Fan’s Guide to Using Statistics to Evaluate Minor League Baseball Players
With all the prospect lists coming out, it’s a good time to discuss how we as fans can and should evaluate prospects.
For the typical avid baseball fan, it’s difficult to actually see even our favorite team’s prospects, much less other top prospects. But there are ways to eyeball some statistics and get an idea of what your favorite organization, and what Major League Baseball has coming up the pipeline in the way of prospects.
This is not a replacement for watching and scouting, in addition to looking at the statistics. This is merely a way for fans—who often don’t get to see their team’s minor-league players and the minor-league players everyone is raving about—to eyeball some numbers and get an idea about what their team has in the organization.
Fans can understand what’s so special about that guy that Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein have at the top of their lists.
When evaluating minor-league hitters, unlike major-league hitters, how a guy gets to an impressive slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) is just as important as the slash line itself. That’s what we sometimes forget and why we overrate certain prospects.
It’s not that how a player gets to a particular slash line in the majors is not important to look at when evaluating him. But how a player got there is not as important when evaluating major-league players versus minor-league players.
If a player can find a way to hit major-league pitching and does it on a consistent basis, he’s usually going to continue to do so. Sure, it’s important to look at things like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), ballpark, age and things of that sort.
But, for the most part, if a hitter can post a good slash line against major-league pitching consistently, that means he can hit major-league pitching. We often don’t need to go much further than that.
If a hitter can post a good slash line against minor-league pitching, it does not mean he will continue against higher-level pitching and eventually major-league pitching. It’s more important to look at how he got there.
Can he hit the ball with authority and how much power does the player have? Does he get fooled a lot or does he have good command of the strike zone, as evidenced by his walk totals and walk-to-strikeout ratios? If he’s swinging and missing a lot, is he still taking his walks, avoiding swinging at bad pitches and hitting for power when he does not strikeout?
When eyeballing the stats of a minor-league hitter, look at the slash line but also look beyond it. Look at the walk-to-strikeout ratio. If he’s striking out a lot, is he also walking a lot and hitting for power?
Power hitters probably will strikeout more than other hitters because their swings are quicker. But how much power does a high-strikeout hitter truly have? And is he striking out because he’s trying to barrel up and crush good pitches or is he swinging at bad pitches? Is he walking 50 times a season or 30?
Age and level are important to look at. If a 27-year-old major-league player goes down to Double-A for an extended period, even if he’s not a great major-league player, he’s probably going to dominate. If a 27-year-old is stuck in Double-A playing very well but not dominating, his future probably is not all that bright.
If a 19-year-old is holding his own in Double-A, even if he’s not putting up a spectacular performance, that’s probably a very good sign.
We can’t just look at a minor-league player’s slash line and assume he’ll do that in the majors, minus a few points in each category. And that does not even get address the stuff that fails to show up in the stats about a player’s tools, skills and make up, which I would argue is more important in the minors.
There is probably a much wider variant of make ups in the minors than in the majors, especially the lower you go, in terms of level. Because if a player does not have a certain degree of the make up required to succeed, he’s probably not advancing to the higher levels and certainly he’s not advancing to the majors.
It’s much trickier for us, the typical fan, to know what is going on with a player in terms of make up. So we are mostly in the dark on this, unless a story comes out that your team’s third-best prospect broke his hand in a bar fight.
Evaluating pitchers is an entirely different animal and is much tougher to do with sheer, raw statistics. A lot of pitching is not just being able to strikeout hitters, avoid walks, keeping the ball in the park and getting that ground ball double-play.
With a pitcher, it’s about mixing up pitches and having the feel for when to utilize certain pitches. Also, a pitcher in the minors can get by without having great command of two or three different pitches. A decent pitcher can perform well in the minors with fastball velocity, good location and decent off-speed stuff, compared to major league pitchers.
It’s much harder to eyeball statistics to evaluate pitching prospects, unless a pitcher is completely dominant throughout his minor league career, at all levels. Even then, he may not have the ideal grasp of the feel for pitching required to succeed in the majors.
Then you throw in the increased injury risks with pitchers and pitching is difficult to evaluate without watching, solely with the use of statistics. With pitchers, I would recommend just looking at the basics. Does he have a high strikeout rate with a good strikeout-to-walk ratio? Does he keep the ball in the park? What’s his injury history?
Again this is not a comprehensive, how-to guide to scouting. This is simply a fan’s guide to evaluating prospects that said fan will not have a chance to see and scout in person. It’s not going to turn you into your favorite team’s next scouting director.
It’s just advice on how to keep up with the goings-on of the next wave of potential major-league talent.