First Pitch: My Long Rant on System Ratings, the System’s Lack of Offense, and Pitching Depth

Earlier today, Bob Smizik had an article about how he felt the Pirates’ minor league system was weak in talent, taking exception to Keith Law’s pre-season ranking that had the Pirates with the eighth best system.

Certain parts of the article I agreed with: the Pirates don’t have any immediate offensive help in the upper levels, their lower level pitchers have put up poor numbers this year, and there’s not much hitting throughout the system. There were other parts that I disagreed with: Starling Marte is not a non-power hitting corner outfielder (he’s a plus defensive center fielder with power), the pitchers in Indianapolis are better than the description, and there was no mention of Alen Hanson or Gregory Polanco as guys who have jumped out as outstanding hitting prospects in the lower levels.

My focus here isn’t to deconstruct the article. Instead, the article reminded me why I don’t value farm system rankings.

People love farm system rankings. They love the general rankings that we see where a national analyst ranks all 30 teams in order. They love breaking down an individual system and giving it a grade. They love comparing the system to previous years. The problem with these rankings is that they’re extremely subjective.

The information is the same, no matter the ranking. You could have one person rank the system eighth, and one person rank the system 13th, but the system can be the exact same. It just depends on the preference of the ranker. One person might prefer high end talent. One person might prefer depth. In the Pirates case, they entered the year with a lot of high end guys, but not a lot of depth. Their top guys — Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, Josh Bell, Luis Heredia — are all high upside guys. They’ve got a few guys who profile as the typical “depth” players, but the majority of their system is based on upside and potential of players who haven’t broken out yet.

Nothing changes in the system I described above, yet the rankings can be totally different based on who is doing the ranking. If you get an evaluator who prefers top end talent, they’d favor the Pirates more than someone who prefers to see more depth. The Pirates are strong at the top, but lack established depth in the middle.

Then you’ve got a single system evaluation. There’s two things I don’t like about these. First, they tend to focus more on the individual season numbers, and less on the player’s skills, what the player is working on, and whether the player will put up those numbers going forward. That works both ways, whether the player is playing above his head, or playing below his scouting report. We see a lot of the latter this year, but we’re also seeing a bit of discussion involving the former, with questions about how good Alen Hanson is, and whether he can stick at shortstop.

The other thing I don’t like about the individual system rankings is the misconception that surrounds farm systems. One of the key points by Smizik was that a farm system can only be terrible if there’s no one to replace the needs of the major league club. That shouldn’t be the basis of a farm system evaluation. That’s something you want to see, and it definitely weakens the system, but it should only have so much weight. If the Pirates had good hitting and weak pitching, we’d be signing a different tune about the system. If you put this same system with a team that lacks hitting, that team would be focused on how great the pitching depth is, and they’d ignore the lack of hitters.

One misconception about a farm system is that you have to have everything. You have to have equal amounts of offense and defense, and options at every position. Show me a team that has that, and I’ll show you the number one system in baseball.

In the Pirates’ case, they are definitely weak in the hitting department. That’s not something you can just ignore. But the reason that situation exists is because, for the most part, their hitting has been ignored.

I posted an article tonight, which was the third in a series I was doing this week. The article focused on offensive help in the lower levels of the minors. I didn’t provide much overall analysis, just individual player analysis. If I’m providing overall analysis, I’d say the hitting depth is weak. If you’ve only got 12 players from low-A to Double-A who have a shot at being starters in the majors, then that’s weak depth, as a lot of those players will wash out as they move up. One thing I noticed was that most of the high upside guys are in West Virginia, which is made up of Josh Bell and the international players.

Smizik pointed out that the Pirates’ drafts haven’t produced much, and probably won’t going forward. That’s true, but there’s a reason. They haven’t focused on hitting. They took some hitting in 2008, with Pedro Alvarez and Robbie Grossman having the biggest upsides in the group. Outside of those guys, Jordy Mercer, Matt Hague, and Chase d’Arnaud all have a shot at being productive major league players, although they won’t be difference makers. I went in to depth on those guys on Tuesday.

After 2008 the Pirates went heavy on pitching. They took Tony Sanchez in the first round in 2009, and as I pointed out in the “lower levels” article above, his progress has been disappointing. They took the toolsy Evan Chambers in the third round, and he’s not looking like a guy who will make it past Double-A. Ninth round pick Brock Holt could make the majors as a utility player, and tenth round pick Joey Schoenfeld isn’t in the system.

In 2010 the only hitter they took in the top ten rounds was Mel Rojas. I’m high on Rojas, as you may be able to tell in my breakdown of him in the “lower levels” article. But he’s not exactly a guarantee at this point, still needing that breakout season.

There was a bit more of a focus in 2011. The obvious is Josh Bell. Alex Dickerson looked like a good pick, but has been disappointing. Dan Gamache could have the upside of a bench player, and Taylor Lewis was passed up by the international group this year, which isn’t a good sign for a middle round college hitter.

The Pirates haven’t paid a big focus on offense in the draft. The two big guys they have taken (Alvarez and Sanchez) are struggling. In the last three years they’ve used five out of 31 top ten round picks on hitters who could provide an impact in the majors, and two of those picks were the highly projectable Evan Chambers and Mel Rojas. So it’s no surprise that the draft hasn’t produced much, and won’t have a ton in store for the future of the hitting department.

This isn’t to say that the Pirates haven’t focused on offense during that time. They’ve traded for a few guys who didn’t work out (Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement).

There are two hopes for the future of the hitters in the system. First, the Pirates have focused on hitting in the international ranks, and we’re starting to see the impact in West Virginia. The more immediate hope is the pitching depth — and yes, there is pitching depth. People tend to undervalue pitchers by exaggerating what a number three or four starter really is. I blame the super rotations for this, giving people the idea that someone like Cole Hamels is a number three starter. Having guys who are 3-5 starters is a good thing. You can’t expect the system to have a ton of top of the rotation guys. Those are rare. Kevin Goldstein did a survey, asking scouts how many true number one pitching prospects there were, and came up with anywhere from five to 15. That’s less than one per team, and the Pirates had two of the notable ones in Cole and Taillon.

The Pirates have two excellent pitchers in Cole and Taillon. They’ve got some potential number three starters in Kyle McPherson, Nick Kingham, and Colton Cain. In the upper levels I’d say Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke profile as number four guys, with the outside chance of being number three starters in weaker rotations. For perspective, an average number four starter usually puts up around a 4.15 ERA, and a good number four is in the upper 3’s. Then you’ve got all of the high-upside arms with poor numbers. Pirates fans focus on the numbers and get disappointed. Teams tend to focus more on the arms and the talent. And I didn’t even mention Luis Heredia.

This depth is good because it can help the Pirates fill their offensive needs. It’s not a problem that they went so pitching heavy in the last few drafts, as long as they use that depth to fill their other needs. Right now pitching isn’t a need. They’ve got a good rotation in the majors, immediate depth in Triple-A, and two of the top pitching prospects in baseball a year away on an aggressive time table. I wouldn’t deal Cole and Taillon at all, since it is extremely hard to get pitchers like those two. But I would deal from the rest of the depth, dealing guys like Owens, Locke, Wilson, Cain, Dodson, and so on. And if you think the lower level guys don’t have value because of their numbers, then you missed Keith Law’s projection of Zack Dodson this year, profiling him as a fourth starter, with an aggressive profile being an above league-average starter down the road.

No matter who is doing the ratings, the Pirates’ system is the same. It is heavy with high impact guys, but weak in the middle with established depth. It has a lot of players with high upsides, but not a lot of those players have broken out. It is heavy on pitching, with two of the top starting prospects in the game, and a lot of legit candidates to be major league starters. It is weak on hitting, with very few guys who profile as above-average starters or better.

The Pirates worked hard on building up pitching depth, and I’d say that’s been a success, from the majors all the way through the minors. Now we’re getting to the time where they should start trading that depth to fill their other needs. And looking at the lack of offense in the majors, the lack of impact talent in the upper levels, and the lack of overall depth in the minors, I’d say they’ve found their need.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 3-1 today. In Kristy Robinson’s notebook, Clint Hurdle talks about what the Pirates are doing in the short term to spark the offense.

**Prospect Watch: Five shutout innings for Gerrit Cole. To address the daily “when will Cole move up” questions, I’ve got to imagine it’s soon. Hard to justify keeping him there with some of the numbers I threw out in the article.

**My article today on the future offensive help in the farm system.

**The Pirates have been linked to a top international third baseman.

**Josh Harrison is embracing the super utility role.

**The Pirates activated Jason Grilli, and optioned Jeff Locke to the minors.


  • Yes, the pitching depth to get bats makes sense. They have to pull the trigger when the time is right to make a trade. My concern – and I’m not trying to be funny here – is that NH and team will be doing the dealing. The RESULTS of their decision on offense both at the ML and monir league level have been pretty dismal.

  • The 2009 and 2010 draft classes should have provided pitching depth to the system but failed to do so. The 2009 class has floundered; the 2010 class was compromised by an organizational failure to sign some of its top-ten round picks. These classes diminish the depth of the system and indicate the organization will lack the resources needed to acquire hitters.

    One point we should always keep in mind: The developmental system Littlefield and Creech left behind remains a problem the organization must overcome.

    That said, the 2012 productivity of Alvarez, Tabata and Walker is worrisome. Alvarez must become an impact player if the Pirates will accomplish anything of note in the near future. Tabata and Walker must become above average players if the Pirates will accomplish
    anything of note in the near future. Besides Huntington and Coonley, who would now bet their jobs on Alvarez, Tabata and Walker?

    Finally, it does not help matters much that Sanchez, Grossman and Marte have struggled this season, especially Marte and Sanchez. These are players the Pirates need.

    • I do know that the Pirates tried to trade one of their top prospects last winter with the Reds for Alonso, but they had no 1 or 2 pitching in the system to give the Reds, they went to San Diego to get what they want, so thinking they can trade their prospects for the top hitter they want is not going to happen, they don’t have any established talent that would bring that type of player.

  • I agree that overall system rankings are pretty useless. But drafting as high as they always are, the Pirates just by random chance should have more hitting prospects than they do. And considering who they’ve brought in over the NH time as GM, I’d be leery of flipping pitching for who they think would be a good hitter. Neil continues to be unimpressive, and this is 4 years into the job. It’s time to move on to someone who has a track record of success.

  • RandyLinville
    May 24, 2012 6:20 am

    Why do you think they went so heavy on pitching in the early rounds in 2008 and 2009? Do you think the FO figured they could pick up the bats they needed via FA or via the trades that were made those years? Or something else?

    • I think part of that was the fact that there was no pitching in the system at all during that time. If you remember, after the 2009 draft we were hoping that the prep pitchers would produce a number one starter, and ideally would add a few future rotation members. They were the future of the pitching staff. Now, if all of them become busts it would be a horrible draft, but I don’t think it would cripple the franchise, as they’ve had success with other pitchers since then, and aren’t relying solely on the 2009 guys.

      I think another part was that the last few drafts were very heavy with pitching talent. They took some over-slot hitters, but the pitchers seemed to be the best available on the board, as most of the guys they took were highly regarded by Baseball America and Keith Law.

      As for the plan for the bats, I mentioned that they tried to get bats, and those definitely didn’t work out. In 2010 it looked like the future of the offense would be McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker. Only McCutchen has established himself in the majors two years later. So their focus for offensive help didn’t work nearly as well as the focus for pitching. But I also think that they drafted pitching knowing that it always has value, and knowing that they could deal pitching for hitting if needed.