Veterans can be just as risky as prospects

It’s prospect season. Over at FanGraphs, we released our Top 200 Prospects list on Tuesday; last week, Rob Neyer wrote about flipping through the recently released Prospect Handbook from Baseball America. It seems like everyone is currently in the process of ranking and grading minor leaguers, speculating about which ones are going to become the stars of tomorrow.

But as Rob pointed out last week, most of the guys we’re so excited about now are never going to pan out. Quoting his piece, which in turn quotes BA’s Handbook.

“In the 2011 Prospect Handbook, we detailed the depth of the Royals’ top-ranked farm system, which we also featured on the cover of the March 2011 issue of Baseball America magazine. No team had ever placed nine players in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects before, and group – both as big leaguers and through trades – helped form the core of the Royals’ 2014 American League pennant winners.

Turning a losing franchise into a winner – that’s why prospects matter.”

Here are those nine guys who made the Top 100 list: Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Mike Moustakas, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Christian Colon, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, Aaron Crow.

I will pardon you for being underwhelmed.

Rob is right; the Royals had one of the most celebrated farm systems of all time, and a majority of their prospects haven’t done jack squat in the big leagues. Some of the guys who weren’t as highly heralded have become stars, and the Royals are absolutely an example of why prospect development can help turn a franchise around. But even in boasting of a clear success story, there are examples of failure everywhere.

In fact, according to most of the research done on prospect rankings, the failure rate for players ranked within Baseball America’s Top 100 approaches 70%. Even selecting the cream of the crop, theoretically the guys we should have the best information on, seven in 10 fail to become significant big-league contributors.

This seems like a lousy success rate, and it’s one of the reasons why there is significant pushback against the rising valuations teams are putting on minor-league players with no big-league track record. For example, the Phillies have been frustrated by the market’s unwillingness to surrender the kinds of talent they believe Cole Hamels is worth, and likely the kind of return he would have brought even a few years ago. The relative values teams are placing on big-league stars and minor-league prospects have shifted toward the young kids, even as most of them continue to fail.

Even JABO’s own Ken Rosenthal has argued strongly that prospects are currently being overvalued in trade negotiations, and that teams should not be so afraid to part with their best young talents. That 70% failure rate supports these suggestions; why be so attached to an asset that is more likely than not going to lose all of its value?

I would like to suggest, however, that the move toward higher values on prospects isn’t so much about an increasing reliance on young talent, or a desire to have praise heaped upon you when the prospect rankings come out. Instead, I think the change is being driven not by an increase in affection for prospects, but for a decrease in affection for those "proven" veterans. It’s not like big leaguers don’t have problems of their own, after all.

So, I decided to run a little comparison. If 70 out of every 100 top prospects fail, what’s the ratio of similar major leaguers who also go bust? To answer that question, I looked at every player who appeared in the big leagues from 2009 through 2011 in order to create a list of the Top 100 big leaguers. To help account for more recent performances, I weighted 2011 the most heavily, then 2010 a bit less, with 2009 getting the least weight in the composite; the weighted average gave us a pretty good idea of who the best players in baseball were heading into the 2012 season.

The names at the top won’t surprise you: Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Evan Longoria, Cliff Lee and Miguel Cabrera were all legitimate stars, with multiple years of high-level dominance on their track record. The middle of the list included emerging superstars like Andrew McCutchen and Clayton Kershaw, plus some veterans like Matt Holliday and Chase Utley who would be producing for years. While going 100 names deep means that not everyone on the list was a superstar, this was mostly a collection of the very best players in baseball.

So, how would a top 100 list of major-league talent compare to the failure rates of the top 100 minor leaguers? A single season isn’t enough to really draw any conclusions, so I looked at the three-year total performance of each of these players from 2012 to 2014. This way, one injury or off-year wouldn’t make them appear to be a bust if they remained productive in the other two years.

The results? Well, they didn’t fail nearly as often as the prospects, but 25 of the 100 players on the list failed to break the line that was used to define a busted prospect in the research referenced above. The game’s premier player from 2009 to 2011 was Roy Halladay, producing +21.4 WAR in those three seasons; he produced a total of +1.6 WAR from 2012 to 2014, as injuries derailed his Hall-Of-Fame worthy career.

It wasn’t just Halladay either. Dan Haren went from being a reliable workhorse to a No. 5 starter, basically overnight. Tim Lincecum went from multiple-time Cy Young winner to one of the least effective pitchers in baseball. Mark Teixeira, once one of the game’s premier sluggers, became a below-average first baseman. Rickie Weeks was an elite slugging second baseman in his prime, only his prime ended abruptly and now he’s a bench player. B.J. Upton forgot how to hit. Michael Young got old overnight.

And then, of course, there are all the lesser pitchers who also got hurt. Josh Johnson, several times. Gavin Floyd and John Danks in Chicago. Josh Beckett, Scott Baker, Daniel Hudson and Chris Carpenter all failed to produce much of anything after injuries took their toll.

Certainly, 25% isn’t 70%, but it also isn’t 0%. And another 34 of the best 100 players in the game from that time were nothing more than average big leaguers in the following three years. Just 41 of the 100 best performers in the big leagues sustained above-average performance for the next three seasons.

It’s not that prospects are getting more valuable; it’s that we’re finally reaching a point of shedding the false label of the proven big-league veteran. While there’s absolutely more risk and more variance involved with projecting the growth of minor leaguers, there is still risk and variance involved with forecasting future performance from players with even the strongest Major-League track records. Everyone has some chance of going bust in the future, no matter how much experience he has or what kind of awards he’s racked up.

There’s no such thing as a no-risk player. There are players who are less risky than others, and established veterans absolutely carry less of a risk of failure than minor leaguers who haven’t had to make the leap yet, but the difference in risk isn’t as large as it’s been perceived in the past. Teams aren’t hesitant to give up great young prospects for Cole Hamels simply because they’re too in love with their own talent; it’s because they recognize that even pitchers as great as Hamels often don’t stay great for that much longer.

Prospects will break your heart, but if you don’t believe big-league stars can do the same, ask the Angels how they feel about Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson right about now.