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Don't Be Fooled by Prospect Ceilings

Honesty. Accountability.

For myself, these are aspects of humanity that I value, that are essential to the manner in which we relate, move information.

Even more so, in the age of unending coverage and infinite voices, transparency matters. Parsing information is becoming a more important skill as the volume of information we must sort through grows exponentially. 

Which brings me to prospect valuation, an industry with incredible sheen. 

I spent two years covering the Indians minor league system, balancing both my limited opportunities to observe the system 8-15 times a year with advanced statistics which have existing but not strong correlations with big league success.

However, I am not a scout, I cannot effectively evaluate torso stacking (Hayden Grove wrote a must-read piece about this term and Trevor Bauer's beautiful mind), arm torque based on delivery or grade command based on one or two minor league outings. 

Most importantly, I think I learned a few things along the way about being a consumer of prospect writing which is worth noting.

I did notice, covering the minors for one specific team, changed the nature in which one looks at prospects. That is, understanding that an honest, analytical criticism (essentially being the cold shower) was not what people are looking for.

This is because prospect writing surrounding a specific team has a collection of perverse incentives. 

It stems from one essential reality, projection from year to year for a big league player is hard, projecting what type of player a 19-year-old in Single-A will become is near impossible. 

Due to a relatively universal understanding of the principal, we don't expect writers to always hit on top prospects but we do expect them not to miss on someone who becomes a star. The bust rate we accept as a law of baseball but a prospect who slipped through the scouting/writing crack is frowned upon.

Further, prospects as we discuss them, are about the unknown, they are about promise, promise that the organization is headed in the right direction even during a season when the big league team is taking it in the teeth.

These two points create an incentive for optimism, those who cover a minor league system face the reality of optimism about prospects being the only avenue to generating clicks.

Which is where the problem begins, the problem being that every system has at least five blogs competing for the clicks in covering a system and the only way to generate clicks is to set aside critical analysis for optimism.  As they will never be criticized for a prospect flopping that they hyped but rather for a prospect succeeding that they ignored. 

A secondary issue is information:

As those who cover generally stick to a few different routes or modes.

The first is what I will call my idealized mode, which I will name for Jim Pete, someone who has always provided me insight. 

Jim has a tremendous ability to talk to anyone in a room, to build relationships with anybody and when it comes to providing information, this is pretty useful. What Jim was so good at was building relationships with scouts, the organization, the players and just observing.

When I would talk to Jim about guys in Carolina he always had insight because of this incredible ability.

But unfortunately, the other manner of coverage, while it can display interesting information is not as fair an evaluative tool.

These are those that rely on the organization for assessment. One of the problems is that a lot of the key sources people talk to are those who work in the organization which has a significant bias on the information.

Being, that when a player is in the organization, the organization like any business has proprietary interests, one of them being to inflate the value of their assets.

Therefore, team sources can provide interesting information in terms of a pitch a somebody is working on or a toe tap but anything else has to be taken with a grain of salt.

My point with all of these pieces is the following, don't allow to blow smoke, the information is going to be biased, be a good consumer, and despite what was said by pundits Dorsyss Paulino is not the Indians best right-handed hitting prospect since Manny Ramirez.

I would note that the analyst most willing to discuss a players limitations is the one with more validity than the minors hype machine.

The Ceiling Excuse:

This is inspired by a delightful conversation with John Grimm who offered a lot of insight on this matter.
But ceiling is just such a weird thing. Go back a few years and you could easily say, 'Zobrist might be a fine utility guy, but he doesn't really have an all-star ceiling.' Same with Cano, Kluber, Salazar, Donaldson, Moss, Todd Frazier, Vogt
Ceiling tires me. It is an excuse to give leeway, its vagary is a tool of avoiding an actual projection of what will come.

Finally, despite its vagary, evaluators really struggle to even get ceilings right.

John Sickels, a giant in the industry had this to say about Corey Kluber as a prospect:
"Kluber isn't an ace-type and I think he's a league-average pitcher when all is said and done, but that's hardly a bad thing. I don't see any reason why he can't continue to eat innings at a good clip. Someone who can give a team 180 league-average or slightly better innings has a lot of value."
Indeed, no one outside of Corey Kluber, Ruben Niebla and Mickey Callaway foresaw him becoming one of the five best pitchers in Major League Baseball.

Michael Brantley was never a top 100 prospect, in 2014 he was an MVP candidate.

Yan Gomes was a throw-in who was discussed as a platoon type who may or may not stick at catcher with solid power.

The point being, that ceilings, at least in baseball are often invisible, are often changed and ultimately the phrase is just one created by the prospect community to offer room to be wrong.

Honesty.

Baseball is strewn with uncertainty, it's sole certainty is its lack of certainty but don't let those who assert certainty deceive you. 

Prospect writing is really hard but doing it without attempting to sell ones self, doing without attempting to grab clicks might just make for more reasonable analysis, and hopefully more reasonable expectations.

With this high bar I will note that EHC will be expanding its coverage of the Indians system over the the next fews weeks, and will attempt to provide balance and insight.
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