What is a top prospect?

I’ve been putting together my top-30 prospect list for this fall since the minor league season ended. Its not an easy task to take 40-50 prospects inside the Yankee organization, pick thirty, and say which one is better than the others. How do you do it?

We know basically what makes a good baseball player. Those players will, when you add up their pitching, fielding, and hitting contributions, help their team win more baseball games than a readily-available alternative. A good prospect is a player that is most likely to become a player who will contribute.

However, a layer of probabilistic variation makes it more difficult. Some players are more likely to contribute a little, some players are more likely contribute a lot. There are different axis which we have to consider how to value players. Would you rather have a player with a 100% probability to become Boone Logan or a player with a 20% probability to become Clayton Kershaw? I take these things very mathematically, like a hand of poker: I’ll take the highest probability of producing WAR. A player with a 20% chance of producing 6 WAR should be roughly the same bet as a player with a 100% chance of producing 1.2 WAR.

Of course, its not that simple. There are 25 spots on a roster, and 14 of those spots get significantly more playing time than the others. If the WAR distribution is roughly shaped like a bell curve, then we can expect it to be much easier to find five 1 WAR players than one 5 WAR player. Given the choice between twenty-five 1 WAR players and five 5 WAR players, I’ll take the 5 WAR guys every single time, because I can go out and fill my roster with replacement players and find value.

There’s one more important value to prospects: time. A player in the minor leagues isn’t doing much good for the Yankees. Like a curve showing how much interest someone will pay over a period of time, the same benefits far in the future are worth less to us than benefits right now. All else being equal, we’ll take the prospect who will produce 20 WAR over 2013-2019 over the guy who will produce 20 WAR over 2016-2022.

All of this means three things:

  • We should value higher-ceiling prospects above and beyond lower-ceiling guys.
  • We should value prospects who are close to the majors over guys who are farther away, in terms of ETA.
  • We should value players who are more likely to reach their potential over guys who are not.
For that reason, I divide up (see: next week) rating prospects into these three categories, and try to rate a prospect using a probabilistic method. Obviously, this is all just a matter of opinion for me, and I like to use my rating system more to explain my rationale than as any kind of scientific, robotic way to rank prospects. I’ll be updating and explaining that system next week, so stay tuned.
I think we all too often tend to default toward high-ceiling prospects rather than high-probability guys. Maybe we’re underrating the Brett Marshalls of the world while paying too much attention to the Dellin Betances. We should respect ceiling, since any winning team needs their 5+ WAR guys, but also recognize that time and probability are also factors.

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

3 thoughts on “What is a top prospect?

  1. Tom Swift

    We all know that a 5 WAR guy is worth way more than 5 x a 1 WAR guy. The question is, how much. For that, I think we should rely on market prices. On average, how much more does a 5 WAR guy make per year than a 1 WAR guy? (This understates the value of a 5 WAR guy, who is far more likely to get a long contract than a 1 WAR guy, but it’s a start.)

  2. Hawaii Dave

    Probabilistic is probabilistically not a real word. But I’m gonna try to use it in as many sentences I can this week. (just a joke, don’t send any links to dictionary web sites)

  3. Travis L.

    I’m sticking to RAB and LoHud…you guys are too smart for my dumb ass!! LOL. Anywho…looking forward to seeing that list!

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