, Chip’s dad, also broadcast for the Braves . . .
Two-sport star Gene Conley played for world championship teams in both baseball (1957 Milwaukee Braves) and basketball (1959-60-61 Boston Celtics) . . .
One year after managing the Marlins to the 1997 world championship, Jim Leyland was fired because the stripped-down team dropped to 54-108 . . .
Jim Palmer, who won 268 games from 1965-85, never allowed a grand-slam.
Prospects, prospects everywhere…
By W. H. Johnson
‘Tis the season!
No…not THAT season, the one with the fat dude, the wee folk, flying mammals, free stuff, and football on every network. No, that season has passed into memory, gone at least until next Halloween.
The season to which this essay refers, bringing joy in a different form, recurs annually and is also a source of cautious optimism and curiosity about the future of each baseball organization and potential big-leaguer.
It is the time of year in which every major reporting outlet, along with every aspiring writer for said outlets, offers up numerical ranking lists of the best prospects throughout the big-league organizations.
But is there value in such rankings?
Is it even possible to reliably rack-and-stack players within teams and across the entire baseball universe?
The mere act of enumerating a quasi-pecking order for young and unproven players creates an ethos of authority, of superior knowledge, and perhaps of insider access, but in no way connotes a sense of finality.
Prospect evaluations are fluid within every team’s apparatus.
A few years ago, in 2018, this writer was talking to an area scout for a major-league team; that scout focused on draft preparation, and divided his time between amateur (high school, college, and – increasingly – the ‘Perfect Games’ of the world) evaluation while also scouting professional players on a few, regionally appropriate minor-league teams. At the time he had over a decade of scouting experience, yet he was perpetually leery of those sorts of hierarchical judgments.
It was his position that each organization internally classifies prospects based upon an array of different factors, not all of which are common to every team nor accessible to reporters.
A quick look at the Futures Game and Arizona Fall League rosters for the past few seasons reveals a disparity between ranking service estimates and the actual value assigned by parent teams. This is natural, since needs at the major-league level are an input known only to those respective teams, and they exert a dynamic prioritization scheme within the entire minor-league development system.
So, with that stipulated, how consistent are the rankings?
The following example is not a scientifically or randomly-selected population. It just happens that the Milwaukee Brewers’ prospects are among the first of 2023 to be published.
The Top 10 prospects of the Brewers’ are evaluated differently by Baseball America (December 2022 issue), FanGraphs.com (accessed January 2023), and Baseball Prospectus.com (December 2022). Before writing another word, those three sources were selected precisely because they are among the very most authoritative and popular (and this writer – again hiding in the third person – uses each daily). They have genuine experts doing the evaluations and are accessible to just about anyone with an interest in a team or player.
The obvious consensus No. 1, across all three sources, is outfielder Jackson Chourio from Venezuela. He routinely draws comparisons with Ronald Acuna, Jr., and just about every available source raves about his potential.
In contrast, Tyler Black’s rankings range form 6th to 12th overall. This variation may be due, at least in part, to injury history, limited slugging upside, arm strength, or a myriad of other factors.
Again, there are no fixed guidelines or criteria for these rankings, so no two lists are the same. The one element on which all the ranking entities are in firm agreement, though, is that Black merits attention over the next few years.
Notably, and while trying to not cherry-pick examples, in a similarly structured ranking of Orioles’ system in 1998, Baseball America named pitcher Matt Riley as the top organizational prospect.
Riley pitched fewer than 100 innings over four major-league seasons, and finished with a lifetime bWAR of -0.1.
In January 2001, Baseball America named C.C. Sabathia as Cleveland’s top prospect. Today, in 2023, that remains a brilliant call. But the periodical also named RHP Chris George as Kansas City’s best, and he went on to post a lifetime bWAR of -0.5 over four seasons.
In that same ranking, KC infielder Mark Ellis was ranked all the way down at ninth, but managed a 12-year big-league career and lifetime bWAR of 33.5.
There is a broad spectrum of factors that influence rankings, from something as simple as the relative talent level within an organization, especially with regard to team needs, to something as complicated as a player’s individual adaptability to professional baseball and all that the occupation entails.
So are the rankings worthwhile to us as observers and fans, those of us who dwell outside the clubhouses and front offices of major-league baseball teams? Absolutely!
In the selected rankings, if the numerical positioning is erased, every one of the top-10 is a top prospect for each ranking entity. Number 1 versus number 8 is a guess at best, and number 20-25 a true crap shoot, but each of the sources agrees that those listed players have the best chance to populate Milwaukee’s lineup card in the future.
Studying the full rankings is helpful in evaluating a team’s player development plans, and for imagining ‘what might be’ as we get ready for spring training. No one argues that the rankings are perfect, or even universal, but they most definitely offer an informed peek at tomorrow.
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written extensively on baseball history, and presented papers at related conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic.
New Jersey SABR chapter offers Cooperstown candidates on Zoom
By Dan Schlossberg
Less than an hour after this year’s Hall of Fame results were broadcast on MLB Network Tuesday, the New Jersey chapter of SABR held a no-holds-barred Zoom roundtable to discuss who was overlooked — not only by the baseball writers but also the various veterans (oops, eras) committees.
Lots of names were suggested, including some rejected in recent votes by the BBWAA (Andruw Jones, Todd Helton) and the Contemporary Baseball Players eras committee (Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly).
On the very same day, Joel Sherman had the temerity to complain on MLB Network that the 75 per cent threshold is too tough to attain.
Sure it is, when people like Sherman vote for only two candidates and leave eight spots on their ballot blank.
Incomplete ballots, not to mention the eight blank ones that were returned in some bizarre protest of Pete Rose’s exclusion, make it virtually impossible for anyone to accrue three-quarters of the vote. Do the math.
Even Scott Rolen, the only man elected to the Class of 2023 by the writers, barely squeaked in, getting four more votes than he needed. It was the same for David Ortiz last year. He got in, but barely.
For SABR — the Society for American Baseball Research — the list of overlooked candidates stretches even further than a Fred McGriff home run.
Both Murphy and Roger Maris won consecutive MVP awards but are not in the Hall.
Neither is Lou Whitaker, the double-play partner of Alan Trammell, a weaker hitter who is.
Also missing are Tommy John, a sure 300-game winner had he not needed what came to be called Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, and Luis Tiant, a big-game pitcher for the Red Sox and Indians.
The entire PED crowd — Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and others — have the numbers but can’t escape the cloud of suspicion that hangs over their heads.
Curt Schilling, perhaps the best big-game pitcher of recent vintage, talked his way out of favor with inflammatory political posts, including one in which he told writers not to vote for him in his last year on the ballot.
Andy Pettitte, though he apologized, is also in the PEDs boat — despite a record 19 post-season wins.
Lew Burdette, MVP of the 1957 World Series and long-time sidekick to Warren Spahn, certainly deserves more consideration.
So does Joe Niekro, who shares the record for wins by brothers with his knuckle-balling elder, Phil Niekro.
If labor loudmouth Marvin Miller is in, how about Charlie Finley, the only owner who had the foresight to vocally oppose him? Even George Steinbrenner, who treated his employees as poorly as Finley treated his players.
It’s possible to make a case for super-agent Scott Boras, who certainly influenced the game. But his antics alienated almost everyone except his millionaire client players.
The Hall of Fame doesn’t have categories for agents, scouts, or coaches but surely must find room (are you listening, Leo Mazzone?).
David Krell, head of the New Jersey SABR chapter, favors two former Mets, slugger Dave Kingman and owner Joan Payson, but there was also some sentiment for the unrelated Evans boys (Darrell of Atlanta and Dwight of Boston).
If nothing else, the evening stirred up great baseball talk when nothing is happening in the game before pitchers and catchers report on Valentine’s Day.
For that, we are grateful. Thanks, David, for setting it up.
“I never feel more at home in America than at a ballgame, be it in a park or sandlot.”
— Poet Robert Frost in Sports Illustrated, July 1956
When it opened in April of 1909, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (later named Connie Mack Stadium) was the first concrete-and-steel ballpark in the majors . . .
Baker Bowl, built in 1887 but reopened in 1894 after a fire, was the primary home of the Philadelphia Phillies through the 1938 season . . .
Fires also damaged the original Polo Grounds, Griffith Stadium, and Crosley Field, among others . . .
When opened in 1962, Dodger Stadium became the first publicly-funded ballpark since Yankee Stadium in 1923 . . .
The Montreal Expos began life in Parc Jarry, a converted Little League field expanded from 3,000 seats to 28,456 when National League play began in 1969 . . .
Polo was actually played at the original Polo Grounds, a 20,000-capacity ballpark that hosted the New York Giants from 1883-88 . . .
When the ballpark was rebuilt in its more-familiar horseshoe configuration, the foul line in left field was just 279 feet from home plate — and had a 15-foot grandstand overhang that shortened the distance even more.
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HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [email@example.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [firstname.lastname@example.org] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [email@example.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.