Prospect Performance, Year One: Hitters

You can’t help but drool after looking at top prospect lists, and you’re excited to draft the next Mike Trout or Jose Fernandez: a young player who busts out of the gate and immediately becomes a superstar. Hey, other players have done it, such as Pujols and Tulowitzki. But how often does it really happen? When you have a minors system on your fantasy team, how often does a top prospect become an average fantasy producer, let alone an elite player — and especially in the first year? Despite Paul’s love for everything prospect, I find myself on the other end of the spectrum. I will trade any prospect (especially ones below AA) if it nets me a solid improvement on my MLB team.

Self-Touting Time: In 2009, I traded Ryan Dempster and Brad Lincoln (4th pick overall in 2006 amateur draft) for Ryan Braun. It is the best trade I’ve ever made, and it was possible because the other manager loved first-round draft picks. As you may know (or maybe you don’t, because he’s not exciting at all), Lincoln has finally made it to the majors, and he’s managed an ERA under 4.00 the last two years — though he’s not starting anymore. Had I offered Dempster and a middle reliever (which is what Lincoln has become) for Braun, I would’ve been turned down. An unproven prospect got the deal done.

The league’s format does play a factor. If you get cheap, 5-year contracts for rookies, or if you don’t have to bring them up from the minors right after 130 AB or 50 IP, then you can be more patient than teams who must activate players after the rookie threshold has been reached (see Profar for a recent bad performance), or teams who simply keep a set amount of keepers with no major/minors/rookie divisions (in which case most managers are keeping proven, top MLB talent). But let’s say you have to promote a minor leaguer to the majors after his rookie AB are up. How long do you wait it out? How many seasons do you give a keeper slot (or a bench slot for dynasty leagues) to a player who theoretically has the ability but hasn’t proven it yet? Here’s an example. Player X was the #2 ranked prospect before a season, according to the source I used for my research, and he broke his rookie eligibility that year. Take a look at his stats for his first three seasons.

  • Year One: .208/36/6/33/4 in 370 AB
  • Year Two: 24 AB
  • Year Three: 9 AB

This is the #2 prospect on the list! You just know he’s valuable, but his first stint is lacking, and then he doesn’t play in the MLB for the next two years. Do you dump him after his poor showing in year one? Do you see that he’s not getting promoted and throw him back after year two or year three, to free up bench space? Most teams would cut and run sometime in these first three years. The player? Brandon Phillips, a mainstay at the top of 2B rankings for the last eight years. You’d have been sad if you threw him back before year four, where he hit .276/65/17/75/25 in 536 AB. But most players don’t have that kind of patience, or they lack the roster size to hold onto someone who isn’t contributing at all. The moral of the story? Hitting upon a Pujols or Trout is great, but many players (let alone top prospects) don’t hit the ground running and require a year or two (or three or four) to perform at their projected potential value. With that in mind, let’s get into my analysis.

The Hypothesis

I proposed that there would be very few cases where a prospect excels right out the gate. I didn’t have an exact number in mind, but it seems reasonable that each year, only 2-3 hitters on the list of 100 prospects are going to get a lot of AB and put up amazing value. This was a process of discovery for me, and I’m writing this series after each year of performance — that is, I haven’t analyzed all the data ahead of time, and so I don’t already know which season is when the most prospects hit their stride. Maybe Paul’s right and there are more prospects on these lists that are immediate, above-average fantasy players. But I’ll bet him a Bogaerts rookie card that my view is closer to the truth.

The Method

I chose a yearly top-100 prospects list from a reputable source, starting with 2003 and ending with 2011. That gave me 9 seasons of top-100 lists, for a total of 900 rankings. Of the 900 prospects spots, 460 were hitters. Some players appeared multiple times over the years, but even so, a potential slot on the list is what I’m counting.

I then noted which hitters passed the rookie AB limit the year they were in the top-100 list, and I tracked their stats for the next several years of their careers (five for most, but only three for 2011 and four for 2010). However, this article focuses solely on the first year of production. Originally I was going to focus on hitters who had a half season or more of AB, in order to weed out the cups of coffee in September and the injury replacement stints. But that would also weed out the players who simply weren’t great in their rookie year — the very thing I wanted to highlight. Obviously if a prospect nets 500+ AB, it was because he performed well enough to stay in the lineup all season (or he was playing on the Astros or Cubs in recent years). Therefore you’ll see data on hitters ranging from the bare minimum to over 600 AB. There are success stories here. But note how many more were failures — and then tell me you’re confident going into 2014 with Castellanos, Wong, and Springer as starters on your team.

Basic Stats

  • Total number of prospect hitters who reached rookie eligibility: 140
  • Number of prospects who reached 400+ AB: 51
  • Number of prospects who had 10+ HR: 59
  • Number of prospects who had 10+ SB: 35
  • Number of prospects who had .270+ BA: 57

From the total pool, it looks like prospects score a decent mark in HR or BA about 40% of the time. I was surprised that SB were so hard to come by (25%), because I didn’t think that 10 SB was a high mark, but remember that a lot of these players don’t get a full season of playing time, and let’s be honest: most premium prospects are going to offer more power than speed. The lack of playing time is evident by only 36% getting anything near two-thirds of a season. There were 25 prospects in the 300-399 AB range, so if you’re looking for a half-season as your benchmark, the odds improve to 54%.

Best of the Full Season

When it came time to select the best seasons, I wanted to focus on the 400+ AB group, because if you’re promoting a top prospect, you’re hoping for solid production right away. I subjectively looked at the 51 qualifying players’ stat lines and saw 20 that I personally really liked and considered above-average fantasy players. However, because I wanted to avoid bias, I opted for the following filter: a player must have 400+ AB and two of the three criteria:

  • .270+ BA
  • 10+ HR
  • 10+ SB

That filter resulted in 31 hitters out of the 140 that surpassed the 130 AB rookie eligibility limit, or 22.1%. That’s an average of 4 prospect hitters per year who put up a mostly full season of okay production. It’s higher than the 2-3 hitters I’d expected, but only by one.

Best of the Partial Season

I realize that some players get fewer than 400 AB, but it’s not because they’re bad; it’s because their call-up was simply later in the season. Let’s take a look at all prospects who meet two of my BA/HR/SB criteria, regardless of AB total. Thirteen players out of 140 rookies (8.6%) reached my benchmark with fewer than 400 AB. That gives us 44 hitters, or 31.4%, who surpassed rookie eligibility and did pretty well; the average is 5.5 prospects per year. (Fun Fact: The hitter to reach the criteria in the fewest AB is Julio Borbon in 2009, with a .312 BA and 19 SB in 157 AB. Bear in mind, though, that a high BA in so few AB doesn’t warrant as much weight in roto leagues.) Here’s the entire list.

Player Rookie Year Rookie Stats
Eric Hosmer 2011 .293/66/19/78/11 in 523 AB
Desmond Jennings 2011 .259/44/10/25/20 in 247 AB
Freddie Freeman 2011 .282/67/21/76/4 in 571 AB
Dee Gordon 2011 .304/34/0/11/24 in 224 AB
Danny Espinosa 2011 .236/72/21/66/17 in 573 AB
Jose Tabata 2010 .299/61/4/35/19 in 405 AB
Jason Heyward 2010 .277/83/18/72/11 in 520 AB
Buster Posey 2010 .305/58/18/67/0 in 406 AB
Starlin Castro 2010 .300/53/3/41/10 in 463 AB
Austin Jackson 2010 .293/103/4/41/27 in 618 AB
Julio Borbon 2009 .312/30/4/20/19 in 157 AB
Gordon Beckham 2009 .270/58/14/63/7 in 378 AB
Andrew McCutchen 2009 .286/74/12/54/22 in 433 AB
Evan Longoria 2008 .272/67/27/85/7 in 448 AB
Jacoby Ellsbury 2008 .280/98/9/47/50 in 554 AB
Kosuke Fukudome 2008 .257/79/10/58/12 in 501 AB
Joey Votto 2008 .297/69/24/84/7 in 526 AB
Geovany Soto 2008 .285/66/23/86/0 in 494 AB
Delmon Young 2007 .288/65/13/93/10 in 645 AB
Alex Gordon 2007 .247/60/15/60/14 in 543 AB
Troy Tulowitzki 2007 .291/104/24/99/7 in 609 AB
Chris Young 2007 .237/85/32/68/27 in 569 AB
Ryan Braun 2007 .324/91/34/97/15 in 451 AB
Hunter Pence 2007 .322/57/17/69/11 in 456 AB
James Loney 2007 .331/41/15/67/0 in 344 AB
Kevin Kouzmanoff 2007 .275/57/18/74/1 in 484 AB
Prince Fielder 2006 .271/82/28/81/7 in 569 AB
Conor Jackson 2006 .291/75/15/79/1 in 485 AB
Nick Markakis 2006 .291/72/16/62/2 in 491 AB
Ryan Zimmerman 2006 .287/84/20/110/11 in 614 AB
Hanley Ramirez 2006 .292/119/17/59/51 in 633 AB
Russell Matin 2006 .282/65/10/65/10 in 415 AB
Kenji Johjima 2006 .291/61/18/76/3 in 506 AB
Ian Kinsler 2006 .286/65/14/55/11 in 423 AB
Josh Barfield 2006 .280/72/13/58/21 in 539 AB
Ryan Howard 2005 .288/52/22/63/0 in 312 AB
Dan Johnson 2005 .275/54/15/58/0 in 375 AB
Jeff Francoeur 2005 .300/41/14/45/3 in 257 AB
Justin Morneau 2004 .271/39/19/58/0 in 280 AB
Alex Rios 2004 .286/55/1/28/15 in 426 AB
David Wright 2004 .293/41/14/40/6 in 263 AB
Khalil Greene 2004 .273/67/15/65/4 in 484 AB
Jason Bay 2004 .282/61/26/82/4 in 411 AB
Adam LaRoche 2004 .278/45/13/45/0 in 324 AB

Failure Rate

I pushed to find as many “decent performance” prospects as I could. I dropped the AB limit. And yes, a few players may have just missed the cutoff (Chris Coghlan was one: .321/84/9/47/8 in 504 AB), but I had to set the line somewhere. But even if you want to add a few more here and there, you may get the percentage up to 35% of prospect batters who net a respectable return their first season, which would be 49 hitters. Certainly it wouldn’t be over 40%.

And that sounds like a good number, doesn’t it? Say it’s 35% of the rookie prospects, which is as generous as I would possibly make it. Obviously the math is still in favor of the players who are at replacement level or worse, with 65%. What’s more, we’re simply talking about the small pool of prospects who did net enough AB to qualify as a rookie season. Let’s not forget that there were 460 prospect slots for hitters over the period I analyzed. So 49 hitters out of a possible 460 is only 10.7%.

Conclusions

When it comes to prospects, I’m much more inclined to draft players as close to the majors as possible. Delmon Young was near the top of the prospect rankings for several years, and yes, he was pretty good out of the gate. But does grabbing a player that requires a four-year wait before he contributes anything sound like a good investment? It may be required in deep dynasty leagues. Even so, prospects are a risky gamble — especially in the first year of their MLB careers. Your keeper league requirements do affect the value of prospects. If it’s a contract deal, where they’re kept cheaply or under a different set of keepers than your MLB keepers, it’s perhaps more palatable. But even then, it’s clear that in the first year, you have to get very lucky to have an immediate star. In leagues where you simply keep X number of MLB players, and the prospects who are now rookies are lumped in with the veterans, the odds of the prospect being keeper worthy is even lower; only the Pujols and Trout types will be kept. With only 3-5 solid hitting prospects in their first year, it’s a long shot — and bear in mind that other teams have these players as well. With 12-15 teams in most leagues, one in four teams may get lucky with a good prospect each year. If you can trade a top prospect (especially one a bit further away from the majors) to acquire an improvement on your MLB veteran keepers, I strongly suggest you do so.

In redraft leagues, I’m not very inclined to grab a top prospect late in the draft. First, there’s a good chance the player doesn’t net a lot of AB, so it’s a roster spot I essentially lose for most of the year. Second, a lot of top prospects struggle in their first season. Even if you target prospects who are projected to be starters from Opening Day, you’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Some players will take the risks with late picks because they can always drop failed players for the waiver wire. Me, I’d rather have decent producers, even if the ceiling is lower.

Everyone’s taste is different. Some people will look at the big successes on the list I provide and continue to hope each year that their young minors players become studs. Me? I’ll keep trading prospects away because I know that even when they finally reach the majors, there’s a very high chance they won’t produce well in the first year anyway. I’d perhaps target some high-upside players for trade after their first year — find managers who are disappointed and buy low. Will that pay off in year two? Find out in the next installment of Prospect Performance.

Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.

8 thoughts on “Prospect Performance, Year One: Hitters”

  1. Kevin,

    Awesome piece! I am looking forward to seeing how this study continues to develop. One thing I think might be helpful also is to take a closer look at the top 5-10 prospects each year and see how often the Springer, Taveras, Bogaerts types live up to our expectations.

    1. Thanks, Tommy. Yeah, there are a LOT of ways to go ahead with this research. For example, part of my Year Two piece will involve just the 44 hitters who hit my benchmarks in Year One, and seeing whether they continued their decent production. Obviously a lot did, but many won’t, and I want to see what the percentage is.

    2. Hey Tommy that top 10 article over the last 8 years or so has been done before in one of the fantasy magazines I bought this year. Interesting article, it’s conclusion was basically what Kevin was saying, being top 10 doesn’t guarantee instant, or any, success in the big leagues. Only recently have we seen a majority of the top 10 have immediate success with Myers, Fernandez, Miller, Cole, Bogearts being in last years top 10 by Baseballamerica having a significant impact. With Profar and Taveras could have also done something had they had significant playing time for Profar and not getting injured with Taveras. Usually, or at least how it used to be you would have 2 maybe 3 top 10 guys that would actually make a significant contribution.

      1. Jeff, I’d hold off on any claims to recent years having more success. After all, one or two successful years doesn’t make a career. Quite a few prospects had a good first year or two and then fell off. I’m as high on the guys you named as anybody, but there’s no telling what will happen in 2014 and beyond.

      2. That is interesting John. It will be fun to watch these guys over the next few years. Don’t forget about Puig either! Lots of exciting young players.

        Like Kevin said though, I bet at least a couple of those rookies who “broke out” end up being mediocre to poor fantasy players in time. Some guys struggle when the league starts to adjust. Of that group, Miller and Puig are the two I am most worried about. Both could be great, but there are definite warning signs.

  2. I really enjoyed this Kevin!
    My “glass half full” response would be that there are some pretty serious studs in that list that you’d never acquire otherwise 🙂
    It’s true though, it all comes down to league format. without any “perks” of holding minors, it often isn’t worth the agony of waiting on them to peak.
    I’ve got one (maybe 2) keeper leagues that way.
    The deeper the league I think it’s even more important to hold onto a guy though. If it’s a 15 keeper, 16 team league, I’d condition myself to only keeping 12 guys with 3 future breakout guys. With the huge failure rate of prospects, in shallow leagues there will be guys on the waiver wire whose production matches a better than average performance by a good prospect. Not so much in deep leagues.
    A Lot of good stuff here Kevin to think about. My work day is likely shot. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Paul. There certainly are studs like Pujols and Trout out there. But the funny thing is that sometimes the best results aren’t even from your top-10 prospects, which is something Tommy said he’d like to see data on. Just as a random example, Ian Kinsler was ranked #97 in 2006, but he obviously turned into a stud. Adam LaRoche was also #97, in 2004. Sometimes it’s not just the top names of a given year that turn out well.

      I’m not advocating that you should NEVER gamble on youth, or skip out on the minors drafts because hey, what’s the point. =) I agree that in deeper leagues with lots of keepers and/or lots of roster spots, the risk is worth it. Just be realistic about the chances, though, because so few do turn out great, and it’s not always who you think it’ll be. Lots of top-10 prospects flop: some examples from the list I used are Joe Borchard, Brandon Wood, Andy Marte, and Hee-Seop Choi.

      1. More good points Kevin. Owning Hee-Seop Choi was not much fun. it is a very inexact science trying to determine who will excel for the long haul. Too many intangibles involved.

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