The hardest thing to do in sport is to hit a round ball with a round bat. More difficult still is to do so at the major-league level where fastball travel at speeds of 90+ mph and the breaking balls are ungodly. Throw in advanced scouting, the reams of data teams have on hitters and their tendencies, as well as the explosion in video and hitting at the MLB level is likely the hardest endeavor at any level of any sport.
Lately, lots of top prospects are finding this out during their first taste of the big leagues.
The venerable Peter Gammons wrote a must-read article on this very subject—a piece that seems to have been in the hopper when he destroyed Chris Russo's half-baked trade proposals. Gammons recounts the Baseball America top ten position prospects and notes how none is hitting for a BA above .269 (Billy Hamilton) and none has an OBP higher than .336 (George Springer). And then in typical Gammons fashion, he strings together a litany of quotes and shares still more nuggets from conversations he has had with people throughout the game. A consensus emerges: It's harder than ever to break into the majors as a young player and experience immediate success which makes the expectations placed on these prospects unfair.
"Ideally, no matter how many tools a kid has, he should be broken in at the bottom third of a batting order," says one manager. "We see shows in BP, we hear stories, and people want to throw them into the middle of the order before they’re ready."
"The gap between triple-A and the majors may be wider than it’s ever been," says Boston manager John Farrell, whose experience includes being the Indians farm director. "There’s so much hype on some of these young players, being exposed to major league pitching at such young ages can be discouraging." Coaches on two different teams added that not immediately fulfilling the buildup can sometimes be embarrassing because of the expectations players, fans, teams, media and the individuals themselves put on 21 and 22 year old players. "It’s also more difficult for kids who are on teams that have high team expectations," says one club official. "It’s a lot different breaking in on a team that is in a small market and is not in contention. If you’re trying to make the jump to a team like the Red Sox or Yankees, the scrutiny from opposing teams as well as the media can be very stifling."
Talking to more than a dozen managers, coaches and general managers, the overwhelming feeling is that it is a lot harder to adjust to hitting on the major league level than any recent period in memory. One oft-cited reason is the incredible scouting preparation. One GM says that where a decade ago teams relied on written advance reports and a little video, now young players are given no time to go unnoticed because of the enormous volume of coordinated video and preparation. "No one is a surprise longer than a three game series," says one GM. Back in the 1990s, Bobby Cox would meet with his advance scout teams and ask for two pieces of information on opposing hitters: where to position Andruw Jones, and how to attack the other team’s hottest hitter. Going into the 1993 NLCS, the Phillies’ hottest hitter was Mickey Morandini. Now besides advance scouts, clubs employ teams of video coordinators and employees to break down every opposing hitter.
Then there are all the shifts a Bogaerts or Taveras has never faced. Or the bullpens; face the Royals, and you get on time around against Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland throwing 100, 98 and 99, respectively. "What you get is two at-bats against a starter who is probably better than anyone you’ve faced in the minors," says one hitting coach. "Then you get one or two looks at some reliever throwing 96 to 100. Six or eight years ago, it seemed like each team had maybe one guy who threw 95. Now teams have three to five guys throwing 96 to 100. One look gas."
The St. Louis Cardinals and their fans have gotten a taste of the difficulty prospects often experience upon reaching the majors for the first time.
- Current cleanup hitter and starting first baseman Matt Adams posted a .244 BA, .286 OBP, .384 SLG (.292 wOBA, 83 wRC+) over 27 games and 91 PAs when called upon to start everyday in 2012 with Allen Craig and Lance Berkman on the disabled list.
- Kolten Wong hit .153/.194/.169 over 62 PAs in his first 32 MLB games during the tail end of the 2013 season. The start to Wong's 2014 wasn't much better, when a .225/.276/.268 line led the Cardinals to demote him to Triple-A.
- Consensus top-five prospect Oscar Taveras is hitting .238/.279/.314 (.266 wOBA, 67 wRC+) through his first 183 MLB PAs.
Ben Lindbergh, who as emerged from behind the Baseball Prospectus pay wall in joining the Grantland staff, has hit the ground running at his new job. Lindbergh has penned such a steady stream of must-read material that it's been difficult to keep up with. Last week, Lindbergh delved into the prospect waters, motivated in part by his trip to the Saber Seminar. Using the Baseball Prospectus top 101 prospect list as his starting point, Lindbergh sent a survey out to MLB front-office members that contained the names of the 32 players who were on that preseason top 101 list to see how attitudes had changed based on the players' MLB performance this season.
All the respondents started the season with different expectations for each of these players, so the point wasn’t to see which players they liked best or least, or even how they thought the players stacked up relative to each other. Nor was it to see which players have over- or underperformed their projections so far, which we could determine with statistics alone. The goal was to pinpoint the players who’ve done something to either raise long-term expectations or make informed observers more bearish about their futures. Not all the respondents had seen or studied every player closely enough to have an opinion on all 32, and not all sent me five names in each category, but as the ballots came back, some patterns emerged. Let’s take a spin through the most popular picks, covering both the good and the bad.
Lindbergh divided players into three categories: "Trending Up," "Trending Down," and "Mixed Feelings." Taveras made the "Trending Down" list, though with little in the way of specifics as to why:
Oscar Taveras, RF, Cardinals: Taveras made it onto roughly a third of the downgrade lists — a lower percentage than Bradley, Choice, or Johnson, but a higher percentage than anyone after that. However, he was the last player included on multiple lists, and no one was moved to include a comment about him, which suggests that the concerns weren’t very serious. Still, the slash line is unsightly. Taveras has had to deal with a sporadic schedule of starts, but his ground ball/popup–heavy performance at the plate (combined with shaky defense) hasn’t made a convincing case for more playing time. A flurry of hits immediately after the trade deadline generated some excitement, but he’s since sunk back into a slump.
Lindbergh's piece was published on August 21, 2014 and raises the question of what constitutes a slump. Upon reading the blurb, I thought to myself that Taveras has looked better of late at the plate. And in the days that have followed Lindbergh's piece running, Taveras has continued to show signs of improvement at the bat. In fact, Taveras has probably now crossed the threshold into a hot streak. Taveras's last hitless performance was August 14. Since August 15, he's batting .387/.424/.452. Is this evidence that Taveras will be a perennial All-Star and batting-title contender like his minor-league scouting reports mused? No. As Gammons makes clear, it's a long, uphill path for prospects to make it in the majors. But the last nine games are nonetheless a heartening step in the right direction for Taveras's development as a big-leaguer.