How Many Elite Players Were Good Prospects?

I really enjoyed Jeff Sullivan’s piece on the prospect pedigree of good players, and it was interesting to see how many solid players never cracked the Baseball America 100 in any year. This is an extension of that article, and not a particularly original one. In fact, I think it’s about the most obvious next step: how many great players were prospects?

It was interesting to see that someone can have a decent season as a totally unheralded player, but there are a lot of players who have a 3-win season and promptly fade into ignominy. Players at that threshold in 2010 included Cliff Pennington and Dallas Braden, and in 2011, Emilio Bonifacio and Alexi Ogando. Cherry-picked names, to be sure, but it’s easy to imagine they (and players like them) are the source of that ~33% of un-ranked good players, and the real elite players are usually identified as at least good. That doesn’t mean it’s true, though, so I tested it.

I pulled the top 10 pitchers and the top 10 position players by WAR for each year from 2010 through 2014. If there was a tie for 10th, I included both players, so the sample ended up at 101 players. Then, for each player, I found their highest ranking on the BA lists. The same caveats as in Jeff’s article apply here, but again, BA is the industry standard, and their lists go back long enough to make them very useful. Following: a giant table, with every qualifying player-year, their WAR in that year (and how that ranked among all players), and their highest prospect ranking and the year of that ranking.

Name Season Team WAR WAR Rank Highest Prospect Rank Prospect Rank Year
Mike Trout 2013 Angels 10.5 1 2 2011
Mike Trout 2012 Angels 10.3 1 2 2011
Jacoby Ellsbury 2011 Red Sox 9.4 1 13 2008
Josh Hamilton 2010 Rangers 8.4 1 1 2001
Roy Halladay 2011 Phillies 8.4 1 12 1999
Mike Trout 2014 Angels 8.0 1 2 2011
Clayton Kershaw 2014 Dodgers 7.6 1 7 2008
Clayton Kershaw 2013 Dodgers 7.0 1 7 2008
Cliff Lee 2010 – – – 6.9 1 30 2003
Justin Verlander 2012 Tigers 6.7 1 8 2006
Andrew McCutchen 2013 Pirates 8.4 2 13 2007
Matt Kemp 2011 Dodgers 8.3 2 96 2006
Carl Crawford 2010 Rays 7.7 2 59 2002
Buster Posey 2012 Giants 7.7 2 7 2010
Corey Kluber 2014 Indians 7.2 2 Unranked Unranked
Clayton Kershaw 2011 Dodgers 7.1 2 7 2008
Andrew McCutchen 2014 Pirates 6.8 2 13 2007
Adam Wainwright 2013 Cardinals 6.6 2 18 2003
Roy Halladay 2010 Phillies 6.2 2 12 1999
Felix Hernandez 2012 Mariners 6.2 2 2 2005
Jose Bautista 2011 Blue Jays 8.1 3 Unranked Unranked
Robinson Cano 2012 Yankees 7.6 3 Unranked Unranked
Josh Donaldson 2013 Athletics 7.6 3 Unranked Unranked
Evan Longoria 2010 Rays 7.5 3 2 2008
Cliff Lee 2011 Phillies 6.8 3 30 2003
Alex Gordon 2014 Royals 6.6 3 2 2007
Matt Harvey 2013 Mets 6.5 3 54 2012
Justin Verlander 2010 Tigers 6.2 3 8 2006
Felix Hernandez 2014 Mariners 6.1 3 2 2005
Clayton Kershaw 2012 Dodgers 5.7 3 7 2008
Dustin Pedroia 2011 Red Sox 7.8 4 77 2006
Carlos Gomez 2013 Brewers 7.5 4 52 2008
Chase Headley 2012 Padres 7.5 4 32 2008
Joey Votto 2010 Reds 7.0 4 43 2007
Anthony Rendon 2014 Nationals 6.5 4 19 2012
CC Sabathia 2011 Yankees 6.4 4 Unranked Unranked
Jered Weaver 2010 Angels 6.1 4 57 2006
David Price 2014 – – – 6.1 4 2 2009
Max Scherzer 2013 Tigers 6.0 4 66 2008
David Price 2012 Rays 5.1 4 2 2009
David Wright 2012 Mets 7.4 5 21 2004
Miguel Cabrera 2013 Tigers 7.4 5 12 2003
Ian Kinsler 2011 Rangers 7.2 5 98 2005
Albert Pujols 2010 Cardinals 6.8 5 42 2001
Josh Donaldson 2014 Athletics 6.5 5 Unranked Unranked
Dan Haren 2011 Angels 6.4 5 Unranked Unranked
Felix Hernandez 2010 Mariners 6.0 5 2 2005
Anibal Sanchez 2013 Tigers 5.9 5 40 2006
Phil Hughes 2014 Twins 5.7 5 4 2007
Cliff Lee 2012 Phillies 5.1 5 30 2003
Ryan Braun 2012 Brewers 7.3 6 26 2007
Chris Davis 2013 Orioles 7.1 6 65 2008
Ryan Braun 2011 Brewers 7.1 6 26 2007
Ryan Zimmerman 2010 Nationals 6.6 6 15 2006
Michael Brantley 2014 Indians 6.3 6 Unranked Unranked
Justin Verlander 2011 Tigers 6.3 6 8 2006
Ubaldo Jimenez 2010 Rockies 5.9 6 82 2005
Felix Hernandez 2013 Mariners 5.7 6 2 2005
Jon Lester 2014 – – – 5.6 6 22 2006
Gio Gonzalez 2012 Nationals 5 6 26 2008
Matt Carpenter 2013 Cardinals 6.9 7 Unranked Unranked
Curtis Granderson 2011 Yankees 6.8 7 57 2005
Andrew McCutchen 2012 Pirates 6.8 7 13 2007
Jose Bautista 2010 Blue Jays 6.4 7 Unranked Unranked
Giancarlo Stanton 2014 Marlins 6.2 7 3 2010
Jered Weaver 2011 Angels 5.9 7 57 2006
Josh Johnson 2010 Marlins 5.8 7 80 2006
Cliff Lee 2013 Phillies 5.5 7 30 2003
Jordan Zimmermann 2014 Nationals 5.3 7 41 2009
Zack Greinke 2012 – – – 5.0 7 14 2004
Evan Longoria 2013 Rays 6.7 8 2 2008
Alex Gordon 2011 Royals 6.6 8 2 2007
Adrian Beltre 2012 Rangers 6.5 8 3 1998
Adrian Beltre 2010 Red Sox 6.4 8 3 1998
Jose Bautista 2014 Blue Jays 6.2 8 Unranked Unranked
Francisco Liriano 2010 Twins 5.7 8 6 2006
Doug Fister 2011 – – – 5.2 8 Unranked Unranked
Chris Sale 2014 White Sox 5.1 8 20 2011
R.A. Dickey 2012 Mets 4.9 8 Unranked Unranked
Mat Latos 2013 Reds 4.8 8 Unranked Unranked
Miguel Cabrera 2011 Tigers 6.5 9 12 2003
Jason Heyward 2012 Braves 6.5 9 1 2010
Robinson Cano 2010 Yankees 6.3 9 Unranked Unranked
Paul Goldschmidt 2013 Diamondbacks 6.3 9 Unranked Unranked
Jonathan Lucroy 2014 Brewers 6.2 9 Unranked Unranked
Adam Wainwright 2010 Cardinals 5.6 9 18 2003
Jake Arrieta 2014 Cubs 5.1 9 67 2009
Matt Cain 2011 Giants 5 9 10 2006
Justin Verlander 2013 Tigers 4.8 9 8 2006
Johnny Cueto 2012 Reds 4.7 9 34 2008
Joey Votto 2011 Reds 6.4 10 43 2007
Miguel Cabrera 2012 Tigers 6.4 10 12 2003
Andres Torres 2010 Giants 6.3 10 Unranked Unranked
Manny Machado 2013 Orioles 6.2 10 11 2012
Carlos Gomez 2014 Brewers 5.7 T-10 52 2008
Adrian Beltre 2014 Rangers 5.7 T-10 3 1998
CC Sabathia 2010 Yankees 5.1 10 Unranked Unranked
Max Scherzer 2014 Tigers 5.1 10 66 2008
Matt Garza 2011 Cubs 5.0 10 21 2007
CC Sabathia 2012 Yankees 4.7 10 Unranked Unranked
Chris Sale 2013 White Sox 4.7 10 20 2011

That is a big, ugly table, so here are some summary facts. Of this 101-player sample, 20 were never ranked by Baseball America, so indeed, top players appear to be more likely to have been a ranked prospect (80%) than good players (66%, per Jeff’s article). None of the unranked players were ever the best position player or pitcher in 2010-2014; the 1st place player with the lowest ranking was Cliff Lee, who topped out at 30th in 2003. The unranked players tended to be concentrated toward the bottom of the WAR leaderboards; 75% of the unranked players had a rank of 5th through 10th. I expected more of the people in 8th through 10th in a given season to be beneficiaries of a fluke season, but there are a lot fewer of those than I expected. The unranked players with the least impressive careers outside their top seasons are probably Andres Torres and RA Dickey, but the other unranked players are pretty uniformly great. Maybe not top-10-WAR-every-year-great, but still, great.

What about pitchers versus position players? If the top 10 by WAR of one group was more likely to include unranked players than the other, that would suggest that group was more difficult to scout and accurately predict. But while the split between pitchers and hitters among the unranked players is not totally even, 12 to 8, it’s well within what I would expect from random variation. Maybe a bigger sample could pull something meaningful out, but I’m not comfortable concluding there’s a difference based on this alone.

The following chart digs more into the individual ranks in each season. The x-axis is the WAR rank, and the bar height is the percentage of players at that point that were in the BA top 100. The line running across the chart is the average BA ranking of the players that were ranked.

chart 1

What this shows is a pretty steady decline in the percentage of players ranked in the BA Top 100 as you move down the WAR leaderboard, and a totally random average ranking of those ranked players. This fits with my perception of prospect rankings – being good enough to be ranked is pretty important, but the exact position on those rankings is not very predictive. As Jeff showed, it’s very tough to be good without being ranked, but this suggests it’s not tough for a prospect to be ranked as if he’ll be merely good, but be great some season.

What about consistent greatness? This list I created really doesn’t capture the best players of the last five years, but the best player-seasons. Can someone be really excellent over a sustained period of time if they weren’t ranked? For this, rather than looking at individual seasons, I grabbed the top 25 hitters and the top 25 pitchers by total WAR from 2010 through 2014. I thought about doing several five-year periods, but I didn’t want to double-count someone like Miguel Cabrera, who would show up for both 2010-14 and 2009-13. Below, a slightly less-giant table than the first, containing similar information: their WAR from 2010-2014, their highest BA ranking (if any), and the year that ranking came in.

Name Team WAR Highest Prospect Rank Year
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 32.2 7 2008
Miguel Cabrera Tigers 31.4 12 2003
Andrew McCutchen Pirates 30.9 13 2007
Robinson Cano – – – 29.9 Unranked Unranked
Mike Trout Angels 29.5 2 2011
Adrian Beltre – – – 29.1 3 1998
Felix Hernandez Mariners 28.9 2 2005
Jose Bautista Blue Jays 27.8 Unranked Unranked
Justin Verlander Tigers 26.7 8 2006
Ben Zobrist Rays 26.7 Unranked Unranked
Cliff Lee – – – 26.2 30 2003
Joey Votto Reds 26.2 43 2007
Evan Longoria Rays 26.1 2 2008
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 24.9 77 2006
David Price – – – 24.5 2 2009
Buster Posey Giants 23.8 7 2010
Matt Holliday Cardinals 22.8 Unranked Unranked
Troy Tulowitzki Rockies 22.7 15 2007
Chase Headley – – – 22 32 2008
Cole Hamels Phillies 21.9 17 2004
Alex Gordon Royals 21.7 2 2007
Jason Heyward Braves 21.7 1 2010
Ian Kinsler – – – 21.3 98 2005
Zack Greinke – – – 21.2 14 2004
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 21.2 18 2003
Max Scherzer Tigers 21.1 66 2008
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 21 3 2010
Yadier Molina Cardinals 21 Unranked Unranked
Chase Utley Phillies 21 81 2003
Adrian Gonzalez – – – 20.6 31 2003
Ryan Braun Brewers 20.5 26 2007
David Wright Mets 20.5 21 2004
Jacoby Ellsbury – – – 20 13 2008
Josh Hamilton – – – 19.8 1 2001
Anibal Sanchez – – – 19.7 40 2006
Jered Weaver Angels 19.7 57 2006
Jon Lester – – – 19.2 22 2006
CC Sabathia Yankees 18.8 Unranked Unranked
James Shields – – – 18.3 Unranked Unranked
Hiroki Kuroda – – – 17.8 Unranked Unranked
Madison Bumgarner Giants 17.8 9 2009
Gio Gonzalez – – – 17.7 26 2008
Mat Latos – – – 17.6 Unranked Unranked
Doug Fister – – – 16.9 Unranked Unranked
Roy Halladay Phillies 16.5 12 1999
Chris Sale White Sox 16.1 20 2011
C.J. Wilson – – – 15.6 Unranked Unranked
Dan Haren – – – 15.5 Unranked Unranked
Jordan Zimmermann Nationals 15.5 41 2009
Johnny Cueto Reds 15.5 34 2008

Of these 50 players, 12 were unranked, or almost the exact same percentage as the single-season leaders (24% for the five-year vs. 20% for the single-season). Of the 12 unranked players, 7 came between 38th and 50th on the leaderboard, but 3 came in the top 10 (Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, and Ben Zobrist). At first glance, there was no meaningful split in the unranked players between pitchers and hitters (7 vs. 5), but interestingly, all 7 of the unranked pitchers were in the bottom half of the pitcher leaderboard. All of the top 12 pitchers in the last five years were ranked, with Max Scherzer (#66 on BA’s 2008 list) the lowest, so perhaps it’s less likely a pitcher will be truly elite out of nowhere than a hitter. Again, with this small a sample, I’m not comfortable concluding anything, but it’s certainly interesting.

This is kind of an anticlimactic article, because none of my expectations were turned upside down. A great player was likely to have been ranked at some point, more likely than a merely good player, but there are still some who come out of nowhere. Of those ranked, the actual rank seems to matter less than the fact that they cracked the top 100. None of that is very surprising, but hopefully it’s still interesting to see it all laid out.

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Henry is a very-part-time baseball writer whose past work has appeared at Beyond the Box Score and Baseball Prospectus. Find him on Twitter @henrydruschel, and find his other writing at medium.com/@henrydruschel.

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Roger Munter
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Roger Munter

Really nice summary. Just wanted to add an editorial note you may want to go back and clean up: CC Sabathia, was indeed a top ranked prospect. He appeared on the BA Top 100 twice with a peak ranking of #7 following the 2000 season. Others of course were on the prospect map (Dan Haren for instance was #1 in the Cards system at one point) but not top 100 elite, which is a bit of a gray area as the strength of those lists from year to year might wax and wane and of course the back end can… Read more »

Henry Druschel
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Henry Druschel

Ugh, you’re totally right about Sabathia — Fangraphs has him as “C.C.”, and the BA list has him as “CC”, so they didn’t match each other.
And yeah, this is absolutely not a foolproof method, for all the reasons you mentioned and more. I’m very aware of the fact that top 100 is a totally arbitrary cutoff — I’d much rather work off something like Kiley’s lists, where I could pull anyone who was ranked 60 FV or above, or something like that. The hope is that in the aggregate, it’s good enough, which may or may not be the case.

BranchRickey11937
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BranchRickey11937

Nice job Henry. Sometimes these straightforward research pieces are very valuable and they need to be updated occasionally as well. The lesson here, as you point out, is that there is a great deal of significance to making the BA list but not so much in the specific ranking. That’s very useful knowledge, and shows that for fantasy purposes, grabbing a player whose profile you like, but who may be somewhat down the list, isn’t necessarily a silly move.

Henry Druschel
Guest
Henry Druschel

Yeah, that felt like the main useful takeaway to me too — not totally surprising, but hopeful useful to confirm empirically. It makes me appreciate Kiley’s work for the site even more, since it’s been his emphasis on value rather than position that made this unsurprising.