Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Someone Get These Guys A Chart

I’m a Dave Dombrowski fan. He single-handedly brought the Detroit Tigers back to relevance. As far as I’m concerned, he is one of the top GMs in MLB and deserves pretty damn close to a lifetime pass in Detroit. However, I believe he made a costly error by not bringing a bat to Detroit at the trade deadline. I realize bats don’t grow on trees—actually, they are trees but you get the point. However, I also realize that the price to acquire a booming bat is not anywhere close to what it’s made out to be. Those who read my blog know that I was adamant that the Tigers should have done whatever it took short of trading Rick Porcello to bring Adam Dunn to Detroit. Talk to a novice fan about Dunn and they’ll try to sell you the “who needs 150 strikeouts?” bag of goods. People who know what they’re talking about will tell you that Dunn is one of the premier run producers in the majors. He would’ve been a colossal upgrade for the Tigers. Apparently, though, DD wasn't interested in paying the price. Maybe he shares J.P. Ricciardi’s caveman view of Dunn. Judging from Ricciardi’s sophomoric handling of the Roy Halladay trade talks, I don’t think sharing any views with the Blue Jays GM is such a good thing right now.

The Washington Nationals would have been a perfect trade partner. They are epically terrible. Dunn’s value with 1.5 years left on his contract—the same as Roy Halladay—will never be greater. From Washington’s perspective, trading Dunn would’ve made a lot of sense. There were only two things that could’ve kept Dunn out of Detroit: 1). DD doesn’t understand Dunn’s value and 2). The Tigers weren’t willing to offer a strong enough package. I’m going to give DD the benefit of the doubt and eliminate the first choice. Even with Dunn's flaws, his value would've been of premium importance to the Tigers. The AL has the DH so any talk of Dunn's defensive shortcomings should be moot. If this is a matter of where to put Carlos Guillen, then his butt needs to be glued super-glued to the bench. So, let’s assume that the Tigers were simply unwilling to put together the package necessary to acquire Dunn. If that is the case, then I think it is likely that DD made a huge mistake that will prove to be detrimental to Detroit's odds of making the playoffs. The Nationals were reportedly asking for quite a bit in return for Dunn. What exactly that was remains a mystery. Clearly, Dunn’s value isn’t at the level of Halladay’s—arguably the best pitcher in baseball. As a result, I think the Tigers could’ve offered an enticing package without giving up their top three prospects. The Phillies didn’t have to part with any of their top prospects to get Cliff Lee and the Cardinals acquired Matt Holliday for a bargain basement price. I would be surprised if the Tigers couldn’t have gotten the Nationals to bite on a package that included four of the following players; Ryan Perry or Casey Crosby, Cody Satterwhite, Jeff Larish, Cale Iorg, Scott Sizemore, Casper Wells, Ryan Strieby, Brett Jacobson, Brennan Boesch, Scott Green, Robbie Weinhardt, and Wilkin Ramirez. Strieby has ascended to one of the top five prospects in the organization and appears to be an Adam Dunn clone. He would've been a perfect centerpiece to a deal with the Nationals. Instead, the Tigers opted to keep their prospects which is a mistake too often made by MLB GMs.

This is where things get frustrating for me. There is a saying in baseball that goes something like, “prospects are for losers.” I agree with that sentiment. How many of the top 15 prospects in the Tigers organization at any given time will end up being solid contributors in the big leagues? For every Justin Verlander who pans out, there are a multitude of “top prospects” who don’t. Just in the last five years alone, Brent Clevlen, Humberto Sanchez, Kyle Sleeth, Jay Sborz, Rob Henkel, Cody Kirkland, Scott Moore, Kenny Baugh, Jeff Larish, Virgil Vazquez, Jordan Tata, Eulogio De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern, Jeff Frazier, Eric Beattie, and Tony Giarratano failed to make an impact beyond the minors. All were top ten prospects in the organization at one time. Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya haven’t even lived up to expectations. In fact, in the last ten years the Tigers farm system has only produced four above average players: Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Rick Porcello (giving the benefit of the doubt here) and Jair Jurrjens. If prospects were stocks, nobody would buy them. If they were games at a casino, nobody would play them. Yet, GM's love them. The most overvalued commodities in MLB are "top prospects."

There needs to be a system somewhat similar to the NFL Draft Trade Value Chart that takes most of the guesswork out of trades involving prospects. Someone with a lot of time on their hands needs to figure out how often the #1 prospect in an organization turns into a superstar and so on. That way, when the Tigers balk at giving up, let’s say, the #3, #5, and #7 prospect in the organization for someone like Adam Dunn, the chart will tell how dumb--or not dumb--that decision was. The amount of research that would need to go into such an endeavor would be exhaustive but it would be well worth it, in my opinion. I think more GMs would realize how little sense it makes to hold on to prospects.

I’ve done a small-scale version of what I am proposing just to give you an idea of what I am talking about and to explain why it would be so important. I went through Baseball America’s list of top 100 prospects from 2005. I categorized each player into one of five groups based on how what caliber player they are today. They are; Superstar, Above Average, Average, Below Average, and Minor Leaguer. Obviously these categories are arbitrary. I suppose there could be “slightly above average” and “slightly below average” but I think that would be overdoing it for the purposes of this post. Putting each of the 100 prospects into one of the five categories is also fairly arbitrary. For instance, one person might think that Delmon Young should be classified as “average” while others might think he is “below average.” However, I think most people would agree with the classifications of most of the prospects. So, let’s get to what I found…

Of the 100 best prospects in MLB in 2005, only five are “Superstars.” Just 20 received a classification of “Above average.” That means that of the top 100 players, 75 have become no better than an average major leaguer. Remember, these were the absolute best prospects in MLB. These are the players deemed to be most likely to succeed in the majors. I took this a little bit further and classified the prospects into three tiers. The first tier included prospects #1-33; the second tier #34-66; and the third tier #67-100. There are 30 teams in MLB. So, each tier could loosely be described as a level within an organization. For instance, the top tier (1-33) would likely include the majority of the #1 organizational prospects in MLB. The second tier could be loosely described as the #2 prospect in each organization while the third tier would then be the #3 prospect in each organization. This is far from exact since some organizations have better farm systems while others have worse but it does give a rough estimate of the value of a #1, #2, and #3 prospect in each organization in 2005. I have charted all 100 prospects based on both their current status as a player (Superstar etc.) and their status as a prospect (Tier 1 etc.) in 2005. Here are the results...

MLB Prospect Value Chart

Tier1 (1-33)2 (34-66) 3 (67-100)# in BA '05 Top 100
Above Average.21.21.1820
Below Average.3.39.3535
Minor Leaguer.18.24.3827

The “numbers” are probabilities. The chart shows that there is a .15 probability or 15% chance that a “Tier #1” prospect from 2005 would become a “Superstar.” Moving along, the chart shows that there is a .36 probability or 36% chance that a Tier 1 prospect becomes better than an average MLB baseball player (.15 +.21). There is only a 27% chance that a Tier 3 player turns out to be an average major leaguer or better. Clearly, the odds get substantially worse the further we go down the organizational lists. Yet, we see GM’s routinely turn away the chance to grab a superstar contributor at a position of need because they don’t want to part with prospects. Just two years ago, the Tigers traded their top two prospects—uber prospects if you will—for Miguel Cabrera. Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller’s values will never be higher than what they were at that time. It is highly unlikely—and it was always highly unlikely—that either would end up fulfilling the lofty expectations set forth by scouts and GM’s. DD did exactly what he should've done; he found a team willing to part with a superstar, and sent them a big pile of highly valued uncertainty. Prospects are for teams like the Marlins and Nationals whose existence is built entirely on the idea of hope. “Maybe this guy will be the next Albert Pujols.” The odds of that—or anything close to it—are 15%. The odds of Adam Dunn being a superstar are 100%.

The value of a Tier 1 prospect is essentially 15% of a superstar. Based on the numbers from the 2005 BA list, a GM would need to acquire at least four Tier 1 prospects to likely receive a player who ends up being a superstar. There is a saying that goes, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” The baseball version would go something like, "a superstar in hand is worth four prospects on the farm." It is almost always worth it to trade multiple top prospects to acquire a superstar based on the data above. Yet, we see GM’s like DD unwilling to part with prospects to bring what would be a pivotal boost to Detroit's playoff chances. If the Tigers don't make the playoffs, a strong argument could be made that failing to acquire Adam Dunn was the reason. At some point GMs need to get over their “boogie man” complex when it comes to prospects.

My hope is that somewhere down the line, someone does what I’ve done on a much grander scale. Instead of using data from just one season, data from every season of the last 15 years should be used to assign easily identifiable value to all prospects. Instead of assigning values to just the top 100 prospects in any given year, the top 1,000 prospects or more should be assigned values. Sure, there are intangible properties that need to be taken into consideration. Maybe a chart tells a GM that a proposed prospect package is worth giving up for a superstar but he just has a feeling that one of the prospects in the deal has something “special.” The human element will always be a factor as it is in the NFL. The problem is that the "human element" is the reason why prospects are vastly overrated to begin with. Every GM thinks his prospects are the ones that are going to defy the odds. The evidence just doesn’t back it up. I’m very disappointed that DD didn’t pony up the package necessary to bring Dunn to Detroit. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Nationals asked for Rick Porcello, Casey Crosby, Ryan Perry and 33% ownership of the Detroit Tigers. Judging from what it cost Philly to get Cliff Lee and St. Louis to acquire Matt Holliday, I don’t think that was the case. Dunn very likely could’ve been had for a combination of players that I fear a prospect value chart would’ve proven to be more than worth the price. Instead, the Tigers will struggle to make the playoffs and—even if they do—will have no chance of competing with the high-powered offenses of Boston and New York.


Michael C said...

Very interesting article.

I think your math is a bit wrong in this one part: "Even if a team were to part with more than one Tier 1 prospect, the odds are still against the likelihood of any of those prospects amounting to anything more than an average baseball player." Using your numbers for two top tier prospects I think its a 59% chance that at least one of them are above average.

But still when you think about that being two of the entire leagues best prospects, that's still pretty shockingly low. If the numbers were similar for almost every year that would be enough to change my opinion. If you said you can have Dunn for Perry, Iorg, Ramirez, and Sizemore I would've thought that'd be too much to give up, but perhaps I'm mistaken.

One thing though, with players like Perry, and especially Porcello, since they're already producing at an above average level at such a young age that probably improves their chances of success. I'd guess the leading candidates for rookie of the year do better in the long run than the leading AA prospects do. Maybe another study is called for?

I personally don't think I would've traded Porcello for Halladay straight up even, let alone packaging him with top prospects, because having a young (likely) star locked up for so many years would do so much more for a franchise than having another Cy Young candidate for a year and a couple months.

By the way, I've heard Dunn is likely to be passed through waivers soon (but pulled back if anyone claims him) so isn't it possible that the Tigers could still make a trade for him?

Jake said...

Michael C,

Yeah, my math was wrong there. Thanks for the heads-up. I only calculated the odds of a player becoming exactly an above average prospect without including the possibility of becoming a superstar. I ended up taking out that sentence because it was redundant on top of being wrong.

On to the important stuff! When I got wind of the Blue Jays offer to the Tigers that included Porcello, Perry, and Crosby (I think that’s what it was, anyway), my first inclination was no frickin’ way. Those are three “top prospects.” But, the more you look into the numbers the more intriguing a deal like that becomes. However, as you say, Porcello is 19 and has had a very successful rookie year. The odds of him becoming a superstar are much, much higher than a top prospect because we’ve already seen that he can pitch a near all-star level for ¾ of a season. He’s not a prospect anymore. But, that deal you threw out there with Iorg, Sizemore, Perry, and W. Ramirez—I’d do that for Dunn in a minute.

To your point about Porcello and Perry, the reason why their odds of success are greater than the average “top prospect” is simply because we already know they can play in the big leagues. Perry maybe not as much as Porcello. The players from that BA list from ’05, were for the most part guys who hadn’t played in the majors yet. It was a guessing game. The fact that Porcello and Perry already made it to the big leagues in just one year in the minors kind of brings up another point. If a guy is really going to be an above average player, he will more than likely not be a “top prospect” for more than a year. Top prospect is very close to being an oxymoron. If the guy was good enough, he’d be up already! Of course, there are example like Joel Zumaya who started with the Tigers as a 17-year old and slowly worked his way through the system over four years and Ryan Howard who was stuck in Philly’s system because they already had Jim Thome and there is no DH in the NL. I think the point to take away here is that if a guy isn’t streamlined to the majors in a year, then there is probably a reason why.

I read that Dunn was going to be put on waivers, too. I guess that means there should be a second chance to trade for him if he clears but it’s hard to get excited when nothing got done the first time around. Take care!


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