Morning Report: How to Evaluate the Performances of Lower Level Prospects

I was asked a question yesterday in the live Q&A about whether it was time to adjust expectations for Oneil Cruz.

Earlier in the week, following his 12 strikeout performance, I wrote about Travis MacGregor showing promise, but tried to calm down any comparisons to a Mitch Keller type breakout.

Cruz went on to hit two home runs last night. MacGregor followed his big start with a one inning outing, throwing too many pitches in the first inning. Is that a sign of the opposite for each player — that Cruz is going to work out, or that MacGregor was just lucky in his one outing? Or are the results prior to those games more telling?

The answer to me is neither.

My approach with prospects in West Virginia is to largely ignore the numbers. It’s great to see Cruz hitting two homers in a night. It’s great to see MacGregor striking out 12 batters. It is concerning to see the negative outings as well. But in those two cases, and every other case in the lower levels, I’m looking beyond the numbers.

MacGregor had 12 strikeouts in his debut and one walk. That stat line is eye-opening, but what he did to get the stats is what is more interesting. He has shown better command of his fastball this spring, increased velocity since he entered pro ball, and a better curveball after working on the pitch for two years.

The 12 strikeout performance isn’t going to move MacGregor up on the prospect lists. But the skills that led to that performance are what could move him up the list, and what could lead to more good outings. How good are his skills and how much of an improvement did he make? That will largely be shown by how many good outings he has versus how many bad outings he has.

The same goes with Cruz. He has some of the best raw power in the system, which has led to three homers already, and a .358 ISO on the young season. He also has a lot of strikeouts and a low average to go with that. Looking beyond the numbers, he’s a young hitter who can be a free swinger at times, trying to hit for power, which will usually lead to the types of numbers he’s putting up. He’s going to need to fix that tendency in order to hit for power while avoiding the strikeouts.

And that brings me to the other important part of the evaluation of lower level guys. It’s not groundbreaking to say that a player’s performance over time, and how many good outings vs how many bad outings will give a better display of his upside. That applies to any level. What makes the lower levels so unique is that players can see rapid change in such a short amount of time.

If I go see Mitch Keller in his next start in Altoona, I’m going to see basically the same pitcher I saw during Spring Training. The same is true if I see him later in the year. He might have improved a pitch, or shown some smaller changes. But in the upper levels, you don’t get massive changes. It’s more about polishing up your game.

By comparison, Keller showed massive improvements in West Virginia. I saw him early in the 2016 season and he was consistently hitting 94-95 with improved control. I saw him a few months later, and suddenly he was hitting 97-98 with plus control. Those are two entirely different pitchers with different upsides.

I’ve seen that over the years as well with many other players. Nick Kingham’s first half in West Virginia was filled with walks, and his second half was dominant once he found a way to limit the walks. That’s a common story at the level with a lot of pitchers. Gregory Polanco had an .838 OPS his first three months in West Virginia, then something clicked and he took off with a 1.047 OPS in the final two months.

In every case in West Virginia, I’m waiting to see the long-term results, which would be fueled by the stuff and the skills of the player. More importantly, I’m looking at the improvements they make throughout the season, which can make them entirely different players.

Travis MacGregor could be an entirely different pitcher by the time July rolls around. Oneil Cruz could be an entirely different hitter. Because of this, there’s not much value in placing a lot of weight on short-term results, or projecting players at that level out for the long-term, based on where they are at right now.

That doesn’t make the stats any less fun to see on a good night, or any less concerning on a bad night. It just adds the perspective that those stats mean a lot less at this level than they would for an upper level guy.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 7-2 to the Miami Marlins on Friday night. The Pirates will now send Jameson Taillon to the mound tonight. He allowed just one hit over nine shutout innings in his last start, which was at home against the Cincinnati Reds. He gave up two runs over 5.1 innings in his debut, while striking out nine batters. The Marlins will counter with 24-year-old right-handed pitcher Trevor Richards, who allowed five runs over 4.1 innings in his debut, then gave up three runs over four innings in his last start.

The minor league schedule includes Brandon Waddell trying to build on his first start, when he allowed one run over 5.2 innings, with seven strikeout. Braeden Ogle also gets his second start. He had some control issues in his first outing, which got pushed back twice due to rain. He allowed three runs and four walks over four innings in that debut. Austin Coley will try to bounce back from allowing six runs in the first inning during his season debut, while Cam Vieaux makes it three lefties going on the same day. Indianapolis and Altoona have early afternoon games.

MLB: Pittsburgh (9-4) @ Marlins (4-9) 7:10 PM
Probable starter: Jameson Taillon (1.26 ERA, 16:2 SO/BB,  14.1 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (4-4) @ Buffalo (3-2) 1:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Austin Coley (81.00 IP, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.2 IP)

AA: Altoona (5-2) @ Erie (3-5) 1:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Brandon Waddell (1.59 ERA, 7:1 SO/BB, 5.2 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (7-2) @ Clearwater (1-8) 6:15 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Cam Vieaux (5.40 ERA, 7:3 SO/BB, 5.0 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (4-5) @ Hickory (1-7) 6:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Braeden Ogle (9.00 ERA, 4:4 SO/BB, 3.0 IP)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Thursday in Chicago, Gregory Polanco shows off the power

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

4/13: Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez recalled. Clay Holmes and Josh Smoker sent to Indianapolis.

4/12: AJ Schugel assigned to Bradenton on rehab

4/11: Pirates sign Denny Roman and Cristian Charle

4/10: Bryan Reynolds placed on Altoona disabled list. Jason Martin activated from DL.

4/5: Pirates claim Jesus Liranzo from Los Angeles Dodgers. Placed on Altoona disabled list.

4/2: Kevin Siegrist placed on suspended list for Indianapolis.

4/2: Pirates place Joe Musgrove on DL; Recall Clay Holmes

3/31: Pirates release Clark Eagan

3/29: Pirates placed AJ Schugel on disabled list.

3/28: Pirates release seven minor league players, including Barrett Barnes and Cody Dickson

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

There have been five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including an outfielder/pitcher for three straight NL pennant winners. George Merritt is one of the more obscure Pirates players, but he played for the team during the best three-year run in franchise history. Merritt started three games on the mound in 1901 and all three were complete game victories. The next two years, he was an outfielder, pitching just once. Over those three seasons, he played a total of 15 games, which represents his entire big league career. His minor league career consisted of 15 seasons, where he also split his time between pitching and playing outfield.

John Van Benschoten was born on this date in 1980. He was the first round draft pick of the Pirates in 2001, known as one of the better two-way players in college. He hit 31 homers during his junior season, but the Pirates drafted him as a pitcher. Three shoulder surgeries derailed his career and he ended up winning just two games in the majors, while posting a 9.20 ERA in 90 innings.

Other players born on this date are Chris Leroux, Kyle Farnsworth and Bill Luhrsen, all pitchers. Luhrsen had the nickname “Wild Bill” and he walked 16 batters in his 29 Major League innings.

On this date in 1925, the Pirates opened up their second World Series winning season by losing 8-2 to Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Alexander. The Pirates lineup that day included three future Hall of Famers, Pie Traynor, Max Carey and Kiki Cuyler. That season, Pittsburgh began the year with a 3-8 record. You can see the boxscore here.

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