Over the last week, I've been examining old prospect lists in an attempt to learn some lessons from history. We looked at where the best hitters in 2011 and the best pitchers came from, and how elite hitting prospects (Grade A or A-) and elite pitching prospects in the 2003-2006 window developed, or failed to develop.
Keep in mind that it takes a good five years (or longer) to truly know how some players will pan out. For example, before 2011, Brandon McCarthy looked like a total bust, but he had a great season last year and showed the talent that made him a strong prospect in the first place. We still don't know if guys like Ian Stewart or Daric Barton will be considered disappointments in two or three years, or how Delmon Young will use his talent. In any event, here are some observations/lessons I take away from this.
**Most successful/elite players (at least in 2011) were strongly rated as prospects, at least Grade B types or higher. Some guys exceed expectations, but most of the elite players (especially on the pitching side) were also strong or elite prospects, at least how I define them.
**Even so, a large number of their elite prospect peers fail, somewhere between 30 and 40%.
**Reasons for failure vary, but among pitchers injuries seem to be the biggest factor. Sometimes this is a catastrophic event with a clear line between before/after (Jesse Foppert, Kurt Ainsworth, Kris Honel, Cesar Carrillo, etc), but sometimes there is just a steady but critical decline in stuff quality without an obvious serious injury. Control problems are also an issue with some failures, but this often seems to be related to injuries.
**Key reasons for position player failure are more complex and often interrelated but include:
--Problems with contact/too many strikeouts
--Poor strike zone judgment (which isn't always the same thing as poor contact)
--Not developing along a "normal" age curve for no obvious reason (Andy Marte a great example)
--Poor handling by parent team
I used to think that position players were more predictable than pitchers, but over the last few years my thinking on that has changed. Nowadays I am more confident in our ability to judge pitchers. Absent injuries, I think it is easier to judge pitchers both traditionally (stuff, mechanics, projection, etc) and sabermetrically.