A Visual History of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect Lists

It's tough to have a bevy of great prospects over a long period of time.

It’s tough to have a bevy of great prospects over a long period of time.

With another baseball season in the books, the focus turns to the off-field machinations of front offices. Between now and Opening Day, we’ll see the general managers meetings, the winter meetings, the Rule 5 draft, countless trades and free agent signings, the announcement of a new Hall of Fame class, and more about arbitration than any one person should witness in a lifetime.

After all that wraps up, we’ll reach one of the finest benchmarks of the pending season when Baseball America releases its annual top 100 prospects list. The venerable publication has produced 26 such lists, one per year since 1990. This gives us a lot of data to evaluate. Let’s take a closer look at which teams have dominated the list, which ones have brought up the rear, the general managers in charge, and how appearances on the list correlate to success over a five-year window.

BA_Top100 (1)

One thing readily apparent is the dominance of the Atlanta Braves for most of this time. The Braves placed four  players or more on the list in 22 of the first 23 years that the list existed, which is an astounding run — one that fueled their 14 consecutive NL East titles from 1991 to 2005 and beyond. Unfortunately for Braves fans, their run of BA prospect list dominance has ended in recent years, amassing just five total players from 2013 to 2015.

Like the Braves over the past three years, virtually every franchise has experienced a lull at some point. Through astute drafting and development, the one notable exception has been the Twins. The Twins have placed three  players or more on the list every year of its existence except for 2012. Even their down year was modest, with two players on the list including Miguel Sano at No. 18 overall. Curiously, despite their consistency, the Twins have never landed a major bumper crop of seven or more on the list. This would explain how their 26-year total (102) doesn’t crack the top three overall. Those slots belong to the Braves with 127, the Red Sox at 108 and the Dodgers at 104.

The Red Sox and Dodgers serve as the antithesis of the Twins in terms of success. While boasting even more players than the Twins, the Sox have produced bumper crops in 1996, 2008, and both 2014 and 2015. This offsets their lull from 2002 to 2004 amid an executive-level shake-up. The Dodgers have had even longer dry stretches–1999 through 2001 and 2009 through 2013 both stand out as times of moderate production–but have offset those bursts of inactivity on the list with three bumper crops (1991, 2005, 2006) and several other seasons just below the bumper crop threshold at six players.

The other end of the spectrum features the Tigers (53), Phillies (61), Brewers (64) and Giants (65). While the Brewers have had a very lean 26-year run, their most successful burst (2003 through 2005 with 16 total players) served as the backbone for their 2009 and 2011 playoff appearances. The presence of the Giants (and their every-other-season championship magic) on that list speaks to the myriad other factors that dictate success at the major league level. Most recently, they’ve found high levels of production from lesser-regarded prospects. There’s also an efficiency component. The few players the Giants have placed on the list have been award-quality players like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner.

More curious is the presence of the Tigers, particularly since Dave Dombrowski was at the helm for 13 consecutive seasons. Either through scouting, development or trades, Dombrowski’s charges flooded the BA top 100 from 1990 until 2001. In this time frame, Dombrowski was the Opening Day GM for 11 seasons (not counting 1992, when the Marlins were yet to debut). His teams placed 65 players on the top 100 during that run, a dizzying average of 5.9 players per year.

Dombrowski’s next 13 years in Motown placed just 26 players on the list, a precipitous drop to just two per year from his previous heights. It certainly didn’t alter his on-field success, as the Tigers made five playoff and two World Series appearances while racking up 86 wins ore more in seven of nine years from 2006 until 2014. The natural assumption, given the Tigers’ larger financial resources compared to the Expos and Marlins, is that he dealt top 100 talent for more reliable top-end talent at the major league level. However, this isn’t the case. No player dealt by the Motown edition of Dombrowski landed on the top 100 after being dealt.

Three other GMs of note are John Schuerholz, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman. While not a GM by title in Chicago, Epstein clearly has had a major influence on the Cubs since 2012. His squads have placed 53 players on the list since 2005, or 4.8 players per year. Friedman’s run from 2006 until 2013 in Tampa was even more prodigious, placing 45 players over 8 years for a 5.6 average. His output included four bumper crops (seven or more), all over a five-year span. Think of Friedman’s 2007-2011 as peak Koufax in terms of placing prospects on the BA top 100.

Schuerholz had the best run of them all. From the time he took over GM duties in 1991 until 2005, his Braves racked up a whopping 83 players over 15 seasons- 5.5 per year. Or put another way, his squads matched the output of Friedman’s teams, but did so over more than twice the time. Prospect trends are cyclical for most teams, but Schuerholz’s teams were cycle-proof using the top 100 as a measuring stick.

Placing a high volume of players on the BA top 100 over the past five years was a harbinger for this year’s batch of playoff teams. Of the 10 playoff participants, eight boasted at least one year over the last five with six players or more. The best representative was the Royals, who dominated the 2011 list with nine players who have now propelled two pennant winners and a World Series champion. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy combined for a WAR of 8.5 this season. Other members of their nine-player bumper crop were spun via trade into Johnny Cueto (1.1 WAR and several huge October moments) and Wade Davis (a high-leverage WAR of 2.0).

Projecting five-year windows based on the BA list becomes a bit more dubious because of a multitude of other factors (payroll, prospect busts, development of players outside of the top 100, incorrect evaluations of players on the BA list). That said, four categories yield reasonable sample sizes. There are 89 teams that placed five or more players on the list in a given year; 86 with one or none in a given year; 99 with 15 or more players over a three-year span; and 127 with six or fewer over a three-year span.

Teams in the 15-or-more group have a .522 winning percentage during the last year of their three-year run. By comparison, the six-or-fewer group comes in at .489. On average, it’s a gap of 5.3 wins. The implication is that teams that can financially support enough payroll at the major league level can also provide the financial support for better draft and development.

Moreover, the value added to the 15+ crew and lost by the six-or-fewer crew during the five-year run is rather nominal. The 15+ teams peak at just .008 better than their first season in the stretch– 1.2 wins over 162 games. The winning percentage valley for the six-or-fewer teams is similar– a scant .007 lower than their initial year in the window.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The one-year results yield slightly more pronounced results. The five-or-more group sees an average bump of .019 in year three, good for three wins over 162 games. The one-or-none group falls from .495 to a low of .480 in year four, a shade under 2.5 wins per 162 games. In all groups– using either the one-year samples or the three-year trend samples– any effect greatly diminishes by year five. In fact, the six-or-fewer group has the exact same winning percentage by year five as it had in the initial year. The 15-or-more group even sees a drop in winning percentage by year five5. While it’s obviously not helpful to produce a barren crop or several consecutive barren crops on the BA list, the long-term effect is not damning. Depending upon other circumstances, it might not be detrimental at all.

John LaRue is a graphic designer, former minor league baseball media relations director, and data visualization enthusiast. His work has been featured in The Best American Infographics 2013 and I Love Charts: The Book. Follow him on Twitter @tdylf.
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7 years ago

Really good stuff. Easy to get something out of this without having to work too hard.

Is it possible to over-lay a line graph showing each team’s winning percentage on top of the circles?

7 years ago
Reply to  David

Or better yet, their winning percentage offset by 3 years…

Alec Steward
7 years ago

This is terrific. All kinds of helpful perspective on the baseball history covering most of my lifetime. Surprising to see my Twins both so consistent and so high in the cumulative count…….while still struggling to ever tranlate that apparent success into ultimate on-the-field success. A few playoff runs is great, but it sure seems like their accumulation of talent could have delivered more wins. I guess that speaks to the importance of wisely supplementing your farm system through free agency.

Bryan Cole
7 years ago

Cool stuff. Two suggestions:
1. What if you colored the circles so that better winning percentages were in green, and worse percentages were in red? Then you’d get both number of prospects and performance in one fell swoop.
2. What if you made the circle diameters depend not on the number of prospects but on the rank of the prospects? So assign the #1 prospect 100 points, the #2 99, and so on down to #100 (1 point). Add up those points, and you get a little clearer image of just how good those prospects were: having 3-4 in the top 10 is probably way more valuable than 6-7 in the 80-100 range.

7 years ago

Doesn’t seem right to do a study and weight the #1 prospect the same as #100.

Also would like to know where these prospects were drafted relative to their position in the Top 100 list.

7 years ago

I, too, would be interested in seeing this study limited to something more like top 50 prospects + it’d be neat to include how much more (assumed) important it is for clubs with lower than 50th percentile payrolls were impacted by barren prospect crops (I’m a Pirates fan, fwiw).

7 years ago

The first thing that struck me was how underrepresented the Giants were on the graph.