Once upon a time, prospect-watching was a hobby reserved for those who scouting the minors and those who were adamant about their Baseball America subscription. The magazine though was a poor substitute for being there. It would arrive at home with stats a few weeks old, and charting the progress of prospects was nigh impossible for the casual fan.
For better or worse, the advent of the Internet has led to an increased attention on the young kids. Everywhere from blogs that focus exclusively on the minors to a revamped Baseball America website to an MiLB.com that nears MLB.com in its ability to deliver stats and video, prospects are everywhere. We, for example, have been able to track the progress of Jesus Montero since he was a wee lad making his states-side debut in July of 2007. As Mike duly noted in DotF that night, Montero homered in his first GCL AB.
As information has become more readily available, fans who seek it out glom onto prospects. We pick our favorites — mine right now is Tommy Kahnle — and hope they stick with the organization long enough to develop into something good. We’ve definitely been guilty of feeding the frenzy, but even still, it’s fun to look back upon days of yore. In Mike’s very first RAB DotF, Austin Jackson, Eduardo Nuñez and David Robertson were in Charleston, Francisco Cervelli was enjoying Tampa and Ramiro Peña and Brett Gardner were AA teammates. Tyler Clippard started for Scranton. Sometimes the kids are alright.
Yesterday afternoon, Mike linked to a sobering bit on prospects though, and it’s worth it to spend some time with the piece. Scott McKinney of Royals Review studied the Baseball America top 100 prospects and determined that 70 percent of those listed fail to maintain a 1.5 per-season average WAR over the course of their careers. While top prospects who are also position players– such as Jesus Montero, as Mike wrote yesterday — have a much higher success rate, only 40 percent of pitchers in the top 20 and 20 percent of pitchers in the remaining 80 find Major League success. The Yankees saw 26.5 percent of their prospects from 1990-2003 maintain that WAR production in the majors.
McKinney, in his piece, is quick to point out that the study does not have predictive effects. He summarizes:
I do want to make clear that the above numbers are aggregates and therefore they cannot be used to predict the success of individual prospects. For instance if a first base prospect is currently ranked #15, that doesn’t mean that he has a 59.3% of succeeding in the majors. It just means that similarly ranked players have had that kind of success rate in aggregate. Players in that group have ranged from absolute failure to legitimate star status. But I do think the empirical evidence provides a basis for realistic expectations for various types of prospects. No team is going to have all or even most of their top 10 prospects succeed in the majors. Usually, they’d be fortunate to have a third of them succeed. For an historically good minor league system, you’ve got a realistic chance at half of them succeeding in the majors.
No one wants to hear that their favorite prospect has an uphill battle to reach stardom. Lately, too, the Yanks have a had a good go of it prospect-wise with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, among others from the BA lists, enjoying success, as defined by McKinney. But this study helps contextualize trade rumors and crazy trade proposals.
As the General Manager, Brian Cashman has to know the relative worth of his prospects. I’m sure his Minor League guys and baseball ops guys have conducted studies similar to McKinney’s, and I’m sure they know success rates of prospects. When the right move comes around, then, the Yanks will be in a position to pull the trigger. We want Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman and Manny Banuelos to become the second coming of Joba, Hughes and Ian Kennedy, but that’s not a likely outcome. Oftentimes, a trade can net a player who will be more productive in the majors than the prospect he is replacing.
Knowing when to give up potential because it’s too remote or not refined enough is something often lost upon the legions of prospect huggers. As the Yanks face a clear shortage of pitchers, we might just see that skill tested soon.