When Top Prospects Have Their First 2+ fWAR Season
Every baseball fan who follows the game closely enough to know who his team’s best prospects are looks forward to those players eventually making it to the majors. Often the expectation is that the highly touted prospect will get to the majors and immediately blow everybody away with his greatness. Of course this doesn’t always happen.
First, most prospects fail. Second, even those who succeed don’t always do so right away. It usually takes a while before a prospect a) gets regular playing time for a full season, and b) actually performs well. So how long does it take? Well, let’s take a simple question and turn it into a bunch of complicated numbers.
Before I go further, I should say what this study is not. This is not an analysis of how long it takes minor leaguers in general to succeed in the majors. Nor is it a study of all "prospects." This study looks at "top prospects" (as defined below) and how long it took those who eventually "succeeded" in the majors to first taste that success in a meaningful way.
Here we go:
For the population of successful top prospects, I used the Baseball America top 100 prospects from 1990-2003 that succeeded in my study on prospect success and failure rates. This was 227 players (144 position players and 83 pitchers) ranked a total of 430 times. In that study "success" was defined as averaging at least 1.5 fWAR over the player’s cost controlled years.
For these players, I recorded how many MLB seasons, games played, plate appearances, games pitched, games started and innings pitched they totaled before their first season of 2 or more fWAR.
The above graph shows when top prospects have their first 2+ WAR season. The data for that graph is here:
As you can see, the large spikes are in the second and third seasons, with a significant percentage (27.8%) in the fourth season or later. There is also something of a difference between pitchers and position players, with the former tending to blossom a little earlier. This can be seen more clearly when you compare the overall averages. Just to clarify, "Seasons" means the number of MLB seasons the player had before his first 2+ fWAR season.
This table shows the average number of major league seasons a top prospect had before his first 2+ WAR season, his average age when first called up to the majors and his average age at his first 2+ WAR season. From what we already know about aging curves, it should be no surprise that pitchers blossom a little quicker than their position player counterparts. Actually it is a little surprising that the difference is so small. That may have to do with young pitchers being brought along more slowly in the majors than position players.
These numbers illustrate that while it usually takes a couple of seasons before a top prospect becomes at least an average player, those aren’t typically full seasons. Very often the two sub-par seasons (in terms of WAR) are either partial seasons or include significant part-time play.
The Relevance of Age
I thought that the age at which a prospect was called up might end up being an important variable in how long it takes him to become at least an average major league player. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
While there is some variance (which is in part due to small sample sizes for some of these groups), no matter how you slice it, the average waiting time, in terms of seasons, games, innings, etc. appears to roughly consistent.
The Importance of Rank
I wanted to see if better prospects blossomed more quickly than lesser prospects so I compared the waiting periods for top 40 BA prospects vs. 41-100 BA prospects. [Note: the totals will be a little different here than above because for this purpose I included every ranking of every successful top prospect, whereas above I counted every prospect only once.]
While better prospects succeed a bit quicker, the difference is surprisingly small. The wait is usually still around two seasons, 450 PA’s or 130 IP.
- Prospects usually make you wait. They rarely have even league average seasons right away. Although it is unclear how much of this is because they are not yet average talent players, or because they are not given the opportunity to show how good they are over a full season of regular playing time.
- Most top prospects (58.6%) blossom in their second or third major league season. But for any prospect, there’s a significant chance that he’ll blossom anywhere from his first to fifth season.
- Top pitching prospects have their first league average MLB season a little earlier than position player prospects.
- On average, you have to wait until a position player’s third season, after about 120 games and 440 PA for his first league average season.
- On average, you have to wait until a pitcher’s second or third season, after about 33 games, 19 starts and 130 IP for his first league average season.
- Age at first MLB call up is not a meaningful variable in how long it takes a top prospect to succeed in the majors.
- Better prospects (by BA rank) succeed a little more quickly than lesser prospects, but the difference is not great.