After a recent discussion with John, we have come to the decision to present you, the Minor League Ball readers, with another viewpoint on prospects this offseason. As we all know, John has been doing this for over two decades with tons of knowledge, sources, and a keen eye. I have personally been doing this for far less time, but feel like I have a pretty good handle on things.
That said, I would like to clue you in on my own process of coming up with a Top 20 Prospect list. Statistics carry a good deal of weight when I evaluate a prospect, but I have learned it is not the only thing that matters when coming up with a projection of what a player will be down the line. The first thing I do is go through the statistics for every player in a particular organization.
I must preface this by saying in ideal circumstances, I would sort players by different categories. Being able to find certain statistics for minor league players or in a sortable format with a large enough grouping of players proves to be a hard thing to do.
For hitters, the first thing I look for is their OPS, followed by their walk and strike out rates, then park factors and the player's age relative to the league average (ARL for short). On base percentage plus slugging percentage is a good way to roughly gauge a player's offensive output but does have its own flaws. Tons of ink has been spilled already on the importance of low strike out and high walk rates and I agree with the general idea. While low walk rates and excessive strike outs are red flags, they should not immediately disqualify a player from being a prospect (I'm looking at you, Nick Williams and your 140 K's to 22 walks).
Park factors are another thing that need to be considered in any evaluation, as an .850 OPS for a player calling Asheville his home park (the highest park factor for runs in the minor leagues) means something entirely different than an .850 OPS for a member of the San Antonio Missions (the lowest park factor for runs in the minors). Again, because a player benefits from a friendly home park, that doesn't completely discount his stats, they just need to be taken with a grain of salt. ARL is also a factor for prospects, more so for hitters than pitchers. A general rule of thumb is the average age for a hitting prospect in AAA is 23 years old and drops a year for each level you move down the organizational ladder. Add a year at each level for pitching prospects.
For pitching prospects the first stats I look at are strike out rates, strike out to walk ratios, WHIP, and batting average against (or hits allowed per nine, whatever is available). This is followed by once again looking at park factors and ARL before coming to the next phase. A high strike out rate usually portends to missing bats while a low WHIP indicates an ability to keep runners off base. Having a K:BB ratio at least 2.0 is a good way to catch my eye, but go above 2.5 and you have my attention. A low batting average against (or H/9) can be interpreted as the pitcher generating weak contact, an ability to miss bats, or he benefits from excellent defense behind him.
Once players are run through these initial parameters it produces a list that singles out players with a good statistical season but it doesn't stop there. More often than not there are players who have a down year statistically but their scouting reports are still positive. A good example of this would be Royals SS Raul Mondesi who posted a .211/.256/.354 line, but shows a fantastic tool set, and was nearly five years younger than the average Carolina League hitter. The same could be said for Mets RHP Noah Syndergaard who put up decent numbers but the scouting reports are glowing. Fold in the scouting reports to the list of players generated from the previous process and that sets me up with an initial group of players to sort through. To equate it to something a bit more familiar, this is very similar to John's preliminary prospect list he puts together before delving deeper into an organization.
The Grading System
Each evaluator has their own grading system with prospects. Some use the scouting grades that go from 20-80 (or 2-8 depending on their feelings about zeroes), with 20 being the bottom of the barrel and 80 being elite. Some like John use letter grades ranging from grade C (organizational players) to grade A (potential all-stars). I like to be different so my grades are nothing like these. My grading system will be familiar to those who keep up with college football recruiting as I use a star rating system from one to five stars with half grades in between. An outline of what each level would represent looks like this:
The cream of the crop. A five star rating is reserved for the elite talents of the minor leagues. These players do not have a glaring weakness and if there is a blemish on their record, it is miniscule. Don't expect to see many of these, as this is reserved for players with the best chance to become super stars or top of the rotation stalwarts. Call this an 80 or A rating.
The rest of the elite. A 4.5 star rating encompasses players that are still elite, but not the potential mega stars a five star player would have. Receiving a 4.5 star rating means the player has all-star caliber potential with a good chance of being in a contending team's starting line up and have a long career. A 4.5 star pitcher could be generalized as a future #2 or 3 starter. Equal to 70 or A-/B+ type.
Garnering a four star rating means the player has the potential to be a productive major leaguer with an all-star season or two in his career. Four star players should develop into regulars in the lineup, dominant relief arms or a mid-rotation starters. This kind of player may have a true talent level higher but injuries may hold him back from reaching their full potential. Similar to a 60 or B rated player.
A player receiving 3.5 stars projects to see time as starters in the majors, but more than likely on a team out of the playoff picture where a below-average season once in awhile won't kill them. Innings eating strike throwers would fall into this category, as would set up men and defensive-oriented starters. This would be a 50 or B-/C+ type of player.
Three star players are your back end starting pitchers and 4th outfielders. Relievers with live arms and control problems would fall into this category as would hitters who may lack enough tools to hold down a starting gig. Futures as a platoon player and swing men type capable of spot starting would be three star players. A 45 grade or C+/C type player would fall here.
Not every one gets to collect MLB pay checks, but some get them every once in awhile. 2.5 star players are your up and down guys who shuttle between the big leagues and AAA. September cups of coffee cielings fall here, as are the injury replacements and players riding the waiver wire. These players aren't expected to make any serious impact. 40 grade players and C type or lower organizational filler.
So that's how I do it folks. There's the secret sauce. I will be kicking off the season with the Atlanta Braves, followed by the Miami Marlins. Stay tuned as I intend to stir up plenty of conversation, and possibly even a little controversy with some aggressive rankings and/or massive snubs. They will be sure to make you think though hopefully foster some good discussions.