“You can’t scout a stat line.”
If you follow minor leaguers at all, you’ve probably heard or read someone say this. It implies that you can’t just look at a player’s hitting or pitching line to determine if they are good or not. And while there are some grains of truth to that, for the most part it’s a bunch of malarkey.
It’s true that looking a stat line can’t tell you if a starting pitcher has three functional pitches to navigate his way through a major league lineup. You can’t see if a hitter has a gaping hole in his swing just waiting to be exploited. But there are plenty of indicators just waiting to be teased out of the data to determine if a player could be good one day.
The idea for creating an algorithm that would synthesize a host of inputs for minor leaguers to determine if they are good or not has been percolating in my head for quite a long time. Steve and I talked about the concept years ago, but it didn’t really crystallize until a discussion I had with Dave Cameron of Fangraphs. This spurred me on to creating a formula that would correlate inputs on to the 20-80 scouting scale.
Once I created the formula, I fine tuned it with historical prospects that were pretty awesome in the minors. Mike Trout practically broke the hitter formula — he came out to an 80, which is just about right when you realize he was a 20 year-old stud playing CF in AAA. I calibrated the pitchers with Felix Hernandez and Rick Ankiel, both of whom I considered to be at least 70-75 for much the same reasons. I was heartened by my success and decided to move forward with it last fall.
I thought about calling the stat ‘Ankiel’, like Marcel or Steamer, to be cool. Rick Ankiel will always be the Guns ‘N Roses ‘what if?’ of baseball for me. But since I’m a big jerk, I’m calling it the Stat Scout Line, or SSL for short.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve been doing a variation of this algorithm in my head for years. For me, a #3 pitcher (a 60 on the typical scouting scale) is someone that gives up 1 hit per inning pitched, strikes out 1 hitter per inning pitched, and walks 1 batter per 3 innings pitched. In the majors, a #3 pitcher should give you 180 innings and generate about 3 WAR. For hitters, I’ve long held to the 10/20 maxim — 10% of plate appearances should be walks, 20% of plate appearances strikeouts. I also like to look at a player’s isolated power to see if he’s a Punch and Judy hitter or not.
The big thing for me, though, has always been age. A ‘prospect’ in the truest sense of the word needs to be succeeding at an age-appropriate level. I like to equate this to when Kramer took karate lessons on Seinfeld, but all his classmates were kids. Naturally, he was dominating them. (Until they all ganged up on him at the end.) So when I see a 23 year-old with great stats in Low A, I heavily discount that performance. Also, it’s not the player’s age in relation to the average age of players in the league — there’s a lot of overage players that raise the average age — but rather what age the prospect is to a typical prospect’s age at that level. For instance, a prospect at the Low A level should be either 20 or 21 for me.
I also included league factors in to the algorithm. Plenty of prospects over the years have dominated in the thin air and jetstreams of the California League, but failed to materialize in the majors. The Florida State League is a pitcher’s haven, due to the humid summer air that suppresses carry on balls. So these types of things were all factored in, as well, for each domestic league.
Uncovering Hidden Prospect Gems
I used to obsessively track prospects at all levels of the Pirates’ system. But I’ve found over the years that I’ve been calcifying my views of prospects until they hit at least High A, if not Double A. Let’s call this The Jarek Cunningham Effect. In the year 2008, hope was springing eternal all over the place for the Pirates in the minor leagues. The new, young, progressive GM named Neal Huntington just drafted the Pirates’ 3B for the next 12 years in Pedro Alvarez and drafted a whole host of young high school soon-to-be impact talents, like Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller.
There was also a young shortstop named Jarek Cunningham that debuted in 2008 in the Gulf Coast League and proceeded to blow the doors off of expectations. That’s what a .318/.385/.507 triple slash line (149 wRC+) will do for a system that was devoid of young talent. With all these draft picks, we’ll all going to live forever!
Knee injuries hampered Cunningham’s game, but the rigors of full season leagues in subsequent years against increasingly better pitchers started to result in lower batting averages and far higher strikeout rates. He was moved off of the premium defensive position of shortstop to 2B. His last season with the Pirates was 2014 at Double A; he signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers in 2015 and played at Double A for them, too, but has been out of affiliated baseball since then.
So when I put the entire Pirates’ minor league system into SSL, there were some players in the Gulf Coast League that jumped off the page. Lolo Sanchez, an 18-year old CF, graded out as a 65. That puts him at All-Star level. (In case you were curious, I put Jarek Cunningham’s stats for 2008 in SSL and got a 65, too). Along with Mason Martin and his amazing power display, the GCL Pirates had some real star talent. Both of those guys were getting some headlines already — Martin for his prodigious power and Sanchez for his $450,000 signing bonus in 2015. But you have to tamp down expectations until these guys go through Low A in 2018 to see how they do outside of what are basically glorified practices in the GCL.
For the more casual observer of the minor leagues, I found that the GCL Pirates had some prospects under the radar like 3B Rodolfo Castro (55 SSL). As I moved further up the chain, names like Alex Manasa in the Appalachian League (50 SSL) and Oddy Nunez in the Low A South Atlantic League (50 SSL) were ones that made me re-evaluate my thoughts on them.
Dispelling Prospect Biases
It’s not a secret to those that have read or spoken to me about Cole Tucker that I’ve not been a huge fan of his. However, after putting his 2017 season through SSL, I’ve completely done a 180 on him. His High A stint graded him as a 65, but his split season in Double A graded him out at an eye-popping 75. If you equally weight his plate appearances and give him a 70, that makes him the #1 prospect in the Pirates’ system. Most of that is due to him having success at a high level at age-20, especially at a key position such as shortstop. So for me going forward this year, Cole Tucker is my #1 prospect for the Pirates.
I’ve also been a ‘sizeist’ over the years, meaning I’ve discounted players if they were deemed too short by me. Pitchers under 6′-2″ and hitters under 6′-0″ have typically been given some serious side eye for future success by me. SSL is size-neutral. If a prospect can pitch or hit well, that’s good enough for the algorithm.
Using SSL Moving Forward
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been vague about what is specifically in the formula and how it is calculated. That’s because I’m currently marketing it to online baseball sites and Major League teams. As of this writing, I’m in discussions at various stages with three Major League teams and one online baseball site. So I’m not putting the algorithm out there for public use at this point.
I’ll be using SSL for my use in evaluating prospects, both in the Pirates’ system and other organizations for trade purposes. You’ll see ‘SSL’ pop up next to a player’s name from time to time. But for now, it will be in the black box.
SSL is useful for quickly getting a feel on whether a prospect has been overhyped by other media sources or for finding hidden gems. It can help Major League teams more efficiently focus their in-person scouts on prospects that they may not have been looking at previously. Maybe that pitcher only tops his fastball out at 87 or maybe that shortstop has no chance of staying there moving forward. But it helps draw attention to prospects that are currently producing at levels commensurate with success in the Majors. It’s a snapshot in time of that prospect’s performance.
SSL is not meant to replace or diminish the need for in-person scouts. It’s meant to complement that work and try to iron out some of the biases that humans and their ‘eye tests’ bring into the evaluation. It doesn’t mean that Cole Tucker and his 70 SSL makes him a 70-level prospect (which would make him a top 5 prospect in all of baseball). Rather it’s informing us that Tucker, as a 20-year old shortstop prospect that handles the bat well, is someone to be cognizant of in the future.