After the Hype

Most prospects, Jackie Bradley Jr. included, don't succeed right away in the Majors (via Keith Allison).

Most prospects, Jackie Bradley Jr. included, don’t succeed right away in the Majors (via Keith Allison).

You heard about him long before he reached the majors, and even prior to his arrival stateside, when his precocious talent began turning heads. You followed his swift path up the minor league ladder as each promotion gave way to a greater sense of possibility and intrigue. You feverishly read the scouting reports and praise from prospect gurus as he ascended the Internet’s various Top 100 lists, drawing acclaim from anyone who laid eyes on him.

Then, your club’s top prospect—-that teenager you had been pinning your favorite team’s hopes upon—-finally arrives in the majors. The present at last catches up with the future, and all you need to do is sit back and watch the kid rake for the next decade just like he always has.

But what happens when your team’s best prospect, the player destined to become a franchise player, struggles to begin his big league career? How should you feel when this one-time savior goes down swinging on a pitch in the dirt for the 10th time that week? What happens after the hype, when all this player is trying to do is earn a spot as a major league regular?

For any baseball enthusiast, following and dreaming about your favorite club’s prospects is an essential, even thrilling, part of being a fan. A strong farm system can provide hope for a team trapped at the bottom of the standings as the losses keep piling up. Or a bevy of talented youngsters can reaffirm the notion your organization is an excellent, well-oiled machine from top to bottom.

With interest in baseball and the desire to know everything about one’s team growing, prospect coverage has hit the big time, providing a vast wealth of information to baseball fans and allowing us to dream on young potential like never before. Now fans have access to countless scouting reports offered by baseball outlets that base a large portion of their business on delivering the latest updates about prospects and the current state of any organization’s minor league system. It’s almost gotten to the point where even a club’s success in the big leagues must be taken with a grain of salt if its system is lacking in able youngsters down on the farm.

But are all these public scouting reports and the fervor surrounding prospect coverage obscuring our understanding of player development and the necessary adjustments needed to succeed in the majors? Have we grown too impatient in anticipating that a 20-year-old can arrive at the highest level and excel from day one?

Ian Cundall, the director of scouting for SoxProspects.com thinks fans and even the media can be too quick to call for prospects to be promoted from the minors.

“These days,” Cundall says, “everyone wants immediate gratification and is quick to bury a prospect if they don’t have immediate success. The biggest mistake you can make is looking at a prospect’s minor league stats and thinking those will immediately translate to success at the major league level. The jump from the minors to the majors is the most difficult adjustment a player has to make.”

Cundall went on to cite how even elite players like Mike Trout have had issues upon first entering the majors.

Indeed, it has become easy to forget in the wondrous years since his major league debut that Trout failed to impress in his initial taste of major league baseball back in 2011. Trout batted .220/.281/.390 in his first 40 games as a big leaguer, showing no signs of the elite hit tool, power, and all-around ability that have been on display ever since. The Angels star isn’t the only youngster to struggle during his first cup of coffee, of course, and Trout’s early woes against major league pitching should serve as a good reminder for anyone worrying about their favorite prospect’s initial troubles in the majors.

The fact that the game’s best prospects are now so celebrated and talked about before even arriving in the Show has warped our sense of player development, often driving our hopes beyond the point of realistic expectations. With Trout and other fledgling stars (including what feels like half of the Cardinals roster) now succeeding at young ages, it has become hard to remember rookies are supposed to take their lumps. Even veteran players must make constant adjustments to thrive in the majors, something that is easily forgotten when a heralded prospect arrives on the scene and doesn’t play like an All-Star.

As prospect writer Nathaniel Stoltz wrote here recently, a minor leaguer’s life is one of continuous adjustments and fine-tuning, yet that need to keep adjusting doesn’t stop in the minors. Player development persists long after a prospect has been promoted to the big leagues, even as teams become better at preparing players for the challenges they will face in the majors. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, after all, and expecting any youngster to excel against veterans five or even 15 years his senior is unrealistic.

Stoltz agreed that the hype surrounding prospects in the public realm can often cloud the realities of player development.

“I think that once a guy gets a reputation for something,” Stoltz said via email, “it kind of sticks with them until they violently disprove it, and there’s kind of a flattening effect of summing up a player in one paragraph, a major reason why I almost never do so.”

Stoltz went on to add, “When I started going to games live, I realized how much more dynamic prospecting is than that. Sure, there are a few fixed attributes for guys, but everything else is in flux. Typically, the only nods to adjustments that are made in those condensed reports are references to ‘projectability’ and what not… It gets so much more real when you see guys, and more so when you see them progress.”

“And even beyond watching guys develop,” Stoltz concluded, “you also notice flaws and get ideas for what might work for guys to help fix those issues. I think scouts within the industry generally get this, but if you’re ‘following’ the prospect discussion from afar, it’s an easy element to overlook.”

Certainly, the recent growth in prospect coverage is great for fans and the sport itself. That the feats of minor leaguers are beginning to attract more mainstream attention will only help baseball gain a larger audience. Having a strong knowledge of any club’s prospects is also essential in understanding why a team operates in the manner it does. It’s worth knowing, in other words, about your team’s minor league system if only to understand why it traded for Player X and why they can afford to ship off Player Y elsewhere.

Plus, it’s fun reading about the latest exploits of wunderkinds like Julio Urias or Raul Mondesi Jr., or to at least know a lick about the best prospects on your local minor league team.

Yet all too often, our hopes of what bright prospects might become obscure the more likely reality of what they will become. When reading about your team’s top prospects, it is far easier (and more enjoyable) to focus on their “strengths,” which loom larger and are more intriguing, than the “weaknesses” also included in any given scouting report. When imagining the future, human nature tends to accentuate the positive and envision the absolute best-case scenario, while ignoring the caveats and negatives that are equally part of the package.

Expecting a youngster to reach his ceiling rather than his floor becomes almost a given, then, when in reality, the opposite outcome is more likely. Even the best prospects, the Trouts and Byron Buxtons of the world, come with their share of warts, and injury’s ever-present specter means no player can be labeled a “sure thing.”

But even faultier is the notion that a given player’s development will follow a linear path, that early struggles will make way for learned success as a prospect climbs his way to the majors. Although Jeff Zimmerman has shown over at FanGraphs that player aging curves might be starting to change, initial difficulties shouldn’t be taken as evidence that a talented rookie is doomed to bust. The vagaries of sample size should be enough to convince us that even a full season’s worth of playing time isn’t always telling.

Cundall echoed this sentiment, saying, “For those prospects that are able to make that jump, there is no set timetable for making those adjustments. Every player’s developmental process will be different.”

For his part, Cundall believes the changes a player has to adapt to off the field are as challenging as the fine-tuning prospects must make on the diamond in the majors.

“I think people often underestimate the lifestyle change between the minor leagues and major leagues, and everything that comes associated with that. In the minors, you’re primarily riding buses and playing in front of, at most, a couple thousand fans. Contrast that with the situation in the big leagues, where you’re playing in front of tens of thousands of people and flying private jets.”

“Not all prospects,” Cundall said, “are equipped to make this jump right way, as it can be overwhelming at first.”

Adjustments are a necessary part of surviving in the majors, and an essential component of the development process long after a player is considered a prospect. Alex Gordon, whose career has taken him from uber-prospect to bust to below replacement level to All-Star, is an informative example of the non-linear path many players take to big league success. Gordon was an average player or worse during his first four seasons in the majors, and even switched positions from third base to left field before he fulfilled his long-awaited potential.

At 30 years old, Gordon is now having one of the best years of his career and has been the second-most valuable player in the American League in terms of fWAR. That Gordon took so long to develop, changed positions, altered his plate approach, and simply improved is a nice reminder that adjustments are a vital part of any player’s success at the major league level.

Similar statements can be made about two of the AL’s best pitchers in 2014, Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester, who are each excelling at career-best levels thanks to alterations in approach.

Throughout his 10-year career, King Felix has increasingly relied on his change-up, a pitch he has thrown nearly 30 percent of the time this season, but also an offering he hardly featured upon breaking into the majors. That change-up has since become one of the game’s toughest pitches to hit, and along with a walk rate that has improved for four straight seasons, has enabled Hernandez to post career-best numbers in his 10th season.

Lester, too, has seen some fine-tuning in approach spark a mid-career renaissance. The left-hander is throwing his fastball more often than he has since 2007, and his ability to spot the pitch on either side of the plate has led to better command and allowed his other offerings to blossom. As it stands, Lester’s walk rate is currently two percent less than his previous career low.

Jackie Bradley Jr. struck out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances through May (and this after a disastrous big league debut in 2013), yet some mechanical changes have him looking more and more like the hitter who batted .297/.404/.471 in parts of three seasons down in the minors.

After his initial struggles, Bradley made some changes to his mechanics, a decision he believes further exacerbated his issues against big league pitching. Bradley opened up his stance in hopes he could better attack inner-half fastballs, which were eating him up consistently.

As Boston’s assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez told the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton, however, this left Bradley too “pull happy,” with Rodriguez adding, “What it created was his first move was to open up with the front side. That probably didn’t allow him to see the ball that good and didn’t allow him to stay through the ball.”

Red Sox manager John Farrell agrees, telling Britton, “Regardless of if you’re a hitter or pitcher, you’re always looking for ways to keep an edge. He’s a smart kid. When he’s not felt quite right, he’s been able to express that [to the hitting coaches]. That’s ongoing work.”

It is easy, from our vantage point as fans, to see a youngster struggle and assume the status quo won’t change much. Yet players, coaches, and front office staff are always working behind the scenes, with constant tinkering and alterations being made on a week-to-week basis.

The fact such adjustments can be made long after the hype surrounding a youngster has disappeared is reason enough to remain patient when your club’s top prospect doesn’t fulfill his vast promise right away. It’s a long ways between now and where any young player will end up; bumps in the road should be the expected norm, not indicators of certain and enduring trouble.

With the buzz surrounding the game’s best prospects showing little signs of slowing down, our expectations will only grow in proportion. Tales of Buxton’s exploits have already reached near-mythic status, and in a way, you can’t blame Twins fans for showing some impatience while waiting for Buxton’s arrival.

The same goes for Cubs fans and the organization’s bevy of near-ready prospects. Down in Triple-A, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, the team’s most highly regarded minor leaguers, are just one call-up away from starting a long-awaited talent pipeline to Wrigley Field. In a sense, they embody two sides of the prospect coin, with many experts regarding Bryant as close to a sure thing. Baez, on other hand, has immense offensive potential that overshadow the large amount of risk and question marks still in his game.

In many ways, Baez serves as a fitting representation of the razor-thin edge prospects often straddle as they reach the majors in today’s baseball environment. Anticipation for Baez to succeed will be sky high, with fans likely expecting his big power to show up from day one. His struggles in Triple-A and the weaknesses in his approach cited in scouting reports demonstrate Baez is no certainty to excel, especially right away.

What Baez is able to do after the dust settles and the hype fades will be far more informative about his progress as a player.  He has already had to make adjustments as he has risen to the upper levels of the minors. It is vital to remember, though, that the need for adjustments will only continue and intensify once Baez reaches the majors.

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Comments

  1. not really as it seems said...

    Trout’s rookie year wasn’t as bad as it’s painted actually by PROCESS. His BABIP was absurdely low in relation to his batted ball profile.

  2. Oaklander said...

    I’d just like to recommend to all fans (and general managers) that you continue to get down on your top prospects the moment they don’t succeed in the majors, so that you can keep sending them to us for nothing as “quad A” “disappointments.” That’s the new market inefficiency, and we are very happy the take them and make them superstars.

  3. Thiago Splitchange said...

    Could the aging curve be changing due to a change in the profile of younger callups? If teams are viewing aggressive hackers the same way they view many pitchers, in that value should be extracted ASAP*, then they could find early success, then progressively decline as other players improve, thus cancelling out the “peak” level. I have no idea if this is true, but if I had an athletic player with a horrible approach that wasn’t improving, I might give it a shot.

    * (although in this case it would be before scouting reports get out and teams can adjust, rather than before wear and tear on the arm sets in)

  4. David P Stokes said...

    “even a full season’s worth of playing time isn’t always telling”

    I think this may be the hardest thing for fans to grasp when evaluating players. Not just prospects, either, but established players, too. For example, if a player is having a bad year this year, is it a sign of an impending and significant decline, or just a fluke?

  5. Ben said...

    Good read. One of the more interesting questions I find, though, is how to handle a young player struggling in the majors. There are certainly players who have little left to learn or gain from in the minor leagues. There are likewise players who learn best from facing the steepest level of competition. So there are times when, with this article in a mind, a guy is struggling but fans and teams just need to be patient. But undoubtedly there is a tipping point at which a player is just so overwhelmed that he’s not getting any better; instead, he overcompensates with bad tendencies that will hurt him in the long run. This is always a delicate balance.

  6. said...

    But undoubtedly there is a tipping point at which a player is just so overwhelmed that he’s not getting any better; instead, he overcompensates with bad tendencies that will hurt him in the long run. This is always a delicate balance.

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