As much of a unified vision as we often have as a staff here at Seedlings to Stars, we certainly have our disagreements. After all, no two prospect evaluators are going to agree on every single prospect out there.
One of the bigger points of contention between Wally and I deals with Twins shortstop prospect Brian Dozier. I liked him enough to rate him #77 on my top 100 prospects, while Wally sees him as more of a utility infielder. From what I can gather, my ambitious ranking of the 24-year-old is more out of the norm than Wally’s position, so in this piece, I’m going to rehash my rationale and see how it holds up to some statistical benchmarks.
What does “Top 100 Prospect” mean? It’s not like we often sit down and rank the “Top 100 MLB Players” (It wouldn’t shock me if Bleacher Report’s had a few of those, but that’s beside the point). Given that prospects are all different ages and at different levels of competition, there are any number of methodologies that could be employed to generate a “Top 100 Prospects List.” Top 100 most likely to make the majors? Top 100 upsides? Top 100 most exciting? Top 100 based on tools? Top 100 based on stats? A hybrid of those?
My own approach largely boils down to “what is the weighted mean of a player’s projected MLB contributions?” Most prospect lists probably boil down to a similar concept–even very scouting-oriented lists don’t rank entirely on tools and pure upside. I probably weight floor more than most, but I take my own tools gambles–I ranked Anthony Gose in the top 25 and put Maikel Cleto in the top 100, for two examples.
I just discussed the concept of the list, and my list, but we should also consider what ranking in the top 100 prospects really means. You won’t read many top 100 lists that don’t gush about the majority of the players, even those ranked 75-100. Certainly, it’s not easy for prospects to make a top 100 list–there are roughly 180 or so US minor league teams, so if we assume each has a 25-man roster, that’s 4500 players in the minors. Roughly, then, the top 100 are the top 2%–that’s a pretty high honor.
That’s the way I think most people look at it. I look at it from the other direction.
Just about all top 100 prospects are between age 18 and age 24. Theoretically, then, the “peak” of this minor league class (or any) will be when the 21-year-olds are 27. At that point, the 24-year-olds will be just exiting their primes, the 21-year-olds will be right in their primes, and the 18-year-olds that work out will likely already be in the majors.
At any given time besides September, there are 750 players in the major leagues (not counting the DL). If we define the peak of a minor league class as six years later (when the 18-year-olds are 24, 21-year-olds are 27, and 24-year-olds are 30), then how much of the major leagues is made up of players from that minor league class?
My gut feeling was that it was roughly a third, or 250 players. I took a look at all position players (since this article, when I get back to the topic at hand, is about a position player) that got 150 plate appearances in 2011, just to get a feel for the age distribution. 241 of the 406 were between 24 and 30–nearly 60%.
That doesn’t mean my one-third estimate is all that far off, though, because any given minor league class doesn’t represent all players 18-to-24. For one thing, some players are already years into their major league career by age 24. 67 of those 406 position players are 24 or younger–those guys would factor into the “age class” of the 2011 minor leaguers when the class peaks in 2017, but obviously, they aren’t eligible for prospect lists. Secondly, there are some 18, 19, 20, 21, and even 22-year-olds that will ultimately become part of the minor leagues later, but are still in college now.
So, if the current 18-to-24 age class will peak at roughly 60% occupation of MLB rosters, but a bit over a quarter of that is comprised by already-established MLB players and another chunk of it is comprised by players still in college, then we’re probably looking at 200 to 250 roster spots for the current class of “prospects.” More than that will play in the majors, of course, especially since we’re talking about such a wide age range, but when it comes to consistent jobs and playing time, that’s about the number we’re looking at.
What this long five-paragraph digression means is that to be a top 100 prospect, a player needs to project to fill one of the top 100 out of those 200 or 250 slots. For purposes of this, let’s say my 1/3 inclination was correct, and it’s roughly 250 spots. That means prospect #100 needs to end up in the 60th percentile of players to justify his ranking, for example.
I’m at word #800, and I’m finally going to bring this back to Brian Dozier. Dozier isn’t a physical specimen, at 5’11″ and 190 pounds. None of his tools stand out, unless you count plate approach as a tool. He makes solid contact, rips some doubles, will steal a base occasionally, is sure-handed, and has a below-average arm–nothing all that exciting from a scouting perspective. He’s also 25 in May and has yet to play above Double-A. It’s totally understandable why someone wouldn’t think of him as being in the 98th percentile of minor leaguers.
However, it’s a bit easier to see why he might sneak into the 60th percentile of major leaguers.
No matter what you think of Dozier, you have to admit he had a breakout 2011. Even Wally admits that (at least, I think he does). Dozier hit .322/.423/.472 in High-A and .318/.384/.502 in Double-A, also going 24-for-35 on the bases. His pre-2011 performances didn’t feature as much power, but he’s always had tremendous K/BB ratios–his 46/28 mark in Double-A was the worst of his career in that regard.
As an older prospect, most of Dozier’s value lies in his high floor. Nobody, not even I, thinks he’s some sort of superstar-in-the-making. In order to figure out what type of floor he has, at least from a statistical viewpoint, I decided to plug his 2011 numbers into the Minor League Equivalency calculator.
For his High-A stint, Dozier’s line translates to .249/.327/.351. His Double-A line translates to .261/.312/.391. Overall, then, his line translates to .256/.318/.376 in the big leagues for 2011. Whether you think that’s too high or too low, there’s really no more objective way to determine his current production relative to the major leagues, so that’s what I’m using.
So, where would that put him relative to other major leaguers? There’s some debate as to whether Dozier is a shortstop or a second baseman long term, so I decided to treat him as a “middle infielder” and compare his translated statistics to those of the 59 middle infielders who received the most plate appearances in 2011. Essentially, if Dozier was a major league starter in 2011, how would he measure up to other starting middle infielders?
Here’s a look at the mean and median numbers of those top 59 middle infielders:
Okay, so we have that. The next thing to do is to figure out where Dozier would rank out of the 60 players (including himself) in those five categories.
Batting Average: T-38
On-Base Percentage: 37
Slugging Percentage: 35
So, assuming his baserunning and defense were average to slightly below, Dozier’s translated numbers would place him somewhere between 35th and 40th among the starting middle infielders in baseball. That’s somewhere between the 33rd and 41st percentile.
So, if we go back to the idea that there are 250 slots these guys are fighting for, if Dozier’s already at a 37th-percentile level, he’s already ranking around 150th.
And, of course, Dozier was just 24 this past season. He should theoretically have more growth left in him.
The 60th-percentile level for the middle infielders of 2011, at least when it comes to offense, was .273/.334/.408, which, incidentally, is the exact line posted by Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. The 60th percentile wOBA was .325, and the 60th percentile wRC+ was 104.
Dozier’s translated wRC+ last year was 88, so in order to reach the 60th percentile, he’d have to improve by 16 percent relative to the league average.
The 60th percentile, of course, is spot #100 out of 250. So, if Dozier can meet his translation, and improve by 16 percent relative to the league, he’ll be in the top 100.
Of course, I ranked him 77th, which is 69th percentile. That’s .279/.344/.421 with a .338 wOBA and 110 wRC+, so in order to fulfill my ranking, he’d have to meet his translation and then improve by 22 percent relative to the league average.
That might be a bit ambitious, and I’ll get to some caveats in a second, but let’s pause to reflect on the last four mini-paragraphs.
By this definition, the top 100 cutoff for middle infielders is to have a 104 wRC+, or to be 4% above average offensively (and presumably roughly average defensively and on the bases. Neil Walker, as I said above, hit at the exact 60th percentile line and was dead-average in the speed-and-defense aspects of the game. If a player projects to turn into Neil Walker, he’s thus right on the top 100 borderline, by my definition. I’m not saying that’s the right way to do top 100 rankings, but it’s the way that makes the most sense to me.
And then, to rank 77th (or, be in the 69th percentile), a middle infielder just needs to project to hit .279/.344/.421. Dozier hit .318/.384/.502 in a tough park in Double-A last year. It’s not exactly unheard of for a guy who dominates Double-A in that fashion to turn into a .279/.344/.421 sort of hitter in the big leagues. It’s certainly not a given, and given Dozier’s age, it is probably a bit optimistic, but I wouldn’t call it extremely unlikely either. I’m certainly comfortable projecting him around .270/.335/.400 or so in his prime–after all, that’s just nine points of average (and, consequently, slugging) away from his Double-A translation, and eight points of OBP ahead of his High-A translation. That’s enough to get him to around 100th, if not quite 77th.
Obviously, there are some elements here that I’ve swept aside somewhat in my analysis. For example, Dozier would need to also be above-average in baserunning and defense to be in the 60th (or 69th) percentile. He is praised for his baserunning ability, but he was caught 11 of 35 times this past season on the bases. He’s also a fundamentally sound defender who fielded .977 in 2011. While he has a weak arm that makes him fringy at shortstop, his soundness would likely make him an above-average second baseman, so I’m guessing he’s roughly average in both the speed and defense areas of the game. Really, though, it’s anyone’s guess as to how UZR and BaseRuns will grade him.
Second, if Dozier were to go out and hit .279/.344/.421 as a 27-year-old, that alone wouldn’t really justify my ranking him 77th–that’s like saying that ranking Mark Prior as the game’s top pitching prospect turned out well. Rather, he’d have to sustain something at least close to that performance for a peak period of three years or so, and have some other useful seasons on both sides of that peak. At the same time, though, prospecting is such an inexact science, and attrition is so prevalent, that if a guy even once meets the expectations you put on him, it’s hard to call it a complete failure in ranking. As for whether I think Dozier can have a sustained peak–my instinct is yes, as he seems like the sort of late-bloomer who might stay fully intact through 30–but really, at this point, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves with projecting the guy.
Third, of course, there’s the matter of whether Dozier’s translated numbers are a good reflection of his current talent level. I’m sure his detractors would scoff at the idea that he could have outplayed a third of the starting middle infielders in baseball in 2011. I don’t disagree with that, mainly because I wouldn’t be surprised to see any elite prospect, especially one without Triple-A experience, fall on his face in his first attempt to hit MLB pitching–it’s a damn difficult thing to adjust to. And if Dozier had played all of 2011 in the big leagues, that would mean he was jumped straight there after hitting .275/.350/.349 across two A-ball levels in 2010. That would’ve been an…interesting decision, to say the least.
That said, I don’t think his 2011 translations are necessarily off when we look at them as an indicator of where he is on the developmental curve–basically, he just needs to go through the motions of Triple-A and get adjusted, and then he should hit at or above the level his numbers translated once he gets settled into the big leagues.
I brought up the .275/.350/.349 line in A-ball in 2010 (as a 23-year-old, no less), and I’m sure that’s a big part of the reason why people are hesitant to accept the translated numbers for 2011. There’s a sense that Dozier is really just a light-hitting max-effort guy who happened to get hot for a few months against mostly younger competition. But, as they say, power is often the last tool to develop, and I really struggle to find a whole lot “fluky” in his statline. His BABIP was .350 in High-A and .357 in Double-A, which is higher than his .304 and .294 marks from the year before, but as his dramatic power jump shows, he may well have just been hitting the ball harder. His power doesn’t seem fluky whatsoever, as Fort Myers and New Britain are two of the toughest parks in the minors to hit in, and most of his power came via doubles (33) and triples (12) rather than any sort of fluky home run total. His plate discipline was actually slightly worse in 2011 than it was in 2010, and he was also more efficient on the bases in 2010.
The moral of all this? I might’ve been a bit aggressive at 77 with Dozier, and I certainly didn’t approach my initial ranking this scientifically, even if this analysis has some pretty clear limitations of its own. That said, given the approach I’ve outlined, it’s almost impossible to not see Dozier as at least a top-150 guy, and it’s pretty easy to slot him somewhere in the back portion of the top 100. I hope this sheds some insight as to my ranking of Dozier and similar players like Vinnie Catricala, Taylor Green, and Stephen Lombardozzi, while getting you to think about top 100 placements from a bit of a different angle.
For more on the Twins, check out Puckett’s Pond.