Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Posnanski Ponders Prospect Promotion

As consumers of sports writing, we are extremely lucky to be living during the Joe Posnanski era. At no other point during the history of athletic journalism has there been A) a professional sports writer willing to write thousands of words on top of their weekly quotas simply for the enjoyment of it and B) a way for the public to access those words for free. It's not just the volume at which he produces content, but Poz's posts are overflowing with interesting nuggets. To wit, here's a tangent that he went off on while talking about the Nationals' plan to start Stephen Strasburg in the minor leagues this year.
On the other hand — well, I haven’t thought out the following too deeply. But I do sometimes wonder if “not rushing top prospects” is kind of safe, conventional thinking, the same sort of safe, conventional thinking that causes football coaches to punt on fourth down and short. In other words, I sometimes wonder if people don’t rush great prospects like Strasburg because it SOUNDS safer rather than because it IS safer.


I do sometimes wonder if one way to think out of the box is to really push prospects, especially advanced prospects, much faster than teams are doing it now. Sure, every GM and scout around can tell you horror story after horror story about players who came up too soon and were ruined because of it. But we don’t really know if those players would have succeeded had they been treated more carefully … maybe they were just lacking the talent or the work ethic or whatever. We can't really know.
In between those two paragraphs, Posnanski gives the example of Bob Feller who, although he was thrust into the Majors at 17 years old and walked more than 6 batters per 9 innings during his first three seasons, eventually figured it out and went on to have a great career.

The transition from the minor leagues into the Majors is one of the more delicate dances performed in sports, in both directions. So the sayings go, you don't want to bring a guy up "before he's ready" and you don't want to send a guy down when he has "nothing left to prove". Of course, the decisions are clouded with enormous amounts of luck. We've seen marginal players burst onto the scene and future Hall of Famers stumble out of the gate (there are some managers mixed in to that list, but you get the idea).

Look at Ramiro Pena and Francisco Cervelli, neither of whom had played above AA before getting called up to the Yankees. Neither of them hit the cover off the ball with the MLB team, but they made representative efforts at the plate (Pena actually improved on his minor league numbers) and shined defensively. These are just anecdotal examples with small sample sizes, but it goes to show that calling up a player "too early" isn't necessarily destined to fail.

In other sports and at other times in life, we are told that we benefit from increased competition. Perhaps we are put on a project at our job that pushes the boundaries of what we thought we were capable of and do some of our best work on it. Personally, I tend to play better golf when I'm paired with three other guys who shoot in the 70's than when I'm out with a few of my buddies who only break 100 on a good day. Does your performance on the basketball court improve when facing better competition? Again, not perfect examples, but just some things to consider.

The problem is that there are no alternative universes in which we can test these theories. You either go with Plan A or Plan B and get judged by the results. You don't have multiple Joba Chamberlains, one of which you could have kept in AAA to work on his starting repertoire in 2007 and 2008 and the other you could have brought up to the Major League bullpen to help the team in '07.

No team wants to squander a top prospect by doing something that is perceived as risky like rushing him to the Majors. Oh, they'll risk putting him on the wrong path by doing something seemingly conservative like stashing him in the minors for too long, but that's a whole different story.

I think this line of decision making has become de rigueur in sports. Whether it truly makes sense or not, PR plays a large role in many of the decisions that a franchise makes. It's one thing to be wrong when your decisions agree with conventional wisdom, it's an entirely different beast to roll snake eyes when you are bucking the established trends.

The example Posnanski uses about punting on 4th and short is a great one. Coaches are willing to be slightly wrong all of the time instead of being really wrong once in a while and getting lambasted like Bill Belichick did when he went for it on 4th and 2 and failed.

As decision making in sports becomes more and more grounded in logic and analysis, teams have to look to get an edge by finding the places that conventional wisdom might not be correct. Or places that it's generally correct but can be unnecessarily cautious at times in the name of saving face.

Maybe Sky Kalkman's unconventional line up really is better than the usual ones we are used to seeing, but if Joe Girardi trots it out for the first week of the season and the Yanks score three runs a game, he's going to be tarred and feathered by the media. If that happens with a typical batting order, (most sane) people would just chalk it up to bad luck. It would be kind of stupid for Girardi to stick his neck out that far simply on a self-preservation level.

Sure, there are plenty of factors that might keep a great prospect in the minors, like the cost of starting their arbitration clock and finding the right place for them on the team, but I agree with Poz's hunch that teams might be wasting some quality production in the minors by being too conservative with the timing of their call ups. Maybe that seemingly premature call up is a springboard to a better career. Perhaps it ends in failure, frustration and a demotion back to AAA. But there's only one way to find out.


  1. The biggest difference between a prospect coming up now and in the 1930s is that the Indians didn't have millions upon millions upon millions of dollars resting on Bob Feller succeeding so they were much more willing to throw him into the fire and see what came out than they would be today.

    There are two issues here though--one is should Strasburg break camp with the Major League team and the other concerns innings limits, which he will likely have regardless of where he pitches this year.

    Would Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have turned out differently had they been brought along more slowly? Obviously we'll never know but given the correlation between overusing young pitchers and said young pitchers getting hurt coupled with the incredible amounts of money invested in those same arms, I think "babying" starting pitching prospects has already become the norm and will only get worse as the investment in them gets bigger.

    If the Natinals broke camp with Strasburg and he throws 200 innings this year, and then he went on to win four Cy Youngs and have a 23 year career, everyone would attribute that to him being an all-time great talent and no one would remember that he was "rushed" out of the gate. If they broke camp with him this year and he goes all Mark Prior on everyone, people would blame the Nats front office for moving too fast with him and conclude based on that that young pitchers should never, no matter how ready they might be, skip over minor league development time. Is that fair? Not really--it's the same as Wood and Prior in that we will never know how it would have turned out had they taken another route, but that won't stop people from making blanket conclusions on all young pitchers based on his example.

    The bottom line is that there is a correlation between young pitchers throwing a lot of innings and them getting hurt, but an increased risk of injury is not the same as saying an injury will certainly happen. The team would have to evaluate the player on an individual basis and decide whether they think his arm can handle it. The Red Sox completely ignored the Verducci Effect in their treatment of Jon Lester, and they have Bill James working for them, who surely at least signed off on it.

    Assuming he will have innings limits no matter what, the question remains where should Strasburg pitch. This one is simpler--he might not, as JoePos suggests, have anything to learn from the minors. In that case, they will keep him the minors as long as it takes to delay his free agent clock and then bring him up, and shut him down when he reaches his innings limit.

  2. Some very good points in there, JGS. The Indians didn't have the same kind of money hanging in the balance way back there and there was far less media scrutiny of their decisions. Wood and Prior are pretty extreme examples though, and I don't think it was the fact that they were brought up to the Cubs early that did them in - it was more likely the amount of innings they threw.

    I think Strasburg is going to have the same sort of innings limitation no matter where he goes, so the question should be "what level is he going to benefit from pitching in the most?", theoretically. It might not be answerable, but I think that's what we're driving at.

    We can even question the assumption that AAA really a better "learning environment" for pitchers. Sure they can test out different pitches and tinker with things without having to worry too much about the outcome of the game, but people also argue for putting a pitcher in the bullpen instead of AAA because "that's the only way they are going to learn how to get out Major League hitters". It probably varies on a case by case basis.

    I don't know what being ready to face MLB competition really entails, but maybe Strasburg would benefit from cutting his teeth against the best in the world. You don't see good rookies force to toil away in the D-League for a year or two.

  3. "Which level would he benefit from the most" I think depends on the nature of the team he is coming up for too. As non-contenders (at least this year) the Nats aren't overly worried about games they might lose because of his inexperience (it's not like the rest of their staff is composed of grizzled veterans anyway), so the only real risk is that he comes up, gets hammered, and loses his confidence. On the other hand, dominating AAA hitters doesn't prove anything for him either--he is supposed to be able to do that. The only reason to keep him in the minors seems to be to delay his clock. We'll see him in June (or is it sometime in May?)

  4. We are lucky to be in the Poz era, but we are lucky to be in the blogging era in general. There is a ton of great stuff being written about all sorts of stuff, not just sports. If Poz wasn't blogging, he'd be losing ground on other talented writers and you've gotta give him credit for taking the bull by the horns and dominating a medium that should be working against him in a lot of ways.