Food For Thought: BA’s Top 100 Prospects Lists

Scott McKinney at Royals Review posted a comprehensive study of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists from 1990 through 2003, attempting to find some patterns in prospect success. The above graph comes from his post and shows the average annual WAR accumulated by a player during his first six big league seasons (his time under team control) versus his rank in the various top 100 lists. As you can see, it’s rather sharp drop off after the top five or six prospects, and the difference between a prospect ranked in the middle of list and the guy ranked 100th really isn’t all that big, about a quarter of a win per season.

This is pertinent to Yankees fans because when BA’s 2011 top 100 list comes out next Wednesday, Jesus Montero figures to rank among the five best prospects in the game. McKinney found that 52.5% of the top 20 prospects go on to become successful big leaguers (defined as 2.0 WAR per season), an excellent success rate when you consider that approximately 70% of all top 100 prospects flame out. Furthermore, position players ranked in the top ten turn into a successful big leaguer a whopping 62.7% of the time, and a “superior player” (2.5 WAR or more) a little more than 35% of the time. Based on history, there’s better than a 50-50 chance that Montero will turn into a useful player, and better than a one-in-three chance that he develops into no worse than above-average player. I like those odds.

McKinney breaks the data down a million different ways, so I highly recommend clicking through and giving his post a read. It turns out that of the 34 Yankees farmhands to appear in BA’s top 100 lists through the years, 73.5% end up busts. That sounds like a lot, but it’s exactly middle of the pack. The Indians lead the way with a 42.4% success rate and the Giants trail everyone at 13%. Again, make sure you check it out. That’s some great stuff right there.

The RAB Radio Show: February 15, 2011

The story of the day is A.J. Burnett, so we start off with a conversation about his 2010 season and what can change in 2011. There are plenty of baffling aspects of Burnett.

Then we’re onto some other baseball matters. The Pirates come up for a bit, but we spend most of the non-Yanks time talking about Albert Pujols. The premise is Ken Rosenthal’s article, in which he proposes the Yanks trade Mark Teixeira for Pujols. We don’t so much talk about that as we talk about the Cardinals’ dealings with their star and why they have to re-sign him.

(And yeah, we do spend a few minutes on the Teixeira issue.)

Podcast run time 35:27

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Awww Schlit: Brian’s gone

Via Todd Zolecki, the Phillies have claimed reliever Brian Schlitter off waivers from the Yankees, who designated him for assignment yesterday to make room on the 40-roster for Andruw Jones. Schlitter, who was originally claimed off waivers from the Cubs last month, was actually in camp this morning and was scheduled to throw a bullpen session at some point today. Not sure if that happened, but Phillies camp isn’t far away from Tampa at all.

So I guess Schlitter is this year’s Shane Lindsay. Barely had time to get to know the guy.

Burnett’s importance to the 2011 Yankees

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The storyline has shifted to a new pitcher. Yesterday it was CC Sabathia and the opt-out in his contract. Today reported moved to A.J. Burnett. The subject matter, as it has all winter, centered on his ability to put 2010 behind him. His ability to do so could determine the Yankees’ fate in 2011.

Simply improving on 2010 will not be enough. Burnett finished the season with a 5.26 ERA in 186.2 innings, so a marginal improvement won’t do much good. What the Yankees need is a repeat of 2009, when Burnett struck out nearly a batter per inning and finished with a 4.04 ERA. That might not seem like $16.5 million’s worth, but it should be enough to solidify the top end of the pitching staff.

What are the chances that Burnett improves significantly upon his 2010? At this point we can do one of three things: 1) we can guess, 2) we can look at projection systems, or 3) we can forget about it, say he sucks, and pack it in for the season. Since No. 3 is an option only for people who don’t read RAB, and since No. 2 is more productive than No. 1, let’s take a look at Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections.

Even though Burnett turns 34 this season, PECOTA does see a distinct improvement in 2011. A big factor in that is his strikeout rate, which tumbled in 2010. PECOTA forecasts Burnett to strike out 8.1 batters per nine innings, which is over a batter more than his 2010 rate. It also lines up almost perfectly with his career rate of 8.23 per nine. That, combined with steady walk and home run rates, figures to produce a 4.56 ERA, or .7 runs per nine innings better than last season. In terms of BP’s WARP, that’s 2.6 wins, which easily trumps the zero wins he produced by the same standard in 2010.

While this type of improvement seems reasonable, the Yankees will probably need a bit more. BP recently published its AL East forecasted standings (unfortunately, subscriber-only). The takeaway is that the Yankees are projected to finish one game back of the Red Sox. While each player on the team contributes in some way to that discrepancy, perhaps no Yankees player can improve on his projection in the manner Burnett can. If he drops that extra half-run and get his ERA around four, that should amount to one extra win.* There’s the difference right there.

*This is based on other pitchers of around 3.6 wins. The easiest comparison is Josh Beckett, who is forecasted for a 3.95 ERA in 187 innings, or a 3.6 WARP.

When the Yankees signed Burnett to that five-year, $82.5 million contract in the winter of 2008, they saw him as their No. 2 starter. While he served that function in 2009, he was far from it in 2010. In 2011 he’ll have to return to form if the Yankees are going to keep pace. They might have a thin staff now, but if Burnett turns back into the guys the Yankees signed, they can hold on with a strong top of the rotation and a powerful offense. And Burnett knows exactly what is expected of him: “I came here to win. I came here to pitch…And I’m here to be a factor.”

Stuff to watch in Spring Training

Waiting for today's workout. (Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept.)

Spring Training is a bit of tease for baseball fans. Yeah, it’s great to watch and follow real live baseball, but the games don’t mean anything and the result certainly don’t matter at all. It can be hard to get a grasp on who’s really ahead in position battles and who’s simply working to improve an aspect of their game, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Aside from the well-documented competitions for the fifth starter’s spot, the last bullpen, the last bench spot, etc., here’s a few things to keep your eye on throughout camp…

A.J. Burnett‘s Curveball

We’re all well aware that A.J.’s curveball deserted him last season, which is why his strikeout (6.99 K/9) and swing-and-miss (7.29%) rates plummeted to their lowest points in a decade. Burnett has waited until later in Spring Training to start throwing his curveball over the last few seasons, so I’m curious to see if he’ll break the routine and start toying with the pitch a little earlier than usual to avoid a repeat of 2010’s debacle.

Brett Gardner‘s Approach

Gardner was baseball’s best count-worker last season, though after taking that Clayton Kershaw pitch off his right wrist in June, he was noticeably passive down the stretch, almost hoping for a walk rather than looking for something to drive. He had offseason surgery to clean out some inflammation and get the wrist back to 100%, so let’s see if he start being a little more aggressive and swings at stuff in the zone rather than letting hittable pitches go by just for the sake of seeing pitches.

Curtis Granderson‘s Hacks

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Much has been made of Grandy’s mid-August turn around, but the fact remains that his torrid hitting lasted all of 192 plate appearances (230 if we count the postseason, which we should). Results don’t matter, but just pay attention to the kind of contact he’s making in March. Is he producing line drives and fly balls, or rolling over on pitches and hitting weak pop-ups?

Russell Martin‘s Mobility

The new starting catcher saw his 2010 season end in August after an awkward step on home plate resulted in a hairline fracture in his hip. His labrum was not damaged and he didn’t need surgery, but it’s still a very serious injury. Furthermore, Martin had surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in one of his knees back in December, and as recently as last week we heard that he still wasn’t 100%. Chances are he’ll take it easy during the first week or two (or three) of camp at the team’s behest, but once we get into the middle of March, we should see him moving around like a normal catcher.

Derek Jeter‘s Grounders

The Cap’n has always been a ground ball hitter, but last season he took it to the extreme. His 65.7% grounder rate was not just the highest in baseball in 2010, it was the highest by a non-Luis Castillo batter since the data started being recorded in 2002. Jeter had been at 57.7% grounders from 2006 through 2009, which is ideally where he’d be going forward. If he’s still (weakly) beating the ball into the ground close to seven times out of every ten balls in play late in camp, well that’s not a good sign.

What the deuce are you staring at? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Jesus Montero‘s Awesomeness

It’s not often that we get a chance to see our favorite prospects in the action, so Spring Training is a gold mine for minor league watchers. Sure, Montero will almost certainly be up at some point this season, but we have to wait until the club deems him ready. He’ll receive mostly regular playing time in March though, the best chance we have to see him before he heads to Scranton in a few weeks. A .444/.500/1.125 career hitter in Spring Training (4-for-9 with two doubles and a homer, that being a grand slam), Montero will make the last four innings of every game worth tuning into.

* * *

Again, Spring Training isn’t the best time to evaluate players, especially based on results, but there are definitely some things worth paying attention. Everything listed above is just the tip of the iceberg, we also need to pay attention to CC Sabathia‘s weight loss, Joba Chamberlain‘s weight gain, Phil Hughes‘ almighty changeup, Jorge Posada‘s adjustment to being a full-time designated hitter, Mark Teixeira‘s rebound from numerous nagging late-season injuries (broken toe, bruised thumb, popped hammy), and a ton more.

The NRI Team

The staff ace. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

One of the many fun little sideshows of Spring Training is the non-roster invitees, or NRI’s. Usually these guys are just trying to hang on for another year, or are prospects getting to strut their stuff, or sometimes they’re guys with a legitimate chance at making the big league team in some capacity. The Yankees have 27 NRI’s in camp this year, and I thought it would be fun to see how those players would do as team in 2011.

I used mostly PECOTA projections to sort everything out, though I had to fill in the gaps with Marcel and CAIRO. No need to be exact, this is just for fun. Once I had the data, I calculated each player’s WAR using Sky Kalkman’s calculator just to get a nice, uniform number for everyone. Unsurprisingly, this team is very bad. How bad? Let’s find out…

Lineup

Clearly, the anchor of the lineup is the same guy will anchor Triple-A Scranton’s lineup to start the year. Montero is projected to lead the team in AVG (.285), OBP (.331), SLG (.471), hits (125), doubles (25), and RBI (66) while ranking second in homers (18), and moving him to first should theoretically keep him healthier and in the lineup. The second best offensive “threat” on the club is Vazquez, who obvious does it with power an not on-base skills. He’ll swat the most homers on the club but also strikeout the most (128 K) while drawing the fewest number of walks by far (just 18). His defensive ratings were so bad that he almost has to be the DH by default.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Offensive production drops off considerably after those two. The average catcher hit .249 with a .381 SLG last year, so Romine’s right on track there. Problem is that he lags significantly in the OBP department (.287 to .319 avg). Belliard isn’t far off from a league average second baseman (.264/.330/.388), but the production at short, third, and all three outfield spots is basically non-existent. The best of that lot is Parraz, whose .325 OBP and .369 SLG closely matches Chase Headley‘s from last year (.327 OBP, .375 SLG). That’s pretty awful for an outfield corner.

If we run that lineup through Dave Pinto’s Lineup Analyzer, we see that this team would score an average of 3.644 runs per game. The best possible lineup (Parraz, Montero, Brewer, Vazquez, Belliard, Romine, Chavez, Krum, Bernier, in that order) would score a little bit more than that, 3.923 runs per game. Just five teams scored fewer than four runs per game last year – Indians (3.99), Orioles (3.78), Nationals (3.77), Astros (3.62), and Mariners (3.17) – so yeah, it’s a terrible offense. Maybe not the worst (thanks Seattle), but it might as well be.

Surprisingly, this regular cast of characters is not terrible defensively, just 11 runs below average over the course of the season. Oh sure, that’s bad, but it’s not that bad. Bernier is the only legit shortstop option on the team, so we’re stuck with him. Krum is the only guy on the club that would steal double-digit bases, but his ten swipes are essentially negated by six caught stealings. For shame.

Rotation

Every team needs a sixth starter at some point, so I included him in here. Unfortunately, we’re still 51 starts short of a full season, so we’re going to have to assume some exactly replacement level guys fill in.

Surprisingly, the rotation isn’t dreadful, merely really bad. Warren projects to be the most valuable of the bunch despite throwing just a hundred innings, and that’s because PECOTA expects tolerable strikeout (6.6 K/9) and walk (3.4 BB/9) rates combined with a stellar 49.5% ground ball rate. Phelps’ strikeout rate is a full whiff behind Warren’s, but his walk and grounder rates are almost identical. Mitchell is the staff workhorse, leading the club in starts, innings, and ground ball rate (52.5%).

The two veterans are unsurprisingly unspectacular. Garcia does it with few whiffs (5.6 K/9), fewer walks (2.7 BB/9), and a meh ground ball rate (43.8%). Colon rises from the dead for a baker’s dozen starts and strikes out 6.27 men per nine innings while walking 3.14 per nine. Banuelos is essentially the swing man, projected to make a 12 starts and five relief appearances. His strikeout rate is highest of the bunch (7.2 K/9) but so is his walk rate (4.9 BB/9).

The end result is a rotation worth just 5.6 wins above a replacement level gang, which would have bested only the Pirates (4.9 WAR) in 2010. I figured this group would be below replacement level, so color me surprised.

Bullpen

The relief corps is the team’s strong suit, and they’ll need it with that rotation. Their combined 3.3 WAR is just a touch worse than the bullpeners the Yankees featured last year (3.6 WAR), and overall they would have ranked 11th in baseball. Carlyle looks to be the relief ace, if you could call him that, rattling off multi-inning appearance after multi-inning appearance with a 7.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and 44.6% grounder rate.

The middle innings will have three regular faces all season. Sisco’s another multi-inning guy, and his 8.1 K/9 is the best on the team, dead sexy for a lefty. Unfortunately, his 5.14 BB/9 is also the highest on the team. Cott’s is another high strikeout (8.1 K/9), high walk (4.6 BB/9) guy, and based on his appearances-to-innings ratio, it seems like he’s more of a lefty specialist. Madrigal allows to team to meet its fat guy quota, joining Carlyle as a serviceable arm from the right side (7.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 43.2% grounders).

The rest of the bunch is basically up-and-down guys. Prior has the best peripherals on the planet (9.00 K/9, 0.00 BB/9), but unfortunately not even the projection systems like his chances of staying on the mound. Luis Ayala (7.14 K/9, 3.1 BB/9) and former outfielder Brian Anderson (6.39 K/9, 3.19 BB/9) do some grunt work in limited action, and Wordekemper is the designated “go get the crap beat out of you for an inning or two” guy (5.82 K/9, 3.44 BB/9). I guess the slack is picked up by some spare replacement level parts.

Bench

The bench is … um … limited, featuring four players, three of whom are catchers. Gustavo Molina (no relation to the other Molinas) is projected to hit .218/.258/.348, Kyle Higashioka just .225/.284/.318. Those two are going to have to learn how to play third base and the corner outfield spots. We don’t have projections for Jose Gil and Bradley Suttle, but I suspect they wouldn’t be fun to look at. No big loss.

Wrapping It Up

So all told, we’re looking -1.1 WAR (lineup) plus 5.6 WAR (rotation) plus 3.3 WAR (bullpen). Let’s be kind and call the bench exactly replacement level. That works out to 7.8 wins better than a club made of career minor league leaguers and the like. A team of 25 replacement level players would be expected to win something like 46-48 games at the big league level, so we’ve got a 54 win team on our hands. Maybe even 56 or 57 with some lucky breaks. That means they’re about as good as the 2010 Pirates, except instead of watching Andrew McCutchen 162 times a year, you get to watch Montero.

Setting the table with Derek and Brett

As Joe Girardi held forth this morning on the first day of camp, the Yankees plan to head into 2011 with their newly-resigned Captain as the team’s leadoff hitter. Despite his hitting a career-low .270/.340/.370, Jeter will not fall in the batting order.

“We signed him to be our shortstop and we signed him to be our leadoff hitter,” the Yanks’ skipper said of his captain.”he’s got a pretty good track history of what he’s done in the game of baseball.”

Girardi, very good at speaking for reporters in baseball platitudes, continued with his praise of Jeter. Noting that by September, Girardi believed Jeter to be back at his Jeterian levels, he expressed utmost faith in the current leadoff hitter. “He’s very in tune with what his role is as the captain of the New York Yankees, as the leadoff hitter of the New York Yankees and what he’s supposed to do,” he said. But all of this begs the question: Should Jeter be leading off?

By and large, American League teams were surprisingly bad at leading off last year. Overall, AL leadoff hitters reached base just 33 percent of the time. Five teams — including Boston — saw their one hitters put up a cumulative OBP of .320 or lower, and the Indians managed to put their number one hitters on base just 29.4 percent of the time. The Yanks’ .358 OBP out of the one hole was second only to Ichiro and the Mariners.

That lofty OBP was due to two factors: Jeter’s split in the one spot was .283/.348/.387 in 656 PAs — strange how he seemed to struggle more when not leading off — and Brett Gardner as the one hitter reached base 41.2 percent of the time. As much as Yankee fans groaned over Jeter’s 2010 struggles, as a leadoff hitter, he was better than average.

The numbers grow even more intriguing when we isolate only the first at-bat of the game. In essence, that’s when the leadoff hitter gets to shine, and both Jeter and Gardner — the only two Yankees to start a game in 2010 — did so. Showing no power, Jeter hit .304 with a .365 on-base percentage in 137 plate appearances to start the game while Brett Gardner reached base in 15 of his 25 leadoff ABs. That’s a whopping .600 on-base percentage in a very small sample. For comparison’s sake, the cumulative OBP for AL batters who started the game was just .311.

All of that is to say that the Yanks have two seemingly viable leadoff options. We can’t right now conclusively say that Brett Gardner is a better choice to bat first than Jeter. He’s not going to maintain a .600 OBP in the first inning over the course of 140 games, but his willingness to take a walk and his ability to work the count and make contact leads to good things. Jeter, on the other hand, is the long-time vet who hasn’t yet hit himself out of the spot in the lineup. If he struggles again this year, though, the Yanks have another leadoff hitter on deck.

Perhaps, though, the ideal lineup would allow Gardner to showcase his skills leading off. The Yanks slotted Jeter into the one hole to avoid the endless double plays into which he kept hitting, but by having Gardner bat first, the Yanks can use his wheels to keep Jeter from creating two outs with one swing. It’s a thought at least.

For now, though, the lineup will have a familiar look to it. Derek, the incumbent, will bat leadoff, and Brett the upstart will likely be breathing down his neck. Having two potential leadoff candidates should be a nice luxury for the Yanks this year indeed.