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How Ya Do It
Welcome to the original edition of The Prospect Report. My name is David Cameron and hopefully this column will help you to understand whether your organization's AAA ace is the next Roger Clemens or Oil Can Boyd. In this inaugural column, I'll explain the methods I use in my analysis and show you how you can judge prospects on your own, essentially eliminating my own usefulness.
There are four basic principles I use to judge a prospect. The first thing to know is that minor-league statistics are very reliable when it comes to projecting major-league statistics. It is a fallacy to write off a player simply because he is a "minor-leaguer". The key to finding truly talented players is knowing which statistics to look for, and how to measure them against other minor-leaguers.
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The most important of the principles is what I call Age/Level relation. On the surface, a .300 batting average with 30 home runs is very impressive, but if the player is 23 years old and still playing in A-ball it's probably a result of overpowering younger pitchers, rather than transferable major-league hitting ability. Following is the age range a player should be within at each level:
Low-A: 19-20 years old
High-A: 20-21 years old
AA: 21-22 years old
AAA: 22-23 years old
You'll see me writing things like, "Jason Lane, while having a great season, isn't a great prospect because of his age." His monster year in AA at age 24 is not as impressive as Adam Dunn tearing up the same league at age 21. Always keep age at the forefront of your mind when evaluating a prospect. The younger the prospect is, the more room there is for improvement, so don't get caught up on an older player having a great statistical season.
The next two principles have to do with what are generally referred to as the "peripheral stats". When evaluating a prospect, we're not trying to judge how good they have been, but rather how good they are going to be. Stats like batting average and ERA are very inconsistent and can be greatly affected by uncontrollable factors. I prefer to look at stats that directly come from the player's ability and do not depend as much on outside affects. I break down the two most important statistical categories for batters as Control Ratios and Power Ratios.
The Control Ratios for a hitter are walk-to-at-bat ratio (BB:AB), walk-to-strikeout ratio (BB:K), and strikeout-to-at-bat ratio (K:AB). The most important of the three is the BB:AB ratio. If a player is walking in ten percent of his at-bats, it generally shows a more patient approach at the plate that will lead to success against a higher level of pitching. Players who swing at everything (see Alfonso Soriano, Shea Hillenbrand, and Shawon Dunston) are less likely to hit major league pitching than players like John Olerud, Rickey Henderson, and Jason Giambi.
The generally accepted baselines for the control ratios for a hitter are 1:10 BB:AB, 1:2 BB:K, and 1:5 K:AB. Most of the good hitting prospects will rank ahead of these baselines.
Control Ratios for a pitcher are similar but not exactly the same. Essentially the only one that can be looked at on its own is walks-per-innings-pitched ratio (BB:IP). This tells us whether a pitcher is consistently getting the ball over the plate. The baseline for this ratio is about 1:3.
Power Ratios for hitters aren't as important as Control Ratios, because power often comes later as a player develops more upper body strength and the same swing will send the ball 15 feet further. However, we do need to distinguish a player who can legitimately hit 40 home runs in the majors from someone who gets 40 infield singles a year, so I use the extra-base-hits-to-total-hits ratio (XBH:H). If a player is getting nearly 30% or more of his hits as extra-base hits, he is likely to be able to drive the ball out of the infield and will generally hit for good power in the major leagues. The baseline for XBH:H is 3:10.
Opposite of hitters, Power Ratios are more important for pitchers. Plain and simple, a major-league arm in the minor leagues should be dominating hitters, not just inducing 330-foot fly outs. The Power Ratios that I use for hurlers are strikeouts-to-innings-pitched (K:IP) and walk-to-strikeout ratio (BB:K).
BB:K is probably the best stat for predicting a minor-league pitcher's success at the major league level. If a player is consistently throwing strikes and striking batters out, it tells us that he generally has good movement and velocity while being able to consistently throw at least two pitches for strikes. The baseline for BB:K is 1:2, but your top prospects will be at 1:3 or better. The baseline for K:IP is 1:1. You like to see your minor-league arms striking out one batter per inning.
The fourth principle is that of Consistency. A lot of times people will see a prospect put up a gigantic season and immediately call it an improvement, when it's in actuality a product of a sample-size fluke, a generous home ballpark, or a lengthy hot streak. I normally like to see two consecutive full seasons of above-average play before I'll consider a player to be a top prospect, though there are exceptions.
By looking for consistency in a prospect, you'll avoid getting excited about flash-in-the-pans, and be able to tell all your friends that Shea Hillenbrand only walks when he's helping old ladies cross the street before he gets optioned back to AAA.
Keeping these four principles in mind, you'll better understand why I love hitters like Adam Dunn but am not so impressed by players like Wily Mo Pena.
|about the author|
David Cameron really does this because it offers him the rare chance to talk about professional baseball players who are actually younger than himself. Flatter him by calling him "sir".