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Beating the Bushes: Minor League Scouting

It's inevitable. Sooner or later you are going to find yourself trying to evaluate minor leaguers. There's no way to avoid it. Whether it's pre-draft and you are debating where to draft this year's Francisco Liriano, or itís this September when you are looking for that extra boost from a September call up. You are going to have to pour over the numbers of some player you have never seen and decide whether he's worth your roster slot, draft pick or cap money.

Before we get into the best ways to go about sizing up a minor leaguer, let me digress for moment and talk about the joys of this particular hunt. If your league doesn't have a minor league element you are missing out on some serious baseball fun. My league has an 8-man minor league roster, 4 hitters and 4 pitchers. In our 14-team league that means that over 100 minor league players are owned. In addition, we give perks to owners regarding kids, to make mining the minors even more profitable. In our league players who are rookies are carried over at a very small salary, they are virtually free, and they don't count against roster limits in the draft. We go further by giving the owner his kid's sophomore year at a discount too (if he's been on his roster continuously). Basically, we created a "service time" situation where the minor leaguer cost the owner very little against the cap until his third major league season. You can see how that makes teams very anxious to develop their minor leagues. This creates a whole separate set of excitement during our draft and during our season. It gives our owners more chips to bargain with, so it generates trades. In 1992 I had owned Chipper Jones for a year already and had traded him for a package that help me win a title. And there is nothing like watching a kid that you picked off the Lowell Spinners climb the ladder and become a force for your big club. They become like another son.

But even if you don't deal in minor leaguers as part of your roster, if you have a carry over league, you need to be able to compare and contrast the kids to be successful in the long run. And even if you don't have a carry over league, you will need to try to figure out which minor leaguers could be impact players in the upcoming year.

Owners who saw Liriano, Jered Weaver, Jonathan Pabelbon, Jon Lester, Prince Fielder, Hanley Ramirez, Zack Duke, or Connor Jackson coming prior to the start of last year, were ahead of the game. And this year the next wave of players who morphed into minor league stars the last two years are ready to storm the majors. Players like Lastings Milledge, Chris Young, Howie Kenrick or maybe even Alex Gordon . If you saw these guys coming as early as last spring, you are sitting pretty with some young keepers who could pay major dividends, and soon.

And you COULD have seen them coming. In my league none of the players in the lists above entered last year's draft unowned in my league.....Beginning to see the picture? Young players are creating more impact in the majors every year. To compete, you need to be able to evaluate minor league talent, because todayís minor league talent is tomorrow uber-bargain on your roster, if you know what to look for.

Now we all have lives to live and unless your league plays for big money you probably (or unless you are a fabulously wealthy fantasy baseball writer) can't make a living off fantasy baseball. So we can't all keep up with every professional baseball player in North America (and now you have to worry about Latin America and the Far East too!).

You will need to depend on outside sources, meaning people like us, to narrow down the list to 100 or 200 top guys. Read everything, keep notes. It's like eating an elephant with a shrimp fork, you just have to take one bite at a time. You'll see the same names coming up from time to time, and recognizing them is the beginning of knowledge, grasshopper.

But while the minor league experts do a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff in baseball's bush leagues, keep in mind that even the experts really don't KNOW anything. They are taking educated guesses and those theories you are reading are snapshots in time. Things change and you need an evaluation that is current. An evaluation that reflects what we know now, not a month ago, not last spring. 

It's like predicting the weather. The guys at your local TV station have all the computers and radar, and you have your thumb in the wind. Still, your percentage will be surprisingly competitive, if you know a few basic principles.

Eventually, when you are looking at 50 or so kids and you have to take one, you are going to have to add your evaluation to the mix, and for the most part, you are going to have to work off statistics. You need to know the tools of the trade.

You will probably have the basic stats to work with. You can look at the number of homers a player hits and get a get an idea of his power. You can see how many bases he steals and determine, to an extent, his speed and general athletic ability. If you have his numbers for doubles and triples that will add to your ability to determine these skills. Batting average gives you an idea of how well he makes contact. These stats are the staples of the sport, but do they give you the true picture?

Baseball is such a situational game and so vulnerable to chance and streaks that anything is possible. Anyone who owned Brady Anderson the year AFTER his 50 homeruns can tell you that. These stats tell only you what is happening now. What you need to know is whether these are true indicators of the player's skills. After you figure that out, you can theorize what will happen from there.

For both the hitters and the pitchers (which we'll look at later), the most fundamental skills in the game involve the strike zone. Strikes are the nucleus of the baseball atom.  Hitters need to be able to recognize a strike when they see one and pitchers need to be able to throw them, and throw them effectively.

To get an idea of where the player is as a hitter, check out his strikeouts and walks. This will tell you a lot about how a hitter will do as the level gets higher and the pitchers he faces get better.

Ideally your candidate will have more walks than strikeouts, but it is the rare hitter indeed that can maintain a ratio like that for long. The best hitters will have a ratio of about 1.3:1 (they strikeout 1.3 more times than they walk) or less. Those players are .300 hitters in the making because they are good at getting pitches to hit, and laying off bad pitches.

Sound over simplified? Statistics bear it out. Players with a ratio of 2:1 (twice as many strikeouts as walks) will struggle with contact, and presumably that won't get any better as the quality of the pitching he faces improves. If they show this type of ratio at the higher levels of the minors itís going to be difficult (but not impossible) for you to project improvement in strike zone judgment. Take their career as a whole, expect bumps in the road when they jump to a higher level, but overall, you are looking for hitters whose ratio is good and/or progressing.

There are two ways to use this statistic. One is to compare it to the player's batting average as an indicator. If player is hitting .300 and his BB to K ratio is less than 1:1, you need to be suspect of his average. If a player is hitting .250 but has a ratio of 1.5:1, you can reasonably expect that average to rise.

As I said, luck and streaks play their part, a player with poor strike zone judgment can get some hits to fall off bad pitches, and a player with a good zone can spend a couple weeks drilling line drives right at infielders. And keep in mind that the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter isn't as great as you'd suspect (another foible of the Batting Average statistic). It works out to about one hit every five games (go ahead, do the math!)

The other way to use this ratio is to follow it through his career. Is his ratio improving? Is he learning the strike zone? Expect a drop in this ratio when he jumps a level, that's only natural. The pitchers get better at fooling hitters as you move up. But if the ratio doesn't rebound soon, you may have a problem. If he's not improving as he gets older, then you do have a problem, because as he moves up the player will get fooled more and more and his production will suffer. Ideally your player's ratio is improving throughout his minor league career. If the player is striking out too much, or not walking enough, his most fundamental skill, recognizing a good pitch to hit, is suspect, and so is he.

The one caveat Iíll offer in this regard is that the game is evolving and so is our understanding of the statistical indicators of player development. Whatís been happening in recent years is that we are at least a little less put off by high, but reasonable strikeout totals. You donít like to see a lot strikeouts in a young hitter and you have to assume that the problem isnít likely to improve as the sophistication of the pitching he faces increases at each level, but we are seeing that players can be productive hitters, especially in a fantasy sense, and still strikeout more than youíd like (read: 2000ís edition of Preston Wilson).  

The key there is whether heíll take a walk. If he takes walks then itís possible that his batting eye is still sound even though he may be making less contact than other prospects. They could be pitching around him and forcing him to chase a bit, or he could be a power hitter who swing hard enough to suppress his contact rate. If heís taking walks he still showing a level of selectivity and self-control at the plate, which is what we are looking for. This is something you have to look at in context and take on an individual basis.

The same is at least occasionally true of drawing walks. Witness Alfonso Soriano who was positively allergic to them early on in his major league career. Old school thinking would have dismissed him as a prospect due to his apparent inability to collect 4 balls. The truth is that not only could he function pretty well as a hitter without walking much, but Soriano has shown progress with the strike zone over his career and last year be positively ďblossomedĒ as a walk taker in his best offensive year.

The point is that each player is individual and you have to know how much weight to put on these indicators in the context of the player you are evaluating. Many times, indeed most of the time, these types of bench mark stats serve you extremely well. But some players defy conventional analysisÖ.

That being said, a pretty dependable indicator of a players offensive ability is your new best friend OPS.

After we evaluate a players grasp on the strike zone, the next thing is to find out what he does once he gets that pitch heís looking for. One of the more popular benchmarks is his OPS, or On Base % (Hits+Walks, divided by ABs + Walks) plus Slugging Average (Singles + 2 x Doubles + 3 x Triples + 4 x Homeruns, divided by ABs).

This combines the two basic qualities of a player's offensive performance, how often he gets on base, and how well he moves runners along. This has becoming one of the more popular indicator stats for hitters. Your want you player to have at least a .600 OPS and the top hitters will approach .900. Load the formulas into a spreadsheet if you don't have a source that already calculates these things and check it out. Again, like in the strikeout to walk ratio, you need to get the big picture and see if the players OPS has been generally improving as he climbs through the system. Is he adjusting to each level?

Don't worry that walks and maybe even extra base hits aren't scored in your league. What we are trying to determine here is how successful the player is as a hitter. The more successful he is, the more likely he will make it to the majors, and the more likely he'll be productive once he gets there. Both of these stats have the added quality of separating the hitter from his circumstance. A player's RBI stats are dependent on the other players in the order and where his manager bats him and other things that are beyond the player's control. The batter alone determines his K:BB ratio and his OPS.

Keep in mind that these are guidelines and nothing is written in stone. As I mentioned, go check out Preston Wilsonís K:BB ratio in 2000 and you will see there are exceptions. These stats are clues that help you form theories, and that theory should be an ongoing process. Be ready to reevaluate at any time. Quite often, a player suddenly "gets it" and a light turns on. Your job is to see that light when it goes on, or even better, anticipate who's light is coming on.

Once you've evaluated his skill set as a hitter you may have a few players to chose from, so what breaks the ties in close calls between prospects? First you have to determine what you want from your prospect. Do you need immediate production? Do you have a particular position on your team that needs filling, starting pitchers, or a third baseman, perhaps. Are you looking for trade value to help get you over the top in a deadline deal? Are you building for the long term?

One major key when trying to determine if, and when a player will make the "show" is opportunity. Is there a spot on the big club's roster that he can fit? Will he play everyday if he gets it? Often a team's roster moves will point you towards their plans for a prospect. The Blue Jays traded Jim Thome to make room for Ryan Howard at 1B. Often a teamís moves, especially those of a smaller market team, are bread crumbs leading to what they consider to be a top prospect who is MLB-ready. Of course some teams are better evaluators than others, and in some cases the financials of the situation play more of a role than the relative talent of the kid in question.

Check a player's age. A 27 year-old should dominate AA. He's too experienced for the rest of the league. Conversely you can expect a 20-year old to struggle a bit if he finds himself in AAA. The prospects age, relative to his level, will help you put your evaluation in context.

Check his physical attributes. Troy Glaus and Eric Chavez actually played some shortstop in the minors, so did Chipper Jones. One look at their size and weight told you that they probably project more like third basemen than shortstops, and that's eventually what happened. Physical size stereotypes are one of the few things you can count on with players. It's very hard for any player to rise above the preconceived concepts of what their size should be to play a certain position.

Pitchers are whole different ball game. Remember that "thumb in the wind" concept we talked about? Well, with young pitchers, you might just as well be throwing darts. Young pitchers defy projection. There is so much for them to learn, and there is such a large chance of injury, and so much of pitching relies on mental make up and maturity that picking which pitchers will be good major leaguers is pretty much a crapshoot. Know that going in.

Also know that you are bucking the minor league pitching paradox. The biggest single factor in turning a kid into a good pitcher is experience, and with expansion, teams have to force young pitchers to gain that experience in the majors.  

But I digress...whatís the minor league pitching paradox? Young pitchers generally aren't good pitchers because they aren't experienced, and all minor league pitching prospects are young pitchers. See the problem? For every Francisco Liriano, there are 10 Zack Greinkes. We all thought Zach would be very good, but it doesn't look like it will happen. If you can afford to absorb the ups and downs of a young pitcher's first year or two in the majors, then fine. The needle in the haystack is the minor league pitcher who can be effective out of the box.

But that too, is part of the game which is evolving. Two years ago, I would tell you never to bank on a young starter. Depending on them was courting disaster. But more and more, we are finding young pitchers who find their feet very quicklyÖ.Liriano, Weaver, Anibel Sanchez, Jenks, Papelbon, Ray Öthese are all guys who were pitching well almost from the start. Itís time to understand that some guys are going to be good immediately. And itís time to look at each young starter with that possibility in mind. Two years ago, Iíd have said with significant certainty, that Mike Pelfrey will need 250-300 IP to find himself. Now I have to be open to the possibility heíll be effective from first pitch.

When it comes to evaluating young pitchers, the first rule is: forget what you know. Wins and losses are almost divorced from performance. They are situational stats and virtually useless in evaluating young pitchers. ERA isn't much better. Exceptionally good ERAs or exceptionally bad ERAs are worth noting, and make a nice first screening, but for our purposes, anything between 3.00 and 5.00 is virtually a wash.

Next, at least from a fantasy standpoint, and this is simply a personal philosophy, all you should be concerned with are impact pitchers. By impact pitchers, I mean strikeout pitchers. Notice I didn't say power pitchers, because it's possible to be an impact pitcher without being a power pitcher.

There are two types of pitchers in fantasy baseball that you want, especially starters. One is what I call an "offensive" pitcher. These are the guys who's starts you look forward to each week because they can IMPROVE your stats; Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, etc. There aren't a whole lot of them, so the next thing you look for is a "defensive" pitcher. These are the guys who normally won't kill you. When you see them in the probables you normally think to yourself "please, just don't get bombed." Sometimes you get good starts from them, but their main purpose is simply not to get croaked.  If you are looking for "defensive" pitchers, the last thing you want is a kid. They don't have the skills, the maturity, or the experience to get out of trouble. And when a kid goes bad, he goes big time.

There are a lot of good "defensive" starters and virtually all of them are veterans. Don't waste time trying to "develop" a defensive pitcher, pick a veteran. When you look at young pitchers, look for guys who have the ability to be "offensive" starters. If you are going to risk some really bad outings, which are inevitable with your young pitchers, then at least give your self a chance at some really good outings. Betting bombings against "decent" starts is like betting $10 to make $2. The odds are bad.

How do you recognize impact pitchers? Impact pitchers control the game. Think about it, the less a pitcher allows the ball to be put in play, the more impact he has on the game. Statistically, even though itís hard to accept, the fact is that once the batter puts the ball in play, most pitchers are pretty much equal. There simply isnít a huge range of effectiveness between starters when the ball is put in play. The difference between a typical ďAceĒ and a typical #3 starter, when the batter hits the ball is almost minimal.

That brings us back to strikeouts. A simple stat I like to use is (Strikeouts + Walks) divided by Innings Pitched. Even the most basic stat listings give you the raw numbers to figure this out and its a pretty good indicator of how much the pitcher impacts his start, positively in the case of strikeouts, and negatively in the case of walks. Pitchers at a level 1.10 or higher are high impact pitchers. Pitchers that calculate out at less than .90 are contact pitchers. They allow the other team to put the ball in play and to an extent they give up control of the game to all the factors that come into play, when the balls goes into play. Granted, some are slightly more effective at that than others, but that ability usually develops over time, with experience. And even if a contact pitcher is effective at one level, he has the learn the game again at the Major League level. Do you want his "learn-as-you-go" stats on your pitching line?

Once you find pitchers who control game play, you need to know whether that's good news or bad news. The most fundamental skill in pitching is the ability to throw strikes. It's called control or command and it is essential to effective pitching. Can he get the ball over the plate? Divide his strikeouts by his walks and find out. Ratios of 2:1, or 2.00 (twice as many strikeouts as walks), or better are very good, 3:1 (3.00) or better is outstanding. The closer you get to 1:1, the more skeptical you need to be. Less than 1:1 (less than 1.00), or more walks than strikeouts, is a huge red flag.

The tried and true WHIP ratio, (walks+hits) divided by innings pitched, is a good indicator as well. Base runners lead to runs, so the less baserunners you allow, the better off you are. High WHIPs with low strike out numbers are a recipe for disaster. Such pitchers get into trouble often and lack the ability to extricate themselves with a punch out. And itís only going to get worse in the higher levels. OBA or opponents batting average is a useful stat, especially if you can get the lefty/righty splits. Many sources list opponent OPS as well and thatís an even better thumbnail. This will tell how well the pitcher fools hitters. Pitchers who's OBA  or OPS is lower than the league average are, once again, impacting the game. This is what you are looking for.

With all of these stats, remember that a current snapshot is only part of the big picture. Check these numbers over the course of the minor leaguer's career at different levels. Are they progressing or declining? There will be a dip anytime a player moves up a level, but does the pitcher adjust?

Statistical indicators like these give you some clues, but you need to know more about the pitcher to complete your picture. Check his age. Is he with his peers, age-wise? As we noted, experience is a huge factor. A 26 year-old pitcher should be very effective against 22 year-old hitters. Discount the numbers a bit if the pitcher is old for his level, and cut him more slack if he's at a higher level than his age warrants.

Physical size and body type is a huge factor in pitching. Small pitchers will wear down. Pitching is an extremely physical endeavor and there aren't a lot of 170 pound pitchers who can go 200 effective innings for very long. On the other hand, the Sid Fernandez types will come apart at the seams eventually as well. (And if your 23 year old prospect looks like Sid Fernandez already, that's whole Ďnother problem).

Going along with my theory of only being concerned with impact pitchers, the two body types you prefer to see can best be described as the Roger Clemens type (large and strong lower body, thighs, and torso) and the Pedro Martinez type (lithe, fluid, and flexible). The Martinez types are the ones who can get by with smaller physical frames, even though most of them run into problems at some point.

You need to what he throws and how well he throws it. To be effective in the majors, long term, a pitcher needs command of at least three, major league level pitches. No matter how you twist it, a two-pitch pitcher is a reliever in the majors. The velocity of his fastball is important as well. Pitchers with sub-90 fastballs can be effective, but more than likely they will become consistently effective only after they gain experience. Pitchers with mid-90 and higher fastballs (Billy Wagner) or dominant offspeed pitches that can be thrown for strikes (Aaron Sele) or both (Zack Duke, Hudson Street) are the most likely to provide instant dividends in the majors.

One last consideration is burn out potential. Major League organizations seem to ignore the fact that heavy workloads on young pitchers can effect their performance for years (Jaret Wright, Jose Rosado, Jeff DíAmico and the early Bartolo Colon), sometimes severely (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Matt Morris). Any time a pitcher under 25 approaches 200 IP (to use a simple rule of thumb) in a season, proceed with extreme caution. Almost all of them will fade at the end of the year and have diminished performance the next year, if not longer. 

Notice that we are mainly talking about starters. Projecting relievers is a waste of time, except for current closers and the occasional Mariano Rivera (as a prospect in front of John Wettland). The returns are usually too low to bother. And closers are notoriously difficult to project because make up, and opportunity play such large roles, and those factors are hard to quantify and even harder to predict.

In recent years, however, there has been more closer "grooming" than we've seen in the past because more and more teams, finding it hard to get a dominant closer or unwilling to pay a big ticket closer, are using closing committees. That presents opening for relievers who normally would have to wait for a closer to retire to get a shot

On both the hitter and pitcher sides there are park and league effects to consider. The Pacific Coast League is notorious for its offense so adjust your perception of numbers coming out of that league. Players who spend a season in New Britain hit in a cavernous Bee Hive Field, their homeruns will drop. Those are more factors to consider.

Be aware that the difference in level between AA and AAA is not as much as you'd think. Over the last few years, AAA has been home for older players, and experienced prospects, who are insurance for the major league roster. Many of the younger, higher-ceiling, prospects are in AA and a jump from AA to the majors is no longer unusual, at least for hitters and their AA statistics can be an indicator of what you can expect in the majors. Pitchers on the other hand, are much more likely to succeed as rookies after a full year at AAA and the relationship between what a pitcher does in AA and what he does in the majors is quite a bit looser for pitchers than it is with hitters. This is an important point to consider if you need immediate impact from a pitcher. Statistically, there is little or no difference between hitters who have a full year of AAA experience, and those that don't. But statistically speaking there is a quantifiable benefit to pitchers resulting from spending a full year in AAA.

These are basic thumbnail guidelines that should be used to help you decide between two similar players. There more sophisticated statistical indicators of performance that can really paint a vivid picture of a prospects base skills. And there are few exceptional sources of minor league evaluations, most notably, if youíll pardon the plug,  Fantistics.com, that will help screen potential prospects for you so you can concentrate on fewer choices. We'll keep you updated all season as the kids try to break through, so stick around!

In closing the fact is that you can't hide your head in the sand anymore. More and more each year rookies are major contributors in the majors and in your league. Prospects are demanding your attention. So dive in, join the fun, the water's fine.

-Lou Blasi lblasi@fantistics.com

 

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