Making the comparison

The biggest temptation when evaluating prospects is to make comparisons. Because what we’re really trying to do when we analyze prospects is predict the future, it would be incredibly convenient if we could just assign every prospect to a comparable player so that we’d know what we have.

Of course, life is rarely convenient.

The problem with making comparisons is that the comp being made could be a prediction of any level of a player’s potential—the absolute best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario, or the more likely result somewhere in the middle. For this reason, prospect comps and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to make them, but they are horribly inaccurate, ignorantly simple, and more often than not, completely unfair.*

*Remember the whole “Mauer with Power” thing surrounding Matt Wieters? Who could live up to that?

These unrealistic comparisons are fueled by three main sources—physical attributes, positional similarities and team comparisons. The Wieters Debacle (of spring 2009) was caused by a lack of good positional candidates to whom he could be compared. He’s a tall catcher who was a potential .300 hitter, had demonstrated excellent plate discipline, and was above average defensively. The only person in that mold was Joe Mauer, and Wieters had already demonstrated the power in the minors that Mauer, to that point, had been missing. Plus it rhymed.

Sometimes, it’s just that simple. And that unfair.

We’ve seen similarly unfair comparisons recently. Perhaps there’s something about Orioles’ draft picks, because Manny Machado, the third overall pick from this year’s draft, has evoked comparisons to Alex Rodriguez because of their similar size and build (at least compared to when Rodriguez was in high school), their position (shortstop), Machado’s Dominican background but South Florida roots, and even the fact that Machado wears the number 3. You can see why it’s so difficult to be unbiased. After all, how many 6-foot-3 shortstops have there been?

Funny you should ask. Since the expansion era (1961), 11 players listed at 6-foot-3 or above have had a season in which they qualified for a batting title and played shortstop at least 80 percent of the time. The obvious inclusions are Rodriguez, Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, three current of to-be of Hall of Famers who do nothing to lessen the load on Machado’s back.

Contemporaries on the list include Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki, which would be excellent end results for Machado as well, but also on the list are names like Bill Almon, Bobby Crosby and Tony Kubek, similarly built players with athletic actions who clearly didn’t develop into the same type of superstars as the others.

Of course, just because a player is a 6-foot-3 shortstop doesn’t make him A-Rod or Tony Kubek. Machado is so highly regarded not only because of the package, but the contents as well. In addition to the athleticism and size, scouts see his “hit tool” as being on par with the other all-star names on our list. But the same was said about B.J. Upton when he was drafted. He has become a relatively productive major leaguer, but neither the shortstop nor the all-star the Rays had hoped.

Which is why, instead of individual comparisons, I like to make “window” comps. What is the window, or range, that this player will likely fall into? What player represents his ultimate ceiling? What player represents the worst realistic case he could possibly be? And who is in the middle, which is where most prospects will fall?

For instance, in its preseason write-up of Marlins prospect Mike Stanton, Baseball America wrote “His performance only brought more comparisons to a young Dave Winfield, while some see Jayson Werth or Jermaine Dye in his skill set as well.” That, in and of itself, is a wide range of comparables, but it provides us a starting block. Let’s go with what BA said and pencil in Hall of Famer Dave Winfield as Stanton’s ceiling as a player. Not too shabby.

But Stanton has some work to do to become Dave Winfield (don’t we all?). For instance, Stanton may have more power potential than Winfield ever had—Winfield never posted an ISO higher than .280 while Stanton’s ISO as a 20-year-old is .262. But Winfield also never struck out more than 106 times in a season, and Stanton already has eclipsed that.* So if Stanton wants to become the type of hitter who can hit .300 (as Winfield did four times) or get anywhere near 3,000 hits, the big improvement to make will be in terms of making contact. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

*You can consider the different eras in which they played, but Stanton would have struck out almost 200 times this season if he had played the whole thing in the majors.

If he doesn’t, perhaps the Jason Werth comparison is more accurate, not that the Marlins would be upset with that outcome. But Stanton does appear to have more power than Werth. After all, the only outfielders to ever post ISO’s above .250 in their rookie years at age 21 or younger are Frank Robinson, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

So what kind of comps are we looking for? Lets assume that Stanton’s K-rate will lower as he adjusts to the majors. I would venture to say that Stanton will never strike out fewer than 100 times in a full season, but even if he can cut it down to around 140-150 times a season, it would be a significant improvement. In his prime, 40 home runs for Stanton won’t even be a stretch, and he’s clearly settled in nicely to the corner outfield position.

So our criteria are as follows: We’re looking for a tall (6-foot-4 or above—Stanton is 6-foot-5), right-handed hitting corner outfielder with an ISO over .250 and between 140 and 180 strikeouts in a season. The table below shows the players who have had a season that meets these criteria.

                                                                                                     
Rk Player HR ISO SO Ht Year Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B RBI BB SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Rob Deer 33 .262 179 75 1986 25 134 546 466 75 108 17 3 86 72 5 2 .232 .336 .494 .830
2 Jay Buhner 40 .263 175 75 1997 32 157 665 540 104 131 18 2 109 119 0 0 .243 .383 .506 .889
3 Jason Bay 36 .269 162 74 2009 30 151 638 531 103 142 29 3 119 94 13 3 .267 .384 .537 .921
4 Jay Buhner 44 .285 159 75 1996 31 150 667 564 107 153 29 0 138 84 0 1 .271 .369 .557 .926
5 Jose Canseco 37 .268 158 75 1990 25 131 563 481 83 132 14 2 101 72 19 10 .274 .371 .543 .914
6 Frank Howard 36 .254 155 79 1967 30 149 585 519 71 133 20 2 89 60 0 1 .256 .338 .511 .849
7 Dave Kingman 36 .263 153 78 1975 26 134 543 502 65 116 22 1 88 34 7 5 .231 .284 .494 .778
8 Pat Burrell 37 .263 153 76 2002 25 157 684 586 96 165 39 2 116 89 1 0 .282 .376 .544 .920
9 Jose Canseco 44 .290 152 75 1991 26 154 665 572 115 152 32 1 122 78 26 6 .266 .359 .556 .915
10 Ron Kittle 35 .250 150 76 1983 25 145 570 520 75 132 19 3 100 39 8 3 .254 .314 .504 .818
11 Ryan Ludwick 37 .292 146 75 2008 29 152 617 538 104 161 40 3 113 62 4 4 .299 .375 .591 .966
12 Jason Bay 32 .254 142 74 2005 26 162 707 599 110 183 44 6 101 95 21 1 .306 .402 .559 .961
13 Frank Howard 44 .278 141 79 1968 31 158 663 598 79 164 28 3 106 54 0 0 .274 .338 .552 .890

I have it sorted by strikeouts, because the ability that Stanton shows to limit his strikeouts ultimately will be the most significant factor in what type of player he becomes. If he manages to limit the Ks all the way down to around 100 per season (which would be an astonishing improvement), he could fall into the Winfield/Robinson category. This seems unlikely, but we’ll allow it to serve as his ceiling because the tools are there; it’s just the adjustment that’s not.*

I chose 140-180 strikeouts because it seems like a realistic amount of improvement for a player of Stanton’s caliber to make, and also because it’s a large enough gap to note the difference between a player who makes enough contact to still be a force, and an all-or-nothing free swinger who can be exploited in a lineup.

*This is where you have to be careful with the “ifs.” You can say “if a player does X, then be could become Y,” but only if it’s something that can actually be improved upon. For instance, it would be unrealistic to say that “if” Pedro Alvarez gets more athletic, he could could be a Gold Glove third-baseman and stay there his whole career. Players don’t get more athletic as they age. But it is realistic to say that if he stays in shape and works hard at his defense, he could be a good enough defender to stay there into his late 20s, delaying his inevitable move to first base. It’s a subtle, yet monumental difference.

The player at the top of this list, Rob Deer, had as much raw power as any hitter in the 1980s, and the season above (1986) was his first full season. The league had yet to completely figure him out, and thus he made just enough contact and drew enough walks to allow his power to be effective. By 1989, his flaws were exposed, resulting in a three-year run of .210, .209 and .179 batting averages. He never made the adjustment, and his career was essentially over by age 32.

Toward the bottom of the list is Frank Howard, whose 1967 and 1968 seasons on our list were the only two times he struck out mroe than 125 times in a season. In general, he kept his totals in the 110-120 range, and thus was able to be a dominant power hitter, averaging 43 home runs a season from 1967-1970.

Howard ended his career with 382 home runs, but wasn’t nearly the all-around athlete Stanton is, didn’t play full-time until he was 23, and was essentially done by age 36. If we can give Stanton a three-year head start and make the assumption that, between his athleticism and better conditioning practices in sports today, Stanton will age better, that gets Stanton into the 500-home run range for a career.

Hey, if we’re going to project, we might as well project.

But this is all contingent on his development, and for Stanton, development means becoming a more consistent force than the strikeout kings at the top of our list.

So after all of our diligence, we can create a window for Stanton. His ceiling remains that of a Dave Winfield/Frank Robinson caliber player (wow!), and that ceiling alone is what made him one of the top prospects in the game. The worst-case scenario is that the league figures him out, he fails to adjust, and his strikeouts never dissipate (or even increase) and his power is lost in a sea of swings and misses, a la Rob Deer or to a more effective extent Dave Kingman, who ended up having a productive career simply because of power and in spite of everything else.

The likely result is somewhere in the middle, where the Frank Howards, Jayson Werths and Jermaine Dyes reside. Consider this real-life six-year span in the prime of the career of a player to be named below. Does this not look like something Stanton is capable of doing?

                                                                                
Year Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB
1982 26 162 698 598 113 168 23 2 36 109 93 134 .281 .378 .507 .885 142 303
1983 27 162 687 589 131 178 24 4 36 121 90 110 .302 .393 .540 .933 149 318
1984 28 162 691 607 94 176 32 8 36 100 79 134 .290 .372 .547 .919 149 332
1985 29 162 712 616 118 185 32 2 37 111 90 141 .300 .388 .539 .927 152 332
1986 30 160 692 614 89 163 29 7 29 83 75 141 .265 .347 .477 .824 121 293
1987 31 159 693 566 115 167 27 1 44 105 115 136 .295 .417 .580 .997 157 328

It’s not quite on the Frank Robinson-level, but then again, who is? This is the six-year prime of a player we have yet to mention, mainly because the only ISO over .250 during this span was in 1984, when our subject’s strikeouts were just low enough to miss our criteria. But he did hover primarily in the 130-140 range for his most productive years, put up an ISO of .242 during that time, and averaged 133 strikeouts per year. So who is our mystery player?

Dale Murphy.

You forgot how good he was, didn’t you? I did too. He gets discounted because after the 1987 season he fell drastically. But for those six seasons, two of which included MVPs, he was as good as any hitter in the game.

Now certainly Murphy was a different type of player than Stanton. He was a Gold Glove center fielder; Stanton will remain in the corners. Murphy stole 105 bases during this stretch, while Stanton will likely never steal more than 10 in a season. And Murphy walked a ton, which Stanton has the potential do, but it will come as a result of pitchers avoiding him out of fear, not because he has great patience at the plate. But as a comp, the run production we saw from Murphy during his prime is a realistic comparison for what Stanton is capable of doing.

So when it’s all said and done and someone asks me for a comp of Mike Stanton (let’s pretend I have an online prospect chat and a reader posed this question), I would have to forego a simple name and instead offer this explanation:

If he puts it all together, he could be a Frank Robinson/Dave Winfield type player with the ability to hit .300 with 35-40 home runs every year. In the unlikely event that it all comes crashing down, he could be the next Rob Deer. But the most likely scenario for Stanton is that he falls somewhere between Dale Murphy and Frank Howard in terms of offensive production in his prime, and where he falls in that range is completely dependent on how well he adjusts to major league pitching and curtails his strikeout totals.

Now isn’t that more accurate than just saying “he could be the next Dave Winfield?”

References & Resources
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/22/2010.

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