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Austin Gomber’s shot at MLB success

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Age is a big factor in projecting future MLB production, and that is Gomber’s weakness.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

There is baseball on TV today! OK, the games still don’t count, but we get to see our favorite players don our favorite laundry for the first time in months. We also get to see prospects show what they got against MLB competitors. Lately, we’ve dove into the topic of projecting minor league players in the majors. First, we looked at why the odds are against Harrison Bader achieving MLB success. Next, we looked at what we can tell from the stats when it concerned Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara.

There was a flaw in our study though. What we found for Flaherty and Alcantara was their expected FIP as a starter in the majors, based on the minor league numbers. That had a number of weaknesses. For one, it excluded those that became relievers, and those that didn’t make the big leagues at all. To improve our understanding, we should look at total MLB WAR, whether that be in the bullpen or rotation. This also has the affect of telling us how often prospects contribute nothing, due to contributing zero (or less) WAR.

So we’ll start looking at seasons from when Fangraphs’ started tracking minor league data (2006) to 2012, giving all of our sample four subsequent years from which to draw from. For Flaherty and Alcantara, we’ll find all 20 year olds who threw 30 innings or more at High-A (like themselves) and track how much WAR they managed to accumulate in the majors in their 21-24 aged years.

Like our first look at Flaherty and Alcantara’s peers, the most important stats were K% and K-BB%:

These both came out significantly better than BB% and FIP. In the future I will expand what stats we’ll look at, but for now we’re just focusing on these four, with K% and K-BB% so far being the only numbers that give us something approaching meaningful. Using the best fit line, as well as Flaherty and Alcantara’s stats from High-A, here is their expected WAR for the next four years:

1.2 WAR over the next four years may not sound like much, but few of these players will contribute much in the first years, and then there are those that bust. For all 157 players to throw 30 innings in High-A during their age 20 season, only 31 (20%) contributed at least 1 WAR over the next four seasons. Those 31 averaged 4.3 WAR. Age is the big driver of these calculations. Let’s look at all players who spent 30 innings in High-A at some point, and calculate the average WAR by age over the following four seasons:

We see a very strong association with age here. Since 20 year olds on average end up producing 0.9 WAR, Flaherty and Alcantara both rank out as better than the average 20 year old in High-A. They’re the second-best age group because they’re the second youngest age (no one younger than 19 spent 30 innings in High-A from 2006 to 2012), and that pattern holds all the way through. At 23 years old, average value has plummeted. That’s bad news for fellow Cardinals pitching prospect Austin Gomber, who The Red Baron ranked 7th on our VEB Top Prospect list. Among the four stats we’re looking at, it’s hard to differentiate 23 year old High-A pitchers when looking at the stats. K-BB% offers the best correlation, and it’s basically random:

That’s pretty much all noise, indicating that age is the defining trait when analyzing the numbers. Pitchers with bad results have just as much chance as those with good results, so Gomber’s strong numbers at High-A don’t really matter. Among 820 23 year olds who spent time at High-A, only 44 produced more than 1 WAR (5%) in their first four years, and the average of those 44 was 2.8 WAR.

Here’s his 2016 stats by level:

By K-BB%, Gomber performed better than Flaherty and Alcantara, but being three years older makes him a fringe prospect when compared to those two. I’m not going to bother with using the best fit line for Gomber, as it makes little difference. His projected WAR may be as much as double or triple the average 23 year old, but it’s still dwarfed by the 20 year olds’ projection.

Gomber did get promoted to Double-A, but only for a cup of coffee, and he wasn’t very good. He then headed to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for over 30 innings. AFL data on fangraphs only goes back to 2010, so I couldn’t do a similar study for how AFL numbers translate to the MLB. However, if we assume the AFL is a similar level to skill as Double-A, maybe we count it as that. Unfortunately, the results aren’t all that important for 23 year old pitchers in Double-A either:

The R-squared value is still very weak, but not quite as weak as it was in High-A. Again, age may have the most to say when determining future production. Looking at the averages again, of 475 age 23 players at Double-A, 63 players (13%) accumulated more than one win over the next four years, averaging 3.7 WAR

Here’s the average WAR over the next four years by the age the player was at when he was in Double-A:

This does improve Gomber’s outlook. On average, players who spend some of their age 23 season at Double-A are worth 0.5 WAR over the next four years. Gomber did better than average for his age in the AFL, at least assuming its similar to Double-A, so maybe he projects a little better than that.

Double-A is also where Flaherty and Alcantara will probably start the year. Just going by age, this projects Flaherty and Alcantara for 1.5 WAR from 2018 to 2021, a 50% increase over the average WAR produced by 20 year olds in High-A in their next four years (which would be 2017 to 2020 for those two). They’ll then have their own stats from which to differentiate themselves from fellow 21 year old Double-A players.

So, where does this all leave us? The numbers do make me a little less confident about Austin Gomber. He pitched great in High-A, but it meant very little because of his advanced age. Just making the jump to Double-A meant an improvement in his stock though. Alcantara and Flaherty rank better, almost only because of age. Entering their age 21 season, they can still be expected to improve. The same can’t be said of Gomber. Hey, Gomber doesn’t have no chance though, and it’s not like the Cardinals are counting on him. He’s just another asset the Cardinals hold that could end up being useful.