Beating the Bushes: Minor League Scouting
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
said, a pretty dependable indicator of a players offensive ability
is your new best friend OPS.
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).
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.