There IS Such a Thing as a Pitching Prospect
TINSTAAPP? Used to be true. It isn't any more.

The Bad

I was getting set to write something about the Price/Taijuan deal, and that something was "Hey.  Don't forget that Taijuan has a good chance of getting injured."  And by "a good chance" we meant, like 40-80%.

So we were set to conclude with, "Hey, Dr. D wouldn't deal Taijuan for Price, but if the M's do that, we're maybe trading an injury for a superstar.  Don't cry too hard."

A funny thing happened 'twixt the cup and the lip.

We googled up Victor Wang's original work on this, just to give you a quick link-er-oo.  Wang added up all the WAR from the Baseball America Top 100 Prospect lists of the 1990's, and it presented a very sorry picture indeed.  Here's one version of his work, published in 2008.

The 1990's pitching prospects fared SHOCKINGLY badly.

Type of prospect # players Star? Everyday Fringe Bust
Hitter #1-10 rank 48 7 12 24 5
Hitter #11-25 rank 70 6 14 35 15
Pitcher #1-10 rank 26 1 (!!) 1 (!!!) 16 8
Pitcher #11-25 rank 59 2 7 31 19



If that IS right, then trade Taijuan, K-Pax, Erasmo and every other arm you got for David Price.  But there's a cognitive dissonance here:  we know FOR A FACT that Taijuan's chance of being a star is better than 4%.  What the hey is going ON here?

But, look back at the 1990's and, sure enough, the lists are a nuclear wasteland:


1999 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 4 - Bruce Chen
  • 5 - Brad Penny 
  • 7 - Ryan Anderson (LOL)
  • 10 - Matt Clement

That one is the best of the decade.

1998 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 4 - Kerry Wood (DL)
  • 6 - Matt White
  • 7 - Kris Benson
  • 9 - Carl Pavano

1997 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers (no misprint.  It's the same guys as 1998.)

  • 3 - Kerry Wood (DL)
  • 4 - Matt White
  • 8 - Kris Benson

1996 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers  

  • 2 - Paul Wilson (famous Mets catastrophe)
  • 5 - Alan Benes (not Andy)
  • 8 - Livan Hernandez

1995 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers  

  • Nobody.  All of the top 10 were hitters.  The #11-25 slots were manned by Bill Pulsipher, Alan Benes, Paul Wilson, Doug Million, and pitchers like that.

In 1994, there was James Baldwin, Jose Silva, and that's it.

In 1993:

  • Brien Taylor, the famous Yankee bust
  • Todd Van Poppel the famous A's bust
  • Jason Bere
  • Allen Watson
  • Tyrone Hill
  • Kurt Miller (#11 actually)

In 1992, finally we get a star:

  • Brien Taylor
  • Todd Van Poppel
  • Roger Salkeld (the epic M's bust)
  • Arthur Rhodes :- )
  • KRod (excellent, but a reliever; we'd trade Taijuan if he were going to close)
  • Pedro Martinez (who was so well-evaluated that he was TRADED)

Whoo Hoo! There's the star that came up in Wang's tables.

In 1991, there were three guys:  Van Poppel, Salkeld, and Rhodes.

In 1990, 

  • Steve Avery (considered a surefire 300-game winner)
  • Ben McDonald
  • Kiki Jones

So there you have it, gentlemen.  If those are the returns you get from top pitching prospects, you can stow them in a place where the sunlight most certainly does not shine.


The Good

Dr. D had skateboarded right into a COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, folded over at the hip, and fractured his pelvis.  There were two statements, both true, and seemingly contradictory:

  • History proves that elite pitching prospects have only a 5% chance of starring (apparently true, generalizing from the specific)
  • Taijuan Walker has a 60-70% chance of starring ("true" in Dr. D's mind, anyway ... Felix and Pineda did NOT have 5% chances of starring)

But.  Truth NEVER contradicts itself.  There is something we're missing here.

:: taps chin ::


We looked at the 2010 pitching prospects:

2010 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 2 - Stephen Strasburg (!)
  • 5 - Brian Matusz
  • 9 - Neftali Feliz

Slap me silly.  First year, and we did better than the 1990's.  And the next pitcher down, #14, was Madison Bumgarner.  Right after him was Jeremy Hellickson.  What, 2010 was a Perfect Storm of pitching prospects?


2009 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 2 - David Price (!)
  • 4 - Tommy Hanson
  • 7 - Brett Anderson
  • 9 - Madison Bumgarner
  • 10 - Neftali Feliz

You know, that's pretty blinkin' slick.  We went from 4% to 80% there, in just a coupla years.  

2008 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 3 - Joba Chamberlain
  • 4 - Clay Buchholz (1.74 ERA last year)
  • 7 - Clayton Kershaw
  • 8 - Franklin Morales
  • 9 - Homer Bailey
  • 10 - David Price

2007 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 1 - DiceK (special case)
  • 4 - Phil Hughes
  • 5 - Homer Bailey
  • 10 - Andrew Miller
  • 11 - Tim Lincecum (I cheated and snuck 11 on here)

2006 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects:  Pitchers

  • 6 - Francisco Liriano
  • 7 - Chad Billingsley
  • 8 - Justin Verlander (!)
  • 10 - Matt Cain

Something super weird happened in the 2000's.  What happened was, Baseball America (actually the industry) got good.  There, friends, is your cognitive dissonance resolved.

We'll speed it up:  the two ranked pitchers in 2005 were Felix and Kazmir.  In 2004, it was Edwin Jackson and Greg Miller.  Going back before that, there were Josh Beckett, Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia, Mark Prior ... there were a decent number of misfires in 2000-2003.

Rick Ankiel, Jon Rauch, Ryan Anderson, Juan Cruz, those guys were also on the 2000-2003 lists.

You had a transition in 2000-2003, during which time period the industry started figuring out which arms were really good bets.  Since the 2005 pre-season, the industry has known which pitchers were going to be good.

Victor Wang's work was great, but it is obsolete.  An elite prospect is now worth much more than it used to be.


Edit to Add

Chris St. John documents this tendency with charts like the following:

If you liked our quick-and-dirty comparisons of the 90's and 00's charts, you'll love St. John's article.  Thanks Chris!


The Ugly

Added to all this, you have the fact that Taijuan and K-Pax may not even BE pitching "prospects."  They have met the enemy and they have lopped his blinkin' head off.  

Many of those BBA prospects, even 2005-2013, had some time to go, before they debut'ed in the big leagues.  Taijuan and K-Pax are HERE, and they have both passed that Bill James filter of having "splash" debuts.

Here's a link on James Paxton - SSI Best Bet.  (Offsite, they seem to think that trading Taijuan would be a mistake, but it would be okay to deal the 25-year-old lefty.)

Here's a link on Taijuan Walker - Generational Talent.


Matt Moore

The Rays needed exactly 9 innings' worth, before committing their future to him.  Such is the state of the art in today's evaluation game.

Taijuan has thrown 15 innings.  Paxton has thrown 24.  It's me?  I Matt Moore the both of 'em.


Maybe I haven't given you enough crazy this week, starting with my early warning that the Cano deal was more than just misdirection on Jay-Z's part?  ;- )

Try this on for size.  Taijuan, and Archie Bradley, are the two guys in today's game you could feasibly Matt Moore into a 7-year deal right now.  (Dr. D would include Paxton, but that's just him.)

How about the Rays' plan, from the start, has been to throw Price out there with the secret plan of playing it cool until the M's or D-Backs blundered into handing over Matt Moore, The Sequel.

Y'know what, scratch Bradley.  He's in AA.  Taijuan Walker (and IMHO Paxton) are unique targets for predators out there on the tundra.  And I'd feel worse about losing Paxton.

:: shrug ::  In any case, it's not like there aren't options vs. Price.  This winter is brimming with TOR's.


Dr's R/X

The last few nights, we've argued (based on Gillick's history) that it would call Jack Zduriencik's integrity into question, for him to deal K-Pax or Taijuan.  That may be the wrong way to put it, but Taijuan and K-Pax are Future Sunlight As Bright As It Gets.  

Taijuan and Paxton may be big stars as ROOKIES, as were the following ROOKIES:

  • Strasburg
  • Felix
  • Verlander
  • Lincecum
  • Ogando
  • Cain
  • Liriano
  • Webb
  • Oswalt
  • Brett Anderson
  • Feliz
  • Pineda
  • etc

Churchill tweeted, tonight, that the M's have pulled Taijuan back and "will exhaust other options first."  If one has anything to do with the other, the online arguments and the adjustment of direction, fine.  

Which would mean, absolutely and without question, no Taijuan deal.  Because many other options exist, including simply signing Colon or Garza or Tanaka or Burnett.

I think that, if you let them pitch, then James Paxton will PROBABLY be Brett Anderson and Taijuan Walker will PROBABLY be Michael Pineda.  In 2014.


It's easy.  You just look Tampa in the eye, in a very emotionless monotone, and you tell them "We have two untouchables, the first two pitchers.  Everybody else is fine.  Do you want to talk about a 5-for-2, or should we move on?"

They move on, great.  Now you're focused on a #3 starter.  You grab him, and then you can put Taijuan and K-Pax in the #4 and #5 slots and




Dr D


IcebreakerX's picture

And an interesting perspective on the prospect pipeline.


Deej is off-limits, too. Honest to darn goodness, I could see a path to him being a Mariner this season.
Well...maybe Pizzano, because I'm so emotionally invested in the idea that he's .300-.380 with 40 doubles.
OK, trade him, too. Darn.


What a great article, Doc.
Truly...that was a very important observation and changes the way I think about BA. Well done.

Mesully's picture

i remember Dr D begging the M's to draft Lincecum and I remember him fawning over Fister long before he was traded to mention a couple of players. I am in with you on this one too, as far as my memory works you can pick 'em.
Keep both of those guys we have put all this development time, money and energy on and let them show their stuff. Sign Garza and try for Tanaka if he hits the market.


He's not allowed to be officially included in a deal until one year after he signed, IIRC.  So unless you can drag out a PTBNL for 6 or 7 months (during which he will PLAY half a season in your own org or sit in AZ and try not to get injured) then no, DJ isn't going anywhere.
IMO, we also could get Price without either Paxton or Walker.  But I agree with Doc, we don't have to.  There are other options.  Trading Walker, then having him turn into Verlander while Price does a swandive into Bedard territory would be a nightmare scenario.
Of course, even if that happened we'd still have Paxton and E-Ram, plus a boatload of arms about 2 years away, plus Hultzen rehabbing for 2015.  It's not like we just emptied the cabinet.  We dealt Pineda for nothing at this point, essentially.  I like Walker and Paxton both better than Pineda as long-term investments.  Neither has work-habit issues, for one.  And I would much prefer Garza at 4/70 or whatever, while keeping Walker.
But if Walker goes, it's not the end of the world. I promise.  Tampa Bay will faces like kids at Christmas, though, and I don't feel like bringing them that kind of joy in this holiday season.


All of this article is fantastic!!!
But I wonder how far you go on an un-tradeable list...
Taiwan, Paxton, Deej, Austin Wilson ?, Zunino...
I am sure there are several of us who would add at least 5 more... but then that phone booth is pretty full come 2016.
Then as Gordon and Spec keep saying, the upcoming draft is better than the previous two or three drafts as far as talent goes... and we should have two of the top 35 picks. :)

bsr's picture

I don't see why Tampa was ever talking about Taijuan Walker for two years of Price. Unless it's purely media head games to try to sucker the M's into a bad deal. I'm not seeing those kind of packages going out on top starters. Fister was traded for basically a bag of balls from what I can see. Yes, Price is better and sexier so there's a certain name brand premium. But still. Even Wil Myers for Shields...someone else will have to comment on how Myers stacks up vs our prospects and what would be a M's equivalent. Am I off base here? Seems like the price for Price shouldn't even have Taijuan in the discussion.


Two years of Price is all we'd get for all the club-controlled years of a rookie. The tradeoff is the proven immediate production of Price during the immediate "go for it" years. If Walker turns out to fulfill the upper reaches his potential, which is not as certain as the proven history of David Price, then we would have lost out in terms of total productive player years and in terms of payroll costs. No doubt about it. And either pitcher, Walker or Price, could get injured, though Price has proven he can withstand the rigors of a long MLB season.
This whole discussion highlights the importance of strategic considerations. Are the M's going for it now, or are they trying to rebuild one plank at the time? The Cano acquisition suggests they are going for it now. While it might be argued this is not optimal long term, we now have the "Felix-Cano window." It is here. Now. Walker MIGHT take the league by storm this year (Pineda). Or he might take a couple of years to reach dominant form. Or, heaven forbid, he might not ever reach that.
Technically, or as Doc says, tactically, Price/Walker is a mistake. Strategically it is a decision to be made at the highest level, and that takes into consideration factors that go beyond the tactical. Does "go for it now" mean another rebuild in four or five years? Is it worth it to do that? Again, the Cano acquisition suggests the Mariners have answered those questions in the affirmative.


After we wrote the above, we ran across a Beyond the Box Score article that applied sophisticated math to the issue.  Chris St. John documents this tendency with charts like the following:

If you liked our quick-and-dirty comparisons of the 90's and 00's charts, you'll love St. John's article.  Thanks Chris!

bsr's picture

WOW. That is an amazing chart. I doubt many other industries of any type improved THAT much in analytical performance over the past 20 years. Even if you factor in the expected few years lag since they only started the lists in 1990...that is roughly a doubling in performance in a decade and a half.
I'd bet that the best front office of 1995, if somehow magically forced to rely only on 1995 analytical tools, would be among the worst in MLB in 2013.


Now that we have a 10 year commitment, and hopefully several others we might want to keep for that long... is it possible the M's front office is planning that long as well... especially since we know what the local TV numbers ballpark will be?
And without laying out a 5 or 10 year plan myself, I wonder what the M's plan looks like.
I hope Taijuan and Paxton are...


This is exactly the point that Bill James makes, that the front offices improve week-by-week.  And any front office that did not keep up with the improvements would be obsolete within a year or two.
Apparently the evaluation of ML-ready players is one reflection of this.  (Baseball America's staff is closely tied into the MLB network.)


The M's must trade kids, and they must not worry about paying $1.25 on the dollar.
If they ratchet up the selling price on Seager, Walker, and K-Pax by a factor of 3, great, but the over-arc'ing point stands.


Everybody's very nice to me, since the M's got good :- )
Thanks for all the flattery amigos.  It does motivate you, to try to step up yer game.


Like G sez, you HAVE to make trades ... it's just that if it's my team, I trade Taijuan and Paxton as if they had Matt Moore value.  Or 80%, 90% of that.
Kyle Seager, you're looking at 3.5 to 5.0 WAR at small salaries the next four years.  And it's a "hard" 4.0 WAR; he's my kind of player.  To me he's got trade value up there with any name in the industry.
My list ends there, but the M's list would include Zunino and G / Mo' / Spec's list includes D.J. Peterson.  Who I know nothing about.
Miller and Zunino, my only thing is, I need a plan at SS/C, in order to trade them.  But if I had one, fine.
Maybe somebody will tell me, in 1-syllable words, why D.J. Peterson is so great.  I don't doubt them.  :: shrug ::  I haven't looked at him much.


That's as amazing as BBA's improvement.  (Maybe that's a big part of it; probably they don't put single-A pitchers in the top 10 any more, like they did with Ryan Anderson and Brien Taylor and Todd Van Poppel.)
Great read Mo' Dawg.  You shoulda put that on the front page.  Maybe you still should?
And yet, you do agree with James' "two ML start filter" ... or no?  Maurer's rocky start, vs. Pineda's immediate success at the ML level, what are your thoughts on that?
Still, it is clear, THE PITCHER HOLDS THE BALL as Griffey used to put it.  If a pitcher is dealing in the high minors (AA/AAA), and he's got the weapons as Pineda, Lincecum, Verlander etc did, there is no reason he can't get ML hitters our.
K-Pax and Taijuan, I don't know how you watch them, and fail to sign off on their "weapons."


There are lots of things that have likely improved the success of pitchers. Health technology and understanding is constantly improving especially as teams have poured more money into it. Also, the attitude within the game has changed dramatically over the past 10 or so years. No longer is there the ridiculous machismo of players expected to play through pain and keep their mouth shut. Now pitchers are told to immediately disclose any discomfort they feel and they will get handled very cautiously if there is any chance of injury. And yes, there is also the harder limits on pitch counts and innings thrown.


Figures it would be you.  Heh.
Among the things that could be driving the "increased accuracy" of the prospect lists...
Pitchers' health better nurtured and cared for (as you mention)
Better understanding, by ML orgs, as to which "natural" skill sets to develop and push forward
Older pitchers on the lists
More use of sabermetric concerns in developing the lists (K:BB rates etc)
Pitchers' skill sets better developed and targeted to ML effectiveness (e.g. not as much emphasis on the 3rd pitch)
Better understanding of mechanics, which pitchers have red flags (steer clear of high elbows, etc)
FAR more people weighing in on the prospects, in a "think tank" effect (compare the internet's effect on ABC/NBC/CBS)
Pitchers skipping AAA, throwing fewer innings before coming under ML supervision (as Moe mentions)
1,000 other things
The state-of-the-art is advancing, no doubts there -- a glamor prospect has a safer road to Rome than he's ever had.  Exactly WHY this is true, that's a whole other discussion.
:: daps :: CPB


Doc/Matt: A "prospect" (pitcher) is only a prospect at AA...once he masters that level, he's ready.
Looking at your above list, here are the total number of innings they threw at AAA on their way up.
Strasburg 33
Felix 88
Verlander 0
Lincecum 31
Ogando 15
Cain 145
Liriano 91
Webb 25
Oswalt 31
Brett Anderson 13
Feliz 77
Pineda 62
Cain really never dominated AA as he had a 1.3 WHIP and 40 BB's/72 K's at that level.
The other guys were basically MLB pitchers as soon as they were done with AA. AAA was just a brief respite to throw against guys who had actually been in the majors. It wasn't a real growth stop. The average of those guys was 51 AAA innings.
Taijuan has 57 AAA innings/Paxton 145.
There is pretty good indication that they aren't "prospects" any more. They belong.
Edit: Bumgarner 82, Hellickson 57, Price 52, Billingsly 70, Kershaw 0, Hughes 57, Buchholz 181, Bailey 317.
Buchholz was up in '08 after 82 AAA innings in '07-'08. He was sent back down in '09 for 99 more after a poor MLB start.
Bailey bounced up and down in '07-'09. But you can argue he's been the least dominant (at least fora season or two) of all the guys on that list. He did dominate at AA, though. He breaks the mold of the guys mentioned.
So, if you've recently been a BA Top-10 Prospect AND you're a pitcher who Dominated AA.....there's a pretty good shot your ready at that point. I've listed 20 guys you did. 2 of the 20, Buchholz and Bailey took a bit of time to be TOR (1-3) guys. Hughes basically was, as soon as he got the shot. That's 3 of the 20 (not all starters, understood).
I like the odds. They're well in our guy's favor. When you stack one on top of the other, there looks to be almost no chance that one of them is not a TOR guy right not (and that's without the eyeball test we've all had). That's nearly a lock. If you figure that they each have an 80% shot, you're looking at a 96% chance that one is TOR right now, and a 64% chance that both are (if I've done my math correctly).
And actually it goes up from there, because that doesn't include the fact that they have both already dominated in starts at the MLB level. Paxton was 4/4 in quality starts and three of those were terrific. Walker had one start where he allowed 6 baserunners in 5 innings, but 4 ER's. Combined they had 39 innings with 27 hits 10 ER's 11 walks and 33 K's. Their WHIP was less than 1.00, in case you missed it.
We don't have two prospects. We have two TOR guys chomping at the bit.
Secretariat was was no longer a prospect after Oct. 28, '73. He won by 6.5 lengths in that race, his first.
We've got a couple of that kind of young "stud hoss."

GLS's picture

" I'm not seeing those kind of packages going out on top starters."
This. Exactly. For whatever reason, it seems to happen all the time where very good pitchers get traded for an underwhelming return.


80% of the Top 20 Prospects are in the Top 100 players during their 20's. Tell me Billy Beane and Bill James didn't change baseball.
I think the other thing that plays well here is that there is a much better understanding of pitching motions and those that are conducive to injury. Guys get coached out of the inverted W in the low minors.

bsr's picture

Well, if I read the article correctly BA started publishing the list in 1990. So there is a lag effect where it's probably not comparable to judge the % until that first crop of BA ranked players has matured a bit. Which is why to be safe I moved forward 5 years, since later in the piece he shows the curves and aggregate performance seems to peak about 3-4 years from players' last appearance on the list.
One could also just say that BA was new to the ranking game in 1990 and they learned quickly...not necessarily representing the CW of the league at the beginning...but either way, there were certainly a lot of memorable "surprise" flameouts back in the 90's.


I'm not making Seager untouchable, just because the haul could be so nice. I don't want to trade him, but would entertain HUGE offers. I'm not trading Miller. I'm not trading Zunino (and not really because of his bat...although it helps. But young/take- charge/Power-hitting/pitch-calling/runner-gunning catchers are usually named Gary Carter). I'm not trading Walker and Paxton (unless Trout or Harper come this way).
Deej just hit ten plus three big flies in his first two score plus ten plus five games. Trout hit two less big flies in his first nine times ten AA games. Do you think Deej will hit less? The Nats Bryce H. hit ten plus four in his A-Ball go 'round. Deej will hit. I want to watch how he grows. Put him in AA right now. Call him up just past June.
Did that do it Doc? All 1-syllable words! :)
OK, he's 21 and those guys were 19-ish. But you're holding the fact that he went to college against him. Here we are trying to find bashing bats, and we could trade away a young one we have. That's it for me. Real power bats come along only so often. Let's hold on the one we have coming.
Everybody else is tradeable.
Even, Pizzano....Sigh.


During those 10 years, of the 150 possible slots from 11th to 25th times 10 years, 59 of them were pitchers and 91 were hitters.
Sorry 'bout the typo.

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