Tales of Some Guys Who Weren't That Good (Right Away)

Anecdotes from the development trail

Ah prospect development! So predictable. So consistent. Such a smooth path to travel from potential to success.

Wait, what’s this?

Huh. It appears we have some late breaking news — prospect development isn’t that predictable at all! As 21st century Giants fans our expectations of prospects adjusting to the majors are perhaps a bit distorted. Buster Posey was a Rookie of the Year and helped deliver a long-awaited championship immediately. Tim Lincecum won a Cy Young Award in his first full season in the majors. Pablo Sandoval was a hitting machine from the minute he arrived by the Bay (and came just a handful of PA in 2008 away from being a ROY winner himself). Heck, Joe Panik responded to being handed the 2b job at the deadline in 2014 by hitting .380 over the next month.

But transitions to the majors aren’t always so charmed. And a wider lens brings perspective. So today I thought I’d tell the tale of a couple of non-Giants prospects who….well… they just weren’t all that good. For awhile anyway.

Let’s start with the story of a pitcher who I’ll call “Danny.” You can think of Danny, if you’d like, as something akin to our own Melvin Adon. Like Adon, he was a very old signee out of the Dominican Republic, not starting his pro career until he was almost 22. Being older gave Danny an advantage over most IFAs. His mature body brought big “now” velocity, and his stuff was overall more fully formed than your typical international signee. He jumped almost immediately into full season A ball. There he was successful right off, ranking among the league leaders in the Midwest League in strikeouts and posting a strong 2.99 ERA in more than 100 innings.

That kind of performance put him on the prospect map, as Danny was listed by Baseball America as his organization’s #17 prospect that winter. However, as an older pitcher who threw hard, but was still somewhat inexperienced, the immediate “reliever risk” flag was raised. His writeup in the Prospect Handbook that winter included the classic line:

Scouts say he could move quickly as a reliever because he lacks a developed third pitch.

Ah, the “third pitch” kiss of death that has haunted so many would be starters (I see you Sam Coonrod!). That notion that Danny would ultimately have to move to the bullpen clung to him even throughout another standout season, at age 23, that saw him rise all the way to AAA. Rotowire, a Fantasy baseball site that caters to dynasty players and thus provides detailed and data-drive prospect material summed up the scouting view of Danny with this “damning with feint praise” view:

This is an example of how scouting the stats can be dangerous. [His] minor league numbers last year, particularly his 91:31 K:BB in 74.1 innings at Double-A, would suggest he is a promising pitching prospect with the potential to make an impact in the big league rotation this season. He may make an impact in the majors in 2017, but it is unlikely to be as a successful starting pitcher. His command is shaky at best, and he lacks a third pitch. At 24 years old, it is hard to expect that third pitch to show up, leaving [him] destined for relief. Of course, considering the lack of quality options in the big league rotation, he may be allowed to fail as a starter before the transition to the bullpen is made. Once in the bullpen, his fastball should sit in the mid-to-high-90s and his slider could serve as an out pitch, meaning a high-leverage role could be in store down the road.

As it happened, his rebuilding club could, in fact, allow him to fail as a starter, and fail he more or less did. Making 21 starts his rookie year, Danny posted a 4.57 ERA and advanced metrics like FIP (4.35) didn’t suggest that his high ERA was undeserved. Nor did they predict a breakout coming. While his upper 90s stuff was still missing plenty of bats, Danny’s iffy command resulted in extremely elevated walk rates. He also had trouble with hard contact, giving up barrels well above average and allowing nearly 1.5 HRs for every 9 innings pitched. Beyond the numbers, his story hadn’t changed much — he was still searching for that allusive third pitch, toying with both a curve and a changeup, but showing little conviction towards either.

Despite the hiccups, his team showed no inclination to force a transition to the bullpen, penciling him in for 35 starts the following year. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, the most pitcheriest of things did — Danny came up grabbing his elbow during a spring training start and his second year was ended before it began. Instead of building on his middling rookie year, he was given a date with Dr. Andrews and 12 months of rehab to look forward to.

Tommy John surgery certainly did little to quiet predictions that he was a reliever in the making. But a year and a half later, Danny finally took the bump again and was able to get in a half season’s work — still as a starter. Some things were new in his game, but many things stayed the same. The ERA was again over 4.00, though the FIP snuck just below at 3.91. The home runs still came fast and furious and he was again being barreled at an above average rate. The walks were still high (though slightly less so) but the strikeouts were climbing to even greater heights — up to nearly 13 per 9, better even than league leader and future HOF Max Scherzer. As for the pitch mix, there things had changed considerably. It appeared that Danny had chosen the curve as his third pitch — at 32% of his pitches thrown it was the second most used pitch in his repertoire. And he had great success with it as batters slugged just .168 against the offering. The change was still there, barely, and he’d added a sinker to his mix, though batters had knocked it around at a .330 clip. But it looked like a fastball, curve, slider repertoire was going to be the answer going forward.

So it was perhaps a surprise when he showed up to spring training the next year with a three-pitch assemblage that was stripped down to just the hard stuff. The nascent curve that had showed such promise the year before was gone. The change? Gone. The survivor in “Third Pitch Derby” turned out to be his 96 mph sinker paired off his 97 mph four seamer. The two fastballs, with their elite 3500 rpm spin rates that came in with different angles and just enough difference in movement to throw batters off. And then the big change — he began leaning on his hard slider to an incredible extent, throwing it more than half the time (53%).

And that turned out to be the elixir. The answer to the “third pitch” question? Eschew the third pitch. Go power all the time. Mix up the eye levels with two grips on the fastball. And keep a tight release point on everything for effective tunneling of pitches:

And with those changes, Danny blossomed from a guy trying to stay out of the bullpen, into the #1 starter on a suddenly competitive team with legitimate World Series aspirations. In a shortened 2020 season the ERA dropped a full 2 runs with the FIP plummeting to match it. The walk rate was sliced from 3.7 per 9 innings to 2.6. The home runs were reduced dramatically, dropping nearly a full HR per 9 innings. There was still a tendency to give up hard contact when he gave up any at all — perhaps a result of throwing so hard all the time. Still he sits in the top 5% of major league pitchers in terms of both his K% and opponents’ wOBA (almost exactly equaling Cy Young favorite Trevor Bauer in both categories). “Danny” is, of course, the Padres Dinelson Lamet who — six years after calls to move him to the pen began and three and a half years after a “failing” debuting in San Diego — has blossomed into a true ace, despite never really finding that third pitch.

…..

And how about a hitting prospect? Let’s take Andrew. He was always a favorite of mine. Andy was one of those raw toolsy athlete types. In high school he was the star point guard on a basketball team that went to the state championships, while dabbling in baseball. But when he chose to go to baseball full-time, that athleticism made him pop on the field. He was immediately a top tier prospect in his system.

Though he was still considered a bit raw, Andy made good progress, rising to AA by the end of his first full season. Ultimately, he made the majors exactly three years after being drafted. There he got off to an encouraging start as a rookie — batting .283 with an offensive line that was just a hair below league average (98 wRC+). There were worrisome trend lines at play, however. Andy struck out 117 times while walking just 13 — the worst K/BB rate in the majors that year. He chased balls out of the zone far more than the average player and made contact on those chase swings far less often. When he did make contact, that contact tended to go downwards, as he put balls on the ground 55% of the time.

Things needed to get better! Instead, they got worse. Everything got much much worse! The concerning Chase rate of his rookie year — spiked upwards! Up to nearly 40%! His walk rate continued to be among the lowest in the league while the strikeout rate remained in an area reserved for the game’s biggest sluggers. And while he did hit 17 dingers (in a hitter friendly yard) the overall power numbers remained low and his average exit velocity dipped down to the bottom 5% of hitters (not surprising for a guy constantly offering at pitchers’ pitches). Major league pitchers, who knew they didn’t have to come into the zone against Andy, attacked him relentlessly outside its edges. His OBP tumbled down deep into the levels of the unacceptable (.276) dragging his wRC+ to a woeful 79. Could things get any worse? Yes, they could! His defense fell apart too (at an important position)! The whole picture added up to more than 600 PA given to a replacement level player (he accrued 0.1 fWAR that second year). Not so good!

His third year was just more of the same. Though the walk rate nudge up finally (from “basically nothing” to “almost perceptible”), the rest of the portfolio remained the same. Low exit velocities, comically high chase rates, tons of strikeouts and groundballs. The defense stabilized which made Andy playable — but it seemed he had defined the type of player he was: a free-swinging hacker whose lack of discipline undermined his package of potentially useful skills. Written in stone. This was who he was going to be as major leaguer.

Rotowire sniffed:

Was there a quieter 20-20 season than [his] campaign? Those in on-base or points leagues may disagree considering his .281 OBP but that’s [Andy] in a nutshell: the poster boy for better-in-fantasy-than-reality. Since [his team] doesn’t care about [his] plate skills, he’ll continue to be a fantasy asset.

Excellent dig at the team decision makers while side-swiping the player, Rotowire!

Ah, but there was a plot twist a-comin! And it’s absolutely not one anybody foresaw! Are you thinking that this bone-deep hacker suddenly got some Plate Discipline Religion, geared his swing to put the ball in the air, and turned his entire career around? Well if so — you would be totally wrong!

What Andy did instead was the least likely thing imaginable: he suddenly became an offensive force, without changing much at all about his underlying characteristics. It was uncanny. There in his fourth year, Andy boosted his chase rates up to an all time high (44%) and the small gains he’d made in his walk rate disappeared again. Nearly everything was the same, but suddenly the results were better. His slash line jumped .100 points across the board. His wRC+ that had been mired in the 80 range for three years leapt up to 130.

Was this all just BABIP-driven luck? As his BABIP also jumped 100 points that seemed the best explanation. But there were some small changes. Without affecting his discipline at all, something about Andy’s approach did change. His strike out rate started coming down, down to 21% in his fourth year and lower yet in his fifth. And the quality of his contact improved at the same time. His average Exit Velocity jumped nearly three miles per hour and his Line Drive percentage moved up from 22% in his second season to well over 28% in his fourth.

While batting averages year to year may be arbitrary and capricious, Statcast’s expected batting average, based on quality of contact, shouldn’t be. And in Andy’s fourth year that xBA showed the same miraculous leap — from just .228 in his third year up to .295 in his fourth, and on to .314 in his fifth. Through whatever means, Andy simply started hitting the ball more often, and much harder when he did.

This year, Tim Anderson is helping lead his White Sox to the AL post-season, sporting a 160 wRC+ that is fifth in his league and playing an acceptable, if not exactly sterling, defense. Though he probably won’t win a second consecutive batting title, he’s posted an exceptional .336/.361/.522 line over the 2019/20 tiem period. After fans, critics, and at least one fantasy team manager gave up on him (Oh the fantasy roster I’d have if I had a smidge more patience!), Anderson blossomed into a star after more than 1600 ABs of futility and frustration. He didn’t learn to stop chasing pitcher’s pitches, but nonetheless he learned how to crush what he was swinging at.

…..

Of course, this post is a poster child for arbitrary, anecdotal selection bias. I could have chosen so many other early careers to illustrate different object lessons. What about Anderson’s Chicago teammate Reynaldo Lopez, whom some people thought a better pitching prospect than Lucas Giolito when Washington traded them both for Adam Eaton. Lopez struggled and struggled and then continued to struggle, until he had struggled his way out of the White Sox rotation. Giolito became the worst pitcher in the American League and then found a new grip and new mechanics that made him one of the best.

Or how about Lamet’s teammate Manuel Margot who was supposed to be a speed-and-defense star who could anchor the Pads lineup. Margot started out reasonably well (1.9 fWAR his rookie year) though without much impact on the offensive side and then…he just didn’t get better. And after a few years of not getting better it appeared he was actually getting worse. The definition of a second division starter, San Diego GM AJ Preller apparently decided that the team couldn’t win with him as their CF and moved on. In the same deal, Preller moved on from former 1st round pick Hunter Renfroe, who likewise had spent four years (and now five) fitfully failing to improve much.

Some players get better and then worse and then worse and then better. Some always continue down the path they set on originally, while others surprise us in unpredictable ways. There are as many different paths as there are players. As always, development isn’t linear — not even at the big league level.

In the coming weeks I’ll take some retrospective looks at various young players on the 2020 Giants. But when I do, it’s good to remember that no one look ever really shows us what a player is — they are constantly evolving and morphing into something new and different. And no one game ever sets things on a new course (“NOW things are starting to happen!”). New courses can only be determined by the slow, steady trod of time.

What a player is today doesn’t necessarily tell us who they’ll be a year from today, or two or three. Sometimes, the path can only be seen from trail’s end.


Trivia Time

Yesterday, Brandon Belt dramatically joined a special club when he homered for his 1,000th hit as a Giant (18th to do so). It was also his 138th HR as a Giant. That makes him one of just 23 players who have done both as a member of the organization. Of course, that list includes quite a few old time New York Giants, including Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Bill Terry, and Travis Jackson, and 19th century fave Mike Tiernan. Let’s winnow those guys out. Even Mays, as hard a cut as that is And let’s separate out players who came to the Giants from elsewhere like Jeff Kent or Barry Bonds or JT Snow.

When we’re done with all the winnowing, there are 11 players in the San Francisco era, originally signed* and developed by the Giants who amassed 1,000 hits and 100 HRs for the team. How many of them can you name? These are the inner circle Special Giants!

*I’ll use when major league debut as the start date here, so potentially players could have been signed by the New York Giants, so long as they came to the majors as a San Francisco Giant.