Prospect Analysis: Part 1, Pitchers
Because I could not get the previous link to work, I will have to do this post the old-fashioned way. For those interested in learning more about analyzing prospects, particularly the current Brewers prospects, I've prepared an informational/editorial piece. I hope you all take the time to read it, though it isn't too long by my standards. I think many of you would find it informative and worthwhile, and I'm sure there's a lot of stuff in it that could be discussed much further.
This will be a two-part series following up on the Brewers Top 20 Prospect post, the point of which is to put the newcomers to studying baseball on the right path; in other words, planting a seed with the ultimate goal being the organization of the most righteous Minor League Fantasy Baseball league of all time. I will dissect how I and the majority of “statheads” evaluate minor league talent. I will try to use only Brewers prospects for the demonstrations, as I know that is where the most interest is.
EVALUATING PITCHING PROSPECTS:
Pitching prospects are unbelievably unpredictable. Some pitchers get injured. Some have trouble making a jump to the majors. Others have all the tools in the world and one day wake up and simply cannot locate a pitch. Some guys have an unbelievable fastball and good curveball, but cannot make it in the Majors without a third pitch. Meanwhile, some guy that tops out at 89mph is posting a 3.25 ERA in the Majors. This is infuriating.
Because of the unpredictability of pitchers, it is often said, “you need 10 prospects to get a Major League pitcher.” Similarly, you’ll here “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect,” which you’ll see written as TINSTAAPP. To some extent, both of these statements are true. The odds of finding that diamond in the rough are not good. But, with the proper evaluation tools, you’ll be far more efficient at identifying the keepers from the losers.
CONSIDERATION 1: INJURY HISTORY
This is simple. If a pitcher has any sort of injury of being hurt, you have to drop him down your list. Of course, not all injuries are the same. By far, the worst injury a pitcher can suffer is a shoulder injury. Elbow injuries are bad, but reparable. Leg injuries can be problematic, but generally heal over time. Shoulder injuries are a death-nail to pitching prospects.
An example may help: Manny Parra was the Brewers top pitching prospect in 2004. He had pitched 73.1 superb innings between A+ and AA. Then, he complained of soreness in his upper arm. The Brewers shut him down for the rest of the season. In 2005, most people still had high hopes for Parra. I, of course, was skeptical. Parra threw 91 excellent innings in AA. Then, that nasty old arm soreness came back. Parra was shut down again. No one knows when he’ll see his first action of 2006.
Unless a pitcher’s injury occurred long ago and the pitcher clearly overcame it, be highly concerned of injuries to pitchers, especially shoulder injuries. This all applies to pitchers that have already been injured. A good analyst can identify a pitcher that is more likely to get injured than one that is not. Pitching mechanics are certainly useful to know, but that requires you seeing the pitcher and having a keen eye for that kind of thing. Equally important to mechanics is the pitcher’s usage history. A pitcher with a lot of innings under his belt is more likely to get hurt. Also, a pitcher with a history of too often throwing too many pitches in a game is more likely to get hurt. The most classic example is Mark Prior. Prior came from Southern California, where he pitched a lot of innings during his life. He then was rushed through the Cubs system, where Dusty Baker let him throw upwards of 125 pitches in at least a dozen or more games a year. He is hurt a lot now. Though we’ll never how much that usage caused Prior’s injury problems, we can say for certain that Prior’s injuries would be foreseeable given his usage.
CONSIDERATION 2: SIZE AND STUFF
The typical scout places too much emphasis on this. That’s not to say it isn’t important. It obviously is important. But, a guy with great stuff and no history of pitching success is an immediate red flag. Generally, there is very little correlation between a pitcher’s physical appearance and his stuff. The overemphasis on physical build is something that plagues old-school scouts. If a guy is lanky and figures to fill out, then assume he may add a MPH or two. But, it’s just not that important. Look at Roy Oswalt.
Stuff, on the other hand, is a major issue. But, what does stuff mean? Teams get excited over pitchers with get velocity, thinking that they cannot teach velocity so this pitcher somehow has a ceiling much higher than the competition. While having great velocity is certainly a virtue, there are two more virtues to pitching: location and movement. A good pitching prospect will have 3 or more pitches that he throws effectively. Learning and mastering pitches is not easy for a pitcher. A guy without a third pitch is going to hit a roadblock in his development or, alternatively, be forced to move to the bullpen. It goes without saying that having the ability to locate a pitch is mighty important. Developing control, in my opinion, is nearly as difficult as developing extra velocity.
Let’s take a look at an example: Mark Rogers fits what I’ve just said perfectly.
Rogers has a blazing fastball. But, why has he struggled to the tune of a 5.03 ERA in 125.1 low minors innings? Well, let’s start with those 84 walks. He cannot locate his pitches well. While he has managed to fan 144 hitters in those innings, he’s also fallen behind to a lot of hitters and gotten hit hard because of it. A major reason why is that he lacks a third pitch. Without a changeup, hitters can wait back on the 2-1 fastball and hammer it. Rogers will not advance up the minors effectively until he develops a third pitch. Regardless, his lack of control is a vice that will likely haunt him through his career.
(In terms of stuff, note that being left-handed is a virtue, as lefties are far harder to find, it is common for them to throw softer. A lefty that throws 88MPH is about the equivalent of a righty that throws 90MPH)
CONSIDERATION 3: AGE AND COMPETITION LEVEL
This one is easy and holds true for hitters as well. If a player is relatively young for his league, then you must bump up his stock. The average age for a good prospect at A-ball is about 21. For a prospect in AA, about 22. For a prospect in AAA, 23. Players generally reach their peak baseball condition at age 27 or 28. If a prospect is already 26, do not anticipate the prospect developing much further. This comes with a caveat. If a player lacks a lot of experience and is relatively old, expect him to continue improving past his late-20’s, as he gets more experience. The best example here is Canadian players, who don’t play as much baseball when they are young and generally peak a year or two after American players.
Ultimately, you want to look for two things: First, that the player was relatively young for his level. Second, that the player has advanced through each level smoothly, without having to stay at any one level struggling for too long.
For an example, take Dennis Sarfate. Sarfate has a good arm and has had decent success in the minors. However, his somewhat strong 2005 performance takes a hit when you consider that he was 24, playing in AA, and had spent all of 2004 in AA.
For all minor leaguers, there is a big difference between A and AA, but not as much between AA and AAA. If a player has made the jump to AA, then he has passed the more daunting challenge in player development. A pitcher still in A-ball has a long road ahead.
CONSIDERATION 4: THE STATS
All of the above considerations are worthless if a pitcher doesn’t have good stats. Everyone agrees that stats are important; some more than others. However, the trick is to know which stats are most important. The first thing to do is to completely disregard a pitcher’s won-loss record. If you see a writer has included that stat in a column to prove something, do not read any more of that article.
Let’s go through each stat one-by-one:
1) Innings Pitched: This is a good starting point. Make sure that the pitcher has over 100 innings in a year (usually between different levels) to ensure that he is both a starter and that he did not suffer from a serious injury throughout the year.
2) Strikeouts: Strikeouts are huge to the success of pitchers. A pitcher does not have much control over what happens when a hitter makes contact with the ball. The only way to ensure an out is to not let the hitter hit the ball. A minor leaguer with a lot of strikeouts probably has a good arm. What is a good amount of strikeouts to look for? Generally, look for a strikeout per inning. If a pitcher has more than a strikeout per inning, it’s a very good thing. If he has a lot less, do not put much faith in him advancing to the Majors.
3) Walks: Walks go hand-in-hand with strikeouts in terms of importance. A guy with very few walks has good control, which we’ve established is perhaps the biggest key to pitching success. Look for at least a 2.5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio for a pitcher. Anything 4/1 or above is phenomenal. If a pitcher ever has as many walks as strikeouts or anything even close, he is likely garbage.
4) Home Runs Allowed and Ground-Ball/Fly-Ball Ratio: Home runs are the product of several things. Bad location on pitches is one of them, as is getting behind in the count often. Another factor is a pitcher’s propensity to giving up fly balls. A pitcher with 2 or more ground balls for every fly ball allowed is a “ground-ball” pitcher. These pitchers generally give up far fewer extra base hits and, consequently, runs. A pitcher with a home run allowed every 15 innings or more is generally on the right track.
5) Hits Allowed: While a ground-ball pitcher is likely to give up fewer extra base hits, he is more likely to give up more singles. A pitcher has some control over how many hits he allows. A pitcher that strikes out a lot of guys is not going to give up too many hits. Also, a pitcher that throws a lot of changeups generally will give up fewer hits, though perhaps more home runs. Hits are still largely a product of luck; therefore, they are a less important predictive statistic than the previous three.
6) Runs Allowed: ERA is ultimately the biggest indicator of how successful a pitcher was. Unearned runs should also be observed, as a pitcher should prevent unearned runners from scoring. But, runs allowed it is largely driven by luck. It is the culmination of the previous stats and luck, such as park and league effects, defense, and timely hitting by the opposition. As such, the most important things to consider are Strikeouts and Walks. Consider, too, Home Runs and Hits Allowed, but consider park effects and league effects with them. Some leagues, like the California League, are notorious hitter’s leagues. The California League has parks, such as High Desert, which are like playing in Coors Field. For Brewers prospects, it is somewhat easy. No Brewer affiliate currently plays in too much of a hitter or pitcher friendly park. Nashville plays in a very offense-driven league, but is itself not too great of an offensive environment. The three lower Brewer affiliates play in slightly pitcher-friendly environments, as far as I know.
If you use the 4 considerations, you should be able to effectively form your own opinions of prospects. Before you embark on this life-changing journey, let’s go over a few examples.
EXAMPLE 1 Dana Eveland:
MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS
What do you think? I have not included Eveland’s MLB or spring training numbers.
1) Eveland has no injury history.
2) Eveland has a low-90’s fastball and two other pitches. Because he is left-handed, his fastball is above average. His stuff is pretty good. His fat size is a concern to many, though not me.
3) Eveland is 22 right now, meaning he has been relatively young at each stop in his development. He has also not had to repeat any level for a full season. Perhaps most importantly, he has successfully made it past the AA hurdle. Good development history.
4) Stats: The more recent, the more important. Eveland’s strikeout numbers in AA are good, but they are not spectacular. Again, you’d really like to see him throw a K per inning. His walk totals are quite solid, though not overly spectacular. His home run rate, on the other hand, is quite awesome. His hits allowed are probably a bit higher than most top pitchers, most likely because of his ground-ball tendencies and relatively lower strikeout rates.
5) Overall: Eveland is probably a B prospect. He has a very steady history and is a good ground-ball pitcher. Right now, it does not look like he has enough strikeout and power potential to post an ERA in the 2’s in the Major Leagues, but he does project to have success as a starter if his development continues as is.
EXAMPLE 2: Carlos Villanueva:
MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS
Villanueva is right-handed and generally considered a soft-tosser. He is an extreme fly-ball pitcher.
1) He has no injury history
2) He has at least three pitches, and he relies a lot on his changeup. His fastball hits the very low-90’s. Overall, his stuff is decent, but not great.
3) Villanueva is about average aged for each stop in the minors. He has not repeated a level in his development, meaning he has moved along pretty nicely. However, he has yet to make that jump to AA, a jump pitchers, especially ones without ridiculous stuff, often have trouble making.
4) Stats: Again, the more recent, the more important. Villanueva has an awesome 2005 campaign that seemingly came out of nowhere. There is potential for him to be a one-year wonder. His strikeout numbers are very good, as are his walk numbers. You see that strikeout per inning and superb 4/1 K/BB that I mentioned before. Home runs allowed is generally a problem, but he took a huge step in the right direction last year. The ridiculously low hit total is probably largely a result of luck, though he has enough strikeouts and throws enough changeups that I’d expect the hit total to be low.
5) Overall: Villanueva is probably a B- prospect. He has been healthy. His numbers were awesome for one year. But, he has not made it to AA and succeeded yet. And, he has a reputation for not throwing hard. The fly balls are a bit of a concern moving forward.
EXAMPLE 3: Now you take one: Manny Parra:
MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS
Parra is left-handed and can throw in the mid-90’s. He also has some good complimentary pitches. So, what is your take on Parra? What if he wasn’t injured?
I hope this is useful for those interested in learning more about baseball. I appreciate any and all feedback. Be back at you sometime this week with the hitting side of things.
Labels: Brewers Prospects