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Gambling on Prospects: What are you really investing in?

Have you ever wondered what you are really investing in when you pay top dollar for that shiny new top-20 prospect? The next Pedro Martinez? How about Roy Halladay or Vernon Wells? Or will that top prospect turn out to be Drew Henson or Delmon Young?

Obviously no two prospects are the same, and just because one-third of ranked prospect succeeded and three did not has no bearing on whether this year’s will succeed or fail, but we attach these metrics to things all the time.

For many fantasy baseball die hards, the January and February months are spent in excel making spreadsheet after spreadsheet looking at different things. This year I went a slightly different route and decided to check in on how often these prospects actually succeed. I had seen something similar to this done in the past, but related to real baseball, and I saw a few tweaks to make it more relevant to us fantasy players.

Setup

The main basis behind this is taking a large sample of top-100 lists created by a certain site or company. For this study Baseball America was used. This was mainly because they are one of the few outlets that has been around long enough to really get a large sample size. While they don’t make their lists for fantasy purposes, they are still a pretty reliable source if you want input on prospects for fantasy baseball purposes.

I took the 15-year period from 1990-2004 and looked at each player’s career. For hitters I looked at their oWAR and WAR for pitchers. Rather than look at the player’s career war and find an average based on his total seasons played, I went through each player and took the best seven-year stretch of their career. For example Roy Halladay had a slow start to his career and fell off a cliff at the end. In this case I took his best 7-year stretch of his career. There is no need to drag down his average WAR because he had some bad years at the beginning and end of his career.

Obviously a lot of the things in this study involve arbitrary endpoints. Is there a difference between top-10 and top-11, not really. A WAR of 1.69 or 1.71, not so much. However, endpoints need to be put somewhere or else you would need to look at every player and not be able to see it in table or graph form.

If you see me use the phrase “difference maker“, I mean a player that falls into the good, great and elite categories. It isn’t bad to get a Michael Cuddyer type, but he isn’t going to help your team become great as anything more than a bottom end starter.

  Range Examples
Bust Less than 1.7 Adam Laroche, Kris Benson, Eric Karros
Notes: May have had a good season or two, but for the most part a disappointment for what you had to invest and wait for  
Average 1.70-2.75 Michael Cuddyer, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Pena
Notes: Either more years with success or higher highs during their seasons of success
Good 2.751-3.75 Ted Lilly, Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth
Notes: Finally starting to get into the guys that you were actually happy to invest in
Great 3.751-4.75 Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder, Bartolo Colon
Notes: The perennial all-stars and guys drafted in the first few round of redraft leagues
Elite More than 4.75 Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera
Notes: Fantasy baseball Hall of Famers & guys who will carry teams for a decade or more

Results

For each one of these, before you read the results, try to play a little guessing game of what you think will happen. Before each one I will go in brief with what I expected.
There are a few things that I didn’t end up using in terms of graphs and charts, but I will briefly touch on them. Those specific ones come with a lot of charts that would make this unbearable, and some of them don’t have nearly enough data to really draw any conclusions. For each chart I will discuss some of the findings based only on what that chart or graph shows. At the end of the article I will combine all the data to try to draw some overall conclusions.

By Ranking

The first piece of data to dig through was how does a prospects ranking effect his success rate. For this I broke the lists down in 10s (1-10,11-20, etc.) and 20s (1-20, 21-40, etc.) to see the success rates.

Coming into this one I thought it was pretty easy. As you get further away from the top of the list the success rate will go down in a pretty equal diagonal trend line for both broken into top 10s and top 20s.

  Bust % Average % Good % Great % Elite % Success %
1-10 45% 16% 14% 11% 14% 55%
11-20 51% 25% 11% 5% 9% 49%
21-30 68% 12% 9% 7% 5% 32%
31-40 68% 13% 8% 4% 7% 32%
41-50 77% 10% 7% 3% 3% 23%
51-60 76% 12% 6% 3% 3% 24%
61-70 83% 9% 5% 1% 3% 17%
71-80 74% 13% 6% 6% 1% 26%
81-90 83% 8% 4% 2% 3% 17%
91-100 76% 13% 5% 3% 4% 24%

The basic gist of this one was expected. The better the prospect is ranked the more likely he is to succeed. However the success is relative. If you get an average player when you invested in the 93rd prospect you can deal with that. A back-end top-100 player that turns into a solid contributor for a handful of years. But if you get something less than a Jayson Werth type player with a top-5 prospect are you happy?

Based on the study, if you really want someone to help you out for a while on your team, you need to invest in a top-40 prospect. A top 40 prospect gives you a 25 percent chance of finding one of those real difference makers for your team, the good, great, and elite players. Although the 21-40 range is significantly less likely than the 1-20 range, about 12 percent lower. Once you get deeper than that; once you get outside that top-40  you are playing with fire and are better off going to the casino and trying to leave ahead. Almost 80 percent of prospects outside the top-40 do not succeed at all, that includes the average group.

By Position

Heading into this I was almost certain that hitting prospects were going to succeed at a higher rate than pitchers. So many injuries can derail a pitcher’s career along with the normal struggles of becoming a major league player. I also thought that among hitters more catchers and shortstops would fail than other positions. However the shortstops who do succeed are more likely to get into the good, great, or elite group because of how poorly many of the shortstops hit.

My basic premise that hitters are more likely to succeed was right. While the pitching and hitting busts were only different by 31, there were 187 more cases where the player turned into a success. When investing in a hitter you are more likely to get a great or elite player than you are to get a good, great, or elite pitcher. Only 5 percent of all pitchers in the 15-year period, 30 out of 664, ended up as a great or elite pitcher.

  Bust % Average % Good % Great % Elite % Success %
C 67% 13% 8% 5% 7% 33%
1B 51% 16% 13% 10% 10% 49%
2B 69% 14% 10% 6% 1% 31%
3B 65% 9% 7% 8% 11% 35%
SS 68% 6% 9% 2% 15% 32%
OF 64% 17% 10% 6% 4% 36%
P 79% 11% 5% 2% 3% 21%
Hitters 63% 14% 10% 6% 7% 37%

My second guess that shortstop and catcher would have a high bust rate was pretty good. Although every position other than first base had a bust rate between 64 and 69. Shortstop did have by far the highest rate of elite, borderline Hall of Fame caliber players, with 15.

One thing with this data that I don’t think will end up applying all that much to today’s baseball is the first base success rate. Now many players start at one position and can hit like crazy, but they can’t field so teams stick them at first base. Look around the major leagues at some of today’s top first base options. Paul Goldschmidt, Edwin Encarnacion, Miguel Cabrera, and Chris Davis all started their minor league careers primarily playing another position.

Age

For this section I used the prospects opening day age the year they appeared on the list. I classified the opening day age as April 1st of that year. Is an 18-year-old on the top-100 list more likely to succeed or a 22-year-old? Ideally I would have liked to incorporate what level in the minors the player was at to start the season; unfortunately this wasn’t realistically possible.

My main prediction for this one was the younger the player is the higher the bust rate, however I expected the younger players to also have a higher rate of becoming great or elite. The older players to appear on the list I expected to succeed at a higher rate, but not necessarily be elite players.

Age Bust Average Good Great Elite
16-19 62% 11% 8% 9% 11%
20 65% 12% 4% 10% 10%
21 67% 15% 8% 5% 5%
22 74% 12% 7% 3% 4%
23 73% 14% 7% 3% 3%
24 and up 75% 11% 5% 5% 3%

First thing that jumped out to me was how close all of the age groups were when it came to average and good categories; only 4 percentage points separated the high and low in average while only 3 in the good.

Where it really differentiates is with the great and elite players. Young players, 20 and under, had a 20 percent chance to be great or elite. Once the player goes to 21 that is cut in half. The sharp drop-off there was surprising. What I take from this is that high schoolers and young international signees are more likely to turn into the big time stars. 

I was surprised to see such a low overall success with the players 24 and over. In my mind players who are 24 and over are mostly international signees and come over with a background and some pretty lofty expectations. To see only 1 in 4 of them succeed and only 15 percent really be difference makers was a shock.

Age and Position

Rather than go through and show every position you will just see overall hitters and pitchers.

All in all my predictions here were in line with my predictions when these were separated. Young players are more likely to be elite but also bust, and hitters overall will be better than pitchers.

PITCHERS
Age Bust Average Good Great Elite
16-19 68% 13% 9% 3% 8%
20 76% 10% 8% 1% 5%
21 78% 13% 4% 3% 2%
22 81% 12% 4% 1% 2%
23 85% 9% 4% 0% 2%
24 and up 86% 11% 1% 0% 1%
HITTERS
Age Bust Average Good Great Elite
16-19 57% 12% 8% 11% 12%
20 63% 15% 10% 5% 7%
21 60% 15% 11% 6% 7%
22 68% 12% 11% 4% 5%
23 61% 19% 9% 7% 4%
24 and up 71% 11% 7% 7% 4%

The first thing that jumped out to me here was that young hitters have less than a 60 percent bust rate. Not only that, but 23 percent of them become great or elite players. The only other place you can find percentages as good as that are if you look at the top-10 prospects.

For pitchers, young ones succeed about two-thirds of the time, but after that there is a steep decline everywhere except for average prospects.

Position and ranking

This one I thought would be really interesting. Is a top-20 second baseman more likely to succeed than a top-20 third baseman? Or a top-20 catcher compared to an outfielder ranked in the 40s?

I didn’t really have much of an opinion position to position, but one thing I did assume that was a little different than before was I expected the top-20 pitchers to end up as difference makers a lot more than normal. For this one you will see the totals rather than the percentages.

PITCHERS
  Bust Average Good Great Elite Total
1-20 73 18 10 3 7 111
21-40 96 15 7 0 4 122
41-60 125 16 3 4 3 151
61-80 115 15 8 0 2 140
81-100 117 12 4 3 4 140
HITTERS
  Bust Average Good Great Elite Total
1-20 76 45 32 22 27 202
21-40 111 25 19 16 14 185
41-60 111 18 16 5 6 156
61-80 134 17 9 10 5 175
81-100 125 19 9 4 7 164

I was dead wrong on top pitchers performing really well. As you can see there were roughly the same amount of busts in the top-20 for each position, but there were nearly twice as many hitters than pitchers. Roughly 40 percent of the top 20 hitters become difference makers while only 18 percent of pitchers do.

When it comes to pitchers, if he isn’t in the top 20 there isn’t much of a difference in total difference makers, but the percentage does take a drop. They are very small sample sizes, but percentage wise there is no more than a two percent difference once you leave the top-20.

By Season

My main assumption is that as time goes on and scouring got more in-depth is that prospects would have a higher rate of success. Here you will see the data go up to the 2008 season. The reason why I didn’t use data going up to that year everywhere else is because I don’t think we can definitively define players career who appeared on those lists.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 5.36.52 PM

As you can see there really isn’t much of a change. The lowest and highest percentages fall in a range of 17 percent. The overall trend line over the time period is near 0. There was a noticeable rise in the success of prospects in the late 90s and early 2000s. This could be attributed a little bit to the steroid era along with some normal variation.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Sure many people know that not every prospect is going to come up and be a star, but in the world of players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, etc. many fantasy owners are willing to trade a lot for the next big thing. It is far too early to call it a career on any of these players, but for a sense of how quickly things can change here are the top-10 from Baseball America in 2012

  1. Bryce Harper
  2. Matt Moore
  3. Mike Trout
  4. Yu Darvish
  5. Julio Teheran
  6. Jesus Montero
  7. Jurickson Profar
  8. Shelby Miller
  9. Trevor Bauer
  10. Dylan Bundy

Remember those “can’t miss” guys in the top-10? Investing in prospects is risky, but with risk there is reward.
My main take is do not heavily invest in prospects. Yes it is great if you are the guy who got in on the ground floor and got a Mike Trout type player by trading an aging stud, but for every Mike Trout there are five Brein Taylor’s who end up as complete busts.

The rush of top prospects to the majors last year along with the easier access to looking into prospects in the Internet age – prospect hype can sometimes get out of control. The numbers show that more often than not you’re going to fail when investing in prospects.

Not only do prospects fail, but playing for the future is always a risk in fantasy leagues. No league is around forever, and you don’t want to be the guy who is stuck holding Yoan Moncada and find out next spring that the league disbanded. Even if you are not competing, in many cases you can turn prospects into “older” players who are in their mid to late 20s such as Brian Dozier. In many cases you would be ecstatic if your top-50 prospect turned into a player like Dozier, and if not you’re expectations were probably too high.

That wraps up the article.  To view the graphs not included you can click here and see them all in PDF form. If you have any questions about anything that this involved or any clarifications you might need feel free to ask in the comment section below. As I mentioned in the intro this isn’t a perfect study. There are a lot of things that I would have liked to have done differently, but they either weren’t possible or weren’t realistic if I wanted to complete this within a year. There were also some things that I didn’t think of until I was 5 years in and too much work had been done to go back and revisit it. Finally if you have any potential changes to make this better for future reference don’t hesitate to offer an opinion.

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Andy Germani
I am a lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan and a graduate from Penn State. Baseball was my first love and I still play to this day in an adult baseball league. I always love helping people with their questions on Twitter so feel free to follow me and ask questions.

10 comments on “Gambling on Prospects: What are you really investing in?

  1. This is a fantastic article. It’s like a slap to the face of the rabid fantasy baseball manager pawing after prospects that will one day be the best in the league. It just doesn’t work out that way, and the statistical breakdowns are fascinating.

    These lines at the end are what I have thought from time to time in my leagues:
    “Not only do prospects fail, but playing for the future is always a risk in fantasy leagues. No league is around forever, and you don’t want to be the guy who is stuck holding Yoan Moncada and find out next spring that the league disbanded.”

    Absolutely true. Build for what future? Try to compete every year, especially if you are in a head-to-head league. Just because the best team has a great record doesn’t mean the players will show up come playoff time, so anyone could try to win it if they find a way in to the stretch run.

    • Thanks! This was a fun experience seeing how everything really works out.

      I never like to play for more than 3 years, and usually only the current and next year. I will go to 3 if the team is in complete shambles or if a took over an existing team. After that there is way too much guess work involved.

  2. Wow what a great, well thought out, researched piece. Up there for the best baseball article I’ve read all off-season.

    I agree with Alex about winning for this season. I never understand the team that loads up on prospects playing for next year. Never play for next season should be a top fantasy rule.

    Also would you say if you are going to go in on prospects; should be an under 20 hitter that’s in the BA top 50? Yeah, I agree, it’s too long to wait on if/when he becomes a stud.

    • If you want a stud odds are you are going to have to go get them when they are young. Because by the time they are older say 21 or 22 they are either owned by someone else, progressing slowly, etc.

      That being said all prospects are different and no 2 are the same. If I had to bet on anything though it is a young hitter. That was before this research and I go with that even more after it.

  3. Having played in dynasty leagues for 15 years now, it’s fascinating to see some hard data on the analysis I’ve been doing in my gut this whole time.

    I wonder too, are these results skewed downward because you used BA’s top 100 list? Every year they list players that any decent dynasty leaguer would know to slot a little lower. This year for instance, they have Mondesi, Adames, Sanchez, Gray and Guerra in their top 50-ish, but I’d say they’re much less likely to see the type of success this analysis is measuring for.

    There’s much less data on this, but I’d be curious to see the results for fantasy-based prospect lists.

    • Ya I would have loved to do this with a fantasy based list the only downside is there aren’t too many of them, if any, that date back far enough to get some real results. I used 2004 as the cutoff for this because after that you start getting into players who are still in their 20s today and I don’t think you can make a definitive call one way or another.

      Baseball America is a prospect list that encompasses all aspects of a player when for fantasy we really only care can this guy hit, hit for power, and does he have speed. They take into account the glove and the arm as well.

      Typically there aren’t too many huge differences in rankings for overall fantasy and for regular baseball. The guys you noticed they might be higher on than other but that could also be because they believe in their offensive tools as well. All lists are going to have variability.

      I do agree with you 100% though. I would have loved to do this with a fantasy list but it would be with players who are currently in the prime or pre prime stages of their career and I don’t know if you could really make a call on their careers at this point.

      I have debated going through and making another list with BP or another fantasy outlet but it wouldn’t be a hard and fast line because so many of the players would still be playing.

  4. Some fascinating insights here. I’m in my 15th year of dynasty leagues, it’s great to finally see some hard analysis in a field where so much is relied on gut feelings.

    I wonder too, if these results actually understate the prospect success rates for fantasy purposes. BA isn’t exactly the first place I go to for my dynasty league prospect rankings. This year, for instance, they have Mondesi, Gray, Sanchez, Adames, Guerra, and Gordon, all in the top 50-ish, all of whom I would slot a little lower for fantasy purposes.

  5. Not sure if you are still checking comments, but what were some of those things you did not think of until you were past the point of no return? I’ve often wanted to do a study like this, but for different reasons. Karros also had five 30/100 seasons during his best 7 year stretch. Depending on the format/keepers, that seems valuable at first glance. I know I owned him for years in a keep all dynasty format.

    • I cant recall all of them but off the top of my head; draft round, international vs. drafted, and by the team that first acquired them.

      In terms of Karros I agree those are some great numbers but it came in the steroid era where 30/100 doesn’t set you far above the rest of the landscape especially at 1B, and that is what oWAR is really looking at. The player vs. a replacement level player.

      Looking back on his career now it looks like he had 5 pretty good years with years 6 and 7 not being good. He is one of a few guys that probably should have been in a higher category when you look back and think about it but what really hurts him is outside of that 5 year stretch. During that specific 5 year stretch his oWAR only came out to be 2.3, even with him averaging over 30/100, and once you add in the 2 bad years to get to 7 it drops him significantly.

      My perception of Karros, not looking at the oWAR, is probably that he should be in the good category. There are a few players like that that had great stretches but really didn’t have a great 7 year stretch that hurt their overall oWAR.

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