The cult of the sure thingby Geoff Young
April 15, 2009
With all the hype surrounding SDSU right-hander Stephen Strasburg this spring, I got to thinking about prospects and predicting their future. It's harder than it looks. In fact, it's impossible. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on assumptions and then hope we are right.
I've seen Strasburg pitch three times so far this season. There is no question that he's a dominant collegiate pitcher. When you've got a guy who can go Jonathan Broxton on you for six or seven innings at a time, that causes problems for the other team.
And by all accounts, Strasburg's stuff should lead to a successful professional career. Like Mark Prior before him. Or Kris Benson before Prior. Or Paul Wilson. Or Ben McDonald. Or...well, you get the idea.
Curious to see what happened to some hyped youngsters from just a few years ago, I grabbed my copy of the Baseball America Almanac 2003 off the shelf and turned to the prospects section.
Before we get rolling, let me say that none of what follows is meant to disparage the work of Baseball America. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how difficult it is to look into the crystal ball and get anything resembling a clear picture. I use Baseball America here because they are better at it than most. They know what they are doing, but they cannot overcome the unknowable nature of the beast.
Also, this isn't a study. It's a survey, meant to remind us anecdotally of things we already ought to know.
The first thing I did was look at the list of top 100 prospects as of March 2002. I went position by position and found the highest-ranked player, the most successful player, the highest-ranked bust, and a notable omission. For your dancing and dining pleasure:
|C||Joe Mauer, #7||Mauer||J.R. House, #41||Victor Martinez*|
|1B||Carlos Pena, #5||Pena||Hee Seop Choi, #40||Ryan Howard|
|2B||Bobby Hill, #48||Orlando Hudson, #81||Jake Gautreau, #77||Chase Utley|
|3B||Hank Blalock, #3||Mark Teixeira, #10||Drew Henson, #9||David Wright|
|SS||Wilson Betemit, #8||Miguel Cabrera, #38||Antonio Perez, #52||J.J. Hardy|
|OF||Joe Borchard, #11||Josh Hamilton, #18||Borchard||Grady Sizemore|
|OF||Austin Kearns, #12||Carl Crawford, #59||Chin-Feng Chen, #64||Ryan Ludwick|
|OF||Hamilton||Jack Cust, #100||Nic Jackson, #68||Aaron Rowand|
|RHP||Josh Beckett, #1||Carlos Zambrano, #80||Dennis Tankersley, #16||Francisco Rodriguez|
|RHP||Mark Prior, #2||Jake Peavy, #28||Nick Neugebauer, #17||Brad Lidge/Jose Valverde|
|RHP||Juan Cruz, #6||Beckett||Jerome Williams, #19||Dan Haren/John Lackey|
|LHP||Ryan Anderson, #14||Erik Bedard, #90||Anderson||Oliver Perez|
|LHP||Carlos Hernandez, #24||Kazuhisa Ishii, #35**||Hernandez||Hong-Chih Kuo|
**Yeah, Ishii stunk, but you should see the rest of these guys: Ty Howington (#24), Corwin Malone (#32), Brandon Claussen (#37), Mario Ramos (#49), Jimmy Gobble (#50), Mark Phillips (#54), Chris Narveson (#86).
Guys get hurt or fail to develop. Stuff happens.
From that left-most column, Mauer, Pena, Hamilton, and Beckett are studs, although it took Pena and Hamilton forever to get there. Blalock and Prior appeared poised to join the elite as well, but both have seen their careers stall.
It's difficult now to envision a world in which Hill was considered a better prospect than Utley. Same with Henson and Wright, Betemit and Cabrera (or Jose Reyes for that matter), Borchard and Sizemore, Tankersley and Zambrano, Anderson and Bedard, etc.
We can do the same thing on a team-by-team basis:
|Ana||Casey Kotchman||Francisco Rodriguez, #7||Chris Bootcheck, #4||Chone Figgins|
|Ari||Luis Terrero||Jose Valverde, #5||Terrero||Brandon Webb|
|Atl||Wilson Betemit||Kelly Johnson, #3||Brett Evert, #4||Adam LaRoche|
|Bal||Rich Stahl||Erik Bedard, #2||Stahl||Mike Fontenot|
|Bos||Seung Song||Freddy Sanchez, #6||Song||Kevin Youkilis|
|ChN||Mark Prior||Carlos Zambrano, #6||David Kelton, #4||Dontrelle Willis|
|ChA||Joe Borchard||Aaron Rowand, #10||Borchard||Aaron Miles|
|Cin||Austin Kearns||Kearns||Ty Howington, #2||Edwin Encarnacion|
|Cle||Corey Smith||Victor Martinez, #6||Smith||Jhonny Peralta|
|Col||Chin-Hui Tsao||Garrett Atkins, #3||Tsao||Matt Holliday|
|Det||Nate Cornejo||Cody Ross, #9||Cornejo||Fernando Rodney|
|Fla||Josh Beckett||Miguel Cabrera, #2||Allen Baxter, #5||Josh Willingham|
|Hou||Carlos Hernandez||Brad Lidge, #5||Hernandez||Adam Everett|
|KC||Angel Berroa||Berroa||Colt Griffin, #3||David DeJesus|
|LA||Ricardo Rodriguez||Hong-Chih Kuo, #6||Rodriguez||Shane Victorino|
|Mil||Nick Neugebauer||J.J. Hardy, #7||Neugebauer||n/a|
|Min||Joe Mauer||Mauer||Michael Restovich, #4||Grant Balfour|
|Mtl||Brandon Phillips||Grady Sizemore, #3||Donnie Bridges, #4||Jason Bay|
|NYN||Aaron Heilman||David Wright, #5||Pat Strange, 3||Heath Bell|
|NYA||Drew Henson||Juan Rivera, #5||Henson||Dioner Navarro|
|Oak||Carlos Pena||Pena||Chad Harville, #3||n/a|
|Phi||Marlon Byrd||Chase Utley, #7||Anderson Machado, #5||Ryan Howard|
|Pit||J.R. House||Chris Young, #10||House||Nate McLouth|
|StL||Jimmy Journell||Dan Haren, #9||Journell||n/a|
|SD||Sean Burroughs||Jake Peavy, #3||Burroughs||n/a|
|SF||Jerome Williams||Boof Bonser, #2||Williams||Francisco Liriano|
|Sea||Ryan Anderson||Rafael Soriano||Anderson||Cha Seung Baek|
|TB||Josh Hamilton||Hamilton||Dewon Brazelton, #3||n/a|
|Tex||Hank Blalock||Mark Teixeira, #2||Mario Ramos, #3||n/a|
|Tor||Josh Phelps||Orlando Hudson, #5||Tyrell Godwin, #10||n/a|
*Unranked among the top 10. Some of these guys made their organization's top 30. Although I dug fairly deep, I couldn't always find someone for a particular organization.
Terrero over Webb? Song over Youkilis? Tsao over Holliday? Byrd over Howard? These aren't just garden variety big leaguers, either; these are All-Stars and award winners.
Anyway, I'm not telling you anything new when I say that prospecting is as much art as it is science, and that if predicting the future were easy, we'd all be rich by now. If the best experts can miss the mark this badly, that's not a reflection on their abilities. They had good information; it's just that conditions change in unanticipated ways.
I've cherry picked a bit here, but that's kind of the point. Who could have foreseen Webb's greatness? Or Holliday's? Heck, Webb didn't even crack the top 10 pitchers in the Arizona system. Here's who ranked ahead of him in 2002:
- Mike Gosling
- Jose Valverde
- Jason Bulger
- Beltran Perez
- Oscar Villarreal
- John Patterson
- Jeremy Ward
- Chris Capuano
- Brian Bruney
- Bill White
- Jay Belflower
- P.J. Bevis
- Corby Medlin
How well did some imagined future correlate with the one that actually happened? If our best minds have missed the mark before, what's to say it won't happen again?
These are questions to ask when evaluating a kid like Strasburg. Is he a great college pitcher? Absofreakinlutely. Is he a great pro prospect? Sure looks that way to me and everyone I've heard talk about him. Is any of this a guarantee of future success? Not so much.
Mark Prior blows out his arm, Sean Burroughs forgets how to hit. Miguel Cabrera adds muscle to his frame, Jose Reyes learns the difference between balls and strikes, Chase Utley outworks everyone.
You can look back and see signs, but that is cheating. The trouble is, you don't always know which ones are important until after the outcome is determined, which limits their utility.
On the bright side, this same lack of predictability makes watching the future unfold exciting. You know, like life.
References and Resources
Baseball America Almanac 2003, Baseball Prospect Handbook 2002
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.