Rule 6: Don’t fear the “stall-out year” (under certain circumstances)
It’s human nature to over-value the most recent information we have, particularly when we expect things to develop in a “linear” way, and then they don’t. This tendency leads to another common prospect fallacy, which is giving up on a guy too soon based on a bad season.
The fact is, even the very best prospects will have “down years” just when you anticipate them making positive strides.
I think there two main reasons why this can happen. The first is pretty simple. Slumps happen to everyone. Sometimes a hitter just gets some bad luck and/or bad habits, and it lasts all year.
The second thing is that, for many talented prospects, they may be facing their very first taste of extended adversity. Chances are, they were the best player in their youth league, high school or college team, and success always came easy. That doesn’t mean that guys who have down years are lazy, or not trying to get better, only that they may have never consistently faced such a high level of competition, and the need to adjust their thinking may surprise them.
But how can you tell which guy is hitting a speed bump and which guy is hitting the wall?
Well, there are a couple of things to look for. The main thing is how much talent the player has flashed in the past. If a player with a strong history of production and plate skills has a “down year,” there’s a good chance it doesn’t mean much.
Just as important, though, is whether the player has a history of showing development. If the player has already demonstrated the ability to make progress and improve his performance, then the “stall-out” year should be less of a concern.
Case in point: All-Star Matt Holliday had a pretty nondescript age-20 season (.274/.335/.389), but made big strides at age 21, improving his power and walks while maintaining a low strikeout percentage. That ability to show progress was the key, since he struggled with injury and ineffectiveness for a couple of years thereafter. But the flash of talent and the ability to improve were already there, and, when Holliday hit the majors at age 24 he was actually much farther along than his stats at the time would have made it appear (.253/.313/.395 at age 23).
Sometimes it can take multiple stall-out years before a player can put it back together. Mike Morse showed a ton of promise with a .505 SLG and a low K% at age 22, but the Mariners finally threw in the towel after three years of struggles. Eventually, the Nationals got the benefit of Morse’s bat.
On the other hand, there are guys who max out their potential as they get closer to the majors, and end up as busts. Just remember that a down year, after progress, is not necessarily an indication that a guy won’t make it.