Friday, October 14, 2011

Bubba Starling And The Importance Of Age.

I’ll get back to looking at starting pitchers soon, but first I wanted to point out a pair of articles I wrote for Baseball Prospectus, which are free and open to the public, and which you can read here and here.

If you don’t have the time to read those articles, here’s the summation in one sentence: at least when it comes to high school hitters, a player’s age on the day he is drafted has a dramatic effect on the odds that he succeeds in the major leagues. A high school hitter who is drafted when he is 17 is much, much more likely to become a star than one who is drafted when he is 18, even if both are selected at the same point in the draft.

While I was astonished to find that the effect was this strong, I have suspected that there was some sort of an effect for a long time now. The reason for my suspicion was precisely because, in the weeks leading up to a draft, I’d read dozens if not hundreds of articles talking about every potential first-round pick, his strengths and weaknesses, his signability, who’s trending up or down – but almost never would someone mention that Player X was still 17 while Player Y was almost 19. This struck me as very strange. After all, we know that with major league hitters, the difference between a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old is substantial enough to comment on. Given that teenagers are still developing physically and improving at a more rapid pace than twentysomethings, wouldn’t it matter if a high school senior was particularly young or old for his age? Turns out it does.

There are always exceptions, of course. The first time I gave this a lot of thought was back in 2007, when the Royals had the #2 pick in the draft and were all set to draft high school third baseman Josh Vitters – and then, the morning of the draft, decided that Mike Moustakas was signable and picked him instead. While Moustakas seemed to project a little better, I was concerned at the time that no one was pointing out their difference in age. Moustakas born on 9/11/88, being one of the oldest players in his high school class; Vitters was born 8/27/89, being one of the youngest players in his class. Moustakas was almost exactly one year older than Vitters, and that extra year of development might prove to be crucial.

At least so far, it hasn’t. While Vitters is not a bust yet, his development has been hampered by his ultra-aggressiveness at the plate, and he hit .283/.322/.448 for the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate this year. Moustakas, obviously, is in the majors, and a year ago – when he was the same age Vitters is now – he hit .322/.369/.630 between Double-A and Triple-A.

We have to hope that Bubba Starling is another exception. Starling was born on 8/3/1992; he had actually turned 19 years old. He was the third-oldest high school hitter drafted in the top 100 picks this year. Historically, it’s rare for a player as old as Starling was – roughly 18 years, 10 months old on Draft Day – to develop into a star. But there are certainly reasons for optimism here. Like Moustakas, who was one of the best hitters in southern California as a junior, Starling didn’t exactly come out of nowhere in his senior year. He’s an extremely athletic player who had a lot of success playing for Team USA before his senior year, the summer he turned 18. If he had been eligible for the draft as a high school junior, frankly, the Royals would probably have drafted him #4 that year instead of Christian Colon.

If you’re looking for a good comp for Starling, I would point towards Rocco Baldelli. Like Starling, Baldelli was a player who was old for his draft class – he turned 19 in September – but an extremely athletic draft pick, one of the best athletes in the draft in years. Like Starling, Baldelli played against weak high school competition – he’s from Rhode Island – and both are right-handed hitting outfielders. Baldelli was taken with the #6 pick in 2000, which is considered by many to be the weakest draft of all time.

Baldelli’s career was ultimately betrayed by his body; he was starting in the majors by 2003, when he was 21, and was a league-average hitter at age 21 and 22. He missed all of 2005 with an injury, but came back in 2006 and hit .302/.339/.533 at the age of 24. He would play in just 135 games the rest of his career, ultimately getting diagnosed with a rare genetic problem with his mitochondria that explained his inability to stay healthy.

Assuming Starling can stay healthy, a career path like Baldelli’s is certainly possible, and I still think he’s an excellent prospect. But my findings force me to downgrade him a tick, at least until we see him on the field for a full season. If time allows, I’m hoping to give you a list of the Royals’ top prospects at some point, and one of the most difficult questions to answer for that list is this: who’s the Royals’ #1 prospect? I think you can make a case for six different guys, but no one stands out as being elite. Starling could be that guy, but based on these findings I would be reluctant to rank him #1 overall until we see some results.

The decision to take Starling concerns less about Starling and more about the guy the Royals didn’t take, Francisco Lindor, especially since Lindor was taken by the in-division rival Indians with the #8 pick. Lindor doesn’t turn 18 for another month; he’s a full 16 months younger than Starling, and I believe he was the youngest player signed in the entire 2011 draft. One thing that really stood out from my study was how many star players were drafted when they were still 17. Indeed, I’ve already heard scouts raving about Lindor in instructional league, above and beyond the raves you would naturally expect from a top-10 pick.

There’s no blame to be meted out here. I would expect teams to take age into greater consideration in the draft next year, but if any teams were aware of this effect before now, they’re keeping that to themselves. It will be certainly interesting to follow Starling and Lindor going forward, and I’m certainly hoping for a replay of the Moustakas/Vitters dynamic. But at this very moment, if I could choose to have one of the two players, I’d take Lindor. Which is a strange thing to say given that we’ve barely seen either one on the field yet. But I think my findings are that significant.

37 comments:

Fast Eddie said...

Boy, I hope the Royals don't trade for John Lannan.

Now, Starling is injured. Let's hope that's not a precursor of things to come.

Kyle said...

Very good study Rany! I read part 1 yesterday, and I'll probably dive into part 2 later on today. It is a very intersteing study. Let's hope that we have the next Willie Wilson with more power on our hands.

Strained quads happen to fast kids that don't like to stretch. Hopefully this will teach him a lesson moving forward.

D said...

I'm not sure if this has been brought to your attention, but in his ESPN chat yesterday Keith Law said that some teams have been doing research on draftees' ages recently and mentioned the A's and Cards specifically.

http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/chat/_/id/40713/mlb-insider-keith-law

The Count said...

You should be very proud of your work on this topic... now if you just could have done a few fewer braces installations & gotten it done in time to present it to the Royals in time to have taken Lindor, then I would have really been happy with your work!

The Count said...

Excuse me... in my haste to make a joke, I forgot you are a dermatologist, not an orthodontist... I hope that wasn't a huge slight!

Sean DeCoursey said...

Rany,

I hope you read this, because as useful as the results of your study are, you're misinterpreting one very important point that could lead you to easily mis-evaluate players.

It doesn't matter how old a player is when they're drafted. It matters how old a player is when they begin to show elite level talent.

If Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Junior had been a year older when they were drafted (say they had to repeat senior year of high school for no reason other than their principal hated baseball or something) they would not have been lesser players or prospects.

If you focus simply on their age in the draft, you're going to miss out on some players while artificially inflating the value of others. I'm not trying to diminish your work or results in any way, I'm just trying to point out a potential problem before it starts to become one.

I think your basic premise and result is excellent, I think you just mis-conflated "showed elite talent at age-X" and "was drafted at age-X". Which are similar points, but a long way from identical.

The Count said...

Sean,
Respectfully have to disagree with you & side with Rany here... for this study to add value, what is important is age on draft day. That is the decision point for MLB teams to use or not use his findings.
Additionally, though not mentioned, the age that a player gets into a professional organization is critical to their development. That is where the highest caliber coaching is received & where the highest caliber of competition is faced... both critical to development.
If any additional research is called for on this topic, I would ask for that. How did players that signed right away & received coaching immediately as opposed to those that held out... Bubba Starling included.

KHAZAD said...

While I think this is fantastic and important work, I have a couple of caveats.

At one point you mentioned the Bill James study that showed that college hitters were more valuable than high school hitters, and had found that the advantage had disappeared over the years. My conclusion is that college players were undervalued in comparison with high school players, and after James' widely read article, they were given more value by teams, and drafted higher, while high school players were drafted lower. Teams adjusted to the new data.

Likewise, your study does not claim that all younger players are better, merely that they are drafted lower (and older players drafted higher)than they should be.
The age difference is undervalued in like players by scouts, and is something that should be taken into consideration with similar players.

Sean Decoursey also makes a valid point that the age when someone is drafted is partially circumstance.
For example, you say that Bubba would probably have been taken #4 if he were allowed to come out as a junior. Some of the older players, like Bubba, were on scouts radar before their senior season, while others flew onto the radar with a dominant senior season.

It is still a very significant finding, and I congratulate you on your work. While you don't quite have the following of Bill James in the 1980's, don't be surprised if in 20 years, you find that the advantage has disappeared or lessened greatly, as teams adjust their drafting according to these findings.

McGoldencrown said...

Rany, thanks for clarifying on who will end up being solid bigleaguers based on your amazing research into how much age plays into drafting Highschool players. This changes everything! Before I thought....

Eric Hosmer was going to be a great player, but he was "old" for a HS'r, so now I say, trade him for whatever you can get

Before I thought....

Mike Moustakas was going to be a solid big leaguer, but turns out he was "old" for a HS'r so, KC should probably just cut him now. If only we would have taken the "young" HS'r Josh Vitters instead!

Before I thought....

Wil Myers was going to be a great right fielder for many years but it turns out he was an "old" HS'r so, even though he has shown lots of promise since, there really isnt any reason to keep him in the org any more. Darn.

Before I thought....

Bubba Starling was going to be a dynamic CF in the Jim Edmonds mold but the was before I discovered that he was "old" for a HS'r. Why not just cut ties with him now? it will just be more painful later. See ya, bubba...sorry it didnt work out. Sigh.

Should have taken Lindor I guess.

Michael said...

I think, honestly, the only time it would come into play is if you have two players that you evaluate as being pretty much equals, or at least pretty close to each other, in terms of talent. Then maybe you should take age into account.

Even then, it doesn't always pan out the way you might expect (like Moustakas/Vitters).

Jeff Parker said...

I know this is a draft day study, but from a development standpoint, I wonder how the findings apply to Latino players signed at 16.

Also can you imagine the backlash if the Royals had drafted Lindor instead of Starling. Moore would've been crucified in Kansas City.

McGoldencrown said...

Honestly Jazzy, your theory has so many holes I wouldnt even know where to begin. For ex,

What about college players? why not factor in what their ages were when they graduated HS related to how they ended up as Pro? Just because they didnt choose to sign, doesnt mean their talent level at the same point isnt equally relevant.

What about International FAs? Dont you think it is relevant to factor in the success/failure rate of the YOUNGEST talent source available in the world?

What about late blooming players? Bubba didnt start playing org baseball until many years after the avg player, does that mean that his "window" already closed?

What about the "old" HS players who would have been drafted a year or two earlier had the rules allowed it?

How skewed are your findings by just a handful of "young" HS draftees? I.E. If you left A-Rod and Griffey Jr. out of your equation, doesnt that ALONE make your findings a LOT less dramatic? Im willing to bet it does. 1200+ Hrs in just 2 careers will do that.

...I will concede, that your findings are interesting and worthy of discussion, but their is just WAY too many factors that have been left out of the equation to support, your claim as 'the most important find of my career' as you put it in your BP article. Good stuff, but hardly ground breaking...yet, IMO.

Jayboid said...

Interesting observation

As a former coach and parent I have noticed what a year or close to a year can do.

I've seen kidgs grow 2 or 3 inches between 18 and 19.

Years ago a former high school long jumper I knew decided to try jumping again. Good but not scholarship good. He was a young senior.

He had wt. trained a bit and kept himself in good shape. Then a year older asked me to spot him. Without maxing out he easily put 2 feet on his personal best.

McGoldencrown said...

...I would like to ad, that Sean DeCoursey said it perfectly:

"It doesn't matter how old a player is when they're drafted. It matters how old a player is when they begin to show elite level talent"

So, if as an organization, you believe player X will rocket thru your system very quickly, than it doesnt necessarily matter how young he is at the time he signs. Wil Myers was the 10th OLDEST HS player taken in his class yet less than 2 years later he was the 2nd YOUNGEST player in the AA Tex league (Mike Trout was the youngest).

Jeff said...

Rany,

Does your thoughts on age on draft day essentially negate "money ball" and drafting college players?

The Count said...

While all of the things mentioned would be valuable & additional studies would be useful, this study does EXACTLY what it intends to do... give teams a tool to make smarter drafting decisions.
I, like every Royals fan hope Bubba Starling goes on to be a star & was pleased when the selection was made. but with this OVERWHELMING evidence, I would have preferred Lindor.
Hopefully Starling is an exception... Myers as well... Moose too... but it is IMPOSSIBLE to look at that data & to look at those NAMES & not conclude that Rany has published something extremely valuable & not before published.
Congratulations Rany on what you believe, & I agree is your most meaningful work to date.

The Count said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

I think a lot of commenters are misinterpreting Rany's point. He's saying that, historically, teams have not (sufficiently) factored in a HS player's age when evaluating them, not that older HS players are destined to fail. That is, a player who is only 17 on draft day might be taken in the second or third round, when he should have been judged as more of a late-first-round talent, whereas an older player with similar potential (but better performance to date than the younger player) might get taken in the early first round when he should have been taken in the late first round.

In both cases, there's still all the risk inherent in drafting someone out of HS and hoping they eventually develop into a productive major-leaguer. If teams get wind of this and overcompensate, the reverse could end up happening at some point, where older players end up undervalued.

McGoldencrown said...

Incorrect Count, what Rany has done here, is pondered an idea based on observation, developed that into a general theory, fallen madly in love with that theory, then located isolated stats that specifically fit comfortably into that theory.

How about this, take every player in the history of baseball since the draft began, record the age they were on draft day (regardless of whether they were drafted or not or signed or not) and compare that to their career finishing WAR.

If you can find that the the the youngest players definitively turned out better, then fine, you have something. Even then, that study means almost nothing when evaluating individual players. KC took Moose over Vitters, because they evaluated his actual skills as better and more projectable. If they had taken Rany's advice, and blindly taken the latter simply because he was younger, an embarrassing error would have been made.

Readers, please remember the author of this article has a horrible track record of evaluating talent on this website. Tim Beckham, Pedro Alverez and Justin Smoak all would have been taken over the "old" HS hitter Eric Hosmer by fictional GMRJ if available.

There is a reason "bloggers" arent ever offered jobs in the front offices of professional baseball. Harsh but true.

The Count said...

Rany makes no such blind assertions. This is an all else equal decision rule. The Royals clearly have some talent at evaluating talent & should ALWAYS go with that... Rany's findings simply say if it is a toss-up, take the young guy & at least adjust your draft boards to include draft age as an input... nowhere does he say throw everything else out.
We are all in an easy position to pick his work apart, but come on, we are not submitting it for a Nobel Prize, it is just a tool to use when drafting. Failure to see that is the fault of the reader, not the author.

Kyle said...

Rany, clearly states in his article, that if all things are equal look at the younger player. He in no way says always take the younger player. But if you evaluate their talent equally the younger player is likely to be more valuable to the drafting team. College players have a totally different progression. They have different training throughout college. He even said that he "may" have been wrong about Vitters, but it is still way too early to tell. Right now if the royals had evaluated Linder and Bubba equally, Linder should have been the pick. There are exceptions, but his study is very good.

brian.julie said...

I love what you have done. I just have a couple of things. Could you run your value of age regression with months as the continuous variable instead of years, and I also wonder if you need to control for where the players come from. Some sort of region dummy, or state dummy. I'm not sure if there will be enough players not from California, Texas, Florida, etc. to make the second part work properly, but it still might be important to avoid omitted variable problems.

Jonathan Edwards said...

Great work! I thought it was a really insightful read. My only concern is that teams don't alway draft the best available talent. As royals fans, we know (better than most) that some picks are sign-ability picks. This practice might be skewing the results here.

kingofkansascity said...

There are several posters on here that are misinterpreting the data.

What Rany has said through the study is that, all other things being equal, the younger player is more valuable every single time.

For example, if you evaluate two players and they come back as virtually even (knowing that no two players are identical), teams should always lean towards the younger player, because the larger portion of their development curve still lies in front of them. This is particularly true of players in their late teens, where the development curve is still very steep.

The other thing you have to look at when evaluating older high schoolers is that they are often dominating kids that haven't hit the steep portion of their development curve. An (almost) 19 year old kid playing against a (barely) 16 year old has a distinct developmental advantage over his "peers" that disappears in the professional ranks, whereas a (barely) 18 year old kid who is similarly dominant doesn't enjoy the developmental advantage and has to rely on a skill advantage.

This whole study is really about how much of the production seen out of high school hitters is a result of legitimate, projectable skills vs. a developmental advantage.

Sluggerrr said...

Of course, "all things being equal", you would take the younger player. But no two people are actually equal. Certainly, in terms of baseball talent. From what I take from this article, it seems clear that Rany is advocating that the Royals should have taken Francisco Lindor in the latest amateur draft because of his age relative to other draft eligible players.

Now, I'm no expert on projecting future performance, so I will defer to others that claim to be- and from what I have read it would appear that Anthony Rendon would have been the clear choice as the best available player when the Royals drafted. And he was significantly older than both Starling and Lindor. So are we to believe that Rendon and Starling are equal in projectability and therefore Starling was the correct choice? Or that in terms of ranking it should have gone Lindor-Starling-Rendon?

With all due respect, because I love reading your column, it appears to me that any research on projectability that starts with the premise "all things being equal" is unusable and possibly misleading. Players clearly should be drafted on talent and projectability.

Sluggerrr said...

Of course, "all things being equal", you would take the younger player. But no two people are actually equal. Certainly, in terms of baseball talent. From what I take from this article, it seems clear that Rany is advocating that the Royals should have taken Francisco Lindor in the latest amateur draft because of his age relative to other draft eligible players.

Now, I'm no expert on projecting future performance, so I will defer to others that claim to be- and from what I have read it would appear that Anthony Rendon would have been the clear choice as the best available player when the Royals drafted. And he was significantly older than both Starling and Lindor. So are we to believe that Rendon and Starling are equal in projectability and therefore Starling was the correct choice? Or that in terms of ranking it should have gone Lindor-Starling-Rendon?

I think this shows, at least on an individual basis, that if you are using age as a significant factor in drafting a player you are making a mistake. And again- no two people are equal so please spare us the "all things being equal" reasoning. With all due respect, because I love reading your column, it appears to me that any research on projectability that starts with the premise "all things being equal" is unusable and possibly misleading.

Michael said...

I think, basically, the question is this... Was Starling a dominant player in high school because he was more physically developed than most of his peers? Francisco Lindor was also a dominant player in high school, but he is also 16 months younger than Starling. So which is more likely to develop into the most dominant Major Leaguer? Now, honestly, only time will tell, but I think Rany's work shows that Lindor should become the better player, since his development curve has so much further to go than Starling's.

Jeff said...

I would go a step further and say that "truly" dominant players more often show their dominance at a younger age. Rany pointed out that Starling showed his dominance before he was a senior.

Sluggerrr said...

Rany, I'm sorry that I said something negative, because when you get down to it, I love reading your column. I let myself get carried away with my reaction. Please keep writing whatever it is that you want to say.

McGoldencrown said...

My god Sluggerrr, stop being such a wuss. Rany is critical of people all the time. Do you think he ever apologizes to Dayton Moore for all the times he trashed him and was flat out wrong? Hell no. Their is nothing wrong with stating your opinion. Especially on such a obviously flawed arguement like this that he presents here as if it was fact. Its not. I thought you made some solid points, and your right, players are never "equal" and his premise IS misleading. Try to keep your backbone intact, you dont need Rany's approval. He is just a blogger who has gotten too full of himself and lost his way.

Michael said...

Hmm... McGoldencrown, isn't that something like the pot calling the kettle black?

Greg said...

Just a brief note about your BP article: you note that Bill James' findings were similar in scope to your own, but that they diminished over time. Don't you think it's possible that the publishing of the results of his study was the CAUSE of the correction in the market inefficiency? I very much expect the same thing to happen with young high school hitters, assuming that your BP article gets the attention it deserves (since it was quite mindblowing).

Essentially, I would expect the market to self correct, as competitive markets are wont to do. 10 years from now we may find that after running the same study there is no longer a significant advantage, precisely because the EXPECTED VALUE of these prospects has changed now that we know that younger prospects are more valuable than we thought they were, and older high school prospects are less valuable than we thought they were. Since one of the most important variables in your study was EXPECTED VALUE, when expectations of future value change, so will the results.

-Greg

Greg said...

"It doesn't matter how old a player is when they're drafted. It matters how old a player is when they begin to show elite level talent.

If Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Junior had been a year older when they were drafted (say they had to repeat senior year of high school for no reason other than their principal hated baseball or something) they would not have been lesser players or prospects."

-Sean DeCoursey

Maybe. Or maybe not. It is quite possible that younger high school prospects have the advantage of flying through competition levels at a young age and always facing competition that is appropriate or even above their own talent at the time and that this is beneficial to their development. It is also possible that older high school prospects spent too much time facing low levels of competition and became complacent or simply did not need to push themselves as hard to excel, and this limited their overall development.

These are variables that probably are not all that well understood, and it is possible that one of the reasons that Griffey and A-Rod were so good in the majors is that they entered the minor leagues at such a young age instead of spending another year facing high school pitching that was so far inferior to what they faced in the minors it might have hindered their development.

We simply don't know, and I'm not comfortable drawing the conclusion you just drew. Sure, they would have had the tools, but so do hundreds of prospects who fail. As Rany so aptly pointed out, one of the indicators for success is how young a prospect is upon entering the minor leagues. There are many reasons why this is beneficial, and it is more than possible that A-Rod, Griffey and many others in Rany's study were successful BECAUSE they entered the minors at a young age.

K.C.Tigerfan said...

"I am not a smart man" Forrest Gump.

Maybe I don't understand, and that is probably where most people who know me would place their bets, but age is only one of a number of variables that I am not sure we could ever quantify when looking back at how a player developed (or did not develop). Some players probably benefit from the better coaching and better competition at a younger age. Start them sooner with the best, and they will develop into better players than if they had to wait a year. But there are some players who might be adversely affected by that experience, especially since there is such potential for failure.

If a player has the talent to succeed, doesn't that arc exist no matter when the timeline is started (within reason)? In other words, if Player A had big league starter talent, then doesn't the fact that he was drafted a year sooner only mean that the team drafting him gets the benefit of that talent a year sooner? But also they stand to lose that player's services a year sooner, too, through free agency?

Just sayin'.....

Unknown said...

So, we'll ignore all college players, include Ken Griffey Jr and Alex Rodriguez -- since they were 17, so they do a ton to advance this theory -- and just randomly, um...what does this theory actually prove?

I got it -- it's all 16 year-old Dominicans from here on out! Thanks Rany!

Michael said...

The reason college players are currently ignored is because they weren't facing the same talent before they were drafted. You basically have to separate them from high school kids because of this. You can't grade an 17-18 year olds tools the same way you do a 21 year olds. The 21 year old is facing better, more physically developed talent.

Colonel Kustard said...

@McGoldencrown Your posts are so difficult to decipher because of misspellings and improper punctuation, I don't know what you're arguing. This is all historical revisionism so far. Let's see how this turns out. Hopefully, it's the exception and not the rule, as Rany certainly demonstrated in his extensive research. Once Bubba is fully healthy, we'll have a better idea.