MLB Prospect Lists: How To Tell Them Apart
As MLB Top Prospect lists come out from throughout the land, which is best? What does each look for? Why are they all so different?
Hopefully a few readers caught the list put together at the beginning of January on Call To The Pen. I posted in the introduction to each portion of that list exactly what I was looking for in doing my list and where I got my information.
While I’ll never claim my information to be perfect or the best by any means, it is sometimes confusing and even frustrating to the average fan to see the abundance of top lists that come out and the incredible amount of variance in each one.
Rather than getting upset about those differences, a bit of explanation on some of the bigger national lists could help readers to understand what they’re looking at and why their favorite team is represented well in one list and not another.
We will take a look at 8 different sources for a top prospect list over the next few pages and evaluate what each one brings to the table, for better or worse. While this by no means is a comprehensive list of all the places that put together a list (heck, my list isn’t evaluated!), it should be a good primer.
If you do have any other places you’d like to know more about, feel free to ask more in the comments!
Baseball America is the longest standing prospect coverage publication. Originally begun as a magazine that covered the game at all levels (high school, college, minors, foreign, and majors) in 1980, and it is located in Durham, North Carolina.
The heart of Baseball America is an editorial staff of ten people. They source work through a host of scouts throughout the country on high school, college, and minor league prospects, and their team lists are typically done by someone outside of their editorial staff.
One of the biggest draws for Baseball America has been their international coverage, and specifically the work of Ben Badler is tremendous in the work he does in Latin America and especially Cuba.
Baseball America tends to rate players highly based on upside and the views of the guys that sourced their opinions to the BA editors, who then make up the list. Frequently, BA editors are working off of these reports when creating the lists they make.
That isn’t to say they don’t ever attend games, but J.J. Cooper has admitted in recent years that he spends much more time editing articles that come in than actually attending baseball, something that he does lament, but it is something to BA’s content.
Baseball Prospectus is most well known for being a key cog in the sabermetric “revolution” in baseball analysis, as they’ve put forth what were considered wild and crazy ideas at the time, like VORP (value over replacement player), which has now become widely accepted as WAR as calculated on other sites.
All along in their history since being formed in 1996, however, BP has placed an emphasis on scouting, employing some of the biggest names in the online scouting game with Kevin Goldstein, Jason Parks, and now Mauricio Rubio former BP scouting writers who are with major league teams.
One of the interesting connections with BP and other lists is that current ESPN prospect guru Keith Law really got his start writing for BP before going to the Toronto Blue Jays as a scout.
As far as boots on the ground, the content on BP’s site is possibly some of the best on the internet. Their scouts that contribute for their site are some of the absolute best in the business. However, those are not always the same guys who are working at putting together lists.
Much of Baseball Prospectus’ best work is subscriber-only, but the work is absolutely worth the subscription to read the scouting reports if you are truly into prospects.
BP’s annual “Top 101” is something that began with Goldstein and Parks adding one extra player to a more traditional top 100 list.
Law has been around the game for many years now, begining with his time with BP, before working in the Toronto Blue Jays front office doing player evaluations and actually attending MLB scout school.
Many view Law as brash on Twitter and in his chats, but one of the things that cannot be denied is that Law is one of the guys who really makes seeing guys in person the priority of his work.
He is the primary host of ESPN’s college baseball coverage and while on trips for that coverage seems to always find time to visit a team or two (or more) to watch a minor league prospect of interest or a draft prospect of interest.
When he speaks in his rankings on how a guy’s swing or delivery looks, he has a good idea as he’s seen it in person, which I’ll give him all the credit for in the industry.
That can also be a curse as well, as while Law does source plenty of opinions as there’s simply no way he could see every minor leaguer every year, he does have a habit of holding hard onto an opinion from the viewing he had in person, so if he happened to catch a guy on a bad day, it can shade his opinion on a player – not completely, mind you, but enough to alter his ranking of the player somewhat.
In a recent conference call regarding his top prospect list, Law did mention that when he gets into the razor-thin margin at the top of a prospect list, he frequently goes with the “known”, so in other words, a guy who has shown the ability to do it at the highest level, whether that’s already at the major leagues or at such a level in the upper minors that it’s simply a matter of the next season for him to be in the major leagues.
Fangraphs has seen its fair share of prospect writers work through as well. While a similar format and emphasis as Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs has been a free site for most of its creation, and thus many of the statistical advances that they have pushed are more common nomenclature in the typical baseball forum or subreddit than BP’s.
Fangraphs has been around since 2005, and in that time, they’ve gone through a lot of prospect evaluators, but the most well known, Kiley McDaniel, left Fangraphs to become part of the Atlanta Braves front office.
I placed Fangraphs with Law and his work with ESPN as Law’s protege at ESPN, Eric Longenhagen is now the primary prospect guy with Fangraphs, and he, like Law, does a lot of the eyes-on on his own, which is something very difficult to put together. He’s also put together extensively detailed lists on players, which is some of the best reading online if you take the time to read your favorite teams’ list.
Fangraphs also has another aspect of their prospect coverage in Chris Mitchell and his KATOH projections for prospects. These are highly statistical in analysis, sometimes criticized for removing the scouting from the analysis of a prospect, but the defenders of KATOH will say that’s part of why often teams will fall in love with a prospect that has no hope of succeeding is that he shows well to the eye but his stats never show it.
The prospect analysts for the main website for the game would be assumed to be some of the best in the business, and there is no doubt that Jim Callis and Jonathon Mayo are two of the most respected prospect analysts in the game.
However, the biggest knocks on Pipeline’s prospect coverage is that there is some feeling that due to being under the MLB umbrella, opinions end up being extremely vanilla, and opinions that are far extreme are not something you’ll find typically on Pipeline.
For instance, Keith Law is a huge fan of Lucas Erceg, a prospect of the Brewers. I didn’t even rank him in my top 125 prospects, though he was in consideration, yet Keith had him at #70 overall, a pretty bold statement about a player that really isn’t receiving love elsewhere. This sort of thing rarely, if ever, happens on Pipeline, other in the other way of the Pipeline list being the last one to adjust to an up-and-coming prospect or to remove a guy who has fallen off.
All that said, Callis and Mayo are some of the best in the business in answering any questions presented to them by fans, and they produce an absolute ton of minor league content to whet the appetite of the minor league hungry fan.
Each year, Dan Szymborski puts together a list based purely on numbers. These are ESPN Insider rankings, so you will need a subscription to view them, but they are based on the ZiPS computer projection system for players.
This method can be flawed for the same reasons as mentioned previously when discussing the KATOH evaluations, but they often bring out a few interesting players that don’t appear on other lists and should at least be investigated as those players can often turn into useful major leaguers.
ZiPS tends to really like high-floor guys over scouting lists in general due to those players typically being able to produce excellent minor league numbers along the way while often more “elite” prospects have some growing pains along the way.
Sickels has a noted statistical background, having worked as a research assistant for the highly-regarded Bill James from 1993-1996 before joining ESPN as a columnist focusing on prospects in his columns.
He left ESPN in 2005 and started his own blog that soon thereafter became part of the SB Nation group of blogs. He has produced an annual prospect book for many years that evaluates over 1,000 players each season and is only available through his website.
Sickels uses a very statistical look at prospects. He attempts to blend both statistics and scouting when looking at a player by taking numbers like strikeout-to-walk ratio for hitters and pitchers and other numbers that underlie the more common ERA, batting average, and other such numbers that most people recognize in a prospect.
Sickels does use a lot of sources to do his writing and produces a ton of content throughout the year on his website as well. He did do more scouting trips before a recent health issue left him unable to do much traveling the last couple of years.
If there is a “new kid on the block” (and no, not the 1980s boy band), it’s 2080 Baseball. The site was just founded in 2015, so it is very new for sure, but with a partnership with Perfect Game, the premier high school showcase circuit, they have already established themselves in the prospecting game.
The site has attracted some big names from the get-go, with many of the evaluators and writers being former big league scouts and front office personnel, so there is tremendous information present in all of their reports.
Throughout the season, there are plenty of reports on players that one of their staff has seen in person, and those reports are always incredibly detailed from a scout’s eye, so you’re getting a report directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
The current organizational reports that the site is rolling out are both detailed on the players covered and also lengthy in the amount of players as well, a very rare combination indeed, and the blend of backgrounds of former BP prospect writer Nick Faleris and former MLB scout Dave DeFreitas is really brought out in their podcasts.
I hope you enjoyed this, and take the time to enjoy the final 25 of my top 125 from earlier this year. Feel free to ask any questions that may pop up!!