Every time we see a minor-league pitcher throw a shutout, or fan 10, or see a batter hit two home runs in one game, or drive in five, we immediately picture them as future major league stars.
But as optimistic and enthusiastic as baseball fans and analysts may be, the reality of the situation is far too grim.
In actuality, less than 15 percent of minor leaguers will become major league players, and out of this slim number, less than five percent will go on to become stars.
People these days are too easily swayed by the flashy statistics that a minor leaguer can display, when in fact, there are much more important things in determining if a young player will have success at the big league level.
In this analysis, I will list several ingredients that I think should be the real things we look at when deciding if a young player will be the “real deal.”
This is easier said than explained. There is clearly a difference in all of these between a pitcher and a hitter.
To start with pitchers, composure on the mound is key for every pitcher no mater what the talent is like. Pitcher’s with huge amounts of talent (Carlos Zambrano comes to mind) can almost waste it away by not controlling themselves and their emotions.
Young pitchers are going to give up hits (it is a big change from the minor leagues to majors) and they cannot expect to get up and blow away every opposing hitter.
The difference between a good prospect and one who still needs to develop, is how they react to getting hit by the opposing team. There are essentially two routes. You can get upset about the situation, lose control of your emotions, and end up giving up a home run to the next hitter, or you can follow the second path.
What almost all successful major league pitchers have, and what young pitchers need to learn to be successful, is the ability to shake off a hit, be it a single or a home run. A young pitcher must be able to forget what happened to the last batter, and concentrate on the time at hand.
If he makes his pitches where he needs to, the single will be of little or no consequence.
As far as hitters go, poise is probably of less importance at the plate than it is in the field. In the field, a player cannot try to do too much. Billy Beane remarked that a young Miguel Tejada would often try to do too much: Instead of getting a possible double play at first an second, he tried to get the force at home.
For a young player it is about making outs and getting your team to the plate.
Is it possible to be a free swinger and still find success at the major-league level? Yes. Vladimir Guerrero swings at pitches from his ankles to his eyes and manages to be at the top of the leader boards in almost all statistics year in and year out.
But the majority of young free-swingers are more often than not going to strike out on these pitches.
The most important stat to look at in a prospect is his on-base-percentage. If a player knows how to let bad pitches go by and swing at his pitches, not pitcher’s strikes, but something he can drive, he will find success.
A good indication for a player playing at the major league level for the first time is his ability to take pitches. This does not necessarily mean he has to have vast amounts of walks in his first at-bats; it just measures how good of an eye he has, and his ability to wait for the right pitch.
Too often, young players come up to the majors and have at-bats lasting four pitches at the most.
Pop not Power
I am sure reading the title of this section nobody has a clue what I am saying by this.
Instead of looking at the players who are able to hit 35 home runs at the minor league level, look at other indications such as doubles and the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.
Fans can be caught up in guys like Jason Dubois who are able to hit 30 home runs at the Triple-A level, but is certainly not a major leaguer.
Power is something in young players that can be developed, and for that reason it is far less important than on base percentage, clutch hitting, and mechanics. I think that a young player who hits plenty of doubles can be expected to develop some of this pop into home run power as he grows.
One player I look at in particular is White Sox first round draft choice Gordon Beckham, who was not a big power hitter in college, but did hit a load of doubles.
Along with his ability to hit to the opposite field, a skill that few players are able to master, Beckham also hit for a high average, another indication of him being able to develop into a 30-home run player down the road.
Because of his ability to drive the ball into the alleys and to the opposite field, the White Sox made a solid choice in ignoring critics who attempted to point out his flaws and lack of home run power.
Ability To Adjust
It goes without saying that the major leagues are far different and far more difficult for a player than any of the farm systems. Any player, be it a batter or pitcher, who expects to come into the league doing the same things they did in the minors, and still have success, is out of their mind.
After a few weeks in the major leagues, opposing pitchers will have figured out where to pitch a young player, and they will start pounding that location. Rather than let his weaknesses get the best of him, the batter must learn to change the hole in his swing so that it no longer is a weakness.
A good example, though it came later in his career, is Derrek Lee. Until his breakout season in 2005, pitchers had known to pound Lee in the inside where he would ground out lazily to third base or shortstop.
In 2005, Lee was able eliminate this hole in his swing, and drive the ball into left field. It was without a doubt his finest season to this day.
A good indication that a player knows how to adjust is to look at his minor league statistics. Was he consistent as he moved up through the farm system, showing that he was able to adjust to more difficult pitching?
For pitchers, it is the ability to locate their pitches and reveal the weaknesses of the opposing players. Facing a young pitcher for a second time, a team will have experience as well as video on him, and know what to expect.
The young pitcher must do his research as well, and know where the holes are in each hitter’s swing. By finding these holes and then hitting his spots, he will be at a large advantage.
There you have it. Instead of evaluating a player based on statistics such as RBI, home runs, and ERA, look at statistics such as offensive and pitching base on balls, on base percentage, and doubles. The players that find success in the majors seem to have specific characteristics in common.
For one they have good poise and composure.
This means performing well under pressure and not becoming intimidated. Second, they have solid plate discipline. They know how to see pitches and get a feel for what the pitcher is throwing.
In addition, a young player should reveal some pop, but not necessarily home run power. The ability to hit doubles and drive the ball to the opposite field is more important than home-run power, which can be developed.
And finally is the ability to adjust. Baseball is a game of changes, and in a pitcher hitter matchup, the one who makes the better adjustment is the one who will win every time.
Of course, there are other important factors as well which I did not go into detail on. A pitcher’s ability to strand runners, and batter’s clutch hitting ability, and smart base running are all very important as well.
But I really feel that the four factors I touched on can describe almost all minor leaguers who have come up with success to the major leagues, and if you are evaluating your team’s prospects, look for these characteristics in them.