How I Became a Prospect Analyst
by John Sickels
In the most recent All Questions Answered thread, someone asked me how I got into prospect analysis. It has been about five years since I've told his story, and that version of it appears to be buried on the internet somewhere. Not everyone knows the story, and it is an interesting one, so I will tell it again.
This all began in the summer of 1977. I was growing up in Des Moines. A new kid named Brent Jacobs moved into the neighborhood, and we became friends. Brent was a huge baseball fan. I had just a tiny interest in baseball, but he fanned the flames and soon I was a raging fanatic, obsessed with baseball cards especially. He taught me how to interpret the statistics, and whole new worlds opened up to me.
There was a minor league baseball team in town, the Iowa Oaks, Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. In the summer of 1978, my dad took me to my first minor league baseball game. I remember four things very clearly: it was very hot, it was very crowded (Farm Bureau Night), Mike Squires of the Oaks hit a home run, and I was hooked on minor league baseball forever. My dad took me to games constantly beginning in 1979; we went almost every night that the weather was decent, and sometimes when it wasn't.
I got very interested in minor league players as a result and began to follow prospects. Back then, there was hardly any information available, just occasional snippets in The Sporting News and a yearly report in Baseball Digest. You younger fans who don't remember the pre-internet days have no idea how little information was available to non-professionals. I did find that even at that age, I was developing some ways to figure out which minor leaguers would do well in the majors and which wouldn't. This developed from the whole Mike Squires thing: he was my favorite player for a long time because of that home run he hit, but he wasn't more than a bench guy in the majors. I was curious about why this was so, so I began studying baseball in greater detail, learning about things like scouting and eventually statistical analysis.
In 1983, my father bought me a copy of the Bill James Baseball Abstract. Although I was a poor math student in high school (D- in high school algebra), I was totally absorbed in James' work. I particularly admired his writing style, and found his combination of writing and math to be very absorbing. It did help pick up my high school math grades, which remained mediocre, but it was at least something. I especially liked how James showed that minor league statistics, if properly understood and interpreted, were quite predictive of major league performance in most cases, even though this was against common wisdom at the time.
I went off to college at Northwest Missouri State University in 1986, got my degree in history in 1990, then came to grad school at the University of Kansas. I picked KU because it was reatively close to my fiance Jeri (two years behind me in school), and because they gave me some scholarship money. I knew Bill James lived in Lawrence, of course, and wondered if I'd ever run into him. I didn't think much about it. Jeri graduated from Northwest in 1992; she moved to Lawrence and we got married.
In the spring of 1993, I was thinking ahead to the summer and trying to decide what sort of summer job I was going to get. Deliver pizzas? Work at fast food again or on a factory floor? Those didn't seem to be appealing options. One evening, Jeri asked me what I'd like to do for the summer. I jokingly said "I'd love to work for Bill James. Ha ha."
The next day, Bill James walked into the luggage store where my wife worked, wanting to buy a new briefcase. She recognized the name on the check, and asked if he was Bill James the baseball writer. He said "yes." She said "My husband is a big fan of ours and would love to work for you." He said "Well, I'm looking for a research assistant. If he's serious, have him call me. Here is my business card."
Needless to say, I called him. We went out to lunch a few days later. It turned out he was looking for a research assistant who knew something about baseball players and minor league prospects to help him write the Player Ratings Books he was doing back then. We got along pretty well, and he hired me as his assistant since I knew more about minor league stuff than he did.
I did that from 1993 through 1996. Through a series of additional fortuitous coincidences and the recommendations of my friends Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, I ended up hooking on with ESPN.com (just getting off the ground) as their minor league guy, and with STATS to write the old Minor League Scouting Notebooks. I used these years to develop my combination of scouting and statistical analysis for player evaluation.
I was burned out on academia and dropped my PhD research in the spring of 1997 to concentrate on baseball, and it has been my full-time job in one venue or another since the fall of 1998. I was one of the first on the internet with this stuff; there are a lot more of us now. And that's the story on how I ended up where I am.
Fate? Luck? Coincidence? Take your pick. I have been an extremely lucky person. Almost everything I've ever wanted to do in life, I've been able to do in one way or another. Marry a wonderful wife, teach, write books, host a radio show, work with Bill James. . almost all of my wishes have come true. There are a few more I'd like to check off the list, few involving baseball, but they will come in time.
Most of them boil down to the fact that I married Jeri. If not for her, very few of these things would have happened, at least not in this way. She is my greatest blessing.