Prospects and Suspects
PART ONE: THE POLITICS OF PLAYING TIME
by Tony Blengino & John Benson
Do you remember the most exciting, attention-getting minor league hitters of
1996? Following are ten of the best:
Andruw Jones: .347 average, 34 home runs, 92 RBI (Class A, AA and AAA)
Vladimir Guerrero: .361 average, 24 home runs, 96 RBI (Class A and AA)
Derrek Lee: .280 average, 34 home runs and 104 RBI (Double-A)
Ron Wright: 36 home runs and 114 RBI (Class A and AA)
Dmitri Young: .333 average, 15 home rune, 64 RBI (Triple-A)
Todd Walker: .339 average, 28 home runs, 111 RBI (Triple-A)
Yamil Benitez: .278 average, 23 home runs, 81 RBI (Triple-A)
Mike Cameron: .300 average, 28 home runs, 77 RBI (Double-A)
Todd Dunwoody: .277 average, 24 home runs, 93 RBI (Double-A)
Paul Konerko: 30 home runs and 88 RBI (Double-A and Triple-A)
All of these players did very well, but none of their marks had a luster
that would last for decades. Indeed, minor league performances like these come
along every year, year after year.
Obviously, a player doesn't have to put up huge statistics to raise high
expectations. The above names are the cream of the 1997 crop. What would the
scouts and media think of a player who hit, say 46 homers, and 141 RBI, with a
.333 batting average at Triple-A level, and in a league and year noted for
good pitching? Such numbers would create unimaginable excitement!
Not long ago in baseball history, a young and improving slugger named Ken
Phelps had these remarkable numbers. In 1982, he hit .333, smashed 46 homers,
and drove in 141 runs. And yet these huge statistics were largely ignored at
the time. In the early 1980's, nobody paid much attention to minor league
numbers. Conventional wisdom, based on a hundred years of collective thinking
was that minor league stats are all misleading; the parks are too small, the
pitchers can't throw strikes, and nobody has a good curveball in the minors.
Phelps put up his Ruthian numbers in the Triple-A American Association, a
league known for good pitching. Phelps had to face pitchers like Bud Black,
who had a 2.48 ERA that year. Bryn Smith, one of Phelps' teammates, had a
1.90 ERA (in exactly the same ballparks where Phelps played). Ken Phelps
really did have a monster season in 1982.
Phelps finally got promoted to the major leagues, but never got a chance
to play full time. The most at-bats he ever had in a season was 344, in 1986.
Remarkably, he still produced 24 to 27 homers every year from 1983 through
1988, except for 1985 when he got a paltry 116 at bats. Phelps finished his
career with more than one home run for every 15 at bats, equal to Mickey
Mantle and Jimmy Foxx in home run ratio, and ahead of Lou Gehrig, Henry Aaron
and Willie Mays.
The New (Ir)Relevance Of Statistics
The point of this essay is not that Ken Phelps was a great player. Nor am
I going to re-argue the point that minor league stats, when used carefully,
really can be useful indicators of future performance. Bill James proved that
fact long ago, and the baseball world hasn't been the same since. The point
is: today, everybody studies minor league numbers extensively.
The increased scrutiny of minor league numbers has pushed their perceived
importance all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum. Today, no player
would be allowed to accumulate 46 home runs in a single minor league season;
he would keep getting promoted and promoted until he reached the major
leagues, and his minor league total would truncate. The last player to make a
serious run at the mid-40 home run mark was Jose Canseco in 1989; he had 25 at
Double-A, 11 more at Triple-A, and then got promoted to the majors where he
collected five more. Todd Greene getting exactly 40 at two minor league levels
in 1995 was even something of an oddity; if he had been an outfielder instead
of a catcher in a franchise with enough major league catchers, there likely
would have been a major league roster spot for Greene earlier.
Today, the "science" of finding each year's top rookies, before the season
starts, has become a mania. Spring training magazines commonly give their
covers -- and consistently give lots of content -- to tabbing last year's top
minor leaguers and projecting which ones will be this year's best rookies.
There are numerous tools for fans who spend their winters on the peach-
My advice is to spend less time crunching numbers and poring over
statistical tables, and spend more time studying managerial style and
thinking about which teams actually have job openings. Too often, people
focused just on the numbers come up with names like Rolando Roomes and Skeeter
Barnes, when they want a Canseco or McGwire.
Study Managerial Tendencies
For years, analysts argued that Mickey Morandini should play second base
every day for Philadelphia. The problem was, if Philadelphia management (Nick
Leyva) believed that Morandini belonged at Scranton, he would play at
Scranton. The name "Veterans Stadium" was a long-time aid to help you remember
the management style of the Phillies. Jim Fregosi brought up Mickey Morandini
immediately after becoming manager.
The many managerial changes for 1997 will lead to many personnel changes.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine has two qualities favoring youngsters: an
inclination toward newcomers that he showed during his years with the Texas
Rangers, and also lengthy exposure to his current crop of youngsters, many of
whom he managed at Triple-A Norfolk on the Mets' farm last summer.
Managers disclose their styles in the teams they put on the field. Don't
listen to what they say; watch what they do.
Look For Room On The Major League Roster
The record books are full of players who simply couldn't fit into a major
league lineup. Rob Nelson had the misfortune to compete with Mark McGwire and
then Frank Thomas for time at first base. Mike Laga gave up waiting in line
behind Pedro Guerrero and Will Clark, and went to Japan, as did Cecil Fielder
when he was stuck behind Fred McGriff in Toronto.
Many fine players get stuck in log jams for years. Atlanta's outfield
superprospect Geronimo Berroa grew old trying to break into an outfield
competing with newcomers named Ron Gant and Davis Justice. Berroa's minor
league stats showed clearly that he could hit 25 homers with 90 RBI in the
majors -- and I was writing that back in 1991 -- but that potential didn't do
him a lot of good in Richmond. Slugger Tino Martinez, when he was with
Seattle, had to wait for Alvin Davis and Pete O'Brien to move aside.
Beware Of The Doghouse
When a manager uses phrases like "player just doesn't fit our plans right
now" or "he needs a better mental approach," you know it means time in the
hound-quarters. Nick Leyva's final assessment of Morandini, after the spring
training that he didn't make the team, boiled down to something about vocal
leadership. All these phrases mean bench duty or a return to the minors.
Baseball Is Show Business
Bull Durham's Annie might have viewed baseball as a religion, but every
team has a balance sheet based on the ability to sell tickets and attract TV
viewers. The "show business" aspect affects rookies to the extreme. Teams that
are going poorly at the box office like to make changes, to keep the fans
And Don't Forget Statistical Anomalies
Conversion of minor league performances into major league expectations is
a complex process. Pacific Coast League stats, for example, are notoriously
inflated. The general drain on pitching in 1995-1996 has depleted the quality
of pitching all around Triple-A, where many of the pitchers with the best
stats over the last two years have been faded major leaguers having fun with
youngsters who haven't seen sharp breaking stuff thrown consistently for
One of the easiest sanity checks on a minor league performance is a quick
glance at team totals. All of the ballpark effects, altitudes, weird weather
and whatever else you want to factor out, will be spread uniformly among
players on the same roster.
Major League Stats Are The Best Indicators After All
When you start using prediction methods based on minor league stats, you
find all the exceptions that prove your rules. Eventually, the old myths
about minor league numbers regain some of the credibility that technicians
have stripped from them. Minor league numbers, under the microscope, look
just as mysterious and confusing as they did ten years ago when viewed
collectively from a long and safe distance. The outfield fences really are
too close. Minor league pitchers really can't throw their curves for strikes.
In The Show, they really do throw wicked breaking stuff, as Crash Davis told
us. Real baseball people know these things, and casual fans (and even the
sharpest competitors in Rotisserie leagues) can only begin to get the feeling
Part Two: Relative Production Potential
Introduction by John Benson:
By Tony Blengino
In late 1993, Tony Blengino sent me the following list of "Top Minor
Leaguers" which I published in my Baseball Monthly. When you see these names,
you will understand immediately why I got interested in Tony's methods, and
why I have been eager to see his list every year since:
- Cliff Floyd
- Jim Thome
- Manny Ramirez
- Carlos Delgado
- Roberto Petagine
- Chipper Jones
- Arquimedez Pozo
- Tony Tarasco
- Roger Cedeno
- Dmitri Young
There were plenty of other "top ten" lists floating around during the
winter of 1993-94, but none that worked out any better than this list. All of
the 1993 Top Ten spent part of 1996 in the majors, and all should have a
material big league role in 1997.
Following are Tony's notes on his methods, including his latest Top Ten.
His lists go 250 deep into the minor league population every year, forming one
of the many noteworthy features in the annual book, Future Stars - The Minor
League Abstract, available from Diamond Library.
With further ado, here's Tony ...
Once again, it is time for my annual foray into the field of statistical
evaluation of minor league hitting prospects using the Relative Production
Potential method. Most other prospect lists that you will see tend to rely
either upon raw athletic tools, or upon traditional, politically correct
statistics, such as batting average, home runs and RBI. Most other methods
tend to underestimate the role of a prospect's age when determining his
Yes, Relative Production Potential (RPP) is all about statistics; but it's
about the "right" statistics. It's about the two true measures of offensive
performance: on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The method adjusts
for league context, measuring all players' performance relative to their
league. Therefore, a massive offensive season as measured in traditional
numbers in the pitcher-dominated High-A Carolina League carries more weight
than a similar campaign in the hitting-crazy Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
The RPP method also adjusts for a prospect's age in relation to his level,
weeding out all of the Phil Hiatts and Dale Sveums who create the illusion
that they are long-term major league prospects with their pounding of minor
league hurlers. The end result is an ordered list of 273 minor leaguers who
established some level of expected major league production based upon their
1996 minor league performance.
The method has four years under its belt now, and even if I do say so
myself, the results have been pretty darn impressive. Virtually all of the Top
Ten alumni have made major league appearances or remain solid prospects. Only
one, 1994 number eight ranked Gator McBride of the Braves, appears to have
faded as a major league prospect. It must be emphasized that this method does
not purport to project which players will have the most major league impact in
1997; it measures long-term potential.
The 1996 Top Ten include four players who made their major league debuts
in 1996, though all four retain Rookie of the Year eligibility for 1997.
The other six have never played in the majors, and have combined for a total
of 14 Triple-A at bats. Three of them have never even played at the Double-A
This method has proven to be quite effective at unearthing minor league
prospects very early in their careers 17-year-old Edgar Renteria batted all of
.203 in 1993, but made the list because of his youth. Not many people were
aware of Royals catcher Mike Sweeney at this time last year, but he ranked
number seven on this list, just behind a guy named Andruw Jones. This method
heralded Alex Rodriguez as a god last year. Everyone knew he would be a star,
but in last year's article, we compared him to Honus Wagner based on his
phenomenal RPP score. Other players who ranked highly in last year's analysis
who largely escaped mainstream baseball media attention were Richard Almanzar,
Ron Wright, Russell Branyan, Fernando Tatis and Wes Helms. You've probably
heard of some of those guys by now.
Also, one can get a feel for the overall offensive depth of the respective
minor league organizations by calculating cumulative RPP scores. Those results
are always good for a few surprises.
The first step in the evaluation process is the calculation of on-base and
slugging percentages for all regulars on all full-season minor league teams.
To capture them all, all players with 300 or more at bats were included, as
well as any other players who had the most at bats on their club at a given
position. In some cases, players who met neither qualification because they
split their season at multiple classifications were qualified at both
classifications. If more than one RPP score qualified them for the list of top
prospects, their low score was dropped. Also, 1996 draftees who had a material
effect on their teams' seasons were also considered. Since most first rounders
played in the Olympics this past summer and didn't sign until late, there were
very few 1996 draftees in the running for this year's list.
Each player's OBP and SLG is then compared to the average of all the
qualifiers in his league. Each player is awarded points equal to the number of
standard deviations above or below the average of all of his league's
qualifiers. For instance, Chad Hermansen of the Low-A Augusta Greenjackets had
an on-base percentage 0.96 standard deviations above the average of his
league's qualifiers, and a slugging percentage 1.98 standard deviations above
the average of his league's qualifiers. Adding 0.96 and 1.98 gives Hermansen
an unadjusted RPP score of 2.94, which is well above average.
For each minor league, the sum of all OBP and SLG factors is zero. This
enables hitters' leagues to be fairly compared to pitchers' leagues. Braves'
third baseman Wes Helms (.352 OBP, .562 SLG) had very similar statistics to
A's shortstop Tony Batista (.368 OBP, .561 SLG). However, Helms posted his
numbers in the High-A Carolina League, much less conducive to hitting than
Batista's Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Therefore, Helms' unadjusted RPP was
higher, by 2.79 to 2.26.
After calculating unadjusted RPP for all minor league qualifiers, the
population of top minor league prospects is assembled. At this point, a
prospect's age is compared to the "optimal" age for his minor league level.
For Triple-A, the optimal age is 22, for Double-A 21, for High-A 20, and for
First, all starters who were at or below their level's optimal age (July 4
cutoff date) are placed in the prospect pool. Next, all players who were one
year above optimal age and had positive unadjusted RPP scores are added. Then,
all players who were two years above optimal age, and had unadjusted RPP of at
least 1.00 are added. Finally, all players who were three years above optimal
age and had unadjusted RPP of at least 2.00 are added. The pool is now full -
273 players qualified in 1996, well down from the 1995 total of 300. There
were noticeably fewer top young offensive prospects in Low-A ball in 1996 as
compared to 1995. The pool includes players who performed at very high
offensive levels, but also many who did not, but were among the youngest
prospects in their leagues.
Each of the 273 qualifying prospects' RPP scores is then adjusted for age.
For each year younger than his level's optimal age, a player's RPP is
increased by 1.00; for each year older than his league's optimal age, a
player's RPP is decreased by 1.00. Hermansen, for example, received a positive
1.00 age adjustment for his Low-A performance at Augusta at age 18. This
process can bring together two seemingly starkly different seasons. Dodgers'
Triple-A second baseman Wilton Guerrero, 21, had an unadjusted RPP of 1.28,
adjusted upward by 1.00 to 2.28, ranking him 33rd overall. Meanwhile, Indians'
Low-A outfielder Scott Morgan, 22, went on a season-long power rampage, and
posted an unadjusted RPP of 5.29. However, his negative 3.00 age adjustment
dropped his adjusted RPP to 2.29, ranking him just ahead of Guerrero, and 32nd
The 1996 Results
Let's check out this year's Top Ten. All of the players in the Top Ten are
covered in detail in their respective organizational Top Ten lists in the book
Future Stars - The Minor League Abstract. We will use this space to expound on
a couple of the less heralded players, while making some bold predictions
about the rest of the group.
The Top Two are no brainers, and are repeaters from last year's Top Ten.
Andruw Jones moved from number six to number one. He lambasted three different
levels on his from the Carolina League to the majors (as a teenager) in 1996.
His relatively brief Tour de Force (.432 OBP, .675 SLG, 23 extra base hits in
157 at bats) at Double-A Greenville earned him the top ranking - and his
earlier blitz of the High-A Carolina League earned him the number two ranking!
Jones is ready to dominate at the major league level. The Braves should move
David Justice and/or Jermaine Dye, and let Jones get on with his Hall of Fame
career. As he did in the Low-A South Atlantic League in 1995, the Expos'
Vladimir Guerrero played second fiddle to Jones on the RPP list in 1996.
Guerrero flirted with a .400 average for much of the season as the youngest
regular in the Double-A Eastern League, carrying Harrisburg to the
championship. He has equally impressive on-base (2.40 unadjusted RPP) and
slugging (2.43 unadjusted RPP) skills, and should be a fixture in the number
three spot in the Expos' lineup for years to come. Phils' third baseman Scott
Rolen finished fourth on the strength of his first half performance at
Double-A Reading, where he posted a .443 on-base percentage and .587 slugging
percentage. He isn't your basic, Mike Schmidt 40-homer pounder, but will be a
.300 hitter in the majors with 40 double, 25 home run power. All three are
also excellent defensively - Jones, Guerrero and Rolen should duke it out for
the NL Rookie of the Year Award (Rolen is still eligible - by one at bat - the
one in which he was hit by a pitch, breaking his arm, and ending his season.)
The one American League player in the Top Ten who saw major league action
in 1996 was Red Sox' shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who finished fifth. He made
this list last year on the strength of his relative youth; he did not develop
as a hitter until 1996. He lost a chunk of 1996 due to a knee injury, but
posted a .390 on-base percentage and an impressive .728 slugging percentage,
at Triple-A Pawtucket. He will be the Red Sox' shortstop in 1997, and is the
odds-on frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Power, speed and
defense in abundance. The era of the shortstop continues.
The only other member of the 1996 Top Ten to see the light of Triple-A,
for all of 14 at bats, was number seven Paul Konerko of the Dodgers. The
former catcher was shifted to first base to hasten his arrival in the majors.
As the youngest player in the Double-A Texas League, he posted a .395 OBP and
.532 SLG, as its youngest regular. He will be ready for the majors by 1998,
though the Dodgers are known for keeping even their best prospects in Triple-A
for two years. He will immediately present himself as at least a reasonable
facsimile of Eric Karros. By season's end, two other members of the Top Ten
had graduated to Double-A.
Number six Mario Valdez of the White Sox is by far the most unheralded
member of the Top Ten. The first baseman was a lowly 48th round draft and
follow pick in the 1993 draft, and began his 1996 season at Low-A South Bend,
where he earned a two-level promotion with a .376 average, with 19 doubles, 10
homers and 36 walks in only 202 at bats. He was the only member of the Top Ten
to receive a negative age adjustment to his RPP score - at 21, he was two
years older than the optimal Low-A age. He handled the aggressive jump
extremely well, batting .274 with only doubles power, but with great patience
(32 walks in 200 plate appearances). Considering his lack of home run power
coupled with Frank Thomas' presence in front of him, Valdez bears close
scrutiny in 1997 to see which way his career goes.
Number Ten Ron Wright began the season as one of the four top Braves'
prospects (along with Andruw Jones, Wes Helms and Damian Moss) promoted
together from High-A Durham to Double-A Greenville. He qualified based on his
.372 OBP, .604 SLG performance at High-A Durham. He ended the year as an
ex-Brave, as he was traded to the Pirates in the Denny Neagle deal. Wright is
a squat (6'0", 215) yet powerfully built first baseman who generates awesome
power from gap to gap. He's a year away from the majors. He might not be a
future All Star, but should be a 25-30 homer force in the bigs.
The other three prospects have never played above Class A ball, so one
might consider them far from the majors. One must then consider, however, that
a couple of guys named Jones and Guerrero fit neatly into this category just
one year ago. Dodgers' third baseman Adrian Beltre emerged from out of nowhere
to claim the number three ranking in 1996 based on his .394 OBP, .586 SLG
performance at Low-A Savannah, at the tender age of 18. This earned him a
promotion to High-A San Bernardino in the California League, where he was by
far the youngest player. He held his own there, nailing 40% of his hits for
extra bases. Once he learns to take close pitches, Beltre will be unstoppable.
He also features a well above average glove. Beltre is a future major impact
player at the big league level.
Expos' shortstop Hiram Bocachica finished ninth in RPP despite an elbow
injury which relegated him to designated hitter duty for most of the season.
Bocachica is a natural top of the order hitter, combining excellent on-base
skills (.412 OBP) with blazing speed and above average pop (.461 SLG) for a
middle infielder. If he can make up for lost time defensively, he should be
the Expos' shortstop by mid-1998. He, too, is a likely future major league All
Star. Along with Beltre, Pirates' shortstop Chad Hermansen became the only
18-year-old to dent High-A ball in 1996. Unlike fellow shortstop Bocachica,
Hermansen doesn't possess top-of-the-order skills befitting a middle infielder
- he's a banger. He posted a .360 OBP and .513 SLG at Low-A Augusta, and was
only slightly less effective at High-A Lynchburg. The only question - at 6'2",
185, and growing, will he outgrow shortstop? Regardless, Hermansen will be a
dominant offensive performer in the majors, likely by 1999.
Of the 1995 Top Ten, number ten Alex Rodriguez exceeded even the loftiest
expectations, while number seven Mike Sweeney and number ten Johnny Damon were
starting regularly for the Royals by year-end. Number three Ruben Rivera,
number six Andruw Jones, number eight Darin Erstad, and number nine Vladimir
Guerrero all made major league appearances, and remain stud prospects. Number
two Karim Garcia was sent down to Double-A, largely for motivational reasons;
he ranked number 13 in 1996, and remains a star prospect. Number four
Jose Valentin dropped off somewhat from his 1995 level, but clearly looms as
the Twins' catcher of the future. However, number five Steve Gibralter had a
poor season at Triple-A in the Reds' organization, and is no longer a sure bet
to earn a major league starting job.
Of the 1994 Top Ten, number one Alex Rodriguez, number four Shawn Green,
number six Carlos Delgado, number seven Marc Newfield and number ten Ernie
Young are entrenched as major league regulars, while ninth-ranked Billy Ashley
remains a backup major league outfielder. 1994's number two Jeff Abbott,
number three Karim Garcia, and number five Bob Abreu remain top prospects,
while number eight Gator McBride of the Braves appears to be headed towards
All of the 1993 Top Ten spent part of 1996 in the majors, and all should
have a material big league role in 1997. In order, they were Cliff Floyd, Jim
Thome, Manny Ramirez, Delgado, Roberto Petagine, Chipper Jones, Arquimedez
Pozo, Tony Tarasco, Roger Cedeno and Dmitri Young. All in all, a pretty fair
track record, which shouldn't be impacted negatively by the 1996 group.
Relative Production Potential is a method of evaluating minor league position
players. Measuring players' on-base and slugging percentages relative to their
peers and adjusting for their relative age gives an unbiased view of their
long-term major league potential. Performance can be viewed within league
context, and can be compared across minor league levels. In its four years of
existence, this method has consistently unearthed prospects: Edgar Renteria,
Jeff Abbott, Bob Abreu, Mike Sweeney, Karim Garcia and Edgard Velazquez, to
name a few, sooner than most of the conventional media focused on these names.
1997's youthful "discoveries" by other publications are likely to be appearing
now on this year's RPP list in the Future Stars book. See the Diamond Library
Publications page in this web site for information on ordering that book.