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Community Post: Unicorns and Comps
Mattattbatt22 discusses player comps and prospects that dynasty players drool over.
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Astrophysicist Carl Sagan might have captured the beautiful essence of individuality best: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. . . In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” This is true whether we’re talking about snowflakes or baseball players; each one is different and unique.
But that doesn’t stop us from searching out the similarities. In the wonderful world of dynasty baseball prospect hunting, we’re always trying to find comparisons between success stories and the next hot prospect. Finding the next A-Rod or Tatis Jr. is thrilling, both in the dopamine hit of knowing something before others do and in the glory of besting your friends and competitors in your dynasty leagues.
Those comparisons, though, are always flawed. Baseball is a funny, individual game, and the same player put in the exact same situations versus the exact same pitcher facing the exact same pitches will invariably perform differently. Players age, learn, change, grow, develop, and sometimes random shit happens, and hits don’t fall. If we can’t even consider players against themselves with much certainty, it must be a fool’s errand to comp the new shiny prospects to stars of present and past, right?
Though these comps may be flawed, they’re all we have. While no two players are the same, this silly game has been played by hundreds of thousands of players, and very little is truly new. Like Churchill said, looking into past performance is the worst form of prospect prognostication except for all the others that have been tried. Churchill was talking about democracy and forms of government, but it applies here too.
Nobody can get their eyes on every prospect, which is why we dynasty players rely on reports from the scouts who do to identify the next big thing. The glowing Jackson Chourio reports this time last year tipped off smart folks that we might have the next big thing on our hands. As a Braves fan, I remember obsessing over the reports of the different sounds off the bat from some young kid named Acuña Jr. as he was dominating the Aussies in the ABL. Scouts often see something that isn’t coming through in the numbers, and we should listen!
The latest shiny new toy that precipitated this article is Sebastian Walcott. Walcott, signed by the Rangers for $3.2M, was the 8th ranked international prospect last class and had glowing reports about his exit velos as a teenage SS from the Bahamas. The Rangers have pushed Walcott quite fast, promoting him to complex ball after 9 games in the DSL this year. Through July 28th, he’s running a .322/.368/.632(!) triple slash with 6 HRs in 21 games. Running a 131 wRC+, almost 2.5 years younger than the average age in the ACL is impressive for FanGraphs nerds like me. On the back of glowing reports and impressive performance, Walcott is skyrocketing up prospect lists. My personal favorite three resources already have him stuffed pretty high: FanGraphs Eric Longenhagen has him 40th overall, the incomparable Chris Clegg at the Dynasty Dugout has him 52nd, and the good folks at Baseball America have him 90th. Only Ethan Salas, the “wonder kid” catcher in the Padres system has more helium from the 2023 international class.
With all of that, you’d think he’s a slam dunk to be the next superstar and that I’d spend the rest of this article telling you all the sneaky ways you should trade for him. However, as an old boss of mine used to say, “trust, but verify.” Appealing to the authority of a scout or public baseball writer might be a good start, but we’ve also got to see the performance. And one place where Walcott’s performance shows serious concern is his strikeout rate. He is striking out 34.7% of the time. That’s, uh, quite a lot. He’s also only walking 5.3% of the time, suggesting that his command of the strikezone leaves something to be desired.
“But he’s young,” you say. “You don’t walk your way off the Bahamanian island,” shouts another armchair scout. “Do you see the .632 SLG, you idiot?” opines another. “Let us have fun, dummy” chimes in another helpful soul. Well, I’m just saying that we’ve got to go into this with eyes open, and part of that is acknowledging flaws when we see them.
I ran a little study using the FanGraphs minor league leaderboards to ask the question if we’ve seen prospects that run 30% or higher strikeout rates in the low minor leagues become big league stars. I started with Rookie ball (what we used to call the Complex leagues until 2019) and ran a filter of every player that had at least 100 plate appearances and a K rate north of 30% since that’s about the stabilization point for a hitter’s K rate. In that 2006 to 2019 data set, I returned 1,481 player seasons. I then went through the list and identified all the players that made the big leagues. With the caveat that I may have missed some guys who got small cups of coffee here and there, and that some of these guys will assuredly make the major leagues in the years to come (if you were in Rookie ball in 2019, you’re hardly a pillar of dust in the year of our lord 2023), guess how many guys made the bigs?
Fifteen. One-Five. 15. A whisker over 1% of guys that run a K rate north of 30% in Rookie ball go on to even make the majors. Now, the list of names is pretty interesting, because almost all of them were either very young when they were in Rookie ball, hit the ball really hard, or, in a few cases, were both. On the positive side, you’ve got the 2015 version of Austin Riley who at age 18 ran a 30.6% K rate and slugged .500. In 2009, Domingo Santana was 16 and had a 31.8% K rate but smashed the ball to tune of a .634 SLG. Current prospects Brett Baty, Nolan Jones, Heliot Ramos, Will Benson, Trey Cabbage, and Gabriel Arias all make the list and are varying levels of interesting, but so do Carlos Pegeuro, Jabari Blash, Keon Broxton (all former Mariners – sheesh) and those are not success stories.
I repeated this exercise at Low A, A ball, High A, and AA; the results were similar. The guys that make it with this profile almost always have monster power, walk a ton, or have plus defense. You do get guys like Acuña (A+), Jazz Chisholm Jr. (A+, AA), Tyler O’Neill (A+), and Trevor Story (A+, AA), and each of them has approached fantasy superstardom at least once. But to really succeed, each had to cut their K rates and maintain the power, which is super hard to do as the rest of the list illustrates. Current hype monster Elly De La Cruz makes this list at A, A+, and AA and has top-of-the-scale power and speed, but he still is running a below-average wRC+ in the bigs (that .370 BABIP is gonna come down, and his K rate remains above 32%, so it doesn’t look like it’s getting better in the near term).
While perhaps not quite so unique as to be called a unicorn, there is a path to succeed, punching out over 30% of the time. All the balls you hit can be homers: see Gallo, Joey for an example of this, or you can be ridiculously fast and play great defense to rack up steals (Elly, Acuña, Jazz?). But there are so many failed hype prospects in these reports. Lewis Brinson, Seuly Matias, Bobby Dalbec, Alex Jackson, Jorge Alfaro, Russell Wilson + Tim Tebow (lol), Kevin Maitan, Estevan Florial, Will Middlebrooks, Corey Ray, Elijah Green and on and on. As we dream on Walcott (and Elly!), we should carefully watch their K rates and power production because it’s such a narrow path to walk. I know I’ll be watching James Wood, Jasson Dominguez, and Emmanuel Rodriguez very closely this year as they try to walk a similar tightrope while climbing the minor league ladder.