First, a big thank you to @FuriousJeff and @Bo_Tron for their help gathering data for this piece!
If you’re interested in getting the hacks and hackles all riled up in this city, try discussing how the Cubs’ myriad prospects are going to fare in 2015. Three years of rebuilding and perpetually poor baseball have understandably worn on everyone, leaving two camps of fiercely combative fans.
The most recent uproar over The Kids came last week when the Sun Times published a bunch of articles questioning whether the Cubs have positioned themselves well for the 2015 season and beyond. The articles were widely panned by those I follow on Twitter, but I believe the columnists accidentally stumbled on an important point: 2015 may be a rough year for the Cubs and their top prospects.
While the Cubs have, as far as I am concerned, put themselves in excellent position to be a force in the National League sometime in the next few years, I must confess that I am significantly more bearish on the possibility of short-term contention than most. Here’s why:
Prospects, even the elite ones, fail often and struggle early in their careers even more often.
Yeah, so, this is no revelation. Everyone knows that prospects fail, and everyone knows that it takes some time for guys to adjust. However, I wanted to get a better grasp of how often they fail and how long it takes them to find success.
For this study, I used Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects Lists dating from 1990 through 2011. From there, I looked at only hitting prospects ranked in the top 10 and how their careers progressed. Because I am interested in these prospects and how they relate to the Cubs, I have omitted foreign players like Ichiro Suzuki. This left me with 98 unique Top 10 prospects to look at (many players ranked in the top 10 in multiple seasons).
I tracked two rWAR benchmarks for these hitters: their first 4+ rWAR season (in other words, their first impact season), and their first string of consecutive 2+ rWAR seasons. For those seasons, I recorded their age and how many years of experience they had prior. For my purposes, I counted all years in which a player got more than a handful of games (generally around 20).
If you’re looking for a Cliffs Notes version of this post, the research produced the following findings:
- 31 of 98 Top 10 prospects failed to record two consecutive 2+ rWAR seasons at any point in their career.
- 37 of 98 Top 10 prospects failed to record a single 4+ rWAR season.
- Only 13 of 98 Top 10 prospects produced a 4+ rWAR season in their 1st or 2nd year.
- Most prospects who did reach the rWAR benchmarks did so by their 4th or 5th season.
Let’s spend some time and dig deeper into these results, though, and how it pertains to the Cubs’ 2015 season.
When Do Prospects Establish Themselves?
For this study, I considered a prospect “established” after they had been league-average (2+ rWAR) for at least two consecutive years. I decided on two consecutive years as my threshold because so many prospects experience false starts and regression early on in their career. Not everyone can be Mike Trout, y’know.
Overall, 31 of 98 never produced two consecutive 2+ WAR seasons. Of those that did, they were roughly 25 years old at the completion of their second season, and had played in the majors for nearly 5 years. Those who took a very long time to reach this threshold were generally guys on the ugly side of the defensive spectrum and/or were known as poor fielders. This group includes Ryan Klesko (10 years), Paul Konerko (7), Carlos Pena (9), and Prince Fielder (8).
Those who reached this threshold by their second season were often on the good side of the defensive spectrum and/or were known for their glovework. This group includes Chipper Jones, Hanley Ramirez, Jason Heyward, Evan Longoria, and Bryce Harper.
Only 14 prospects recorded consecutive 2+ rWAR campaigns in their first two seasons, 18 more by their third season, and 13 more by their fourth season. Those 45 players represent nearly half of all the prospects in this study, which is far more than I had expected.
In fact, more elite prospects have established themselves within four seasons of their debut than have failed to ever do so. That this many prospects have succeeded so early is encouraging, but the fact remains that the likelihood of a player establishing himself within four seasons is less than 50/50.
An interesting thing happens after that fourth season, too: the rate of players establishing themselves drops off greatly. Some of this is survior-bias related (guys who are bad for four straight seasons see reduced chances for playing time and roster spots, thus losing a chance to prove themselves), but it also coincides rather nicely with the general feeling that we know who players are after 1500 MLB plate appearances. Some guys might make marginal improvements and find success, but the vast majority of elite prospects will have either figured it out (46%) or never will (32%).
When Do Prospects Make a Big Impact?
I considered a “big impact” to be a 4 rWAR season, which is the range in which guys start going to All-Star Games and getting some down-ballot MVP votes. This season, only 51 position players eclipsed the 4 rWAR mark, which makes it a pretty lofty level of production.
Almost as many elite prospects (61) hit the 4 rWAR mark at least once in their life as produced 2 rWAR in consecutive seasons (67). What’s different about the two groups, though, is how long it took players to reach the former mark. While the majority of elite prospects to produce 2 rWAR in consecutive seasons have done it within their first four years in the majors, those same prospects usually took a bit longer to put up a 4 rWAR season.
There were a few players who did it in their first season (more on them in a bit), but the vast majority took three or more years to do so. Interestingly, few of the players who had a 4 rWAR season did so after “establishing” themselves in the league. In fact, these explosive talents (30 of them) reached a 4-win season before producing two consecutive 2-win seasons. This is almost twice the number of players who established themselves in the majors before breaking out a 4-win campaign (16).
Do Age or Level When Ranked Matter?
One of the reasons Cubs fans are so confident in their elite prospects is that they have shown success in the upper levels of the minors, something that, on it’s face, makes sense. Facing stiffer competition and still producing is obviously a good thing.
Oddly though, this hasn’t seemed to matter much. Of the 138 prospect rankings in this study (some were on the list many times), 23 were ranked before they reached Advanced-A, 13 after reaching Advanced-A, 39 after reaching AA, 33 after reaching AAA, and 24 after having reached the MLB without exhausting their rookie eligibility. Here is how those groups have performed:
As you can see, the level at which a prospect was ranked in the Top 10 doesn’t have much of an effect on future success.
The notion that prospects will pan out very quickly seems to have arisen alongside two distinct phenomena: the increased interest in baseball prospects and the immediate success of a bunch of top-level prospects. Of the six prospects to put up a 4 rWAR season in their first MLB year, four have done so since 2008 (Harper, Longoria, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey), and two of the game’s biggest stars (Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout) achieved big time success as early as their second season.
Such a rash of early success has, in my mind, sparked some unfair expectations for young players around the league. Xander Bogaerts, for example, struggled mightily this season and many are rushing to write him off. Historically, though, a rough first few years is to be expected.
Takeaways for 2015
The pressures for prospects to produce immediately may be higher on the north side of Chicago than anywhere else around the league. People expect the team to make some noise next season, an expectation that necessarily demands that the Cubs’ elite prospects (defined in this piece as Bryant, Baez, Russell, and possibly Soler) and those around them produce in a big way.
The Cubs may go out and buy a pitcher or three, but the offense largely rests on whether or not these guys can produce. After winning just 73 games this season, they’re going to need a ton of new production from the prospects and young major leaguers just to get to 85 or more wins
Even if you think that all three (maybe four) of those guys are going to be All-Stars someday (the likelihood of which is pretty low), expecting them to be even league-average in their first or second season is pretty unfair (only about 35% have done so). And while some may take big leaps forward and be one of the special ones to record a 4 rWAR season early in their career, others may take a big step backwards, or fail to adjust right away.
I’m not saying that these guys can’t do it – after all, players are unique and the sample size of 98 prospects is very small – but expecting the group of Bryant, Baez, and Russell to immediately produce just goes against what history tells us. And if those players, the most exciting and talented of prospects, can’t be counted on right away, it doesn’t bode well for the lesser players around them, like Alcantara.
In time, it is likely this bunch of prospects is going to produce some great teams and very good players. After all, the average Top 10 hitting prospect has produced over 23 rWAR in their career, and only 35 have failed to top 10 rWAR in their career (a group that Cameron Maybin, Pedro Alvarez, and Bryce Harper are likely to graduate from very soon).
If history is to be trusted, though, 2015 is much more likely to be a frustrating year of adjustments and failures from the top prospects.