Trust the Process: Correctly Evaluating Prospect Rankings

Written by: Andrew Lowe (@ALowe710)

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Now is the time of year that writers and sites publish their prospect rankings, including our very own Marc Rodriguez’s top 50 dynasty prospect rankings.

Pretty much every dynasty player reads some semblance of these, so how do you gain an advantage over your league mates when assessing the same lists? There is the option to scour the web and comb through every list possible, but that can be tiresome and returns marginal value the deeper you go. I suggest understanding the methodology behind the lists.

Perhaps the most important difference is to note which rankings do “fantasy” rankings and which rankings are geared more towards real-life baseball. The fantasy-specific rankings usually heavily weigh the hitting prowess of position players, largely discounting their defense. They also usually take the MLB parent team into account more so than lists geared towards real-life value, even though this can change in an instant with a trade. Fantasy prospect rankings love prospects who provide category “juice,” or power and speed. There is a similar phenomenon with pitchers; the pitchers with great stuff/little command/long lead-time (in the low minors) rank higher than middling stuff/good command/close pitchers. These intriguing qualities are typically equalized in rankings that skew towards real life, in which defense, proximity to the majors, and command are much more important. Essentially, in fantasy prospect rankings, ceiling rules all. This is probably old news to you, but it is crucial because of what I am about to say. Zig when everyone zags.

Everyone knows to avoid the noodle-bat hitter or the one-pitch pitcher. I am not saying take Luis Guillorme over Fernando Tatis Jr. because of the defense. Do not rate Adam Haseley over Ronald Acuna simply because it goes against the grain. What I am suggesting is that you need to know where genuine value resides. Words like “safe” and “floor” are taboo in the fantasy community and that’s what players like Adbert Alzolay and Haseley seemingly provide (compared to guys like Yadier Alvarez, Jose Siri, or Pedro Gonzalez). Lucky for me, I have Acuna and with his real-life situation, I needed a fairly safe option at centerfield in case Ronald Acuna doesn’t pan out or he loses CF eligibility. That’s where Haseley comes in, as I took him in the last round of my fantasy league’s draft, a pretty low cost for such a “safe” player. Defensively-reliable players are going to play and get at-bats. Pitchers with superb command and a deep repertoire tend to find their way to the majors. The safety Haseley provides makes the chance for profit from the pick quite high. In deep leagues and dynasty leagues where prospect success rates may be low, just getting production at the major league level is important.

In my deep dynasty league, young major league pitchers are among the most valuable assets. While pitchers have high injury rates, the difficulty of finding innings during the season (compounded by the fact that more and more prospects are owned each year) raises this market demand. Pitchers like Tyler Mahle and Cody Reed went for dozens of FAAB. Chance Adams was taken in the first round of our prospect draft (meanwhile, Corbin Burnes went in the 4th round and Adbert Alzolay remains undrafted). While that may not display the value of these types of pitchers, perhaps this will: in my league, several years of control of unproven pitchers Sean Manaea and Jacob Faria could fetch Madison Bumgarner in a trade. To further drive the point home, Brandon Finnegan and Drew Smyly, two pitchers who hardly pitched last year, went for a combined $57 FAAB in free agency.

Another key difference amongst prospect lists: Knowing which lists rank more on production and which value projection more. Production refers to what the player has already done from a statistical standpoint and takes league and age context into account. Did the player strike out a lot? Was it against much older competition? Did the player hit for a lot of power? Did he play in a hitter-friendly league like the Cal League? While projection also takes league and age context into account in reference to the statistics produced, things that occur in the future like growth, mechanical adjustments, and maturation are more heavily weighed. Is the player skinny and young, meaning they will likely gain weight and gain power/velocity? How do you know what lists prioritize which? Reading the chats by the writers is my best advice. As a quick primer, I would suggest sites like Baseball America as well as some fantasy-based sites that focus on stat lines value production more while Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs and Keith Law of ESPN are noted for valuing projection.

My next piece of advice is to know your league. Do some players in your league read or value certain lists more? They’re likely not going to just tell you, and it can also be difficult to tell by simply looking at their draft history. You can learn this information by simply talking to them about prospects in general and about specific players; they might reference a site’s report or use a certain term. For instance, one of my league mates used the term “long shot lolitas” when taking Luis Almanzar and I immediately knew he reads Razzball. Others may use advanced statistics, so they probably read FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. This stuff matters.

You can learn even more about your league mates than just what sites they read. You can learn what type of player they value more (or less). Following my own advice from before, when I took Haseley late in my draft, I was sort of laughed at by a couple of Phillies fans because of Haseley’s perceived weaknesses and similarity to Mickey Moniak. Your league mates will talk about their methodology for evaluation. This will not only help in predicting their picks, but it can also aid in trade talks to make an offer more appealing to them and more likely to be accepted.

Finally, as I said in one of my previous articles, gather all the information you can by reading as many of the prospect lists that you value and understand the most. Definitely try to read the specific scouting reports so you can tell the difference between the rankings. Just because players are ranked next to each other does not make them relatively equal, even if they play the same position. Read about their ceilings, lead times, work ethic, projectability, etc. This should all help with improving your success rate on prospects and in trades, as I feel it has helped me obtain more than ten (currently) top 50 prospects. Good luck with your prospecting!

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Featured image courtesy of Baseball America

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