First Pitch: The Subjective Business of Prospect Rankings

I was originally planning on doing a depth article tonight, but wanted to save it for one more day, in part because I could see more cuts coming tomorrow morning, which might make the roster a bit more clear. I also was sent something today that I wanted to use for an article.

Last week, John Sickels released his top 20 prospects for the Pirates’ system. I’ll admit that I really didn’t get a chance to see the list until today. At this time of year, I have very little clue what is going on outside of Pirate City or McKechnie Field. John Dreker did our writeup for the list, and I just glanced through the article, not getting a chance to really see where people were ranked, or any of the reports.

Then today, John Dreker sent me a link to a comment that John Sickels made, wondering what we said about the list, and if we liked it or ripped it.

I think the worst thing here is that Sickels doesn’t have a subscription to the site, thus the need for the comment. John, send me an e-mail at and we’ll get that taken care of.

As for the list, I got a chance to take a look at it in more detail today. I saw some differences, but nothing that would warrant ripping the list. In fact, I wanted to point out some of those differences, and explain why I think there’s a difference in each set of rankings.

A Difference of Time

The reality of rankings is that they provide a snapshot of where a player is in his development. Usually, there’s not a big change in the actual information over a short amount of time, but sometimes a few months can make a huge difference.

Our rankings were completed in December, and one of the hardest guys to rank was Cole Tucker. That’s because of the risk his injury carried in terms of sticking at shortstop. He’s not a lock to stick at the position long-term at this point, but a lot has changed in just three months since our original rankings. Tucker is only working at shortstop, and it doesn’t look like he’s really lost anything at the position.

Sickels points out the arm strength questions, but has Tucker seventh overall. We had him 15th, with much bigger questions at the time. I think Tucker is a top ten prospect in this system without those questions, and you can definitely say the questions have been reduced.

The other player who stood out was Chad Kuhl. Sickels had him with a low-90s sinker, which is not far from what we wrote about him in our rankings. We had a lot of reports putting Kuhl’s fastball consistently in the 96-97 MPH range last year, but the pitch had different movement and looked like his four-seam fastball. Kuhl clarified this spring that it was actually his sinker, that the pitch had different movement at a higher velocity, and that the four seamer was rarely used. He’s also been hitting those velocities so far this spring, based off the Pitch F/X style trackers in McKechnie and the scouts radar guns behind home plate.

Sickels rated Kuhl 19th, and we went 16th, and the overall grades (C+/4.5) weren’t too far off either. But Kuhl was the one guy who I felt we ranked lower than we should have, and that especially was true after talking to him this spring and getting clarification on his stuff. We would have had him closer to the top 10 in the system if we were ranking today (and almost had him that high at various points during our rankings). This was all due to a late surge in his velocity, which has held up this spring.

A Difference in Value

You might know by now that I hate numerical rankings. They’re fun, and they give an easy method of comparing different lists. They’re also highly misleading and highly subjective. We use tiered rankings in the Prospect Guide, grouping guys together based on upsides rather than suggesting there’s a big difference between the number 8 and number 15 prospect. I also value the actual reports much more than the numerical ranking, and find that the reports are often the same, despite the rankings being different.

The biggest differences I noticed came with the catching prospects. Sickels has Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire ranked 15th and 16th, respectively. We had McGuire 7th and Diaz 8th. But the reports were very similar — both are strong defenders with questions about the bat.

The difference in ranking is how we each interpreted those questions. In McGuire’s case, Sickels said he has grown less confident in his bat. I’m not there yet. McGuire is only 20 years old. By comparison, Diaz showed a lot of offensive potential, but didn’t start showing it in games until age 22 in Bradenton. It would seem unfair to penalize McGuire for struggling at such a young age. If he was still struggling in A-ball or Double-A at age 22-23, then I might start getting very concerned about the bat. For now, I like what I’ve seen on the field in terms of raw tools, and think more consistent offense will come.

It’s a similar case with Diaz. His offensive skills were apparent for years, and started translating to the stats in late-2013 and throughout 2014. He didn’t have a great year last year in Triple-A, but wasn’t horrible. And watching him this spring, the offensive skills are still there.

In both cases, the reports are the same, but I tend to be a lot more patient with offense from strong defensive catchers if I see the tools. I’m not going to say that Jacob Stallings could eventually hit enough to be a starter, because I don’t see the offensive upside behind the stats. But we’ve seen two recent MLB examples of why you should wait on catchers. When Russell Martin joined the Pirates, I talked with a scout who wondered why he didn’t put up more offense with his tools. He did just that the next three years, carrying his offense over to Toronto. His replacement, Francisco Cervelli, is another guy who saw his offense really start to develop late.

That’s why there’s a big difference in the rankings for the catchers. I’m more patient than most on the offense finally arriving. I don’t fault anyone who is skeptical of Diaz or McGuire and their offense. Odds are, those people will be right more often than not, and my approach of trusting the tools a bit longer will end up being wrong more often than not. The rankings are just a snapshot though, and I eventually adjust the players down when it comes time where their hitting skills might never translate to the field.

Moving away from Sickels’ list, a more extreme difference in value came earlier with Keith Law’s list. He had Luis Escobar as the 12th best prospect in the system, which I totally disagree with. However, the reports were almost identical to the ones we had, where we named Escobar a big sleeper prospect this year. The reports were the same, but Law obviously valued Escobar much higher, and felt there was less risk involved, or assumed that the command issues would fix themselves, while relying on the raw stuff. That’s almost the reverse situation of the catching comparison above.

So it works both ways, where you’ll always be higher on some players, and lower on others, while still having the same rankings. And that showed up again on Sickels’ list, when he had Kevin Kramer ranked 11th overall, with a similar report. We had him lower, mostly because Sickels seems to think his tools will be enough to be a starter at second, while we think those same tools will make him a utility guy, with a smaller chance to be a starter at second. Once again, kind of the opposite of the catchers, but the key thing is the reports are the same.

At the end of the article, Sickels had the following to say:

The first few slots on this list are obvious but once you get into the mass group of B- types, it could be ordered in any number of ways with valid logic. The key point to come away with: this system is very deep. Focus on middle infielders and ground ball pitchers is clear.

I agree with this 100%, and it’s what I was saying above. The first four guys are identical to our rankings. The next several are also very similar, with the key differences being Tucker and the catchers. But we don’t really have different reports on these guys, just different orders. And the grades are largely the same. I also think the system is very deep, and there is nothing more clear than their recent focus on middle infielders and their continued focus on ground ball pitchers.

As someone who knows how difficult it is to keep up with every player in one system, I have a great deal of respect for the work that John does in profiling every system and getting so many accurate reports in the process. There’s a reason he’s one of a handful of rankings we highlight on the site each year. But even with accurate reports, and a respected analyst, you’re going to find a lot of differences when you compare the rankings to other analysts with the same reports.

That’s what makes prospect rankings so much fun. At the same time, it highlights how difficult it can be to scout and predict the futures of young players. When two people can see the same thing from a player and come up with different futures for that player, you know you’re dealing with a very subjective process.

The best part is, it’s not that different with scouts either. The catcher debate from above? The Kramer “utility vs starter” debate? If you talk to different scouts, you’re bound to get these same differences. This is my eighth year covering the system, and I’ve never seen a consensus opinion on a player’s upside from scouts, even if the reports are the same.

Those are the guys getting paid to do nothing but predict the futures for prospects, with the success of their team depending on it. If they can’t come to a consensus on future upsides, then you’re not going to see it anywhere.

**No minor league reports today, since they canceled the camp day game for some reason. The Triple-A and Double-A teams are home tomorrow, so I’ll have plenty to report on then.

**Chris Stewart’s Role as a Mentor to the Young Pirates Pitchers and Catchers. I was originally going to do two articles here, with one focusing on Stewart and the other featuring the younger catchers. I ended up combining them, so you’ve got a long article, which is basically two in one.

**Pirates Release Angel Sanchez. Sanchez had been recovering from Tommy John surgery, and will be out for the year. You wonder if this is part of a move to get him back in the organization under a new deal, much like they did with Casey Sadler. I’ll have more on this when I find out the details.

  • I have been locked out of the site after pay for a year. Please help me. I have been trying for over a week. There is nothing on the home site that allows me to contact you about this problem.

  • Off topic, but I wanted to share this article I read of Peter Gammon’s site this morning. Good data on an inevitable Polanco breakout.

  • Sickels’ list is definitely one I anticipate every spring. is one of the sites I regularly visit at some point daily. I also appreciate sites where the authors of the articles are involved on their message boards.

  • I have a great deal of respect for the work that John does in profiling every system and getting so many accurate reports in the process.

    I agree with you on this statement.

  • Tim or John:

    What do you see Diaz’s floor/ceiling on his offense?

    Do you ever see him hitting above .250 with 8-10 HRs or is that about it?

    As for McGuire, one guy I read said that he has the chance to be like Lavalliere.
    .270 hitter, little power, but good contact skills.

    Do you see more power in his bat? I know KLaw doesn’t. If McGuire would end up like Spanky, I wouldn’t complain.

    • Lee, that is the same question, I want to have answered.
      Is Diaz and/or McGuire a .250 hitter with 8-10 HR or
      are we looking at all defense and .230 and 4-6 HR?

    • If I had to guess, I’d say Diaz could hit .270 with 8-10 homers at his peak. He doesn’t strikeout often and has enough pop to hit homers. Part of his problem last year was trying to do too much.

      McGuire has a much bigger gap between offensive/defensive ceiling, so I won’t even put an estimate on it other than to say he won’t hit many homers, but he could hit a lot of doubles. His swing is strictly contact-oriented and he uses the whole field. He’s trying to put the ball in play and he does a great job of it. It actually shows in his walk rate as well, as he isn’t an impatient hitter, he’s just good at putting the ball in play. IF he starts putting it in play with authority, then he will be a much better hitter. We saw some of that in the AFL, but with him going to Altoona this year, we are now talking about three straight years of aggressive pushes with him. He’s going to be younger than many of the players the Pirates draft this June, so that should be kept in perspective when he’s in AA already at an age that would be normal for the NYPL three levels lower.

  • From the video article: I mentioned that I “called” Escobar’s pitches, at least which side of the plate he was throwing to, on 4 straight pitches after I noticed it.

    Piraddict replied “Notify the Bucs, Foo”.

    I’m pretty sure that was tongue in cheek because a)I have no way of contacting them and b) surely the pitching coaches would see this, right?

    I am not in the least professing to be a video guy (I can see quick hands and some minor pitching stuff, but nothing like what some folks see on this site), so for ME to notice something like that was odd and “out of the blue”. It is almost like he would slightly turn his torso towards which side of the plate he was throwing it to.

    I guess I’ll have to watch some later video of him (if and when Tim takes it) and see if he is still doing it.

    • The fact that he misses his spot often in that video should disprove what you’re saying. Look where the catcher is set up and where he catches it, 4-5 pitches miss bad. His follow-through is different when he throws to different sides, but if you think a batter will be able to see that and adjust, you’re crazy. The ball is in the glove by then. It’s like noticing a grip after the pitcher throws it, then adjusting. It’s coming in too quick to do that. Escobar is also one of the rawest pitchers in the system. He was a third baseman when he was 16 and had never pitched before. He’s 19 now, so you shouldn’t expect him to be the best out there. He just has a great arm and you can’t teach that.

      That video should serve as some proof as to why we had him ranked 48th(46 now with Supak and Broxton gone) and thought those rankings by Law and MLB Pipeline were too aggressive. He is far from a polished pitcher, but has enough upside to eventually be a top prospect. They have already ranked him as high as he could go by the end of the year, especially with us now knowing he won’t start the year with the Power

      • but if you think a batter will be able to see that and adjust, you’re crazy.

        And this is why I rarely comment on video…

        Thanks, John. 🙂 🙂

        • I watched the video twice before the article went up and twice since then, and unless I’m missing what you see, I don’t see any issues of him tipping pitches early. His control is below average, so that sort of takes away any chance of him tipping pitches, because you could guess outside and lean into a 95 mph fastball

          • John….to me he would turn his upper body towards the corner he is throwing to. I honestly thought I saw that and just for grins and giggles tried to tell which side of the plate he was throwing to and got 4 in a row.

            But, as I said above, that’s why I shouldn’t try to interpret video any more. 🙂 🙂 🙂

            I can’t see things that ARE there and now I’m seeing things that aren’t there. 🙂 🙂

            • That may have just been “dumb luck” for lack of a better term. If you watch where the catcher sets up, he missed his spot a lot side to side. If you’re calling the pitches and the catcher is calling other pitches, then he is all confused.

              I think what you may be seeing is a young/raw pitcher not being able to repeat his delivery, and where he is in his progress, that’s not unexpected

            • I see dead people!

  • One of the commenters had this on the Sickels site about Kuhl. I was just wondering what people thought, since I am not quite sure what some of this means…

    Percentile Ratings (97: plus plus, 84: plus, 50: average, 16: minus, 3: minus minus)

    2015 Kuhl (663 BF, 24 BF/G, 81 Youth): 79 Overall, 58 Ctl, 46 K, 90 Batted Ball (93 GB,20 IFFB,95 LD Avoid,81 OFFB Avoid,79 PullOFFB Avoid)

    2014 Kuhl (626 BF, 22 BF/G, 88 Youth): 58 Overall, 40 Ctl, 34 K, 85 Batted Ball (88 GB,12 IFFB,86 LD Avoid,71 OFFB Avoid,75 PullOFFB Avoid)

    The trouble with this profile is that for a GBer to stick as a SP they also have to be good at one aspect of the CTL/K dynamic (typically CTL rather than K, as Ks go down as GBs come up). At present Kuhl is averagish by league standards at each of CTL and K and very few SP can translate being averagish at those 2 fundamentals at AA to being averagish or better at them as MLBers. This is also the sort of profile where fastball velocity or upticks in it don’t really benefit the pitcher as he isn’t the sort who is suffering from the problem of being pulled too frequently when he does allow an OFFB.

    The probabilities are high that Kuhl is a sinkerballing reliever option by the time he hits MLB readiness, and to stick at that again his CTL/K combo is going to have to play up in those shorter spurts. Working against that latter scenario ringing true is that Kuhl has really struggled to get the RHB K rating in the 20th percentile twice (incl. 2015) and 30th percentile once as a pro.

    • I think the problem with looking at the Pirates system and making a general blanket statement comparing them to other systems, is that they want pitchers to keep the strikeouts down, because that runs up pitch counts. Their motto is, three pitches or less. Pound the strike zone, keep the ball down. Tyler Glasnow gets strikeouts because he’s so good, but they would appreciate it a lot if he didn’t get so many and lasted longer in games. Kuhl is also working on his slider so it becomes an out pitch and he has made strides with that, but if was already an out pitch, he would be in the majors already.

      • Thx….I try to be a stat nerd for an old man (unlike Goose Gossage) but it is times like these I am glad you’re around to interpret stuff like this.

        • I don’t think what they are saying is wrong in most cases, but when you have a sinkerball pitcher pitching to contact and getting that contact with excellent results, he’s doing exactly what they asked of him. Now he’s trying to develop that out pitch to take him to the next level. Kuhl has just two full seasons out of college and he’s already dominated in a AAA playoff game, so I’d say he’s on a pretty good pace to succeed. He even said recently that he changed his style from trying to blow guys away, to embracing the pitch to contact style, becoming more efficient in the process

          • Another problem evaluating the numbers for a prospect like Kuhl issues from the changes in velocity he had. He may be learning how to pitch with an extra 4-9 mph on his fastball. He may also need to feature his slider and changeup, pitches which are not as strong as his fastball. In other words, he needs to work on developing the physical components of his game. These are not permanently fixed, and thus his K- and BB-rates may not reveal his true talent.

            Once again, we come across a player who produced numbers that need to be interpreted through a filter provided by his scouting reports.

          • That’s great that he’s doing what they want, but it can’t be argued that the Pirates have had very, very little success actually turning these type of pitching prospects into Major League starters.

            This extreme contact/ground ball strategy has to eventually play at the big league level and there are very few pitchers who have been able to get away with it.

            Skepticism is warranted.

        • Pa-leeze don’t get to be like Gossage Lee. Now he is not only throwing young players off his lawn, he is bitching about replay. I’m not sure if he is still afraid of the Y2K thingy also. X-box would probably scare the hell out of him.

  • This is why I prefer Tiered Rankings and I am glad Tim does those.

  • Is Mel Rojas Jr still in the system?

    • Yes, he was with the Pirates recently during a spring game, even batted twice

      • Ok thanks. Where does he fit in at AAA?

        • Probably AAA, though they have a lot of players going there who should be starters, so he might be a bench player

          • Ok I hadn’t heard much about him recently. Thanks for the replies!

            • Should have followed the winter ball coverage, talked about him a lot. Started off great, leading the league in homers and was stealing bases too. Then once the better players arrived and competition got better, he disappeared

  • peanutbutterguts
    March 16, 2016 6:02 am

    A question to anyone really, but admittedly I am not as keen on other teams prospects as I am the Pirates. Just wondering how anyone in the know feels how our farm system ranks against other top systems? I realize that most outlets give an overall team ranking but those can vary greatly, how does this site feel? We all know what a barren system looks like and now we’re struggling to fit 1st round picks into the top ten. What are some other teams that have similar “problems”?

    • Before any rankings of the farm systems came out, I figured the Pirates would be ranked 4th or 5th because they had top tier talent and a lot of depth. When they came out and I got to look through the Baseball America prospect guide at the surprise(to me) teams people were putting ahead of the Pirates, I thought the 7th or 8th spots looked better. So without really diving into every system, I agree with the average rankings we are seeing around the internet.

      Now, the fact that I thought they seemed better before really looking into it, could just mean that those other teams are better than your average 4-6 ranked teams in any given year. There are a lot of teams that stocked up on prospects at the top, plus some really bad teams at the bottom where that talent came from.