The Prospecting Mission Statement (Part One)

When it comes to ranking prospects, these days it seems everyone has a philosophy they’d like to share, but more importantly a list they want you to read and a book for you to buy (and probably a timeshare presentation). And I’d bet these lists look a lot like Baseball America’s Top 100 List or Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein’s Top 100 list, with a few surprises sprinkled in. Even if a list is put out before these two, it is inevitably made up of the intermittent updates these two insiders give on a daily basis, in an effort to appear like an original work.

Now, to a degree, there is no original work when it comes to prospect lists because there are a finite number of players and many things about them—stats, age, signing bonus, etc.—are objectively measured. That being said, I can’t help but think the baseball community is in need of a list formed from a different process. Is Saber-Scouting the site to accomplish this mission, even just a part of it?
A common refrain heard from close watchers of the prospect landscape is that the mainstream sources for prospect information–essentially BA and BP, along with flashes from other places–is that the information and the process is still behind the curtain. The more honest of the third-party list-making crowd regret certain rankings or just change them as information from these two heavyweights is reported. Both sources have become more open with their process, BA even explaining their process in depth and including a “just missed” list and several supplements to their standard Top 100. Both sites have essentially a daily upload of the buzz they’re hearing into article form, some in near real-time, others with a delay until the relevant topic is discussed.

In our view, the information isn’t behind the curtain at all, people just want the information given in a different way.

Saber-Scouting is not a substitute for these essential sources (especially not right now), but we feel our different style of content (mechanical breakdowns, first-hand scouting reports, etc.) will make us a necessary supplement. We feel that we are in a unique position having team-side experience, scouting experience, statistical inclinations, industry contacts, and having followed the prospect landscape closely for years.

We have some ambitious plans for content that we’re not yet ready to unveil as we prepare to take the site to another level. So, rather than make grand pronouncements and promises we probably can’t keep, we’ll spend the rest of this article (and the spillover that will make a second article) breaking down our process for ranking prospects. This is a good time to mention that the subtitle for this article is “Why Franklin Morales Is What’s Wrong With The Internet.”

I can’t help but think four things (in this order) when I look over the historical BA Top 100 Lists.

1. Seriously, they ranked him there?

2. If I was in their position would I have done that, too?

3. This is pretty unfair in general, breaking apart an old prospect list.

4. But is there a better way to do this?

Personally, I’ve thought about these four things a whole lot more than a human should. And the answer to the most important question of this group, number four, is “I think so.”

That isn’t quite as powerful as a resounding “YES WE CAN,” but I prefer to under-perform and over-deliver.

So how do we propose the “better way” of ranking prospects? First of all, we don’t think it’s better, we just think it’s our way, but it will consist of more than just “trying harder” or an amorphous “do it better.”

There is a section of Malcolm Gladwell’s masterpiece “Blink” (widely read in front offices and coaching staffs, by the way) where a hospital that has a poor rate of correctly identifying and treating heart conditions wanted to improve their diagnosis success rate. What would you do to accomplish this? Bring in experts and complicated machinery and computer programs? This hospital brought in the heaviest of hitters: the spreadsheet.

They took information on each patient and their symptoms, then recorded them and figured out which three symptoms occurred most often in patients with actual heart issues. If you didn’t have at least two of these three symptoms, you weren’t a priority to treat, or were just sent home, told you were fine (because you probably were). They became the best in the world in this field, at quickly diagnosing heart conditions, with this spreadsheet and ensuing checklist the only changes made from when they were among the worst. Essentially, they solved a complex problem by breaking it down into it’s components and simplifying the decision process so that a monkey could do it. Should analyzing baseball really be more complicated than diagnosing a heart condition?

We don’t technically have prospect list “secret sauce” (although we’re working on it) to rival BP writer Nate Silver’s Playoff Secret Sauce, but if there was one example I could give to describe our method, it would be that of Franklin Morales.

Let me start by saying that Morales is a fine prospect and has already contributed to winning a pennant—he’s already a fine MLB player and has a huge ceiling and nasty stuff. But if we were to, off the top of our heads, make a reverse-Secret Sauce for pitching prospects, he has the top 3 in spades.

1. He doesn’t have command of his pitches, and not in an effectively wild way, in a “make sure your affairs are in order before you come to the plate” way—granted half of that is a function of how hard he throws. The indications from scouts I’ve talked to and the video I’ve seen is that this is a fundamental problem that will never be completely fixed.

2. He doesn’t have a third pitch. For relievers, this doesn’t really matter at all, but Morales is a starter, is valued as such by the Rockies and is ranked as such by those who do the rankings. Some say he doesn’t need it because his first two pitches are that good, some say it will come in time. I say he’s destined for the bullpen sooner rather than later, and he’ll never have the feel to be an elite closer. Goldstein says he, “is still coming around to the fact that 94 mph with command and sink is a better pitch than 98 and wild.” Many pitchers never figure that out. Low-end projections include Alan Embree, high end as a left-handed Brad Lidge. As said above (and again below), that’s nothing to sneeze at, but I’m not describing why Morales is worthless, but how he’s a classic example of our method differing from other methods.

3. He doesn’t consistently repeat his mechanics or arm slot for multiple innings. This problem can come in different flavors and each have different consequences. A big side effect of this is problem is lack of command (stated above) but can go as far as injury problems (doesn’t appear Morales’ is that flavor, though). His spring his velocity was down, and while this could be due to any number of factors or even just starting to stretch his arm out, it’s the type of thing that will always happen in conjunction with these problems.

To sum it up, he lacks command, consistent mechanics, feel and a third pitch. All the other stuff is fantastic (two 70 pitches, left-handed, tall, some MLB success), endangered species rare, but if I’m betting on a guy reaching his ceiling, Morales is probably the last.

Now, I’ve never seen Morales in person, and am not too familiar with his makeup. More goes into our assessment of a player than just those factors mentioned. This isn’t meant to replace a scouting report, but as a case study in our method, using an extreme example.

Baseball America ranks him 8th and Kevin Goldstein has him at 13th. Having not gone through the proper process to rank a bunch of prospects yet, but just eyeballing comparables in the lists, I’d probably have Morales between 50 and 75.

As the last in the cavalcade of caveats, Morales could “figure it out,” with his mechanics, feel, command, changeup, consistency, approach, etc. and take off into the stratosphere as a starter and be everything everyone thinks he’ll be and more. And I’ll be wrong, wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll also be happy for him. He also would be securely in our top 100 prospects, so were we really that wrong? Knee-jerk groupthink prospecting would tell you yes, but that’s not what were trying to do here.

We aim to give you a fresh insight and methods and make you think a little differently about baseball.

Coming soon (tomorrow?) the probably-not-at-all-anticipated part two of The Prospecting Mission Statement, featuring Ben Grieve and a bunch of capital letters (!).

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