What’s The Point of Prospect Comps? (Spoiler: It’s Mostly for Fun)
There are three main reasons, I think, why baseball is a game so full of player-to-player comparisons.
- because its history, both recent and deep in the past, is so well documented
- because well-kept statistics make it easier to provide beyond-what-the-eye-can-see evidence that a comp is justifiable
- because juxtaposing two ballplayers (or teams or leagues or eras with or without the use of stats) helps us connect our dad’s Major Leagues to our own
Why comps are so prevalent in the talk of prospects should be obvious then: Pitting a retired or current big leaguer against a projected one allows us to connect our own Majors to the future’s.
Thanks to my many conversations with scouts and Minor League managers/coaches as I report stories for MiLB.com, I have come across — and very often asked direct questions to yield — prospects-to-players comps. Here are some I have included in stories in recent months:
- Rangers third baseman has Scott Rolen-like hands.
- Padres catcher Austin Hedges has the athleticism of a young Brad Ausmus.
- Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor plays the game as smoothly as Robinson Cano.
- White Sox infielder Carlos Sanchez has Roberto Alomar-like ability (and the talent level of Robin Ventura).
- Astros third baseman Rio Ruiz is starting the same journey Eric Chavez already took.
- Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado has many of the same skills Vinny Castilla once showcased.
- Astros first baseman Nate Freiman can become Mark Trumbo Lite.
And lately, here are comparisons I’ve heard in other media reports:
- The Rays’ Wil Myers is the next Dale Murphy.
- The Cardinals’ Oscar Taveras has the violent yet effective hack of Vlad Guerrero.
- The Cubs’ Jorge Soler takes BP like a right-handed Cliff Floyd.
- The Rangers’ Jurickson Profar has a Chase Utley-like lefty swing.
A Frame of Reference
Why I like employing comps in my reporting — and why, I assume, you like reading them — is that putting, say, A’s infield prospect Grant Green side by side with longtime Rangers infielder Michael Young (now the Phillies’ third baseman) gives us a sense of how good Green can become. If we’ve made a smart comp with Green and Young, we know right away how good the former can eventually become: an average defender with a plus contact rate at the plate. We now have a frame of reference.
The key to building a connection of this ilk is pointing out the memorable/noticeable qualities of the proven player with the projected player. If you’ve followed baseball the last decade you already know what makes Young a good ballplayer, but you may not know much about Green because he’s been playing in cities like Stockton and Sacramento. In this way, the comp can be informative — if it’s accurate.
The Flaws of Comps: The following is a chat exchange between the inimitable Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus and one of his readers.
Alex (SF): Does Grant Green have starting 2B potential? Does he comp at all with Michael Young?
Jason Parks: They are both white.
Alex (SF): Young in the minors, .296/.367/.450 Green in the minors, .302/.348/.461 Similar ages, both college drafted out of SoCal, “hitter-ish” profile. I know comps are always problematic, but these two seem pretty similar to me.
Jason Parks: They aren’t similar. Hitting in the minors and hitting in the majors are two different animals. Young has been an exceptional major league hitter. Green isn’t in the same ballpark. That’s a major difference.
Using Comps As A Crutch
It’s quite obvious then that they’re not all are merited. And, in my experience, it seems that flawed comps are the result of on-the-surface judgement It is lazy then, as Parks has said, to just throw one out without backing it up. (Maybe you delve into the data or cue up video of mechanics). And I’m as guilty as the next guy for quoting a scout or a coach simply because the quote of comparison is perhaps more fun and shallow than it is accurate.
I would argue, however, that like a lot of things in this information age, small details get lost in a larger, louder conversation. Here’s what I mean: When SI cites scouts as comparing the Rays’ Myers to former Braves slugger Murphy, it is assumed everywhere that Myers is Murphy 2.0, the same model, just coming to production two decades after the original. That’s not what SI’s sources were saying.
Because there are so few genuine comps between all the tools of one player to all the tools of another, it’s important to make very specific comps. I have aimed for this in my reporting: For example: Olt has similarly soft hands to Rolen (but is not the complete defender Rolen was), and Lindor looks natural on the field in the way Cano does (but at a different position altogether). Of course, when the names get so big (i.e. Alomar) it’s hard to provide enough context to keep from distracting the reader. That’s something I battle with when writing. (Sometimes I will go so far as to contrast two players that are seemingly similar just to get out ahead of any poor comps.)
At Least It’s Harmless Fun
As much as it may seem otherwise, ballplayers and managers are not the best people to go to for comps. Ask a Minor League center fielder whom he models himself after, and you’ll get a lot of Ken Griffey Jr. Ask a MiLB pitcher, you’ll get a lot of Cliff Lee. And ask their manager and you’ll get something along the lines of, “Let’s just say he’s going to be a good one. Comparisons are never fair. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the kid.”
Scouts and front office folks, on the other hand, will talk about the next Barry Bonds until they’re blue in the face. They can’t help themselves. (It’s also worth noting that scouts and some front office folks demand anonymity beforehand, while the guys in uniform in the clubhouse are speaking on record.) At their heart, these guys are baseball lifers who, just like us, are trying to relate things we’re all familiar with. It’s just that in this case, we’re not comparing movie reviews or restaurant recommendations — but living, breathing ballplayers.
And it is fun, isn’t it?
In the comment section below, feel free to 1) ask me about a player-to-prospect comp, or 2) give me your favorite player-to-prospect comp and explain its strenghts and/or weaknesses. Let’s get the conversation going.