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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Williams: Defining Our Own 20-80 Scale to Evaluate Baseball Players

This is Part One of a multi-part series, explaining the Prospect Grading methodology and theories that will be used on Pirates Prospects going forward. For more information, be sure to check out the introduction.

This is the 13th season that I’ve covered the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Pirates Prospects has been central to that coverage for the entire duration.

My main focus has always been to provide a resource with information on each of the 200+ prospects in the Pirates’ system, complete with their projected Future Values and Ceilings. With this information, you can dream on what a future winning Pittsburgh Pirates team might look like — on those sad, lonely nights in the years when the Pirates aren’t a winning team, and are losing decisively.

Throughout this entire journey, I’ve aimed to provide objective evaluations and projections of players with the appropriate mixture of optimism.

That said, I’ve never really done this my way.

I follow the same 20-80 grading scale that everyone else in the game follows. I evaluate players based on the same tools that everyone else uses. These are all standard from inside the game, and almost treated as gospel, as if you can’t view or evaluate players in a different way, or based on different measures.

The thing is, I’m not from inside this game. I bring a very unique view of the game that I’ve never fully expressed, other than adamantly arguing cases like saying Jacob Stallings would be an MLB catcher back when he was considered an organizational player.

My methods for evaluating the game have closely followed the methods that Baseball America outlines, and that was the case long before I joined them to become their Pirates’ correspondent.

Throughout this process on either outlet, I feel like I’ve been largely grading and evaluating players based on how the game would evaluate them, versus how I would evaluate them.

It’s just, I don’t know how to easily explain that. And by the end of this Part One of a “I don’t know how many parts this series will be” group of articles, you will get a drawing of how I see the player development process in my mind.

As I bring Pirates Prospects back for a new run through this system, I’ve decided we’re going to do things a bit outside the box, so to speak.

*****

From the origins around 776 BC, to the more modern origins in 1896, the Olympic games have been about one thing — competing to determine the best athletes in the world. The pinnacle of human athletic achievement is on display in these games, and as humans progress over the years, we see newer records from better performances. In a way, professional sports serve the same function on an individual level. On a team level, they provide an avenue for competition between different groups showing pride in their region. But, on an individual player level, we’re just trying to see who the best in the world really is, and where everyone else lines up behind that player.

And it can be very subjective, since this isn’t a 600 foot race…

What if this is all just a popularity contest, with the best of the best naturally being the most popular?

Rather than trying to project out player values based on what a player can do in the majors on a day-to-day level, what if we project out values based on what type of career a player is expected to have? Some outlets take this approach, projecting out career WAR. We’re not to that point here, yet. Instead, it’s going to be a more generalized approach, with an informal expansion to the normal 20-80 scale.

10 – Athlete

This isn’t really a grade that we would use, other than to reflect the current grade of some players in the lowest levels. Teams draft and sign players based on their athletic tools and abilities, but the reality is that some of them just aren’t pro baseball players. They’re taught how to play the game, but barely get a chance to play in games and don’t make it far beyond the rookie levels.

I’m adding this grade as perspective for the bottom, because everyone starts here. Scouts are looking for athletes that they can turn into professional baseball players. If each person on Earth carries a current grade from zero to 99 in terms of their athletic abilities related to baseball, then 10 would be the grade threshold where pro scouts should start considering a player for pro ball.

You will typically find these guys at the prep and NCAA level, as well as in the international markets.

20 – Player

This is the standard grade for a career minor leaguer. These players will never reach the majors. Some of them will wash out in rookie ball. Others will make it to A-ball. Some will make it to the upper levels, and could make a career out of being a Crash Davis type player.

A lot of prospects have current grades of 20, but future projections that are higher. A player with a 20 grade currently would be massively over-matched in the majors currently, regardless of his future projection.

These players will typically top out in A-ball, though some might reach Double-A. However, anyone here should have at least two of the standard tools to play in the majors, meaning that anyone here could be used in the majors in a pinch. Think John Bormann.

30 – Multiple Year Player

Once you reach this level, I think you’ve got what it takes to have a multi-year playing career in the majors. That career is probably not going to last long, and will include some trips back and forth between the minors. The players here are the most likely to fill out Triple-A clubs as post-prospects, and can extend their MLB career getting opportunities with teams that are in the early stages of building a contender.

Anthony Alford is an example of a present day 30-grade guy under this system. You could hedge and say he’s 35, but the important thing is he hasn’t crossed the next threshold. Yet.

I’d also say that Rodolfo Castro and Max Kranick are currently here. If neither improves from where they are right now, they could have careers like Alford, with multiple smaller opportunities until something clicks. I’ll discuss these two a bit more later in the article.

40 – Starter & Multiple Year Player

This is where you start to find your regular MLB players, and a lot of your best role players. The guys who cross this threshold are looking at an MLB career where they can be a starter for at least one year, and a multi-year player in the majors.

This is where my grading starts to differ from the other systems in terms of execution. I’m factoring in the free agent market. With these players, I’m projecting a career that ends around the time they hit free agency in their early 30s. Teams are paying for the best players, and trying to internally develop guys who aren’t All-Stars, rather than paying the older versions of those players.

For a recent historical example of this tier on a career scale, look no further than current Pirates’ farm director John Baker.

A current example of this would be Wil Crowe. These guys will find their starting time with MLB Builders, and the better ones will fill smaller roles with MLB Contenders — likely the larger market kinds. You may see these guys dropping down to Triple-A to work on things and eventually running out of options. This isn’t to say that Crowe can’t improve. However, if the Pirates were aiming for a contending team, Crowe wouldn’t be in the mix for the rotation based on where he’s at now, and would need to find his work in the bullpen.

50 – All Star & Multiple Year Starter

At this point, everyone in an MLB player. The 50-grade guys are the first ones who will get to choose when they retire, rather than having that choice made for them by teams. They’ll play into their 30s, and still get contract offers up to their mid-30s.

This is another area where my grading differs: I’m basing this tier on projected awards. The All-Star Game might be a popularity contest, but on a large scale it does a good job to reflect the best players in the league. If you are projected to be a 50 grade player, then I’m projecting multiple years as a starter for you in the majors, and one All-Star appearance.

Josh Harrison is an example of a grade 50 player who is still active. Adam Frazier looks like he will be another one.

I think Bryan Reynolds was here at the start of the season, but he’s ultimately got higher potential, and is crossing over the 60-grade threshold already.

60 – All Stars & Award

If you’re finding MLB occasional starters at grade 40, and regular starters at grade 50, then everything higher should be based on the career works of a player. That’s still best reflected by the awards and the perception that the awards reflect.

A 60-grade player is one who can make multiple All-Star Game appearances, while winning a key award (MVP, Cy Young, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger) during his career. Not only is this player one of the best in the league in multiple seasons, but he can also be award-worthy for at least one year.

The Pirates have a few prospects with 60-grade projections right now. These are the guys you win with. You start to build a team around these players. Bryan Reynolds is probably already here. Ke’Bryan Hayes should get here with his glove and a few good years at the plate. They might not stop at this level, but both could accomplish this.

This tier will largely have your Small Market Heroes or Large Market Hires. These are the guys who could spend most of their career with one team for an affordable amount to a small market team, though they can also be used as hired or acquired guns for the large market clubs.

70 – Multiple All-Stars and Awards

Now we’re getting to some of the best players in the game. These are guys who are good over multiple seasons, and winning multiple awards in their career. The level of consistency needed for that type of accomplishment at the highest level is rare, and should rarely be projected from the minor league level.

In theory, every player should have two grades: Current and Future Projection.

That should be true regardless of whether they’re prospect eligible or not. You don’t stop growing and stop improving the moment you take your 130th at-bat in the majors, or pitch your 50th inning.

Andrew McCutchen is a great example of a 70-grade player. He’s been a five-time All-Star, won an MVP award, four silver sluggers, and a Gold Glove. McCutchen’s career totals will probably keep him from the next tier, unless he can find a second wind and add some longevity to his career with more seasons like his current one into his late-30s.

I like to think of these guys as destined to end up with large market teams.

80 – Hall of Fame

The best of the best. I’m not using the actual Hall of Fame results to evaluate this, as I think the BBWAA does an overall horrible job of being the gatekeeper for that honor. There are players who should be in, and aren’t. Some of those players have moved to a special tier I’ve added.

A player should always have a future potential that extends up to 99, although a player’s likely future potential is going to typically be much lower than this, and lower than the 80 threshold for the Hall of Fame. The 80 grade shouldn’t be discussed until a player is well established in his career, though he’d be well outside of the realm of prospect evaluation by that point.

I would never use this number for a prospect.

90 – Legend

This is just a special tier I’ve added. These are Hall of Famers, but they transcended the game. Every Hall of Famer transcends the game in a way, which gets them into the Hall of Fame. In these cases, the player has transcended the game, and he knows it. This often happens during the player’s career.

Barry Bonds might be the best example of this. Roberto Clemente for a non-controversial, and more positive Worldly impact story of a player who knew he had transcended the game.

Really, every player should have this mentality, and probably could instantly improve their present grade in the process. Some players do have this mentality, although you can’t just mentality your way to the majors.

Tomorrow night we will continue with Part Two of this series, focusing on individual player development and how those Athletes can turn into Players can turn into All-Stars and Award winners…

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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