Misjudging Prospect Value

We are now in trade speculation season, and everyone has become a prospect expert based on the names floated around in the media.  The problem is that all prospects are treated fairly equally unless they have name recognition.  What this does is erase the large differences in ceiling and profile among the group.  In reality, much like major league baseball, there are huge gaps between the top players in baseball and even the really good players in baseball.  Additionally, because we live in a world of top prospect lists, it tends to create a distinct divide at an arbitrary cut off that is the end of a list.

OFP and Role:

Often in writeups you will see a prospect’s OFP; OFP is overall future projection.  It is not an averaging of tools, nor is it a set profile for a position, it is the role of a player if they continue on a normal developmental path.  What it does not take into account are fundamental changes to a players profile; this includes adding new pitches, swing changes, changes in physical profile, and other changes that affect the basics of what a player is.

OFP’s tend to fit into roles, they represent a level of performance we expect from a player and how it fits into very distinct levels of player.  This of course is a crude construct, because in reality there are large ranges between our distinct tiers.  But with that, here are the roles I will use for the rest of this analysis.

PITCHERHITTER
ProfileExampleProfileExampleWAR
8#1 Starter/AceRoy HalladaySuperstarMike Trout7+
7#2 StarterCole HamelsAll-StarAdam Jones5-7
6#3 StarterKyle Lohse1st Division RegularHowie Kendrick3-5
5#4/#5 StarterKyle KendrickMajor League RegularBen Revere1-3
4Middle ReliefJeff ManshipBench/Platoon BatJohn Mayberry Jr.0-1

The Top of the Scale:

The profile most associated with a prospect is their ceiling.  This is the sexiest thing to talk about with a prospect, and it allows us to dream big on their future.  However when we look at the top of scales we tend to miss the differences that exist at the top.  Using the OFP guide above here is the breakdown of Baseball Prospectus’s offseason 101 by their ceilings.

Prospect Ceiling

We can see clearly that the very top is incredibly rare; the two players there are Byron Buxton and Lucas Giolito.  But more importantly, there are only 32 players in the minor leagues where the evaluators thought that their ceiling was as an all-star.  That seems like a good amount, and it is, but there is a ton of risk associated with prospects, but we will get to that later.  The big thing here is, not all Top 101 prospects are made equally; just because a player is on the list does not make them of equal worth.  When you look at each step down on the graph make a mental drop of ~2 wins of production.  When you look at it that way, the gap from those 6’s to the 5’s is as big a gap as it is from the 7’s to the 6’s.  More and more the crunch facing teams is not where to spend their money, or who to fill a spot with, it is getting the most out of each spot on the roster.  This puts increased value on top end players because they only occupy one spot on a roster.

Being Realistic

So ceiling is all well and good, but Baseball Prospectus includes a realistic grade for each player.  This takes into account many factors, including the lack of growth, current tools, normal development, and some amount of subjectivity.  The realistic role is not a floor, but it is a more conservative look at a prospect’s future.  Here is their breakdown of realistic roles:

Prospect Realistic

As we can see we have a dramatic shift down as we are looking at a bunch of major league regulars, #3 starters, and second division players instead of budding superstars.  When a team is thinking about trading for players this is something they are keeping in mind.  It is fine to dream on ceiling, but in the end not all guys are going to pan out, and these realistic roles still represent good value.  However, we now start to look at the opposite end of the spectrum as we begin to cluster around role 5 players.

The Gap At The Bottom Is Not As Large As You Think:

So once we move past the gap at the top and recognize the sheer value advantage that top prospects have, it is time to look at the bottom of the scale.  A lot of people tend to equate organizational strength directly with players on Top prospect lists, the truth is there is a lot bigger gap between #1 and #20 on most lists than there is between #75 and the next 200 minor league players.  This makes it a bit silly to use the distinction of making a list as a measure of the health of a farm system.  Here is the Phillies Top 10 prospects coming into the year look using the previous measures of Ceiling and Realistic Role.

Prospect Phillies

 

The system has improved since this point, but what you can see is that outside of a top high ceiling prospect the Phillies prospects have a similarity to the back end of the Top 100.  Lets test that by putting it up against the Top 100, I have taken the groupings of 20 prospects and scaled them to 10, here are the ceiling and floor graphs:

Prospect Ceiling Group

 

Prospect Realistic Group

 

As you can see the Phillies fit nicely in at the back of the Top 100.  They still lack the huge upside, but those off the Top 100 aren’t that far off.  The point being that just because a prospect is not on a Top 100 that does not mean they aren’t a prospect and worth paying attention to.  There is a large grouping of prospects with ceilings around above average and average major leaguer.

It Isn’t This Easy:

So at this point the takeaway might be that there is this giant clustering of players and everyone is together and equal, outside a select group at the top which is better than everyone else.  The problem is that this has all been in terms of defined plateaus, and there is a lot of area in between.  Rather than look at the area in between, we need to look at prospect risk.  Risk is what causes these large gaps between ceilings and realistic roles.  Each profile is different in terms of what risk is inherent to the type of player, and what skills they possess as opposed to still needing to develop.  Pitchers by nature tend to be risky due to injury concerns, but hitters without a developed hit tool are also very risky.  Here is the risk for BP’s Top 101 prospects.

1-2021-4041-6061-8081-101
Extreme00001
High13636
Moderate1089118
Low99566

Safety is valued at the top of lists, but what is interesting here is that high ceiling profiles lend themselves to safer projections at the top of rankings.  This is because there is more for a player to fall back on if they miss their ceilings.  Those with high ceilings and huge risk will sometimes make the back end of lists, where there is a bit of a divide as high upside pitchers become safer because the reliever path is open to them, whereas a failed hitter doesn’t have another role to go to.

Everyone Is Different:

What this leads us to is that every prospect is unique.  Trying to find a clear path based on another’s path can be helpful for framing discussion, but relying on it as a roadmap can lead to false assumptions.  This goes to trade value too, a prospect’s value is never static and is unique to many factors.  This is why looking at where a prospect is on a list, whether it is a Top 10 or Top 100 is dangerous, because it is not an objective 1 for 1 ranking.  More so prospects at the top of the game are not interchangeable with lower prospects, there value is way more immense.  But from the same mindset, there is more volatility on later prospects because they are closer bunched and so the differences can come down to subjective scouting and projection.

Next time you think a player is terrible because he isn’t a star, take a second think about how many stars are out there and realize that just being good, is a pretty great thing to be.

Photo by Tom Hagerty

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman
Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.