It’s prospect list season which means I’m reading a lot of words about teenagers. It’s not creepy because it’s for work. What’s your excuse?
If the various revolutions in baseball – air ball, tunneling, etc. – have taught us anything, it’s that everybody is a breakout candidate. Anyone with the potential to improve and the willingness to try something new could suddenly emerge from mediocrity into the land of stardom.
In the past, players who reached the majors were hesitant – to a superstitious degree – about changing the way they play. Now, Statcast and other analytic toolboxes have made tinkering with strength, mechanics, and approach easier than ever. Instead of blindly trying whatever a pitching or hitting coach suggested (hint, they often give the same advice to everybody), players have access to powerful, personalized data. Adjustments are built upon highly educated guesses. Not only is there less risk in trying to improve, it’s necessary to keep pace with the competition.
If any major league player can break out, the same is true of minor leaguers. However, our scouting lexicon – at least for public prospect lists – has been slow to update. What follows are three common phrases you can safely ignore when you encounter them.
He’s maxed out physically
This phrase is a euphemism for “the athlete has a proportional build.” It’s usually used to describe a player which the scout or writer doesn’t believe will add more velocity or hitting power.
Muscular appearance is merely a proxy for strength. Just because a guy “looks” like he can’t add velocity or hitting power doesn’t mean he can’t. The examples are so innumerable that I’m not inclined to bother citing any. Velocity isn’t merely a function of strength. It’s a mechanical synthesis of a complex movement. Moreover, it’s closely linked to a pitcher’s ability to decelerate. Back and shoulder strength isn’t easy to observe through a baseball uniform and can be greatly increased without obvious signs.
On the hitting side, there are a dozen ways for a player with 40-grade power to reach 20 home runs. Ryan Schimpf has 35 home runs in 534 career plate appearances. He’s maybe a 45 to 55 on the scouting scale. Launch angle, mechanical adjustments, improved timing, increased core strength, and corrective eye surgery are just a few ways to spontaneously transform a player. And if all else fails, dump ’em in Great American Smallpark.
The corollary is that skinny 6’4” bean pole pitchers aren’t a lock to add velocity just because they’ll probably add weight.
The fantasy takeaway: Scout for ability to make adjustments before giving up on a player’s physical ceiling – especially with regard to power or velocity.
If he sticks at shortstop, he’ll be more valuable
First off, anybody with smooth hands and an arm can stick at shortstop. We’ll get to that next. More importantly, shortstop has turned into a powerhouse position. A young powerhouse position. The existing stars of the position will be in the league for a long time. And the next wave featuring the likes of Wander Franco, Fernando Tatis, Royce Lewis, Bo Bichette, and Brendan Rodgers is nearly ripe.
Being a defensively capable shortstop no longer confers substantial value in and of itself. Sure, it’s a good trait to have in your future utility fielders, but fantasy relevant prospects usually aren’t going to be deployed at five positions. They’ll play one or two positions and bat in the middle of the lineup.
The fantasy takeaway: If you’re looking at a hitter whose bat is fringy for second or third base, it’s also just as fringy at shortstop. Move on to a new target.
He’ll need to move down the defensive spectrum
There’s more than one type of slow. For example, Corey Seager is definitely not fast. By speed score, he has more in common with Tucker Barnhart and Matt Carpenter than the typical shortstop. He’s borderline huge for the position, yet he’s also an above average defender.
Sure, defensive positioning plays a big role in Seager’s success. The Dodgers get to use him as a shortstop because they’re legitimately good at deploying shortstops. Don’t believe me? Check Manny Machado’s numbers before and after the trade.
Every team has the tools necessary to emulate the Dodgers (see the speed scores and defensive ratings for Brandon Crawford and Miguel Rojas). Most of them are already doing it successfully. If a 40-grade runner can stick at shortstop, then there’s no reason for us to equate speed with defensive turpitude. Ditto Cody Bellinger in center field.
The fantasy takeaway: Don’t worry too much about a prospect moving down the defensive spectrum until it happens. Since position scarcity no longer exists, it doesn’t matter if they do.