This past week seemed to be the moment that the Royals’ farm system took center stage on a national stage. A year of steadily-building hype that started with an exceptional outing by Mike Montgomery in Wilmington last April, then a two-homer debut by Mike Moustakas coming back from a ribcage injury later that month, has reached full bloom with the unveiling of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. Some highlights:
- Three Royals’ hitters – Eric Hosmer, Moustakas, and Wil Myers – ranked back-to-back-to-back at #8, #9, #10. I’m not sure if any team has ever had three prospects ranked in the Top 10 before.
- With John Lamb at #18 and Mike Montgomery at #19, the Royals had five prospects in BA’s Top 20. That is, according to Baseball America, unprecedented. (If the Royals had lost two more games in 2009, they’d have six players in the Top 20. The top three players selected last June – Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado – are all Top 20 prospects.)
- The Royals had four more players ranked – Christian Colon at #51, Danny Duffy at #68, Jake Odorizzi at #69, and Chris Dwyer at #83. That makes nine Royals in the Top 100 – and none of them scraped onto the bottom of the list. No team has ever had nine players on the Top 100 Prospect list before.
- Using a slightly more sophisticated point system designed by BA, which credits an organization with 100 points for having the #1 prospect, 99 points for the #2 prospect, all the way down to 1 point for the #100 prospect – the Royals had 574 points. Again, in the 22-year history of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list, the Royals have the highest-ranked collection of prospects ever. Only one team (the 2006 Diamondbacks) come within 100 points of the Royals, meaning that even if the Royals released Eric Hosmer today, they’d still have the second-best group of prospects in the last 22 years.
The Royals’ farm system has been on such a roll for the past year that it’s hard to believe that a year ago, Baseball America ranked the Royals as having the 16th-best farm system in baseball. Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law had them ranked higher – if I remember correctly, 9th and 10th respectively – but it’s safe to say that no one saw this coming. I’m an incorrigible optimist, and I thought that if Hosmer and Moustakas bounced back and the pitchers stayed healthy and Wil Myers hit and…yeah, even I didn’t see this coming. The performance of the farm system last season represents the greatest overperformance by the Royals in any significant facet since 1985.
Word on the street is that Joe Posnanski is in Arizona, writing a column about the Royals’ farm system for Sports Illustrated. Think about that for a moment – a team that has won 70 games just twice in the last ten seasons is getting a feature article in Sports Illustrated solely on the basis of its farm system. Something like a dozen Royals players are going to find their names inside the pages of SI before they’ve played a game in the major leagues. (Already, there’s an article on SI’s website about the Royals’ minor leaguers here.)
And with all that, someone had to go and splash the cold water of reality on the proceedings. Over at Royals Review, a gentleman named Scott McKinney performed a quantitative analysis of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list over the years, and came to the rather reasonable conclusion that only about 30% of all Top 100 Prospects turn out as “successes” at the major league level. Or to put it another way, about 70% of all Top 100 Prospects go bust.
How very rude of him. (You can read his study here.)
This article got a fair amount of attention, not just on these here internets but also on Kansas City radio, where my friend Soren Petro spent the better part of an hour talking about the implications, and painting a picture of the Royals’ future that can only be described as depressing. I asked for the opportunity to make a rebuttal, and was on Soren’s show this past Tuesday. As things usually go when I’m on the radio, 35 minutes passed in a blink of an eye, and while we covered a lot of topics and discussed a lot of players in detail, I never got around to arguing the main point, which is whether we’re overrating the potential impact that the farm system is going to have on the future of the team at the major league level.
Fortunately for you, that means I can make my case here instead.
I don’t have any real issues with McKinney’s study; on the contrary, I think his results only quantified what most analysts already suspected, which is that the risk of prospects – even top prospects – is far greater than we’d care to admit. For years, we’ve been saying that the best way to develop a starting pitcher in the majors is to start with five pitching prospects. According to McKinney, that rule of thumb is exactly true; the success rate for pitchers on the Top 100 list is 23%. (For position players, not surprisingly, it’s much higher – 37%.)
Five of the Royals’ nine Top 100 Prospects are pitchers, but the risk is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the Royals have three Top-10 hitting prospects, a class of prospect which is about as low-risk as they come. McKinney estimates the success rate of Hosmer, Moustakas, and Myers at around 61% each. So of the nine prospects, McKinney arrived at an “expected value” of 3.104 successes. (Actually, I believe McKinney made a math error – he assigned John Lamb and Mike Montgomery the wrong values – and the actually “expected value” should be 3.452 successes.) Basically, two of the big three hitters should be a success, one of the five pitchers, and then the Royals get a freebie with Christian Colon. Two of the other six players will be “contributors”, guys who aren’t above-average players but still have value in the majors, and the other three or four will be busts.
That’s not nearly the scenario Royals fans are looking for. More to the point, if the Royals end up with three above-average players (including one star) and two contributors out of their farm system, coupled with the 100-loss talent they have in the majors right now, they’re not going to sniff contention in the next few years without a massive infusion of talent from outside the system.
Before you throw yourself off a bridge, let me massage the data a little. While I agree with the gist of McKinney’s conclusions, I do think that the overall success rate he comes up with overstates the risk of prospects a little. I think that for three main reasons, which I’ll expound upon by using three different players as props:
Todd Van Poppel: Van Poppel was considered the best player available in the 1990 draft, but fell to #13 overall because of the bonus demands of one Scott Boras. (In some ways, Van Poppel was the first top draft prospect to fall in the draft because of signability issues.) He made eight starts in the minors that summer, and while he was overpowering – 49 strikeouts and 18 hits allowed in 38 innings – he also walked 19 batters. The following spring, he ranked #1 on Baseball America’s. In 1991, Van Poppel was rushed to Double-A, and in 131 innings he walked 90 batters against just 115 strikeouts. That performance dropped him on the prospect list in 1992…all the way to #2.
I’ve been a subscriber to Baseball America since 1992 or 1993, and they’ve been the gold standard for coverage of the minor leagues since well before then. But I do think that in the early years of their Top Prospect list Baseball America overvalued scouting reports, and understated the risk with pitchers four levels away from the majors. I think even they’d acknowledge that they do a better job of evaluating prospects today than in the past.
(Another good example was Kiki Jones, a high school right-hander selected #15 overall in the 1989 draft by the Dodgers. He wasn’t particularly tall at 5’11”, but he threw hard, and in 12 starts in rookie ball he went 8-0 with 1.58 ERA and struck out a batter an inning. The following spring, Baseball America unveiled their first-ever Top 100 Prospect list. Kiki Jones was #6 overall. Jones struggled with arm problems and never even reached the majors.)
McKinney addresses this phenomenon in his study; breaking out the lists by year, he found that the success rate for players was only 27% from 1990 to 1993, and around 32% from 1994 to 2003. And this year, Jameson Taillon, who compares favorably with Van Poppel as right-handed flamethrowers from Texas high schools, is ranked at “only” #11.
Bill Pulsipher: Pulsipher, a big hard-throwing left-hander selected by the Mets in the second round in the 1991 draft, ranked as Baseball America’s #21 prospect overall three years later. Pulsipher spent all of 1994 in Double-A as a 20-year-old pitcher, and was outstanding – in 201 innings, he allowed 179 hits, and while he allowed 89 walks, he also struck out 171 batters.
Read those numbers again. Pulsipher threw TWO HUNDRED AND ONE INNINGS. In a minor league season that ended around Labor Day. In just 28 starts. And as those walk and strikeout numbers suggest, those weren’t exactly high-efficiency innings.
The following spring, Pulsipher ranked as the #12 prospect in baseball, a part of the Mets’ Generation K along with Paul Wilson (#16) and Jason Isringhausen (#37). All three had shouldered huge workloads – Wilson in college, the other two in the minors. Pulsipher made it to The Show in 1995 and in 17 starts posted a 3.98 ERA. He then blew out his shoulder, didn’t return to the majors until 1998, and was a shell of his former self. No one can fault his effort – as recently as 2009, he was still toiling on the fringes of organized baseball, in Mexico and the Northern League, which is just incredibly sad.
Wilson blew out his shoulder after his rookie season in 1996, and missed three seasons, but returned to the majors in 2000 and managed to find gainful (if not necessarily effective) employment for the next five years. Only Isringhausen – who in 1994 threw just 193 innings in 28 starts, the lucky guy – had a productive career, as a closer, and only after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Teams don’t handle their pitching prospects the way they did 20 or even 10 years ago. John Lamb made 28 starts last year, the same number that Pulsipher threw in 1994, but only threw 148 innings. And he threw the most innings of the five Royals pitchers on the list. Presumably, the success rate of pitching prospects has gone up over time as teams have become more careful with them. But if they have, I’m not sure McKinney’s study would have captured it, as in order to have an extended follow-up period he ended his study with BA’s 2003 Top Prospect List.
Pablo Ozuna: Once upon a time, Pablo Ozuna was a Top 10 Prospect. Prior to the 1999 season, BA ranked him the #9 prospect in the land. Over at Baseball Prospectus, where I had started my own Top Prospect list, Ozuna landed at #5. And why not? In 1998 Ozuna, as a 19-year-old shortstop in the Midwest League, had just hit .357 and stolen 62 bases. He had just been traded from the Cardinals to the Marlins as the centerpiece of the deal that brought Edgar Renteria to St. Louis.
Only it turns out Ozuna wasn’t 19 years old during the 1998 season. He was 23, and turned 24 before the season ended. Needless to say, he shouldn’t have been a Top 100 Prospect, let alone Top 10, but Ozuna’s real date of birth wasn’t revealed until it was too late. Ozuna would eventually break in with the 2005 White Sox as a 30-year-old rookie utility player.
Ozuna is just the most glaring example of what has been a very common phenomenon among Latin American prospects – particularly from the Dominican Republic, where a lack of accurate record-keeping has made it easier for ballplayers to carry around fictitious birthdates and even names. The US government cracked down on identity theft in a post 9/11 era, which has limited but hardly ended the problem. It would be interesting to see whether Top 100 Prospects from the Dominican Republic were more likely to go bust than American-born players.
In any case, this doesn’t affect the Royals. Eight of their nine Top Prospects were born in America; Christian Colon is from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
These three factors all conspire to lower the success rate of top prospects, and I think it’s fair to assume that as these factors are eliminated, that the expected success rate of top prospects should rise. I think it’s a modest difference, but it could be the difference between having three successes and four successes out of the Royals’ collection of Top 100 guys.
Also, while I think that McKinney uses a fair definition of “success” – a player averaging 1.5 fWAR a season over the first six full seasons of his career – for most players, I’m not sure that’s a fair threshold for relievers. Actually, I’m fairly sure it’s not. Robinson Tejeda has been, by any objective standard, a useful reliever for the Royals the last two years. He threw 61 innings last year, 74 innings in 2009 (when he made 6 starts), and had a 3.54 ERA each season. That’s not an elite-level reliever, but that’s a pretty useful set-up man.
But Tejeda didn’t reach the 1.5 fWAR threshold in either season. Daniel Bard, who had an outstanding season as the Red Sox’ set-up man last year, clocked in at exactly 1.5 fWAR. It is quite possible for a pitcher to be a successful reliever in the majors without qualifying as a “success” by the parameters of this study. That’s not a huge failing of the study, because out of 100 prospects, generally only three or four are relievers at the time they’re placed on the list. But with most teams carrying seven relievers at a time, it’s important to note that over a quarter of a team’s roster is exempt from the definition of “success” posed by this study.
Still, out of the other 18 roster spots, if the Royals wind up with four average or above-average players out of their farm system, that’s not going to be good enough. I have no illusions about that. And yet I still think that the Royals have the talent in their farm system right now to build a sustained contender in two or three years.
The reason is quite simple. Oh…but would you look at the time? (Or word count?) It’s getting late. I’ll explain why in Part 2.