What started as an off-the-cuff remark has metamorphosized into a war of paper cuts.  A few years ago, there was an article on one of the more respected baseball analysis sites that bemoaned the fact that pitching prospects seem to have a difficult time realizing their potential.  In fact, it stated:
"Pitchers are unpredictable. They're asked to perform an unnatural act--throw baseballs overhand--under great stress, thousands of times a year. They get hurt with stunning frequency, sometimes enough to cost them a career, more often just enough to hinder their effectiveness...that minor-league pitchers are an unpredictable, unreliable subset of baseball players.... If you can't predict where most major-league pitchers will be two years out, it's quite a conceit to think you can predict where any minor-league pitcher will be even one year out."  Thus was born the idea that There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

After some initial debate regarding the rhetoric of the argument, they did concede that some talented pitchers eventually realize their potential.  But they don't feel pitchers, especially ones in the low minors, do it frequently enough to warrant top prospect classification with the hitters.  This group of TNSTAAPP-ers include the notable book/website from which it originated and a somewhat famous ESPN columnist, along with the host of bloggers who follow them.

On the opposite side of the argument is basically everyone else in the baseball world, led in some small part by the folks at Baseball America.

One of the arguments for TNSTAAPP was forwarded by the ESPN columnist at a conference in Arizona last fall.  He offered as substantial proof of the theory that pitching prospects don't generally earn as many win shares as hitting prospects do.  But he also stated that a good year from a hitter on average is worth 30 win shares and a good one from a pitcher is worth 20 win shares.  So it would seem that win shares is inherently biased towards the hitters... which has always been somewhat of a puzzlement to me.

Full-time hitters get about 700 opportunities (plate appearances) to do help their team on offense.  A starting pitcher gets around 1000 opportunities (batters faced) to help his team.  A good hitter is successful in helping his team between 35-45% of the time.  A good pitcher is successful in helping his team between 65-75% of the time.  Granted, a hitter gets a varying number of opportunities on defense to help his team, and a pitcher's success rate is in part due to the defense his team mates provide.  But how many hitters get 700-800 more opportunities per season to help his team out on defense to make up the rest of the 150% increase in value that win shares says they deserve over a pitcher?   Other than shortstops, none really.  And there are a good number of those defensive opportunities that were generated entirely by the location of where the ball was pitched and are so basic that anyone with a glove could make them.  The issue seems a little more complicated that the intuitive breakdown that win shares is founded on.

Regardless, my focus will be on the ability to identify major league stars from their minor league numbers.  Or more precisely, do top prospect lists, regardless of how the top players are determined, really prove that it's easier to identify guys who will become excellent hitters than it is those who will become excellent pitchers?  That would be the unspoken premise of TNSTAAPP.  Because if identifying major league pitchers really is a crap-shoot compared to identifying major league hitters, we should see plenty of evidence of success in identifying hitters in the minor league prospect lists.

Here is the Top 50 prospect list from 1999 of the website/book authors:
1) Eric Chavez        
2) JD Drew
3) Alex Escobar
4) Bruce Chen
5) Pablo Ozuna
6) Nick Johnson
7) Ocatvio Dotel
8) Jeremy Giambi
9) Carlos Beltran
10) Matt Clement
11) Rick Ankiel
12) Ruben Mateo
13) Russ Branyan
14) Brad Penny
15) Ben Davis
16) Chad Hermansen
17) Lance Berkman
18) Mitch Meluskey
19) Marcus Giles
20) D'Angelo Jimenez
21) Michael Barrett
22) George Lombard
23) Ben Petrick
24) Peter Bergeron
25) Ed Yarnall
26) Carlos Febles
27) Scott Williamson
28) Calvin Pickering
29) Ronnie Belliard
30) Freddy Garcia
31) Dernell Stenson
32) Rob Bell
33) Gabe Kapler
34) Daryle Ward
35) Joe Crede
36) Angel Pena
37) Roy Halladay
38) Tom Evans
39) Luke Prokopec
40) Jackie Rexrode
with honorable mentions to Mark Johnson, Ryan Bradley, Mario Encarnacion, Robert Fick, Carlos Lee, Odalis Perez, Jason LaRue, Carlos Guillen, John Patterson and Pat Burrell.

I used that list because I felt 5 years was sufficient enough time for the top minor leaguers to establish themselves in the majors... also because it was the oldest copy of their book that I had on my bookshelf.  Arbitrary, yes, but not so much as to render this exercise invalid.

Baseball America had much the same list in 1999, although they found room in their top 50 for Alfonso Soriano, Corey Patterson, AJ Burnett, Braden Looper, Mark Mulder and Billy Koch, along with a few huge misses, like Ryan Anderson and Julio Ramirez.  Neither group thought Vernon Wells, Austin Kearns, Sean Burroughs, Milton Bradley, Tony Armas Jr, Carlos Pena, Randy Wolf, Trot Nixon, Wade Miller, Jeff Weaver, Mike Lowell or Kris Benson was Top 50 material, but that is neither here nor there.  Prospecting is an incredibly difficult exercise, especially ranking them at a point in their careers where there are so many unknowns..

My point is this: if finding pitching prospects is such a difficult task, why are the people who are complaining about it so much better at identifying pitching prospects than they are at identifying hitting prospects?  They picked 14 pitching prospects in their list, and 7 of them (50%) have lived up to their billing just 5 years later.  I don't think anyone would lament that Matt Clement, Octavio Dotel, Freddie Garcia, Roy Halladay, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez and Scott Williamson haven't become notable pitchers.  Not only have they become good pitchers, but one could argue that they have in some measure become star level pitchers.

On the other hand, the prospect list includes 36 hitting prospects and only 13 of them even have full-time jobs, much less have become stars.  That's a "success" rate of 36% for what they deem as a reliable, reasonably predictable commodity.  On top of that, the list completely missed nine more hitting prospects who have become everyday players and could become bonafide stars.  Not wanting to single anyone out, John Sickels that year had 16 pitching prospects in his top 50; 8 have realized their potential, with 2 more (Matt Riley and John Patterson) who appear to be good candidates to join them.  That leaves 34 hitting prospects, of which only 14 now have full-time jobs.  Baseball America had 19 pitching prospects (9 successes) and 31 hitting prospects (13 successes).  So the ratio is similar, regardless of the list.  If hitting prospects are so much easier and more reliable to identify and project, why isn't anyone in the prospecting business more effective at doing just that, especially compared to their success rate with identifying top-notch pitchers?

I don't have an answer why.  But I can think of three possibilities off-hand. 

The first is because they chose so many more hitting prospects than pitching prospects, there was more room for error.  And more error is what they ended up with.  If they ran a dozen more lists, the probable results would tilt in their favor.  This is something I can examine further in the future as there will never be a shortage of prospect lists.  But I have my doubts this is really the reason.

The second is, and I think the most likely, that the numbers hitters produce in the minors are more indicative of ability than those of pitchers, so therefore it is easier to determine, based solely on the numbers, which hitters will rise to the top as opposed to which pitchers.  The flaw, therefore, is in the method for making the lists of top prospects, not in the ability or potential of the actual top prospects.  Those pitchers who have the ability and the numbers are equivalent to the can't miss hitters.  Those who have one or the other are subject to a much greater margin for error in their evaluation and subsequent ranking.

And the third possibility, and this is related to #2, is that there is no difference between pitching prospects and hitting prospects.  Both are subject to injuries and other things beyond their control that keep them from realizing their perceived potential. With pitcher's, the obstacles might be a little more obvious.  But they are not significantly more vulnerable to failing to live up to expectation than hitters.  Just ask Ruben Rivera.

If anyone feels they have the answer, please email me at  I'd love to hear your thoughts.