When a reader of The Sombrero commented on our write-up of Bubba Starling, it became apparent that implicit within our rankings, we were making a claim regarding the entire prospect landscape. After a little reflection about how we could both be somewhat down on Starling and also rank him as high as we did, it was obvious that we were boosting hitters to levels that they might not quite deserve relative to the pitchers they were ranked alongside.
For instance, Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley are found adjacent to Anthony Rizzo and Devin Mesoraco in our rankings. Skaggs and Bradley both project as #2 arms at worst. Both are very young as well and have obvious paths to Big League action. Skaggs might even be a member of the 2012 defending NL West Champion rotation in Phoenix. Bradley should breeze through the Minors and wind up in a Major League rotation within three years, barring injury of course. There is simply nothing in the way of these two aces becoming very good Major League contributors on a championship caliber club. That’s not to say it’s by any means a done deal or even highly likely that this will be the case.
However, the idea is that there are no reasons to expect these two arms to fail in their ascent. Mesoraco and Rizzo are older than both of the pitchers, both are large-bodied guys who likely are inflexible in terms of positioning, and both have already failed in Major League auditions, although the samples were small and both were rushed to some extent. Nevertheless, both players are assumed to begin 2012 in Major League uniforms even if Rizzo is not shipped somewhere between now and then. It’s no secret that we are quite high on both hitters and even higher on Starling, but there are serious flaws apparent in each case, and it is certainly conceivable that they may never succeed in the Show. Rizzo is a below-the-ball hitter who approaches the hitting zone using a nonlinear approach that takes entirely too much time to barrel up on pitches on the inner half with decent pace. Additionally, Rizzo plays first base with minimal chance of successfully sliding to a more valuable defensive spot. The Padres even brought back Yonder Alonso in the Latos deal, effectively dropping Rizzo to second or third on the depth chart at 1B. Mesoraco has less noticeable flaws, but he still has been injury prone and at-best will probably cap at under 500 plate appearances in a season, a huge reason that the Royals slid Myers away from the dish and the Nats did the same with Harper.
Basically, within the top 20 prospects as well as within the top 50, there is far more to like about the pitchers and far less flaws that might keep them from Big League success. Even within the top 10, which again features more pitchers than hitters, we really only see Harper with no obvious flaws or roadblocks that might or should keep him from an all-star career. We see injury, poor stats, and lack of positional flexibility or ability to even be average on D in each case except Harper’s. Yet with our pitchers we see nothing but elite stuff, elite command, elite makeup, and obvious paths to innings. Don’t get me wrong, the hitters are elite prospects and deservingly are considered among the top prospects in the game, but why if the pitchers are simply better?
An obvious disparity exists between hitting and pitching prospects collectively. Pitchers are ahead of hitters by a lot. What’s more, hitters tend to reach their peak years earlier than pitchers and, therefore, should be ready to contribute at the Major League level before pitchers of the same age. How should we adjust the values that we apply to prospects in light of this?
In the case of pitchers, it is far easier to assign grades to pitches than it is to, say, hit tool. Evaluating hit tool requires at least several looks and is far easier to do when a player is facing quality pitching. Brandon Nimmo went in the first round, but slapping grades on his skills and makeup was far tougher to do than it is for someone like Bradley, who has reached triple digits with his fastball. Additionally, as professionals, pitching prospects, specifically rotation guys, pitchers only take the rock every fifth or sixth day leaving most of the week to train physically in a relatively low-stress environment. This has likely never before been such a massive advantage for pitchers simply because of the way PED abuse is policed today.
Entire workouts must be totally altered to accommodate the grueling season and average day of a professional or even collegiate athlete. Pitchers have a great deal more time to train athletically at high intensity in season than hitters do. Naturally, we should expect pitchers to be ahead of hitters more so today than ever before if for no other reason than that pitchers should be athletically better conditioned than hitters since hitters (and pitchers) face far greater difficulty abusing drugs than they ever have before.
The NCAA has done professional baseball very few favors, but the incentive for pitchers to enter professional baseball at younger ages is greater than that for hitters and always has been. As was the case with Rendon and even Harper, the two best offensive prospects in the game who retain rookie status, a hitter must be frequently evaluated and is usually required to display his skills at top showcases and tournaments with and against top clubs and schools…or go to college where that happens nearly every game in top conferences. Prep pitchers who feature mid-90’s heat will draw cross checkers nearly every start and truly are far less required to show it off against quality opponents. A 60 fastball is a 60 fastball whether throwing it to Griffey or throwing it to a geriatric patient. What is a 60 hit tool, though? Implicit within that grade is a level of consistency that is not necessarily required in the same way with regards to fastball scores.
Additionally, when pitchers are evaluated, the system is far easier to apply. Fastball velocity? Fastball activity? Fastball command? Secondary stuff? Size? Mechanics? Makeup? It’s very easy to understand how valuable each of these is relative to each other. Few successful pitchers can last long in the game if they can’t pitch off of their fastballs due to a lack of pace, action, or command. Clubs tolerate a lack in effective secondary stuff for years, but can a team tolerate a lack of hit tool in young hitters? “Not really” should be the answer, but it is far more challenging to ensure that the top hit tools or even potential top hit tools are evaluated as accurately during amateur years. In addition, clubs tolerate pathetic hitters in exchange for stellar up-the-middle defense. Jose Iglesias was in many top prospect lists a year ago despite using a wet towel for a bat. He has virtually no chance of long-term employment as a Major Leaguer at anything more than the minimum because glove-first middle guys simply come cheaply due to a far greater supply than demand. And yet he still made onto many lists including our own.
The point is that a total reevaluation is required when ranking prospects. The most important tool in baseball is the hit tool. It is more important than every other offensive tool by no small margin and more valuable than any pitching tool including fastball velocity. Consider Robbie Erlin. While we were quite aggressive with our ranking of Erlin, it had very little to do with his fastball velocity, which is not all that impressive. Erlin, however, commands his stuff better than any other young pitcher in the game in our opinion and is perfect for his home yard. Good luck to any hitter who is planning to make a career out of hitting who lacks an average hit tool. Selling out for pull power still requires the ability to barrel up on mistakes, a tough skill to master if barreling up has proven difficult in the past. And yet so few players in the Minor League landscape today possess impact hitting ability, let alone middle-of-the-order ability, that it has shifted the balance strongly in favor of pitchers.
Arlo and I attempted to account for this in The Sombrero’s rankings, which is why you see Rizzo and Mesoraco next to Skaggs and Bradley and why you’ll see Machado and Montero next to Gerrit Cole and Julio Teheran. Which of these do you think we are more confident will achieve Major League success? Obviously the pitchers, but we think the quality of position players is declining at the Major League level in large part due to the inevitable response of harsher penalties on drug abuse and greater ability to detect when players are abusing PEDs. With this comes more opportunity for high intensity training for pitchers in season and therefore better results, especially as the season drags on and off-days become more and more necessary. Baseball is, however, a game of scoring and preventing runs with equivalent value to the team’s collective effort to accomplish both, because a run for is the same as a run against. Resultantly, we should not find ourselves with a top 10 that includes 9 pitchers and Bryce Harper. We should more or less have equal amounts of hitters and pitchers. With today’s prospect landscape, in order to accomplish this a drastic reevaluation of the weights of tools is necessary.