Lindbergh: There’s (almost) no such thing as a pitching prospect

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer on February 15, 2019:

On Wednesday, FanGraphs released its list of the top prospects in baseball, capping the annual pre-spring-training online rankings rollout that has also swept Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB Pipeline, ESPN, and The Athletic. Almost all of the lists look the same at the top; ESPN’s Keith Law was the only one of those six sources not to anoint Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the sport’s most promising rookie-eligible player, and Law, who preferred Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., bumped Guerrero by a single slot.

The consensus about the game’s top pitching prospect was even stronger: All six sources ranked Astros righty Forrest Whitley as the best bet among arms, placing him fourth, fifth, or seventh overall. Even more striking than the agreement about Whitley is the scarcity of other pitching prospects toward the top of the lists. FanGraphs’ list includes only one pitcher among its top 13 prospects and three among its top 20, one of whom is a two-way player (the Rays’ Brendan McKay, a left-handed pitcher who also plays first base). The Athletic’s John Sickels put two pitchers in his top 11, while and Baseball America put two in their top 12 and Baseball Prospectus and Law put two in their top 13.

In the 1990s, Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay coined the expression “There’s no such thing as a pitching prospect” (often abbreviated as “TINSTAAPP”) to highlight the attrition rate of young pitchers and the importance of promoting the promising ones quickly so as not to squander whatever period of productivity precedes the almost inevitable onset of injuries. Although Huckabay later referred to the phrase as “an overstatement designed to sell books,” it became a common mantra in sabermetric circles. Now that philosophy seems to be spreading to scouting circles, too. Thanks largely to rising injury rates, changes in pitcher usage, and a heightened awareness of historical prospect-success rates, highly ranked pitching prospects are the sport’s endangered species. In 2019, TINSTAAPP applies to the top of public prospect lists much more than before.

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Originally published: February 15, 2019. Last Updated: February 15, 2019.