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On Taveras, Miller, prospects, and the player development process

There was a small thread in Joe's post yesterday that got me thinking back to a topic I'd done some research for back in May but hadn't gotten around to writing.

This is the proper way to celebrate prospects...
This is the proper way to celebrate prospects...
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot of consternation among Cardinal faithful the last few months about the struggles of top arm Shelby Miller and top bat Oscar Taveras. Regarding Taveras, Dave Cameron has chimed in, with his typical negative-Nancy-ness toward prospect struggles (he's also been a pessimist on Shelby Miller as well, in his endless quest to kick Cardinal Nation while it's already a down in the dumps); R.J. Anderson posted a more positive blog post over at Baseball Prospectus.  Cameron's post looks strictly at numbers and performance; Anderson's looks a number of Taveras' plate appearances over a week's time, setting up a the classic debate between scouting statistical results and scouting a player by observing their play.

What I particularly enjoyed about Anderson's piece (well, despite all the praise heaped upon the Cardinals' young, stud hitter) was that instead of looking solely at the results of his plate appearances he was also looking at approach to see if he could glean whether the young left handed free swinger was making adjustments. His conclusions, while not nearly as objective as a deep statistical dive might be, are why I think that drawing conclusions based solely on a stat line and how that stat line compares to other players often doesn't tell the whole story with respect to young players and why talent evaluation professionals like John Sickels preach not to "scout the stat line" (notice obligatory Cardinal love in the photo at the top of the post).

Don't get me wrong, stats provide great value and have the feature of being both objective and, for the most part, free of individual error with respect to recording them (usual caveats with official scoring, batted ball classifications, and etc. apply).  But stats often times fall short of telling the whole story, and with respect to being able to see whether a player is improving that's where the power of observation comes in. You don't need scouts OR stats, you need a good combination of both.

Enough about that, though: Let's talk a bit about prospect development.

There's a perception among many casual fans that a player's development is naturally linear. The minor leagues are structured in such a manner, with Rookie ball leading to Short Season, leading to Full season A, A+, AA, and AAA.  So players move from up the ladder as they show the talent and skill to do so, and while some of the more talented or older players skip levels, generally as a player gets more minor league experience we will have some idea how good a player he is about the time he's ready to contribute to the major league club.

The truth, however, is far different. While a zoomed out view of those players careers might show some linear progression on a yearly basis, if you zoom in on that graph you'll find a lot of herky-jerky lines that look more like an EKG than a smoothly plotted distribution. Players often struggle when moving from one level to the next, especially from short season leagues to full season ones and from the A-ball level up into AA, where there's a significant boost in the talent of the opposition.

The biggest leap of all for many players is that bump from AAA to the MLB. From facing journeyman 5th starter types to polished pitchers with a game plan, scouting reports, and phenomenal stuff. From hitters with holes in swings or older position players biding their time trying to catch on as utility player or one-dimensional sluggers to facing the best hitters on the planet. We always remember the guys that came up, lit the world on fire, and never looked back a lot more fondly than those who came up, struggled, and then slowly adjusted to the point where they were productive major league players.

As Cardinal fans we've been spoiled in a couple of different ways. First, we've had a number of young players in the last 20 years that have just come up and never missed a beat.  J.D. Drew was one such guy. Rick Ankiel was another (although that one didn't end so well). Albert Pujols...well, we know that story. So when you see Oscar Taveras sitting there ranked in the top 5 prospects on everyone's top 100 prospects list, as a Cardinal fan you have some expectations for what those look like.  As a baseball fan, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have set some outlandish expectations for younger players in their first taste of the big leagues (even though both struggled in their first 100-200 PA's upon getting called up).

Additionally, the last five years have featured a lot of players that have come up and contributed right away: Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Matt Carpenter, David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Trevor Rosenthal -- it's a really long list. To the point that every prospect hound you talk to talks about how great the Cardinals farm system is and how well the team develops players, especially pitchers.

All the position players in that group got a ton of plate appearances in the minor leagues and were heading into or already in the midst of their prime seasons as players before they ever played a major league game. All the pitchers are college pitchers with three years of college baseball under their belt and significant minor league stints as well for both Lynn and Rosenthal, less so for Wacha, who shot through the minors and came out nearly fully formed in the middle of the 2013 season.

That's not the case with this current crop of youth. Taveras is just 22, Kolten Wong and Shelby Miller are just 23. That's still really young and we should expect some bumps in the developmental road.

In Anna McDonald's excellent piece on Miller for there's a great quote from future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz:

"The evolution of learning how to pitch starts in the minor leagues and ends up developing in the major leagues," said Smoltz, now an MLB Network analyst. "If you look at the early parts of mine or Tom Glavine's career, I wasn't celebrated like a high-drafter or a phenom coming on to the scene. I was able to pitch 21 years. No one has come back to ask any of us what we did to be successful. No high-ranking official that I know of has ever come and picked our brain and said, 'How did you do it?' No one has even attempted to find out."

Smoltz got to the big leagues at age 21, struggled, and then threw a full season at age 22 and made the All Star team with a stellar first half, then regressed a bit after that before becoming a top of the rotation pitcher for the next decade. Sounds awfully similar to Miller's first couple of years in the pros, the only difference being Shelby was initiated into the bullpen in 2012 as so many young pitchers are in this day and age. I still think Miller is figuring things out and when you consider how little many of the top arms get to throw in the minors these days, it's no wonder they're still finding their bearings when they hit the big leagues at age 21.

Remember the Runnin' Redbirds of the 80's?  That was team built around youth that came up initially, struggled, and eventually turned into solid MLB players. Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, Terry Pendleton, Andy Van Slyke, even Wilie McGee didn't really turn into the player we remember until his third season in the big leagues when he hit .353, won the batting title and the MVP. Van Slyke was a solid player for the Cardinals, but didn't really blossom until he was traded to Pittsburgh, in his 5th professional season at age 26.

Pendleton's career is perhaps the best example of the yo-yo, EKG like effect that players career's can have when they're called up in their youth. Initially called up was to replace the traded Ken Oberkfell, Pendleton put up great numbers down the stretch of the '84 season, only to post Pete Kozma-esque sub-.600 OPS's in '85 and '86 in over 1200 PA's as the team's regular third baseman. He figured it out in '87, struggled some more in '88 and '89, looked like he was all but done in '90 and then turned around and won the batting title for the worst-to-first Braves in 1991. Is this typical?  No.  Is it totally out of the ordinary?  Absolutely not -- it's more common than most of us would like to think.

Hell -- look at Yadier Molina's progression from his first few seasons into the hitter he's been his last three. While his progression is somewhat more linear in nature than Pendleton's was, both guys kept getting opportunities because of their defense and then really found their offense in their late primes and began to put up outstanding seasons.

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to prospects. Some of them won't make it despite what all of us at Future Redbirds are preaching (Tyler Greene, DJ Tools), others will surprise all of us with a 7 WAR season seemingly out of nowhere.

They'll break your heart, as Jason Parks is so fond of saying, but they'll also provide you with a lot of great stories to tell your kids when they work out. But like all great stories that requires you give the narrative time to build and reach it's apex. Anticipation is among the best parts of having a great farm system, don't waste it.