The Challenges of Both Evaluating and Reporting on Prospects

BRADENTON, Fla. – My least favorite part of this job is definitely the process of evaluating players.

We cover 200-250 prospects throughout the system each year. We offer evaluations of all of those players, with future upsides, chances of reaching the majors, and development along the way. The evaluations are just a snapshot in time, and some players always move themselves into position to be a future MLB player, while other players will move out of that upside.

The reality is that most players won’t make it to the majors. D1Baseball looked at the numbers for draft picks last year. The odds of a first round pick reaching the majors is about 75% for college players and just under 60% for prep players. The percentage of players who played in the majors for more than three years is just over 50% for college players, and about 35% for prep players.

By those numbers, if the Pirates draft four college players in the first round, one won’t even make the majors on average, and only two will stick around for longer than three years. This doesn’t even get into impact potential, where studies have the success rate being below 30% for the guys taken at the top of the first round.

Those are pretty astounding numbers, when you think about it. They only go down further the later you are picked. According to the study, a fifth round pick has a little over a 30% chance of reaching the majors, regardless of college or high school, with college picks still getting the edge. That number drops to 20% in rounds 6-10, 12.7% in rounds 11-15, and 9.9% in rounds 16-20.

The odds of sticking in the majors for longer than three years are also much lower for these rounds — 9% for rounds 6-10, 5.2% for rounds 11-15, 4.4% for rounds 16-20. The study didn’t go beyond the top 20 rounds into rounds 21-40, but you can imagine the low historical success rate just by looking at how low the chances are for rounds 16-20. And we’re only talking draft picks here. I don’t think a good study has been done about the chances for international signings, where I’d imagine the success rate is much lower across the board.

My job is to give an objective view of the chances and upside for each player in the system. We don’t just stick to the numbers. If there’s a later round pick who we think has a shot of making it, we will say so, despite the odds. If an earlier round pick doesn’t look like he’s going to make it, we don’t increase his chances based on the historical results for that round. We evaluate every player by what they show, and constantly adjust those evaluations along the way with new information.

The reality is that a large majority of players in the system won’t reach the majors. A large majority won’t even reach Double-A. We graded 178 players in the Prospect Guide this year. Of that list, we project that 70 players won’t have a shot at reaching the majors at all. Another 21 have a shot of reaching the majors for a brief cup of coffee. Then there are 50 players who we project to reach the majors, but more as Quad-A guys who won’t stick in the majors.

That leaves 37 players who profile as a bench player that can stick in the majors, or better. Again, those rankings change. Some of those 37 players won’t actually make it, and several of the 141 other players will improve their skills. It happens every year on either side.

What I hate about this process is having to say that 141 people have little or no shot at the majors, especially when I’m in a position where I talk to and interact with those players from the day they enter the system. There are a lot of really good guys who I hope become that 10% or less success story of even reaching the majors as a later round pick, or that less than 5% success story of sticking in the majors for more than three years. There are other good guys who I know won’t even make it out of short-season ball, and some of those cases are just flat-out inevitable.

The job is to give an opinion on which players will make it and which players won’t. It sucks projecting anyone to fail, especially since I’m the type of guy who roots for everyone to succeed, regardless of if I like them or not.

I bring all of this up today because I ran into a situation in Bradenton earlier this week involving player evaluations. My Bradenton preview said that the Marauders have the weakest prospect group in the system. That’s an objective and honest look, based on how the prospects on the team compare in our prospect rankings to other teams.

Players on the team took offense to this. One player informed me that he won’t be doing interviews with me anymore, which is unfortunate, since the interviews are a way for him to have a voice in the articles about him. Other players said they didn’t like seeing that players who were working hard were being written off before the season started. Some were upset thinking that I was saying the team couldn’t win in the Florida State League this year, although that wasn’t the case. We cover individual progress here, and don’t focus on the team records, outside of brief mentions. Our playoff coverage is still focused on individual development.

This is part of the job. I’ve got to be honest and objective, because if I’m not, then people don’t take this site seriously, I’m out of a job, and my family suffers as a result. There’s no player that would lead me to compromise my objectivity with that at stake.

That leads to inevitable conflict like this. I’ve heard it from MLB players. Prospects. Coaches. Front office members. Family of the players. Some of those encounters are civil. Some aren’t. I had one player’s father say I knew “more about pissing with either hand than you do about baseball” (whatever that means) and to stop acting like a nerdy gay guy posting what kind of craft beer “you and your fairy dusters are sipping.” (Truth: One of my favorite emails ever, and I never heard back from him after responding “Best of luck to your son!”) The sad thing is, I really liked his son, hoped for the best, and felt bad when my projection was correct and he was eventually released.

The entire process makes it laughable when someone says that any writer — myself or others — write positive in fear of losing access. I’ve lost access to very few players. Zero coaches and front office members. Most of the time people will be upset, but professional about it. That’s good to see. If players can’t handle a negative comment in A-ball, they’re not going to last in the majors. On the flip side, I’m always going to be professional and show up in the clubhouse, willing to take any anger over anything I wrote, willing to talk it out, and willing to let a player give his side of the story. I don’t change my opinion easily, because if I had a choice between access and my objectivity, I’d preserve my objectivity every single time.

We’re 1,200 words into this, which is an extremely long intro getting to the overall point I wanted to discuss. After having several discussions around the clubhouse last night, the biggest thing that stuck with me was this line: “Everyone here is working hard.” Hard work doesn’t guarantee success. A lot of people work hard and fail. But if there’s one level where hard work can really open doors, it’s High-A.

I once had a scout tell me that making it to Double-A was huge for a prospect. Once you get to Double-A, all it takes is a hot stretch and you’ve got a legit shot at the majors. And it seems that once you reach the majors — even for a short period — you’ve got an “in,” where you continue to get higher-paying minor-league free agent deals until you decide to retire. But it’s not easy to reach Double-A, and again, most prospects won’t arrive there.

Guys in the lower levels are largely graded and evaluated on skills. You don’t need to show numbers the previous year to move up a level. You just need to show that you’re continuing to progress your game. The numbers don’t really start to matter until High-A.

I’ve seen guys struggle with the numbers in short-season and get sent to Low-A the following year. I’ve seen the same between Low-A and High-A. But if a player struggles in High-A, he’s probably going to repeat the level. High-A seems to be the turning point, where skills start to matter less if they’re not paired with numbers, and numbers start to prevail, even if there aren’t elite skills backing them.

We rated a lot of players on this Bradenton team low in large part because of the lack of elite tools displayed in the lower levels. A lot of the players projected for one tool, or two at best, when you want to see 2-3 at the least. This is also a team on the older side for High-A ball, which goes into a totally different study of the lowered odds of making it to the majors. This might actually be the first time in my ten years of coverage where the Altoona average age is younger than the Bradenton average (the age drops way down for the West Virginia group).

But if players can find a way to reach Double-A, then they’ve got a legit shot of propelling themselves to the majors. Or, at the least, they extend their careers by getting further opportunities. You constantly see upper-level guys signing minor league deals when they become free agents. It’s rare to see a guy released from A-ball catch on elsewhere. And making that crucial jump to Double-A is where hard work can get the job done at this level and get a player moved up with results, even with the lack of a three-to-five-tool profile.

I’ve seen it happen before. One of my favorite stories of coverage was Alex Presley. When I first saw him in High-A in 2009, I thought he was the bat boy. He didn’t really have any standout tools, and he was small and older for the level, with previous failed attempts at successfully moving beyond A-ball. He worked hard that offseason, got a shot in Double-A in 2010, and by the end of the season he was in the majors. And he’s still getting opportunities in the majors, with over 1,500 career plate appearances. Presley was an eighth round pick, so the historical odds of him sticking around this long would be less than 10%.

I love seeing when anyone makes the majors, but there’s something special about those guys with a low percentage chance busting through and making it. I love to be proven wrong in those cases. I love it way more than being proven right about a breakout prospect. I was wrong about Presley. I said he had no chance to make it beyond A-ball. I loved being wrong about Presley, and still remember watching his first big league hit on the Altoona scoreboard while covering a game later in the season at the same time as his callup.

By our objective evaluations, Bradenton’s team has the weakest prospect group, looking solely at how the teams stack up in our prospect rankings. As we said in the original preview, there are guys who could reach the majors, but not many potential impact guys or starters. Players on the team didn’t like that evaluation, which sucks, but it’s part of the job. Several said they’re working hard, and they believe I’m wrong. That’s not going to get me to change my evaluation, and neither will losing access to any player. (Although the access is more for their benefit to have a say, since I can get all I need from scouts, coaches, and watching the games myself — so hopefully that doesn’t become a trend this year, as I like giving players a voice in the articles.)

But I hope a lot of players in Bradenton eventually prove me wrong. Because that’s my favorite part of the job — watching someone succeed after they previously looked like they had little to no chance of reaching the majors.

Analysis

  • I can understand why the players would be upset with your evaluation of them. They all should think they can make it to the show. If they didn’t believe that they should not even play the game. Don’t take it personally but I am sure it hurts that they will not speak with you.

  • Any word on Jung Ho Kang Tim? Tweet floating around that he is in New York City.

  • Those numbers ‘jive’ with ones that I have been quoting that I got from a couple of places (including Royals Report). I have the BA Draft Book and they corroborate all of these numbers.

    Heck, 40% of the Top 5 picks never either make it to the majors or just get a cup of coffee.

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