Cleveland Indians Prospect Pedigree A Proven Success?


I’m not a prospect buff. I have a pretty good working knowledge of the guys on various Top 100 Prospects lists, and I have a pretty good working knowledge of the important guys in the Indians’ system, but that’s about the extent of it. Basically prospect knowledge is a “make or buy” proposition for me. There are so many great sources for prospect information, be it here at Wahoos On First for the Indians or Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and ESPN’s Keith Law for the overarching perspective. With so many smart people immersing themselves in the world of prospects, it makes sense for me in most cases to read their handiwork and opinions rather than hastily try to form my own.

So when I see a trade or try to decide if a recent call-up is going to be successful, one heuristic I fall back on is prospect pedigree. More often than not, prospect pedigree, or whether or not a prospect was a top pick, received a big signing bonus, made lots of Top 100 lists, etc., can serve as a nice shorthand in determining the value of a trade or if a guy off to a hot start in his MLB career is “for real” or just a mirage.

However, the prospect pedigree heuristic serves as a shortcut, and like any shortcut, it’s bound to miss changes that would be captured by a more nuanced approach. It can be akin to determining what a prospect will do as a major leaguer before he ever has his first plate appearance. It can lead to ignoring new information because it doesn’t comply with the previously constructed prospect pedigree narrative.

I can think of a couple times the prospect pedigree heuristic has failed me. One would be this tweet:

It was so funny at the time! And true! Not only did I tweet that in the season after Corey Kluber had a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts, but it also came after he posted a 4.42 ERA over seven minor league seasons and never came anywhere near a Top 100 or individual team Top 10 list.

But okay, I’m far from the only one that failed to see a Kluber breakout coming. Here’s what I wrote about T.J. House six months ago:

"“So looking forward to 2015 and beyond, T.J. House profiles more as an I-71 shuttle rider back and forth from Triple-A Columbus than a rotation stable.”"

Of course the story on T.J. House is far from complete. But since I wrote that article House managed to finish 2015 with a 3.69 FIP supported by a quality 3.64 K/BB ratio, far from the numbers an I-71 shuttle rider would produce.

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One major driving force for me to write that House article was that House was a 16th round pick with a career 2.04 K/BB rate in the minors. If it had been Trevor Bauer posting those numbers I probably would have written it off as a talented young player finding his way. The fact that it was T.J. House prompted me to find a way to discredit his success.

Now one of, if not the most interesting case of prospect pedigree and a player trying to cement his status as a solid major leaguer for the Tribe is Lonnie Chisenhall. As far as prospect pedigrees go it doesn’t get much better than Chisenhall’s. Check out his Baseball America page: Top 100 overall prospect in 2009 and 2010, top prospect in the Indians’ system in 2010, etc. The accolade that really sticks out however is, “Rated Best Hitter for Average in the Indians system after the 2010 season”.

At this point, I have no idea what Lonnie Chisenhall is. Is he the guy who rode a scorching first half to a .280/.343/.427 slash line in 2014? Is he the guy who slashed .218/.277/.315 in the second half? Was the first half simply fueled by a BABIP spike? Will he continue to strikeout in over 23% of his plate appearances like he did in 2013 and the second half of 2014? Will he ever figure out left-handed pitching? Is left-handed pitching even an issue for him to begin with? Will he ever catch the ball well enough to not give back almost all the offense he produces?

After spending parts of four separate seasons in the majors I don’t think the prospect pedigree heuristic has much left to tell about Chisenhall. The things that made Chisenhall so likely to hit for average as a major leaguer probably haven’t gone anywhere, but he wouldn’t be the first player derailed by the jump from Double-A or Triple-A to the majors.

But then there’s that great first half of 2014 to serve as a reminder that Chisenhall once was a top prospect in the game. He’s just 26 years old, and he wouldn’t be the first player to take a few seasons to figure things out at the big league level.

Either way, Chisenhall will get a shot in 2015 to prove the prospect pedigree heuristic as prophetic or just another lazy shortcut for player evaluation.