Author Topic: ESPN.com - Jason Churchill - Why A Prospect Fails  (Read 710 times)

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ESPN.com - Jason Churchill - Why A Prospect Fails
« Topic Start: January 28, 2011, 09:05:05 PM »
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Why a prospect fails
By Jason Churchill
ESPN Insider


Brandon Wood enters spring training next month with what is likely his final shot to prove to the Los Angeles Angels that he's worthy of a spot on the major league roster. The 25-year-old is out of options and could soon find himself looking for work elsewhere. Once considered among the top prospects in all of baseball, Wood now is at a crossroads. At the MLB winter meetings, even encouraging manager Mike Scioscia admitted the "expectations have changed" for Wood.


What led him to this point?


It's not much of a secret that the success rate of baseball prospects isn't high; hundreds of minor leaguers are annually shuffled out of the game as a new crop is brought in via the draft and international free agency. But that's just the way the game treats its applicants. Thousands try, most fail. What is a bit of an unknown is why certain talents -- the premium editions -- go from potential superstars to commodities generally referred to as 4-A players. That's because as much as people believe the draft is something of a crapshoot -- it really isn't. At least among the elite. A high percentage of the annual Top 100 prospects will be first-round picks. But some never make it.


The reasons range from injury and off-the-field concerns all the way down to a failure in scouting -- though it's extremely rare that multiple talent evaluators from numerous clubs miss that badly on the same player; and over the past half-dozen years major league clubs have drastically improved their scouting departments.


For international signees, the changes in culture and problems communicating in the U.S. can be significant hurdles. "The language barrier used to be a bigger one than it is now," said a scout and former player development director of an American League club. "But it can be tough on some of them in their regular lives. They do get homesick." What culture shock and a language barrier do not explain, however, is the problems a domestic player encounters after being drafted and signed. This is where complacency, lack of dedication and preparation come into play.


"Some of them come in and, no matter what they see or hear, expect to just be as good in pro ball as they were in high school or college," said a player development director of a National League club. "No matter how good you are, you have to work to make it, and even then there are no guarantees."


But when physical tools and good habits aren't the culprit, the mental and emotional side of the game usually is, and they sometimes work in tandem. A high draft pick who earned a big bonus may wake up every day with a content approach to his future, since he's already got millions and could very well be set for life.


"That absolutely happens," said an American League area scout. "You can't really scout work ethic and the emotional side of things with confidence. We ask the right questions, I think, but you never know."


But what about Wood?


He was the No. 23 overall pick in the 2003 draft. By all accounts, Wood has put in the work, handled failure from an emotional and mental standpoint and certainly maintains the tools that earned him the opportunity. Those tools led the shortstop to an historic season in 2005. Wood bashed 43 home runs and tallied 101 total extra-base hits while hitting over .300 as a 20-year-old at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga that year. The numbers are astounding, and though it's well known that the California League is perhaps the best hitter's league in professional baseball, scouts were generally impressed with Wood's power and the progress he'd made. He also appeared to be a legitimate defender at shortstop, sending his value through the roof.


"I said 'Wow' a lot, I can tell you that," said an assistant GM who served as an area scout for an NL club while Wood was making headlines. "He had bat speed and could really, really hit the fastball. And if you didn't locate the off-speed stuff, he'd hit those, too."


Wood followed up '05 with a strong year at Double-A Arkansas, hitting .276 with 25 homers. He did strike out 149 times, but he also drew 54 walks, which remains a career best. A season later, and after another favorable showing in the minors -- this time at Triple-A Salt Lake -- Wood began a four-year struggle in the big leagues. He's hit .169/.198/.260 in 479 plate appearances as a major leaguer, hitting just 11 home runs and drawing only 13 walks against 145 strikeouts.


Five Red Flags for Prospects

1. Strikeout Rates

Alarming strikeout rates in the minors do not bode well for a transition to the big leagues, especially if they are not accompanied by well-above-average walk rates, as they suggest potentially prohibitive problems hitting for average, directly impacting on-base skills.

Current example: Jordan Danks, OF, CHW; Anthony Gose, OF, TOR

2. Batting average

While not a reliable indicator of performance and value on its own, a prospect who isn't hitting for satisfactory average in the minors doesn't project to do so in the big leagues. It can be a problem with the swing or the overall approach, and curbs the most valuable skill a hitter can have -- getting on base.

Current example: Tim Wheeler, OF, COL; Matt Dominguez, 3B, FLA

3. High ground ball rates

Aside from getting on base, hitting for extra-base power is the most valuable thing a hitter can do, and swings that produce a lot of ground balls will limit the number of doubles and home runs produced, particularly in The Show. Cleveland catching prospect Lou Marson comes to mind. Wood's line drive and fly ball rates were generally solid.

Current example: Carlos Triunfel, SS, SEA; Tim Beckham, SS, TAM

4. Lack of bats missed for pitchers

While strikeouts aren't the end-all, they eliminate the luck and randomness from balls being put in play against a pitcher. A prospect without the ability to miss bats in the minors generally profiles as a reliever or back-end starting pitcher at best.

Current example: Maikel Cleto, RHP, STL; Casey Coleman, RHP, CHC

5. Splits

This goes for pitchers and hitters. Bats, especially left-handed hitters, have to hold their own versus pitchers of the same hand or they can be pigeonholed as platoon players, despite plus plate skills and power. Pitchers without some consistent success against hitters of the other hand generally lack a pitch to get them out -- a changeup, a two-seam fastball or an effective breaking ball -- which could prevent them from challenging for a spot in the big league rotation when their time comes.

Current example: Casey Kelly, RHP, SDG; Michael Pineda, RHP, SEA


Those are major struggles by a player who has put up a .900 OPS in four of his five full minor league seasons. What's the deal?


"First off, he's seeing much better pitching on a nightly basis," one pro scout said of Wood's time with the Angels. "He's seeing a Triple-A ace or better every night, and sometimes he's facing a veteran major leaguer with some savvy. You have to be more than physically gifted to hit guys like that."


Wood has drawn raves for his baseball makeup and dedication, and isn't considered an overdraft by most talent evaluators. ESPN Insider's Keith Law quipped that in that draft, Wood, at No. 23, was "legit, but with contact issues." So it may be unfair to suggest the player has been unprepared.


"Young hitters can get away with lacking strengths in certain areas when they are in the minors," the pro scout added. "It happens every year in every league. But you get up here with the big boys, and the game plan and ability to recognize pitches becomes essential."


Wood has problems hitting curveballs and sliders, often chasing them as they break down and out of the strike zone. He also tends to be out in front on such pitches, which means any contact he makes will likely result in a weak ground ball or a lazy popup. Why Wood has yet to effectively identify the breaking ball is not an easy question to answer, but an area scout and former major league second baseman gave it a shot: "Sometimes they either have it, or they don't."


Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider was drafted No. 14 overall in the 2006 draft and is in the process of establishing himself as a stalwart in the Jays' everyday lineup. But he hit some rough patches on his way, too.


"I know for me I had to battle through being my own worst enemy," Snider explained. "I had a good support group to help me through that; the veteran players that were around, my hitting coaches … they helped me adjust and keep my focus on what I needed to do. Staying focused is tough, especially when you are that young. There is so much to learn."


Learning the game of baseball is an important aspect of developing one's talent -- it's not just about gaining experience and allowing the natural skills to do their thing. Making adjustments is essential. That's not to say that a high IQ equals a career as a major league baseball player, but learning how to go about your business in baseball and managing the personal endeavors that come along with it can be overwhelming.


Not surprisingly, it tends to be especially difficult for the teenagers drafted out of high school or signed from abroad. Spending as much as two-thirds of the calendar year away from home is challenging, and when the foreign-born players also have to deal with cultural discrepancies.


"Pitchers do their homework [in the big leagues]," said the pro scout. "[Hitters] are not getting fat fastballs because the film says they will hit those and the pitchers, catchers and pitching coaches know that as much as the hitter does. Your move, hitter."


"I don't think it's a lack of the right instruction," the player development director added. "I can't speak for any hitter in particular, but the mental side of the game is tougher to pick up. It's been going on for over a hundred years, and it will probably continue for another hundred. And it only takes one hitch in a player's giddyup to ruin a career."


So there will be Wood, fresh off another tough year in the big leagues that again included being optioned to the minors and sent to the Arizona Fall League to gain extra at-bats, stepping into the batter's box in a Cactus League game in March, and at some juncture against a formidable foe on the mound. He'll undoubtedly get a steady diet of breaking balls, and in order to stave off what potentially could be his final spring training with the organization that drafted him, he'll have to hit them. And in order to hit them, he'll have to recognize them first.


"Hey, it could happen," said the pro scout. "Sometimes it just clicks all of a sudden. All hitters can do is work, put in the time and effort and hope for the best. It's not really that the player is a bust in that situation, it's just unfortunate. It doesn't always work out, and that's a risk clubs take. And gladly with players that have that kind of ability."


Jason Churchill covers baseball and the MLB Draft for ESPN Insider. He has covered scouting, player development and minor league baseball since 2003 for numerous publications, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He is the founder and Executive Editor of ProspectInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter at @ProspectInsider and ESPN_MLBDRAFT, and you can e-mail him at Churchill@ProspectInsider.com.

Offline Kevrock

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Nice read.

Offline PatsNats28

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fascinating article

Offline JCA-CrystalCity

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Good stuff.  This should lead us to be cautious about our middle infielders.  Desmond's obp is completely dependent on his ability to have balls drop, and his K Rate is above average.  Espinosa had a drop in walk rate in the upper minors and has an even worse K rate than Desmond.  At least he racks up extra bases.

This also explains the limits of Bernadina and J-Max.  Bernie is a bit better than Desmond in terms of plate discipline, but is still K prone.  J-Max never his for average and K'd a lot.

Norris's off the charts BB rate and good power makes up for his K rate, but the K rate could be his downfall.

Offline mimontero88

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Very interesting read.  However, like any other scouting article, it shouldn't be taken at face-value to apply to every single prospect.  There will always be exceptions to the rule and scouting will never be an exact science.  That's what makes scouting so thrilling.

Offline JMUalumni

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Good piece, thanks for posting.