Why is a prospect with “helium” a radioactive commodity? Like most minor leaguers, they eventually melt down. Yes, my joke sucks, the the point doesn’t. The overwhelming majority of prospects fail with or without helium. And when you buy a prospect at peak value after a helium bump, future failure is likely to sting even more.
In general, prospect writers approach writing from one of two perspectives.
Writers who attend games and evaluate players write from a scouting standpoint.
Writers who don’t attend games and evaluate players write from a statistical standpoint.
From March through September, the “scouting guys” dominate and provide perspective from the park.
From October through February, statistically minded prospect writers take the lead and heavily emphasize numbers.
Of course minor league stats are often misleading which results in my perception of what prospect helium is — A player whose prospect status has received a major boost in value based on stats.
Eric Surkamp is a great example of a pitcher whose value was wildly inflated by statistically minded prospect writers. To scouts, he was an advanced college lefty who was supposed to dominate minor league hitters. Surkamp’s success was not a surprise given his profile, but the stats guys swooned. As spreadsheets of organizational top prospects were built, Surkamp and his career 2.87 MILB ERA including more strikeouts than innings pitched took center stage.
And as he continued to be labeled as a back end starter/swing man by writers who had seen him pitch, the disconnect between the stats and stuff grew. The numbers pointed to Surkamp becoming much more and his success became a frequent topic of FanGraphs live chats.
This off-season, Surkamp was DFA’d and claimed by the White Sox as organizational depth. As with so many players of his ilk, I’ll have a chance to finally scout him in Triple-A after passing on him the first time around. And at this point, he’s probably not worth the trip.
The lesson to be learned from Surkamp is to never buy into the helium of a player when it’s fueled solely by stats. Now that we’ve looked at a worst case scenario, let’s now look at an example of a player whose helium bump is not necessarily a reason to run.
My first look at Red Sox second base prospect Mookie Betts was in the New York Penn League. In October of 2012, I wrote, “Betts has the combination of tools and athleticism I covet in a prospect. For Lowell, Betts presented with the range of a shortstop, but multiple throwing errors made including him on this list an easy decision. I know a .307 slugging percentage is uninspiring, but Betts flashed gap power in game action in addition to above average plate discipline. Combine this with the defensive tools of at least an above average second baseman, and the 19-year old is primed to shoot up the Red Sox prospect ranks with a strong 2013 in Greenville.”
Before Marc Hulet released his Red Sox prospect list, I begged him to include Betts to no avail.
I saw him again in 2013 and came away equally impressed. A sink hole in center field shelved batting practice, so I was able to interview Betts at length. Upon learning I’d seen him the season before, he opened up and joked about his first professional home run. He had absolutely no clue 14 more were in the cards.
Without a doubt, Betts had a tremendous season on paper. A .314/.417/.506 line with many more walks than strikeouts and a 90% stolen base success rate is the stuff of legend. Just how legendary? You’ll see when the Baseball Prospectus prospect mock draft is released.
In Betts’ case, the stats are supported by scouting to some extent. This is a plus. I still have concerns such as chatter he can handle shortstop (which Betts told me he had 0 interest in), but he’s a fine prospect nonetheless — even though he’ll enter 2014 a bit too overrated by the stats guys.
I’d happily own him in a dynasty league because Betts has enough athleticism to buck the trend of second base prospects moving off the position as professionals due to shortstops sliding over. Once again, I find myself impressed with Betts from a scouting standpoint first, with statistics as a secondary motivator. The stats support what was seen at the park, so Betts earns my stamp of approval. It’s important to view prospects through this lens.
Without the scouting, I’d be hesitant to bite. You should be too. Whether this newsletter, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, or another scouting site you trust, the way to operate your dynasty team like a scouting director is to start with scouting information, and then see if the statistics support what was seen at the park. Focus on the stats alone and it’s a recipe for failure — guaranteed!
4 Feb 2014 / Mike Newman /
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