Examining FanGraphs’ Examination of the Blue Jays System

 

Jays From the Couch looks at the surprises from Fangraphs’ examination of the Toronto Blue Jays system

 

 

 

 

Friday was a big day for Blue Jay prospect watchers, as FanGraphs published the team’s top prospect list. FanGraphs has become one of the top sites for team prospect lists, as they write about and provide grades for virtually every one with a chance of making it to the bigs—their main list includes any prospect with a future value (FV) of at least 35+. Thus, the main list includes every prospect whom Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel expect to become a replacement-level major leaguer or better.

 

Moreover, they follow the team’s main list with secondary groups of prospects who may be useful to an organization, but who currently have baseline projections below 35+ FV. These groups change from team to team. In the case of the Blue Jays, the groups were “corner bats”, “polished depth arms” and “bench types”.

 

All in all, there are some positive surprises and a handful of less positive surprises. While I think it’s worth highlighting differences of opinion, I have no intention of making a big deal about them. No two prospect watchers are going to completely agree, which is a very, very important part of the whole exercise. Diversity is always a positive thing.

 

When I see that someone, whose opinion and judgment I genuinely respect and value, has a markedly different opinion of a prospect than I do, I take it as an opportunity to reconsider my own view. I re-examine the facts I used to come to that conclusion and try to absorb even more information about the player. Sometimes, this process leads me to shift my opinion closer to that person’s view. Other times, it leads me to feel even more confident that my view is the accurate one. Self-auditing, like diversity, is always a positive thing.

 

Moreover, I am not a prospect evaluator. I’ve tried to learn more about prospect evaluation to complement my understanding of the statistical side of the game, in order to write as coherently as possible about prospects, so as not to lead anyone who reads my stuff (too far) astray.

 

I am a Blue Jays fan. As a fan, I’m likely higher on every Blue Jay prospect than any public evaluator. I like writing about Blue Jay prospects I’m excited about and sharing what I learn with my fellow fans. Nevertheless, I try to remain as aware of my biases as possible.

 

Positive Surprises

As a huge fan of Cal Stevenson and Alejandro Kirk, pillars of the Advanced Rookie Bluefield Blue Jays in 2018, I was happy to see them both crack the list, each with a 35+ FV. Their inclusion reflected Longenhagen and McDaniel’s apparent emphasis/preference for prospects who, thanks to their relatively early stage of development, still have pretty wide potential outcomes—15 of the 34 listed prospects have yet to play in a full-season league.

 

Stevenson and Kirk are the kind of prospects one can’t help but root for. Stevenson is an undersized outfielder with extraordinary makeup, whose 2018 offensive performance (173 wRC+) ranked in the 99th percentile among Appy League batters since 2006 (min. 150 PA). He also displayed strong defence and base running. On the other hand, Kirk is an oversized catcher who was an afterthought IFA signing in 2016. Last season, in his first proper professional action, Kirk produced the fourth-best offensive season (160 wRC+) by a 19 year old in the Appy League since 2006, while also providing solid defence himself.

 

Trent Thornton was also a positive standout on the list, with his ranking of tenth easily the highest I have seen him on a Blue Jays prospect list this off-season. The main attraction is the spin rate he achieves on his pitches—both his fastball (tied for eighth) and curveball (first) rank among the Top 10 of pitching prospects who have been evaluated thus far by FanGraphs (for context, they have produced lists for exactly half of all MLB teams).

 

A high spin rate is useful for both pitches, though in different ways. A high-spin fastball (which has lots of backspin) remains up for longer, tricking batters who expected gravity to bring it down onto their swing plane. On the other hand, a high-spin curveball (which has lots of topspin) has more downward movement than expected, leading to lots of whiffs and grounders.

 

Gabriel Moreno is a catching prospect who caught the eye of many a stat-scout after excelling offensively in the Rookie level Gulf Coast League in his age-18 season (204 wRC+, tops among GCL batters with 100+ PA). His short time in the Advanced Rookie level Appy League wasn’t as awe-inspiring, but was still quite solid given his age (93 wRC+). Moreno, like Thornton, is a guy that FanGraphs’ evaluators appear more positive about than other public evaluators, and represents yet another catcher of quality in the Jays system.

 

Finally, we have Emanuel Vizcaino and Alejandro Melean. I must admit that I had no particular prior knowledge about either before reading about them on Friday. Scouting stats can help one find possible diamonds in the rough, but it can also lead to missing out on young, talented prospects with a limited pro resume, who may have strong tools that proper evaluators are able to spot. Neither performed well at the Rookie level GCL, each running walk rates that weren’t far from their strikeout rates. Obviously, given their age and distance from the majors, I trust Longenhagen and McDaniel’s evaluations more than small-sample stats.

 

Other, Less Positive Surprises

My prior expectations

Last month, in anticipation of the list’s release, I tweeted out my guess of the number of prospects that would make the cut—45 to 47. While high, it seemed like a reasonable guess, as the Rays list (with 54 prospects) had dropped that day. In the write-up (or an ensuing FanGraphs’ chat), it was noted that only the Padres would have a longer list and that the next longest list was a bit shorter. The Jays had the sixth most prospects in the September 2018 update, eight fewer than the Rays (second-most), and made some additions since the update, so mid-40s seemed plausible to me.

 

In order to arrive at a specific guess, I used FanGraphs’ most recently updated list of Blue Jay prospects as a base and then added/subtracted players. The only guy I saw as likely to be cut was Justin Maese—with an FV of 35+, he was already on the bubble, and then he missed the entire 2018 season due to injury. Moreover, in that update, he had a downward arrow under the “Trend” column. Only one other prospect on the list was assigned a downward trend arrow and that was Anthony Alford. Given his 50 FV, I felt it was highly unlikely that he would fall off the list, even after an FV downgrade (he ended up receiving a 40 FV).

 

In addition to the remaining 36 prospects, I thought that seven, who weren’t listed in last September’s list, were likely additions to this one. These prospects either had strong 2018 seasons (Santiago Espinal, Patrick Murphy, Josh Winckowski and Cal Stevenson) or were external additions who had been previously given an FV of at least 35+ by FanGraphs (Trent Thornton, Ronny Brito and Elvis Luciano).

 

Finally, I felt that there was a group of prospects whose cases were nearly as strong as those, from which a couple might end up listed: Jacob Waguespack, Julian Merryweather, Zach Logue, Brock Lundquist, Joey Murray and Alejandro Kirk.

 

Expected returnees that did not return

Ultimately, the key to my whiff was the unexpectedly high number of prospects (11) who were dropped from the list since the September 2018 update: Maese, Logan Warmoth, Forrest Wall, Thomas Pannone, Chad Spanberger, Demi Orimoloye, Riley Adams, Zach Jackson, Jon Harris, Sean Wymer and Ryan Noda. All eleven were relegated to one of the three aforementioned secondary lists (“corner bats”, “polished depth arms” and “bench types”).

 

I understand the cases against some of those prospects and, in hindsight, should have assumed more prospects than just Maese would have gotten delisted. In particular, Warmoth, Wall and Harris haven’t met the expectations that came with their first-round selection and some prospect fatigue is now setting in.

 

That said, 35+ feels like a threshold low enough for the rest of this group to still meet heading into 2019. A few months ago, the same evaluators felt these players’ baseline career path involved making the big leagues in some capacity. In most cases, while the prospect certainly still has a long way to go in order to definitively prove themselves as future big leaguers, they performed reasonably well in 2018.

 

Noda produced a 160 wRC+ at Class A! Spanberger produced a 158 wRC+ at the same level, then managed a 110 wRC+ at High-A, made even more respectable by his low .259 BABIP (which might be mainly the result of bad luck). Demi Orimoloye just had his first run playing CF (with the Brewers’ High-A affiliate) and was solid (5 FRAA in 61 games).

 

Pannone’s MLB debut wasn’t an unbridled success, but his ability to generate very weak contact was impressive—he posted the lowest xBA on batted balls (.272) among MLB starters who gave up 100+ batted balls—and provided a template for how he might attain some success as a big league pitcher.

 

Jackson struck out loads of Double-A batters (28.5% K rate, 75th percentile) by generating a lot of swings and misses (15.5% whiff rate, 87th percentile). He also showed some potential as a weak contact generator, limiting opposing batters to a .200 BABIP (98th percentile) and giving up only 0.29 HR/9 (80th percentile). He was wild—his 19.4% walk rate (2nd percentile) is a testament to that—and needs to show improvement in that regard. But a relatively young Double-A reliever who can strike out more batters than most and give up fewer homers and base hits than most still seems quite promising, in spite of the walk problem.

 

Wymer was given a 35+ FV after he was drafted last June. He then performed pretty well for Short Season-A Vancouver, posting a better-than-average FIP (3.50, 55th percentile) driven by a very low walk rate (4.8%, 89th percentile). Like the others, he has certainly not yet definitively proved that he is making the bigs. At the same time, not much appears to have changed in his outlook since last summer, which is why I’m surprised he didn’t hold onto his 35+ FV.

 

Of the bunch, Riley Adams’ exclusion from the main list was most surprising. The blurb on him starts out positively (“Adams is a physical beast with a plus arm and big raw power”), but concludes negatively (“he swings and misses a lot due to lever length and his ceiling is that of a toolsy backup”). I’m mostly curious what led them to conclude that he’s prone to whiffing, as he posted a swinging strike rate that was better than most of his High-A peers last season (9.2%, 79th percentile among batters with 200+ PA). His walk-to-strikeout ratio was similarly above-average (0.54, 78th percentile).

 

Adams has produced both above-average offence and defence at both stops he’s made since being drafted by the Jays in 2017. With Vancouver, Adams posted a 132 wRC+ and produced five fielding runs above average (according to Clay Davenport’s dataset). In 2018, with Dunedin, he posted a 110 wRC+ and produced 10 FRAA. Catchers with both offensive and defensive potential tend to be very highly valued.

 

Expected additions that were not added

Of the seven prospects I felt were likely additions to this year’s list, Murphy, Stevenson, Thornton and Luciano all made the cut.

 

Winckowski ended up on the polished depth arms list. I thought that was strange because he seems too young (20) and promising (2.77 FIP, second-best among qualified Short Season-A pitchers) to be relegated to a list otherwise populated by guys who are either older starters or relief-only prospects.

 

Espinal and Brito were left unmentioned in the post altogether. I get Espinal’s exclusion—FanGraphs has never rated him and he is now 24 years old—and am fine with being higher on him than Longenhagen and McDaniel are.

 

Brito’s exclusion, on the other hand, is more surprising, even after accounting for his 30% strikeout rate. The list suggests that the two evaluators rate young, rookie-ball prospects highly. Yet, they didn’t rate a teenage middle infielder who has displayed an ability to absolutely mash balls—he hit eight homers that cleared 400 feet, tied for second across the Advanced Rookie level.

 

When Brito came to the Jays for Russell Martin, Longenhagen shared some thoughts. After discussing Brito’s legit raw power and issues with contact and plate discipline, Longenhagen noted that “he has a chance to stay at second base, but he hasn’t really improved there since signing”. Brito is a shortstop, having started 100 games there since turning pro, compared to only 15 games at second. In 2018, playing in the Advanced Rookie Pioneer League, he produced an even 0 FRAA in 36 games at short. I can’t say whether or not that was a typo and I’m curious if a positional misunderstanding helped drop Brito’s value in their eyes.

 

Potential additions that were not added

There were six more prospects from whom I felt one or two might be added to the list. Of the six, only Kirk made the cut. Merryweather and Logue each made the polished depth arms list, which seems fair—Merryweather hadn’t been rated on their previous lists and is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Logue, similarly, has not previously been rated by FanGraphs and only had a solid (not great) 2018 season.

 

Lundquist didn’t make the main list or the corner bats list. I understand the former, but am a little surprised by the latter, as he produced quite well with the bat in High-A this season and is right around the same age as Noda, Orimoloye and Spanberger.

 

Murray’s absence altogether was another surprise. A 2018 draft pick, Murray was assigned to Vancouver, where he was a few months younger than the average pitcher. There, Murray dominated, striking out 27.6% more batters than he walked (96th percentile), limiting batters to 0.35 HR/9 (63rd percentile) and maintaining a 2.31 FIP that was among the level’s best (91st percentile).

 

Waguespack’s non-inclusion from any of the lists is expected. The reason I only viewed him as a potential add, in the first place, was because I knew that evaluators didn’t rate him highly.

 

Here’s my quick pitch as to why they might be wrong. After being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Phillies in 2015, he was developed as a reliever, before making his first pro start in 2017, after the Phillies’ High-A affiliate found itself short starting pitchers. In the season and a half since, he has made 37 starts: 10 at High-A, 13 at Double-A and 14 at Triple-A. Over those starts, he has shown well-rounded effectiveness, running a 3.12 FIP, 21.9% strikeout rate, 7.6% walk rate and 0.43 HR/9. For more details on this underrated prospect, feel free to read my early January post on him.

 

Cavan Biggio

After finishing 2018 with a 40+ FV and an upward trend arrow, I thought that Biggio had a good shot to earn a 45 FV rating on the 2019 prospect list. A solid time at the Arizona Fall League—where he produced better-than-average BB% (18.8%, 98th percentile), K% (18.8%, 68th percentile) and ISO (.153, 68th percentile) marks and was pretty comfortable playing in the outfield corners (3 FRAA in 12 games between LF and RF)—made me even more confident about an upgrade in FV for him.

 

I was wrong, as he was downgraded to a 40 FV this season. Like any of these grades, that won’t have any affect on the actual career path Biggio ends up taking. At the same time, thinking about whether a Blue Jay prospect is a 40 or a 45 is precisely what the off-season is for.

 

Conclusion

If you’ve gotten to the conclusion of this post, 1) thank you and 2) I hope it’s clear that my disagreements with the FanGraphs list come from a place of extreme respect. A number of well-thought-out lists have been published this winter, but there’s only one I would devote this many words to discussing. Longenhagen and McDaniel are great evaluators, whose insight has helped me (and countless others) better understand baseball, generally, and prospect evaluation, specifically.

 

As a Jays fan, I wished nothing more than to read a post extolling the quality of their system and future. In particular, I was expecting a list that would include the usual suspects at the top, a solid cohort of 45s behind them and a laundry list of prospects in the 35+ to 40+ range.

 

While my expectations weren’t entirely met, the write-up was generally positive about the team’s prospect depth. In particular, Longenhagen and McDaniel note that while “not all of [the depth pieces acquired over the last couple of years] will work out…the list of players like this that the Blue Jays have acquired…is so long that enough of them should [work out], enabling Toronto to build a competitive club around this wave of young talent.” I’m very excited to see that process continue this season.

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.