02-21-2006, 12:36 PM
I'm interested in the opinion of this board on Rob Neyer's column. Since the Reds have been trying to develop their own pitching for the last 2 years this seems like some good articles to discuss.
In response to my last column, about a few well-stocked farm systems, Sam Miller writes in with a comment and a question.
Comment: "Chuck Tiffany's not a Dodger any more. They traded him to the Devil Rays in the Danys Baez deal."
True enough. And I'm grateful to Sam (and a few other readers) for correcting the record on this one. Tiffany gives the D-Rays yet another promising young pitcher. Which leads to Sam's question:
"I have a Risk vs. Reward question: Is it better to be stacked with hitting prospects, like the Snakes, or pitching prospects, like the Fish?"
It's funny, for some reason I was wondering this exact thing. I'd like to report that my question led to an answer, but I'm afraid that -- like most of my questions -- this one simply led to the hope that if I raised the question in my public forum, somebody else would do the heavy thinking. But let's at least try to work through some of the issues involved...
Last season, 27 American League pitchers threw at least 162 innings and posted an ERA of 4.35 -- the league average -- or lower (No. 1 was Kevin Millwood; No. 27 was Jamie Moyer). That's actually more than I expected.
Also last season, 51 American League batters got at least 502 plate appearances and posted an OPS of .754 -- the league average -- or better (No. 1 was Alex Rodriguez; No. 51 was Gary Matthews Jr.). That's actually fewer than I expected.
Of course, a huge caveat applies: Pitchers are selected for the major leagues because they can pitch; hitters are selected because they can hit and/or field.
Another caveat: There's more inherent value in 180 innings than in 500 at-bats. A player who racks up 500 lousy at-bats is doing little but making outs and stealing playing time from some younger (and often cheaper) player. A pitcher who throws 180 innings is, at the very least, probably relieving pressure on young (and perhaps fragile) pitchers and saving the bullpen. There's a reason some hurlers are valued as "innings-eaters" (if little else).
And if Jamie Moyer -- well, a younger Jamie Moyer -- were a free agent today, he would command a significantly higher salary than would Gary Matthews Jr. Other evidence of recent vintage: Esteban Loaiza, Russ Ortiz and Kris Benson. If you can stay healthy and not embarrass yourself, you can make a lot of money in this game.
Right or wrong, there's certainly a general belief that a decent pitcher is more valuable than a decent hitter (at least based on my admittedly questionable definition of "decent"). If you're building a team and you've got a simple choice between the fifth-best hitter and the fifth-best pitcher, you probably take the pitcher ... because tomorrow it'll probably be easier to find a hitter than a pitcher.
But those are major leaguers we're talking about. What about fresh-faced youngsters?
Ten years ago, my friend John Sickels wrote (and I edited) his first annual compendium of minor-league prospects. In that book, John's top 10 hitting prospects were Johnny Damon, Andruw Jones, Derek Jeter, Ruben Rivera, Karim Garcia, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Jose Valentin, Steve Gibralter and Todd Walker. Five of those players are building Hall of Fame credentials (though only Jeter is most of the way there). John's top 10 pitching prospects were Paul Wilson, Billy Wagner, Jason Schmidt, Jimmy Haynes, Jeff Suppan, Alan Benes, Rocky Coppinger, Ugueth Urbina, Bartolo Colon and Terrell Wade. Wagner later became a fantastic 70-innings pitcher, and Schmidt and Colon have done some nice things. But with the possible exception of Wagner, I don't see any Hall of Famers in that group.
And 1996 was not atypical. Hitters are more predictable than pitchers, mostly because they don't get hurt as often.
In Sickels' new book, the Diamondbacks have three of the top 11 hitters, and the Red Sox have three of the top nine pitchers. So, getting back the original question: Is it better to be the D-Backs or the Red Sox? The D-Backs, I think. Arizona's hitters are more likely to help the big club, and more likely to help soon. Nothing's certain in baseball, but predictability does have a value all its own. The Red Sox are thrilled to have Craig Hansen, Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester ... but are they counting on any of those fragile young hurlers in 2006 -- or at any point in the future?
It's a good thing to have young pitchers who might become something someday. But it's a better thing to have young hitters who probably will be something someday.
02-21-2006, 12:37 PM
The next article.............
As expected, I received a great deal of considered opinions about my last column, regarding the relative worth of hitting prospects and pitching prospects (I favored having young hitters). Here's a representative sample (and I wish I had the space for all the good ones):
Matt Galemmo: I read all of your stuff, and I am a huge fan. But your column about pitching prospects vs. hitting prospects was incomplete. You did well to prove that developing pitching is more risky (although this is not particularly insightful anymore) in the second half of the article, and alluded to how developing pitching may be more rewarding in the first half. But the article ended before you tied the halves together.
The question still remains: Is the reward worth the risk? Since most GMs would take the fifth-best pitcher over the fifth-best hitter in the majors, there clearly must be a line where pitchers are also more preferable in the minor leagues. And it seems that line gets harder to find as the players get younger. For example, I expect both Arizona and Boston would prefer to have the pitchers at this point in their careers, but maybe 1-2 seasons ago, that might be the opposite.
So I am disappointed. Although I do not expect you to have the time and resources to do all the heavy lifting necessary to definitively answer the question, I was at least expecting some parameters to better define the solution.
Rob: Thanks for the note, Matt. What you don't realize is that if I'd supplied all the parameters -- let alone a solution! -- in my last column, I wouldn't have had anything to write about today. I mean, one can repeat the words pitchers and catchers ... pitchers and catchers ... only so many times, and fairness demands that I give the Reds' new GM a few months before declaring general incompetence. (Also, I knew if I didn't set parameters or offer an solution, the e-mail would be better. To wit ...)
Kevin: Great article, great evidence using 1996 material. However, when comparing the D-Backs and [Red] Sox, I ask you this question: Who would you rather be since '96, the A's or the Rangers? The A's were built with young pitching: [Barry] Zito, [Tim] Hudson, [Mark] Mulder, whereas the current Rangers have been built by monster hitters: [Mark] Teixeira, [Michael] Young, [Hank] Blalock ... even had A-Rod recently. Now I am not saying that the A's didn't have any hitting, because they did have MVPs in [Miguel] Tejada and [Jason] Giambi. I understand, many good things have happened for the A's.
However, they were able to spin Hudson and Mulder for two pitchers who should be a part of their staff for the next 4-5 years (until they get expensive) in [Dan] Haren and [Kiko] Calero (and maybe a third in [Dan] Meyer). They also developed [Rich] Harden, [Joe] Blanton and [Huston] Street. The Marlins wouldn't have won in '03 without [Josh] Beckett and [Dontrelle] Willis.
Now I understand your point was that the top 10 vs. top 10 showed the hitters were more predictable, but the original question of being the Fish or Rays. I think I would rather be the Fish and all the pitchers they traded for. The only way you are going to win big is by having pitching. I think, at least.
Rob: I'd rather be the A's, of course.
But you've left out a critical piece of information here, Kevin. What the A's did (and are still doing) is incredibly rare. And it's not simply a matter of trying. Ten years ago, the Mets had three young pitchers who were so impressive they got a nickname: "Generation K." In 1990, the A's owned four of the first 36 picks in the amateur draft and used all four on college pitchers. They got a nickname: "The Four Aces."
Well, the best of the Mets' K-men -- for the Mets, at least -- was Jason Isringhausen, who went 18-21 with 4.67 ERA in 60 games. The best of Oakland's aces was Todd Van Poppel, who went 18-29 with a 5.75 in 104 games. Yes, these are somewhat extreme examples. But not nearly as extreme as Hudson-Mulder-Zito (or even Harden-Blanton). For every group of young pitchers who developed into stars, I'll find you three or four or more groups that did not.
B.D. Snell: Can I offer an alternate interpretation, based on the same data, of whether a team is better off stockpiling hitting or pitching prospects?
Let's say we're farming to feed ourselves, and our diet requires that we eat both corn and wheat. Every corn seed we plant has a 50 percent chance of producing a healthy plant. Every wheat seed, however, has only a 10 percent chance of producing a healthy plant. Now, given that I need both crops to survive, doesn't it make sense that I plant more wheat? Since corn is much more productive, wouldn't it make sense to invest less of my resources there, and more on the wheat, maximizing my chances of producing good wheat plants?
It seems to me that if hitting and pitching are of roughly equal importance, then stockpiling hitters but not pitchers leaves you more unbalanced than before, and less likely of coming up with your own pitchers. Sure, you can obtain both on the open market in free-agent form, but right now pitching seems to be far more overpriced than hitting. Put it this way: Even if pitching prospects pan out at a very poor rate, isn't stockpiling a lot of pitching prospects far cheaper than paying for Josh Beckett? And yes, you could still trade your excess hitting prospects for pitching. But (A) if you're trading for veterans, you're probably overpaying; and (B) if you're trading for pitching prospects, well, their prospects aren't any more likely to pan out than the ones you could have drafted, right?
Of course, a team's financial position, and where it is on the opportunity cycle, will make a huge difference. But it seems to me if a commodity is both rare and necessary, concentrate your resources there. Hitting is cheaper and more readily available. I'd put more coin into developing pitchers.
R.J. Neyer: I love analogies, Brian. I think there's a flaw in yours, though.
We do need both corn and wheat. But it's not like we're not on Easter Island before the advent of inter-island trading. If we grow more corn than we can eat, we can trade our surplus corn for somebody else's wheat. So it seems to me that if only 10 percent of your wheat is going to develop, maybe you should stop trying to grow it.
You do, of course, acknowledge the possibility of trading for pitching prospects, but I don't think you acknowledge the possible advantage of doing that. We're assuming that teams automatically place a high value on their own pitching prospects, and perhaps they do. But how high, exactly?
Remember, a year ago the Cardinals were willing to trade Daric Barton -- their best young hitter -- and Kiko Calero and Dan Haren to the A's for Mark Mulder. It's certainly true that teams place an extraordinarily high value on some young pitchers; for example, I don't think the Twins would trade Francisco Liriano for any young hitter (with the possible exception of Delmon Young). But there are bargains to be found. Haren was undervalued by the Cardinals. A few years ago, I'll bet you could have had Brandon Webb for a song. Why not let somebody else do the hard work of drafting and developing the young hurler, and then swoop in and pluck him for yourself, after he's proved he can stay reasonably healthy?
Shawn Campbell: In regards to your recent column about young hitters being more valuable than young pitchers, I think you may have overlooked some things. I agree with your premise that hitters are typically more predicable than pitchers for a number of reasons. But if you asked MLB GMs, what do you think their answer would be? Would you rather have [Conor] Jackson, [Stephen] Drew and [Carlos] Quentin, or [Jon] Papelbon, [Jon] Lester and [Craig] Hansen? Another question to ask would be, which players do you think would be more valuable in a trade? Maybe I'm missing something, but I think I'd rather have two potential front-end starters and a closer than a SS, a 1B and an OF who would probably be easier to find replacements for.
Rob: Ah, but there's your problem, Shawn. That one pesky word: potential. Yes, Papelbon and Lester are potentially front-end starters. But the odds are against either of them actually becoming one of those valuable beasts of burden. Three years ago, Jeremy Bonderman was going to be one, and I suppose that he might still. But it's three years later, and his career stats include 31 wins, 45 losses and a 4.98 ERA. What about Ben Sheets? He was supposed to be one of those guys, too. After his first three seasons, he was 33-39 with a 4.42 ERA. Ten years ago, Jason Schmidt was one of the game's top pitching prospects. After his first three seasons (including just a few innings in 1995), Schmidt was 17-17 with a 5.04 ERA.
Do you really think the Red Sox are going to put up with performances like that while they're trying to topple the Evil Empire? I don't.
Chris Lakey: Rob, I liked the column about golden arms vs. golden bats, and I think you are right about predictability being valuable and hitters being predictably more valuable than pitchers. But what about perception? In other words, we all know the old saying: pitching, pitching, pitching and "we" all know its hooey; but, I wonder about your assessment of the D-Backs vs. the Red Sox, and obviously I have no way of knowing for sure. But hear me out if you will:
Now I'm not disagreeing with you, I just wonder if Lester, Paps and Hansen seem more valuable to other clubs than they are to the Red Sox; do they seem more valuable to other clubs than the D-Backs' hitters? Couldn't you make the argument that Paps and Lester are more valuable commodities than Conor Jackson, for example? The Sox themselves just flipped a perennial top hitting prospect for Coco [Crisp] -- would they have flipped Lester for Coco? I doubt that very much; Paps? ... And, I think they are most definitely relying on Paps for 2006. (Maybe more than we know? Just speculation.)
Would [Arizona GM Josh] Byrnes trade Jackson for Lester? I see your point that hitters are more predictable. But when, then, do pitchers seem to have more value as prospects?
Rob: Josh Byrnes might trade Conor Jackson for Jon Lester, but that's not the right question to ask. According to John Sickels, Jackson is the No. 20 hitting prospect, Lester the No. 8 pitching prospect. The more relevant question is, would Byrnes trade Carlos Quentin (No. 6) or Stephen Drew (No. 8) for Lester, straight up? And I think the answer is no, he would not (would you?).
Ned Rice: Baseball Prospectus did a column in 2002 that is very similar to the one you just wrote that compares the value of pitching and hitting prospects. I know you are a reader of that site, so you've probably already seen it, but I wanted to pass it along just in case. Not surprisingly, they reached a very similar conclusion.
Rob: Well, I wouldn't go quite that far, Ned; I didn't reach much of a conclusion. But the article's author, Paul Covert, did conclude -- based on the evidence at hand four years ago -- that a pitcher should essentially never be ranked among the top five prospects.
Dave: Rob, I enjoyed your article on pitching vs. hitting prospects, but I must say that I found your conclusion a little shaky.
First off, you provide very little evidence, save for one year of top 10 prospects. I'm not claiming that the evidence wouldn't hold true for subsequent years, but I think a more thorough analysis would help you to prove your case.
Secondly, you said yourself that 180 innings is much more valuable than 500 at-bats. I don't know what the conversion rate would be, but if one out of Boston's three prospects pans out (not unreasonable, I think), and two out of Arizona's three pan out, I'm not sure that Boston doesn't get the better deal. Plus, someone will probably give the Red Sox something useful to take a shot at developing a fallen star, while the D-Backs will be much more hard-pressed to get anything for a failed hitting prospect.
If someone takes you up on your offer and does the "heavy thinking," I'd love to take a look at those results. It seems like risk vs. reward, where the risk is much higher on the pitchers, but so is the reward. Over time, though, I'm not convinced that the safe bet of the hitters wins, as you suggest.
Rob: I think I've figured this out, Dave.
It's not that I'd rather have a hitting prospect instead of a pitching prospect. It's that a hitting prospect isn't the same as a pitching prospect. Given a choice between the No. 2 pitching prospect -- for the sake of argument, let's say Francisco Liriano -- and the No. 2 hitting prospect -- Jeremy Hermida -- I'm going to take Hermida every time, and I suspect that most GMs would, too.
You know, people say that pitchers are more important than hitters, but does anybody (other than the pitchers) really believe it's true? I suppose I've trod this ground before, but who wins more Most Valuable Player Awards? Pitchers or hitters? Who wins more Rookie of the Year Awards? Who makes more money?
Hitters, hitters and hitters.
Some years ago, Baseball America's No. 1 and No. 2 prospects were Mark Prior and Josh Beckett. Now, I could be wrong about this, but I doubt if that would happen again today. In this year's "Baseball America Prospect Handbook," Jim Callis has six hitters ranked ahead of his top-ranked pitcher (Francisco Liriano), and he's got only five pitchers listed among the top 20 prospects.
Jim wouldn't suggest, nor would I, that teams shouldn't draft pitchers, shouldn't try to develop their own. If you have the eighth pick in the draft and Mark Prior is still on the board, then you smile a big smile and you draft him. Of course, the Red Sox are very fortunate to have Jon Lester, Jon Papelbon and Craig Hansen in their organization. Given their druthers, though -- and ignoring any specific roster issues of this particular moment -- I suspect they'd rather have Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson. But check back with me in three years.
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