Up next in our Pinch Hitter series is Ed Conde, the head of the federal government’s Alcohol Countermeasures Laboratory in Cambridge, MA. He was born in the Bronx and grew up in New York, so that explains his Yankees ties while working just outside of Boston.
For his post, Ed took a look at past prospects who have been considered truly elite. Do the game’s top prospects truly become the game’s top players?
Many baseball fans eagerly await the publication of the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list to see how their team’s prospects stack up against the best. I decided to research and answer the following questions:
1) What is the best way to obtain elite prospects?
2) Do the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects lists accurately predict major league success?
3) How well have the Yankees obtained and developed elite prospects?
I took the ten highest rated prospects from each of the 22 annual Baseball America Top 100 Prospects lists. I then eliminated duplications where athletes appeared more that once and ended up with 163 elite prospects (60 pitchers and 103 hitters). I then used information and data from “Baseball Reference” to analyze these players.
I wondered how many of these elite prospects actually end up having successful careers. To measure this, I arbitrarily defined a successful career to be one where a player achieves average production for 10 years. According to Baseball Reference, 2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the average for a “regular” starting ballplayer. Therefore 2 WAR per year times 10 years give 20 career WAR. Current hitters with about 20 career WAR are Adam Kennedy, Mark Kotsay, and Aaron Rowland. Do most elite hitting prospects reach 20 WAR? Current pitchers with about 20 WAR are Bronson Arroyo, Doug Davis, and Jeremy Guthrie. Do most elite pitching prospects reach this level?
How do teams obtain elite “Baseball America” prospects?
Of the 163 elite BA prospects, 90 (55%) were drafted in the first round, 33 (20%) were drafted in later rounds, and 40 (25%) were signed as international free agents. Of the 60 elite pitchers, 31 (52%) were drafted in the first round, 16 (27%) in subsequent rounds, and 13 (22%) were signed internationally. For the 103 elite hitting prospects, 59 (57%) were drafted in the first round, 17 (17%) in subsequent rounds, and 26 (26%) were signed as international free agents.
Clearly, the best way to get elite BA prospects is select them in the first round of the amateur draft. Historically this has been true for both pitchers and hitters.
Do most Baseball America elite prospects have successful careers?
How many of these elite BA prospects actually go on to have successful Major League careers (20 WAR)? What percentage of these elite prospects actually become the next Mark Kotsay or the next Jeremy Guthrie and reach 20 career WAR? Fifty percent? Seventy five percent?
Would you believe that only 10 of the 60 (16.6%) elite pitchers and 36 out of the 103 (35%) elite hitting prospects have reached 20 WAR? Only three young pitchers (Clayton Kershaw 16.9 WAR, Edwin Jackson 10.7, and David Price 10.4) and three young hitters (Prince Fielder 19.6 WAR, BJ Upton 16.7, and Justin Upton 11.0) are more than 1/2 way to 20 WAR and likely to reach it. Clearly fan’s expectations for these young players are unrealistic.
Were most successful Major League players once elite BA prospects?
I looked at the 20 best active pitchers and the 20 best active hitters (using career WAR) to see if most were once elite BA prospects.
Eleven of the 20 (55%) best active hitters were once BA elite prospects. Baseball America hit on over 50% of these projections — impressive. However, only three of 20 (15% – Sabathia, Felix, and Beckett) of the best active pitchers were once BA elite prospects! Pitchers like Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee never attained top 10 status.
Pitcher’s appear to be much more difficult to project. Top pitchers are often not first round draft picks. Of the top 20 active pitchers in career WAR, only six were first-round draft picks. Eight of the 20 were drafted in later rounds and six were international free agents.
Good major league pitchers often develop from lesser prospects. Conversely, many great pitching prospects fail. Since pitchers are hard to project and seem to develop slowly, teams should obtain as many good pitching prospects as possible and wait patiently for them to develop.
How well do the Yankees obtain and develop young talent?
There have been 163 different elite BA prospects (60 pitchers and 103 hitters) spread over 30 teams. This equates to 5.43 elite BA players per team (2.00 pitchers and 3.43 hitters.)
The good news is that the Yankees have obtained and developed 10 elite BA prospects — second only to the Atlanta Braves (11). No team has had more elite BA pitchers than the Yankees: (4 – Brien Taylor, Jose Contreras, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain). Only Atlanta, Toronto, and the Dodgers have also produced four.
The bad news is that the Yankees have been terrible at turning elite BA prospects into successful major leaguers. The Yankees are dead last among teams that have had five or more elite BA prospects. Derek Jeter is the only elite Yankees prospect who has reached 20 career WAR. Not a single elite Yankees pitching prospect has reached 20 WAR during the 22 years that “Baseball America” has created the lists.
The silver lining has been that the Yankees have had great success turning lesser prospects into successful players. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Chien-Ming Wang, and Ivan Nova have far exceeded expectations.
The Yankees have been great at obtaining elite young talent. The lower levels of their minor league system is often brimming with talent. The next step is turning that elite talent into good major league ballplayers. If they better develop their elite prospects and continue to find hidden gems, then the future is bright.