The Perils Of Prospect Punditry: Ranking Prospects

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Ranking prospects is one of the highlights of the offseason for many. However, how are these ranking put together? How do you decide between the top ten pick and the Cuban import? Brandon Magee explains what goes into the prospect ranking process.

It’s the end of the baseball season and you head to your favorite team discussion site to talk about your team. You notice the annual Rank the Prospect thread. This year you were extra diligent following your team’s minor league prospects. “I’ll show my new found knowledge,” you think to yourself and into the thread you go. After an agonizing couple of minutes of switching prospects in and out of various positions, you hit post. Congratulations, you are now a prospect pundit!

Sorting through the Minors

Making a list and checking it twice is easy. But, are you even aware of what criteria you used to make the list? The number of factors that can be used to differentiate between each prospect are numerous. And how the factors are weighted is the reason why every pundit’s list is different, sometimes radically so.

The following is a partial list of criteria I have utilized when forming prospect lists in the past:

  1. Players Stats vs. League Average
  2. Players Age vs. League Average
  3. Positional Difficulty
  4. Statistical Splits  – i.e. platoon splits, monthly trend data
  5. Known Information – i.e. injuries, modifying stances/pitches
  6. Draft Position/Bonus
  7. In Season Promotions/Demotions

A Light into the Tunnel

So, let’s look at some of these criteria on a random Boston Red Sox prospect.

Pat Light was the 37th player drafted in the 2012 draft. The right-handed pitcher earned a $1 million bonus from the Sox, less than the recommended draft slot. In his first three seasons with the Boston organization, Light was a starting pitcher, finishing the 2014 season with the High-A Salem Red Sox. While Light was promoted to AA Portland to start the 2015 season, he was also converted into a relief pitching prospect. Light put up very good numbers in 21 games in Portland, earning a promotion to AAA Pawtucket. However, Light had much more difficulty in the International League, with both his hits and walks increasing dramatically compared with his numbers in the Eastern League. Light, as is normal with a college pitcher, was older than league average in his first three seasons. The jump to AA put him slightly below the average age with the promotion to AAA putting him nearly three years younger than the average player.

Building the List

The difficulty with building a top 20 prospect list isn’t just looking at each potential prospect in similar detail to how we look at Pat Light in the preceding section. It’s the more difficult aspect of differentiating players. What criteria goes into deciding that one player is a slightly more valuable prospect than another?

The Boston Red Sox currently have three highly rated position players in their system: Sam Travis, Yoan Moncada, and Andrew Benintendi. Which should be considered the best prospect of the three?

[For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that their current on-field contributions do not differentiate these players enough to determine list placement.]

  • Sam Travis: 67th pick (2nd Round) of the 2014 First Year Player Draft. First baseman. Spent second professional season in High-A Salem and AA Portland. Turned 22 in August.

  • Andrew Benintendi: 7th pick (1st Round) of the 2015 First Year Player Draft. Centerfielder. First professional season was split between Short-Season Lowell and A-Ball Greenville. Turned 21 in July.
  • Yoan Moncada: Signed for a record $31 million bonus as an international free agent. Second baseman. First season in America was spent in A-Ball Greenville. Turns 21 in May.

What criteria can be utilized for differentiation?

  1. Age/Level – While all three are young, Moncada is the youngest. However, Travis is the only one to move up from A-Ball.
  2. Draft Position – Travis falls lower on this scale as well, being only a second round pick.
  3. Positional Difficulty – Moncada and Benintendi both play up the middle positions, positions generally considered more difficult than Travis’ first base.

While Sam Travis is a fine prospect, based on his position and age, it would be difficult to place him above either Moncada or Benintendi at this point. However, what more can we look at to differentiate the up the middle players?

At this point, differences can be subtle and very much up to each pundit. Often, the determination they make is as much guesswork and assumptions as it is based on data. For example:

  1. Who has the higher ceiling – What player has the most skills that could make him the next baseball superstar.
  2. Who has the higher floor – Oftentimes, players with higher ceilings have lower floors, they are classic boom/bust players. If everything goes perfectly well and they fix that problem, they could be great. If not, they may not even make an MLB appearance. Others, however, do not project to greatness but are almost certain to be solid MLB players.
  3. Off-Field – Prospect are not immune to bad decisions that have little to do with baseball. Off field distractions have derailed careers before they have even started. The unfortunate reality is this can not be completely ignored.
  4. Intangibles – Yes, good old intangibles. Do they have a great attitude or a bad attitude. Do they work hard or hardly work. Do they run with a posse or are they a sullen loner. Does any of this matter? To some pundits, it matters a great deal.

After looking through these criteria, it is still possible that you are at an impasse. The differences between Moncada and Benintendi just don’t differentiate them that much. Well, there is one more criteria that will fix that.

  •    Personal Preference

Let’s be honest. This is your list. Ultimately, you don’t have to have a real distinct reason to like one more than the other. You think centerfielders are more valuable than second baseman? You like saying Benintendi more than Moncada? You believe that making the decision to leave Cuba as a teenager makes Moncada tougher?

There is your differentiation. And now you know how you got there.

In our next installment, we’ll look at how a single prospects ratings can be wildly divergent between pundits despite looking at the same data.

Brandon Magee is our minor league expert. He has also written about fan expectations, travel in the minors, and the first steps in his life as a journalist.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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