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The upside of upside

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Anthony Reyes.

Just kidding.  I'm not going to talk about Mr. Reyes today although I imagine some of you cringed a bit just now.

About a week ago, Kindred made a comment questioning the validity of the term upside and likening it to "grit".  My point isn't to call out Kindred, so I hope he can forgive me for using him as an example, because the questions that he raises are worthwhile to consider.  At what point does the term upside become so nebulous that we're discussing intangibles that won't ever really be resolved?  Does that conversation inevitably boil down to a my-opinion-your-opinion back and forth that isn't reconcilable? I don't think there are definite answers to either of those questions but given how often I use the term upside, I wanted to flesh out the concept.

If ylwe're going to pick the word most synonymous with upside, it's probably potential.  The untapped latent ability of young(er) players to rapidly improve upon their established true talent level.  Something of a perfect world scenario for that player, where everything that we can reasonably expect to go right does.  There are two words that I want to pick up on there to begin: young and reasonably. 

Sometimes the word upside gets used during the free agent period.  I'm sure I've said something to the effect of "Barry Bonds has more upside than Chris Duncan." or it's written equivalent.  The more I consider what upside is, the more I've come to think that statement is wrong.  Barry Bonds has an established level of true talent.  We have a reasonable idea what we should expect from him as a player.  There isn't any reason to expect a sudden increase in productivity (let's leave aside the steroid comments) that we would associate with a younger player's game progressing.  So a more accurate comparison would be "Barry Bonds is likely to be the better player but Chris Duncan has some upside that could significantly improve upon his most likely performance."

The second word is both more important and more difficult to isolate.  What can we reasonably expect to go right?  Maybe it's my time at Future Redbirds that's caused me to struggle with this question for the last week but it's a beast.  Is it reasonable to expect Tyler Greene to ever hit for average?  For Adam Ottavino to suddenly discover a plus changeup? For Daryl Jones to convert his tools to productivity? Of course, those questions and the ambiguity of their answers are what makes prospect watching and young MLB players so interesting and so hotly debated.

For hitters, there seems to be an easier visible correlation between tools and on the field productivity.  When you see a player like Daryl Jones, you notice the speed; you notice the strength.  The raw athleticism that exists does make it reasonable to anticipate that he could someday just "get it" for lack of a better term and that strength could turn into homeruns.  The speed could turn into stolen bases or stretching a single into a double.  I use Jones as an example because he's quite possibly the best athlete in the farm system (yes, better than Rasmus) but he's worlds away from translating that into real baseball production.  The point is, the upside with Jones is tremendous but the gap between what he is and what he could be is also substantial.

The flip side of that is considering the scenarios that aren't realistic expectations.  It's probably not reasonable to expect someone like Chris Duncan to suddenly stop striking out.  (I don't have the traditional abhorrence of strikeouts but work with me here.) He's shown that proclivity and that he can get fooled by breaking pitches at times.  There isn't a reasonable explanation for why he would suddenly cut his strikeouts in half, for example.  That's not a slam on Duncan, just an attempt to point out the limits of his upside.  He does represent upside defensively; as he plays more games in left field there's some valid reasons to think that he could improve on his (terrible) defensive performances from the last couple.

Pitchers are another situation altogether.  The addition of a new pitch can radically alter a player's game and, using an extreme example, make them a Hall of Fame pitcher (see: Sutter, Bruce). That said, it doesn't happen often. Jason Motte isn't likely to suddenly add a wicked curveball to his arsenal.  I doubt we'll see Brad Thompson exhibit a plus changeup this season.  When a pitcher does make the leap that way, it's fantastic but I don't consider it realistic to forecast a player adding a brand new above average pitch.

But improving on a pitch they already have, that's upside.  One of my favorite new sites is Saber-scouting.  Two individuals who have worked for MLB previously (one as a scout) publishing their analysis of different players and prospects.  Here's a recent scouting report on Johnny Cueto, the Red's pitching prospect who has made some noise recently surpassing Homer Bailey in their depth chart.  Notice that they grade out the future potential of the pitches.  As pitchers get a better feel for their secondary offerings, you'd expect improvement. That's upside.

The easiest example of pitching upside that comes to my mind is velocity.  There are certain players who because of age, build and work ethic, are expected to add velocity as they get older.  High School pitchers aren't always drafted for their present velocity but for the potential that they could add another 2-3mph on top of that.  Again, a reasonable expectation of latent potential which is separate from their established level of talent.

But what's the benefit of upside?  We've spent all this time thinking about how to define it and what it could be, what it can't be, and what it probably shouldn't be . . . but why care?  Let's consider two hypothetical players: Player A and Player B.  There established talent levels would cause us to expect both of them to hit .280/.350/.475 next season and play comparable defense to one another.  Player A is 32 and Player B is 22.  Player B is still maturing somewhat as a hitter and even adding some muscle as he finishes growing.  There's reason to believe that Player B will hit substantially better than his most likely projection but little reason to believe the same for A.  Of course, you are going to pick Player B.

Consider it stacking the deck in your favor.  The more upside there is present on your team, the more potential there is for you to exceed that average/no-substantial-improvement projection.  (Also, we're talking talent not luck here.  Luck is not a part of upside.  Spikes in BABIP or other luck stats shouldn't be considered.) It's rarely as cut and dry as the Player A vs. Player B scenario above but that's the end goal.  To geek out for a moment, you want to skew your probability curve toward the right.  Push it so that the variables inherent in the system cause an overperformance more often than an underperformance.

Players with the most upside often have a significant risk associated with them as well.  The chance that they could amount to nothing is a profound and all too often occurrence.  That's your basic cost-benefit analysis.  Is the probability of this player achieving his potential during the season worth the risk of the chance he doesn't?  And what are the risks and rewards of each stage in between total success and total failure?  Obviously those are both questions best handled on a case-by-case basis but it's important to remember that players with upside are often players with risk.

Upside is going to remain a nebulous term.  Finding those players that have upside due to age, previous injury or perhaps a lack of maturity is a goal of scouts in every organization.  Identifying those somewhat intangible qualities that don't appear in the box score is what nets good players at discounts.  The boundaries are always going to be a little gray regarding upside but nebulous doesn't imply without any definition -- merely without a firm one. I'll probably watch myself more closely when I use the term upside.  There's a meaning there and it's more specific than often portrayed.