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Let’s play a game for a moment. You’re a General Manager of a non-contending team and you’re interested in dealing the club’s most valuable trade chip – a perennial All-Star whose services no longer fit with the long term plans. Five contending teams are interested for help down the stretch, each offering one of the following prospects as a potential centerpiece:
Player A: Standing a solid 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the former first rounder, 23rd overall, is one of the elite power bats in the minor leagues – a fact that becomes all that more impressive given his position (SS). Including his work in the Arizona Fall League, he once slugged 57 homeruns in a 163-game stretch. He was briefly called up during his age-23 season and struggled in 150 at bats (.200/.224/.327 with a 43/4 K/BB ratio). He’s widely recognized as one of the top prospects in baseball – despite some swing-and-miss tendencies.
Player B: Former second overall pick put a rough showing in High Class A behind him (.250/.397/.421) to have one of the best showings in Class AA in recent memory. Twenty-plus homerun potential with solid peripherals from the hot corner. He’s widely recognized as one of the top prospects in baseball.
Player C: Former 10th round pick transferred from the SEC to a small-time baseball college. Solid or better defensive backstop who’s continually hit well with solid-average power, though that comes against mostly age appropriate levels of competition. He’s a career .283/.344/.478 minor league hitter. Big league ready and a potential candidate to start for Team Brazil in the World Baseball Classic.
Player D: Former tenth overall pick is one of the premium defensive center fielders in the minors – a potential game changer on both sides of the ball. A potential 20/20 threat, he’s topped the league average production by at least 25% at each stop since his age-20 season in High Class A.
Player E: Another former #2 overall pick, the lefty-swinging second baseman was considered the most polished, advanced bat in the entire class. Above-average patience with 15- to 17-homerun potential from an up the middle position. Big league ready.
Remember: you’re dealing the face of the franchise and if you swing-and-miss you’ll put the club year’s behind on the rebuilding effort, not to mention placing yourself firmly on the hot seat.
Of those five, which player do you take?
CAL, the Comparison And Likeness player classification system I developed, is based off of one simple concept: CONTEXT.
In other words, how have similarly performing prospects developed in the latter parts of their respective careers?
CAL, which is based off of Bill James’ Similarity Scores Formula (which can be found on Baseball Reference), uses a litany of differently weighted statistics – age, position, level of competition, speed, plate discipline, power, production – to determine a prospect’s top comparisons.
Then, based off of a prospect’s top comparables, better analysis can be provided by means of comparing similarly performing minor leaguers. For example, Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon earned his first shot at regular duty this season, at the age of 27. But CAL happened to be a pretty big fan of the 2014 All-Star.
Now, admittedly, it’s a pretty underwhelming group – until you delve into the numbers. Using Weighted Runs Created Plus, a statistic that measures a player’s total offensive contributions scaled to 100, which is league average, consider each player’s career totals:
Of Blackmon’s top five CALs, three are sporting career wRC+ between 92 and 99. And where does the Rockies outfielder fall? 94. Looking back at Blackmon’s top five, analytically speaking, it would have been reasonable to assume that we would be a slightly below-average offensive performer. And he has been.
Now going back to the original question posed: Which one of the top five prospects would you gamble on?
Based on the top CALs for each player prior to entering their first full action at the big league level, CAL would have chosen Gomes – the mid-20s backstop who was flipped with Mike Aviles by Toronto for reliever Esmil Rogers.
Just as before, here’s a breakdown of each player’s top comparisons with their respective career wRC+ totals:
Based solely on the top five groupings for each player, CAL would have suggested taking the prospects in the following order: Gomes (two close to league average backstop bats), Moustakas (two well below-average hitters and one league average bat), Maybin (two fringy offensive outfielders), Ackley (two below-average bats), and Wood (prospect busts).
In a nutshell, CAL uses a couple algorithms to search a database (FanGraphs’ minor league stats which extends back to 2006) to find similar players.
Here are some additional examples:
- Butler’s career wRC+: 117 (4,811 PA)
- Morrison’s career wRC+: 109 (1,844 PA)
- Gonzalez’s career wRC+: 121 (3,107 PA)
- Kemp’s career wRC+: 128 (4,496 PA)
- Bruce’s wRC+: 109 (3,951 PA)
- Jones’ wRC+: 109 (4,487 PA)
- Arcia’s wRC+: 106 (788 PA)
- Brown’s wRC+: 97 (1,544 PA)
- Alvarez’s wRC+: 104 (2,293 PA)
- Reynolds’s wRC+: 106 (4,380 PA)
- Francisco’s wRC+: 100 (1,091 PA)
- Simmons’ wRC+: 84 (1,416 PA)
- Gregorius’ wRC+: 84 (724 PA)
- Casilla’s wRC+: 71 (1,893 PA)
- Escobar’s wRC+: 76 (3,198 PA)
- Hechavarria’s wRC+: 68 (1,289 PA)