Astros top prospect Alex Bregman has started his deservedly-hyped MLB career by going 2-for-35 in his first nine games. The second-overall pick in last year’s draft had dominated in the minors, but spent only 18 games at Triple-A before getting the call to the majors. So the question is: Did the Astros bring up Bregman too soon? According to Astros fans on Twitter, the answer is a resounding “no”. And I agree.
I’ve been playing fantasy baseball in some capacity since the early nineties, so I’ve seen all kinds of silly trade suggestions in my inbox over the years. The one I got yesterday in my dynasty league went like this:
"“Hey dude, you wanna move Bregman? It looks like he might be a bust, but I’d take a chance on him if he was cheap.”"
My league mate will remain anonymous to protect his idiocy, and in his defense I joined the league mid-season as a replacement owner, so I can’t blame him for wanting to see if I was a fish.
My reply to him was curt and contained several four-letter words. But his proposition got me thinking: Do people really think Bregman is a bust? Already????
As I begin my foray into writing about prospects as a site expert on FanSided (a gig I’m pretty giddy about by the way), I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I personally assess young players. I used to be a big numbers guy. Not quite on the same level as the super-smart, saber guys with Economics degrees on FanGraphs. But pretty close.
Look, I like me some xFIP and BABIP as much as the next basbeall dork. But lately I’ve evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) into appreciating good old-fashioned scouting more – especially when talking about minor league players and prospects.
This isn’t going to turn into a scouting versus analytics post – I promise. But when thinking about Alex Bregman‘s struggles to open his presumably soon-to-be-successful MLB career, I began to realize just how a small sample size of stats and a little recency bias can sour us on once-lauded prospects seemingly overnight.
I wanted to see how other folks, and Astros fans in particular, felt about Bregman. I was convinced that a Twitter poll would show just how reactionary fans are when it comes to rookie call-ups and poor initial performances. I’m happy to say that I was wrong – albeit in a small sample size (there’s that term again).
I think the poll speaks for itself. Astros fans on Twitter were split on whether he is in a slump or whether it is too soon to tell. Which really…is two different ways of saying the same thing.
But kudos to Astros fans for being level-headed.
For the record, I would have voted for “too soon to tell”, but to me any of the three answers is defensible.
Why? Because none of us have ANY idea.
We can point to scouting reports and minor league trends and make a pretty educated guess. But in the end…it’s just that. An educated guess.
Which is something I suppose. But it’s still a guess.
There is a great book that came out earlier this year that completely changed the way I value fantasy baseball players. It’s by the legendary Ron Shandler, the creator of the Baseball Forecaster, and I’m happy to plug it. You should buy it and read it. Seriously.
It’s called Ron Shandler’s Other Book 2016 and I won’t go into too much detail about it, other than to say, it’s nothing like the Baseball Forecaster and it offers a unique, yet logical way of evaluating players in fantasy baseball. I’ve personally had some success with it and in my main roto league, Ron’s method, which he affectionately refers to as BABS, has helped me identify breakout players like Tyler Naquin. But enough about my first place fantasy team.
There is an excerpt in it that pretty much sums up my position on stats and prospects very well, even though it is referring to fantasy baseball projections.
"“We know that baseball cultivates a love affair with statistics. But, those numbers work best in describing what has already happened. Used correctly, they do a terrific job of that. But we take a massive leap of faith in proclaiming our aptitude as soothsayers. Yes, past statistics can be manipulated to project future performance, but within a very wide range of outcomes. Extraordinarily wide.”"
Keep in mind that this quote is coming from someone who has made a career out of projecting and analyzing baseball statistics and is a pioneer in applying sabermetrics to fantasy baseball.
A very wide range of outcomes.
Like hitting .230.
Like being a perennial All-Star.
Or being a league average hitter.
Or being out of the league in a few years.
So where does Bregman fall you ask?
I dunno. Have you been paying attention?
Let’s talk about sample size again.
According to the work of Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus, batting average doesn’t begin to stabilize as a reliable statistic until around 910 at bats. That’s almost TWO complete seasons for most players. With 35 at bats, Bregman currently has 0.038% of that. I’d say that qualifies as a small sample size.
I know this is all common sense. Even the most casual baseball fan intuitively understands that 35 at bats is not nearly enough to say anything definitive about Bregman’s future prospects in MLB.
But we tend to view prospects differently. And unfairly. We hold them to a higher standard of performance than we might normally, because they have been hyped for years and often have not experienced much failure in the minor leagues.
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This is especially true when they have been performing exceedingly well in the minor leagues like Bregman had been where he had posted a .986 OPS across two levels.
And especially when every prospect guru and scout has been telling us how talented he is.
Bregman’s Astros teammate Carlos Correa was the talk of the league last year when at age 20 he came up to the bigs and hit 22 home runs with 68 runs batted in and 14 stolen bases in just 387 at bats and snagged the AL Rookie of the Year award. But that’s certainly not the norm.
But…recency bias. Our brain tells us that that IS normal.
So in situations like Bregman’s we can only do one thing. Wait.
OK, sure. If you are in a re-draft fantasy league vying for your league title, you drop Bregman and look for a hot hand.
Or if your like the Astros and you’re fighting for a Wild Card spot, you wait for Yuniel Gurriel to be ready (they’re saying mid-August) and then you ship Bregman back to Fresno for some work until September.
But beyond that…we wait.
In situations like this – and this isn’t the first time it’s happened to a top Astros prospect this season (A.J. Reed) – scouting reports and the eyes of experienced talent evaluators are our best tools to help us assess what a player might perform like in the future, not an extremely small sample of poor at bats or a fancy sabermetric stat.
Ari Berkowitz puts it very well in this 2012 Beyond the Boxscore piece:
"Sabermetrics, is all about collecting relevant data and analyzing it, weeding out the predictive numbers from their non-predictive brethren. If there isn’t enough data or if the data isn’t predictive, then there isn’t really any further statistical analysis needed. Therefore, the younger the player the more meaningless his statistics are."
In this case, we’ll use the eyes of fellow hyped-prospect Clint Frazier to tell us what we need to know about Bregman going forward and forget that he only has two hits since his call-up.
"“He rakes man, he just barrels everything up. It’s a very simple, repeatable timing mechanism and swing. There’s not a lot that goes into it. It shows why he’s successful, he’s able to repeat what he does at the plate every time. Alex Bregman makes the game look easy.”"
So there. Alex Bregman is going to be alright. Clint Frazier said so.
And THAT is what it’s important when analyzing prospects who first come up. The skill set. There will be adjustments that need to me made for sure. And NOBODY is a slam dunk.
But eventually, for the supremely talented at least, the skills and and the hard work begin to manifest in results on the field.
But either way…I’m not worried about Bregman yet.
And Astros fans aren’t either.