Prospects: A Feline Perspective
I have two cats, Apple and Toni. Being cats, they both believe that daytime is for sleeping and night is for fun. (I also have a little girl, and she more than a touch of cat in her as well.) One consequence of the feline lifestyle is that I rarely sleep through the night. When the cats wake me up, each espouses a fundamentally different view of what my being up at 3 am means. When Apple sees me, she thinks it is likely that I am up to feed her. But, she is not sure. She thinks there is nearly as good a chance that I have decided to change the litter box at 2am. I might even be under a strong compulsion to give her water. Toni, on the other hand, has an unshakable faith that I am up in order to pet her. There is no other option. While Apple considers food, litter, and water all viable options, Toni knows that I am to pet her. My daughter, to give a third perspective, considers all things equally possible. Watch a little child, and you will see what I mean. Little kids alternate between a state of pure surprise, i.e. everything is shocking, and a state of complete complacency, i.e. nothing is astonishing. At that age, little children lack the track record against which to measure shock value. Now what does this say about prospects?
First, Toni prospects don’t exist. There are no sure things. Consider this article from Beyond the Box Score on the top college pitching prospects of the last 30 years. The highlights are Neal Heaton, who had a long and mediocre career, and Mark Prior, whose career was briefly brilliant. If anybody was a sure thing, you would think the very best college pitchers would be. They were not. Prospects, by definition, are prospects. Their value is in the future (prospective), and the future is uncertain.
Second, Apple prospects are common. The Apple perspective embodies the statistical notion of a confidence interval. When you make a statistical prediction, you should always report the confidence interval. You predict an ERA of 2.75 for Stephen Strasburg? What are the odds that he actually posts an ERA of 2.40 or 3.05? That is your confidence interval. For an example, look at this piece on Mariano Rivera’s save total. A prediction of 28 saves for Mariano Rivera gives an interval of 22 to 42 as a likely range.
Third, always keep a touch of my daughter when you look at a prospect. You are attempting to project people at ages 18-22. Think back to those ages. Would anything particularly surprise you? Josh Hamilton was an outstanding talent, until addictions crushed his career. That is not especially uncommon with people the age of most prospects. Mental makeup, so far, seems poorly scouted and even more poorly measured. Given that fact, consider this list of #1 overall draft picks. Ken Griffey, Jr. is an all-time great, but he proceeds the immortal Brien Taylor by four years. Taylor never made the majors. For supposed top prospects, notice how weak that list is. After 45 picks, you have no Hall of Famers. Of course, Griffey, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez are likely Hall of Famers, but no one has made it to the Hall of Fame as a #1 overall pick since 1965. Nothing should surprise you.
What can we learn about prospects? There are no sure things. Consider the range of any projection. Do not be surprised at anything done by wealthy males in their lower 20’s. These rules, derived from immortal scouts Toni, Apple, and my daughter, will help keep you from years of frustration at failed prospects.