The gentle art of prospect promotion

Be forewarned that what follows is mostly an exercise. It’s me thinking out loud. There are no satisfying answers at the end, merely questions layered upon questions. The hope is that maybe we will learn something along the way. Let’s take a look…

One of the things I love about Bill James is his willingness to question the status quo, his refusal to accept the easy answer. In the Texas Rangers chapter of his 1987 Baseball Abstract, James launches the following:

It simply is not true that every player has to go through a minor-league apprenticeship in order to play in the majors. It never has been true. There have always been some players (probably many players) for whom the minor leagues were just a nuisance from which they learned nothing and in which they lost 20-40% of their productive life as ballplayers. But the problem is that the most dangerous thing you can do in any learning process is to expose the student to a situation that he or she can’t handle. If the young player gets in over his head his confidence can be destroyed, and fears can be set loose in his mind that can never be put away.

James continues in this vein for several paragraphs, but the gist of his argument is that minor-league development time isn’t always necessary and that teams are reluctant to test this theory because if they’re wrong, things can get ugly. It is more defensible to err on the side of caution.

Skipping the minors

James talks about this issue as it relates to Pete Incaviglia, who was drafted by the Montreal Expos but who refused assignment to the minors and was subsequently traded to the Rangers (he’s the reason recent draftees cannot be traded nowadays), who were okay with giving him a big-league job right away.

Incaviglia went on to have a fine career. It wasn’t quite the Harmon Killebrew that James cited as his best-case (nor, come to think of it, was it Jeff Burroughs the worst-case prediction), but the guy played more than 1200 games and hit more than 200 homers. That’s a lot more than you or I ever will.

Maybe Inky would have been better served by spending time in the minors. Who can say? Then again, a similar lack of development didn’t hurt, say, Dave Winfield, Bob Horner, or John Olerud:

Four who went straight from college to MLB
First Full Career
Horner 358 .266 .313 .539 124 4212 .277 .340 .499 127
Incaviglia 606 .250 .320 .463 109 4676 .246 .310 .448 104
Olerud 420 .265 .364 .430 117 9051 .295 .398 .465 128
Winfield 544 .265 .318 .438 115 12339 .283 .353 .475 130

Ah, but they were exceptions. Most players cannot make the jump from the NCAA to MLB.

Well, yes and probably. Yes, Winfield, Horner, and Olerud were exceptions. And most players probably cannot make the jump directly to the big leagues (although this hasn’t been tested very rigorously).

Jumping from Single-A

Moving forward to the present day, I’m thinking of players whose timetables defied the normal progression. The most obvious is Albert Pujols, who made the jump essentially from A-ball to the big leagues look ridiculously easy:

Albert Pujols
Year Age Level PA BA OBP SLG BB SO
2000 20 A 440 .324 .389 .565 38 37
2000 20 A+ 88 .284 .341 .481 7 8
2000 20 AAA 15 .214 .267 .286 1 2
2001 21 MLB 675 .329 .403 .610 69 93

Retroactively we can point to, say, Pujols’ advanced knowledge of the strike zone as “evidence” he would succeed, but that’s cheating—we’re using information garnered after the fact to “prove” a theory. Also, it’s obnoxious to suggest that anyone should be expected to perform better at the big-league level than he did in Low-A ball a year earlier. These things tend not to happen.

Pujols is a once-in-a-lifetime talent—basically the new Jimmie Foxx—but someone in the position to make decisions must recognize this and have the fearlessness to act on it. Can you imagine if Pujols had followed a more conventional development path and spent, say, 2001 and 2002 in the minors? That’s 379 hits, 71 homers, and 257 RBIs he wouldn’t have today.

“Yeah, but he’s Albert Pujols. You just said he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent.”

Right, but nobody knew what “Albert Pujols” meant at the time. He was just another guy trying to make it to the big leagues. It would have been easy to justify holding him back in the name of prudence. Someone had to make that call, take the risk of “rushing” a prized prospect and possibly ruining a significant investment.

The flip side of Pujols is a guy like Jose Guillen, who also made the jump from Single-A:

Jose Guillen
Year Age Level PA BA OBP SLG BB SO
1996 20 A+ 569 .322 .357 .498 20 73
1997 21 MLB 526 .267 .300 .412 17 88

The obvious difference here is that Guillen couldn’t tell the difference between balls and strikes, but still, this was not a player without talent. It’s hard not to wonder whether Guillen’s career might have unfolded differently had he spent time in the high minors where coaches could have explained the benefits of not swinging at everything. Alas, we will never know.

Pitchers, anyone?

Several years ago, when the Padres promoted Oliver Perez after just four Double-A starts, I expressed concern that it might affect his development. When he went out and dominated the National League a couple years later at the ripe old age of 22, I looked like an idiot for raising doubts.

In the five seasons since, however, Perez has been an enigmatic figure. Who knows how the rest of his career will turn out or whether things might have been different if he’d been given more of an opportunity to develop at lower levels.

A few years later, the Padres left a kid unprotected in the Rule 5 draft because he’d thrown only 120 professional innings, the overwhelming majority of which had come outside the United States. It didn’t seem like much of a risk at the time, but history will show that Joakim Soria has since become one of the game’s top relievers.

Now the Padres have recalled right-hander Mat Latos, one of the more highly regarded pitching prospects in baseball and certainly the best to come through the organization since Jake Peavy. He has pitched just 184.2 innings in the minors. (Of those, only 47 have come above Single-A.) It’s a risky move and one whose consequences won’t be known (if they ever can be known) for several years.

The Tigers have been moderately successful in aggressively promoting their pitchers. Rick Porcello needed only 125 innings at Single-A before getting the call this season. A few years ago, Jeremy Bonderman made a similar jump after 156.2 innings. The early returns are promising for Porcello, while Bonderman’s record has been a bit spottier (although he has had health issues).

Another Rule 5 pick, Johan Santana, made the jump from Low-A and got abused in his rookie season:

Johan Santana
Year Age Level IP ERA BB SO
1999 20 A 160.1 4.66 55 150
2000 21 MLB 86 6.49 54 64

His performance in 2000 shouldn’t have surprised anyone. What is unusual is the fact that, after another season of substandard performance, Santana rebounded not only to have a big-league career but to become a two-time Cy Young award winner.

The trouble is, there are so few of these guys that it’s difficult to study the issue in any meaningful way. What kind of sample can you create? Bob Kipper jumped from the California League to the big leagues in 1985 and his career fizzled. But maybe he wasn’t that good. Maybe if he’d had the talent of, say, Porcello, he would have enjoyed greater success. Then again, Kipper was taken No. 8 overall in 1982, three picks after Dwight Gooden. So even if he wasn’t that good, he was at least highly regarded.

Going back further, in the 1973 draft, two left-handers taken in the first round made their professional debuts at the big-league level. Neither David Clyde nor Eddie Bane ended up having much of a career.

Much has been written about Clyde, whom the Rangers pushed directly from high school and essentially put into a position to fail, which he did. Bane was three years older and met with slightly more immediate success, but he threw all of 168 innings over parts of three seasons for the Twins before fading.

In 1989, another southpaw, Jim Abbott, went straight from the University of Michigan to the California Angels. He held his own on first arriving and then enjoyed a couple solid seasons in Anaheim before kicking around the league a while and retiring 1999 with nearly 1700 innings of roughly league average output (99 ERA+) to his credit. Abbott’s wasn’t a stellar career, but he enjoyed his share of success and became a source of inspiration to anyone who’d had to overcome obstacles in life (you may recall that Abbott was born without a right hand).

In recent years, teams have drafted college relievers early with the intent of whisking them quickly through the system. Earlier this season, for example, the Diamondbacks called up left-hander Daniel Schlereth (their first-round pick in 2008) after just a handful of minor-league outings.

Ryan Wagner and Chad Cordero, two right handers drafted in the first round in 2003, arrived in the big leagues in fairly short order. Wagner worked just nine innings in the minors before being recalled by the Reds and pitching well for them down the stretch (21.2 IP, 1.66 ERA, 248 ERA+). Unfortunately he never duplicated that initial success and retired this past May.

Cordero took a little longer to reach the majors (19 games), but soon became a top-flight closer for the Nationals. Injuries have stalled his career for now, although it’s hard to blame those on his rapid ascent.

So what?

If anything is clear from the preceding discussion (a matter of debate, I concede), it’s that we cannot make a blanket statement about whether it’s a bad idea to push prospects hard. For guys like Clyde and Guillen, it probably was. For Winfield and Pujols, not so much. Even with Santana’s initial struggles, it’s hard to say that he would have received the same instruction and learned the same real-life lessons in the minors that he did while refining his craft with the Twins?

I wonder if James was onto something with his assertion that for some players, the minors are “a nuisance from which they learned nothing.” There still appears to be a general conservatism in terms of promotion, and maybe that makes sense in many cases, but player development presents many challenges and is as much art as it is science. It takes knowledge and judgment beyond what is available in any statistical analysis.

There may be other ways to quantify such things (psych evals, aptitude tests, I have no idea) but at the end of the day, it’s a judgment call. And with the kind of money invested in these young men, it’s crucial to make the right call. Careers depend on it. Lives depend on it.

Is the most prudent course of action always the right one? I’m not advocating recklessness, just noting that adherence to conventional thinking for its own sake isn’t an admirable value. Foolish consistency, hobgoblins, that sort of thing.

It’s like how managers often exhibit a slavish devotion to rote use of their bullpen. Having a set guy to work the seventh inning or eighth inning might help when it comes time to answer questions from the media, but it may not be the best way to utilize one’s resources and maximize the likelihood of winning games.

Similarly, leaving a prospect in the minors too long is easier to justify than bringing him up too soon. But the fact that something is easy to justify doesn’t make it the best course of action. The latter requires a knowledge and understanding of the individual situation and people involved, as well as a willingness to face the consequences of possibly being wrong in one’s judgment.

Making the right call may be difficult. Then again, that sentiment applies to many things in life, not just baseball.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987

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14 years ago

I don’t think Pujols was rushed, exactly. The Cardinals invited him to Spring Training, perhaps just because he’d done well enough the previous year that they wanted to get a look, I’m not sure, though he was slated for AAA, where he’d finished the 2000 season, so it doesn’t seem all that unusual. At the time, he was a 3B, and they’d just signed Bobby Bonilla to play the position at the major league level, but Bonilla got hurt and Pujols crushed in Spring Training, so they gave him a shot to start the season in the majors, and obviously he never looked back. Had Bonilla not gotten hurt, I’m guessing Pujols would have spent much of 2001 in the minors and wouldn’t look that much like a rush job. Thankfully, he did get that chance!

14 years ago

Nice article. It’s nice to hear about alternate theories to prospect promotion, and I love the Bill James intro. He’s not quoted enough anymore. If you want an alternate theory, there’s an article on StatSpeak that talks about holding players back more to make more use of their careers. Although I wonder what that would do to their progression, or if it would change anything at all. You should check it out. Again, nice piece.

14 years ago

With the big salary jumps at arb and FA it is now even more risky to have a future star scuffle along at sub-replacement level for a year or two like Santana then pick it up when you now have to decide whether to extend him based on his last good year or risk paying much more if he has two good years, rather than keep him in the minors and see a couple of good years before making that choice, even if he learned as much in the bigs as he would have in the minors with more time to experiment.

Geoff Young
14 years ago

@Todd: Given the statistical profile of Pujols, what would have been a reasonable expectation from him as a rookie? I’m thinking maybe .260/.320/.400 with an upper end of .280/.350/.450.

@James: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. This is one of those difficult questions to wrestle with because it deals with intangibles, which are by definition difficult (if not impossible) to measure. I will have to check out the StatSpeak article.

@Gilbert: You raise a great point about arbitration and free agency. One that ties into that I think is increased media scrutiny. Once upon a time, there was no ESPN, no Internet, no fantasy baseball industry, etc. If a guy scuffled a little, it might attract some local attention but nothing like what we have today.