When and How Do Teams Decide to Promote Prospects?

After having dealt with several members of the Blue Jays front office in a series of email responses over the past few years, and having walked through the maze of workspaces that comprises the nerve centre of the organization at the Rogers Centre, one thing is obvious:  this is a highly literate group.  Stacks of books relating to organizational effectiveness and human relations can be found on almost every desk.  This is a collection of voracious readers who look to implement what they’ve read into methods for building a winner.

Contrary to what many fans might think, the process of deciding when a player is ready for a promotion to the next level is complex, and involves many facets.  It’s not just a process of looking up a player’s stats on milb.com and determining that he’s ready.

One of the books that guides the team in the player development process was written by Florida State Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson that looks at how one reaches the level of expert in any field of endeavour, “Peak:  Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”  Author Malcolm Gladwell brought Ericsson’s “10 000 hour rule,” into prominence in his book, “Outliers.”  Although Gladwell simplified Ericsson’s rule, somewhat, the principle of the 10 000 hour rule is that is the volume of practice that is needed to become highly proficient in a discipline.

In a sport sense, the 10 000 hour rule doesn’t mean, for example, that a baseball player take 10 000 hours of batting practice when he’s already a good hitter.  Ericsson says that repeating the same activity over and over isn’t enough to allow someone to reach the top of their field.  Ericsson claims that “deliberate practice,” working on skills outside of a player’s comfort zone, is what develops expertise.  And it’s not necessarily skills that the player feels he needs to work on that leads to high performance.  Another factor Ericsson cites is the influence of a highly skilled coach or teacher that dictates the skill(s) that need to be worked on.  Blue Jays Vice President of Baseball Operations Ben Cherington describes the how the team has developed this process:

One of the learnings from that book is about how practice must be adjusted continuously to keep challenging the skill.  In that sense, we believe competition level ought to be adjusted continuously to challenge the skill, though if we go too fast the skill development can get sidetracked so it’s really about hitting that sweet spot.

Reading between the lines, it’s apparent that the Blue Jays have a list of skills for each player to master before they’re ready for the next step.  And it’s not just the skill itself, but the component parts that comprise it.  For an infielder, that may mean working on pre-pitch setup, reads, first-step reactions, footwork, transfer, and arm accuracy and strength.  The team may not necessarily have a stopwatch timing the amount of practice a player has put in, but they do recognize that those skills take time to develop.  The amount of skills a Catcher needs to learn would be lengthy, which might help to explain their collective lengthy developmental process.

So, a considerable amount of time and effort must be expended on the player’s part to get to the next level.  And while this is going on, he’s being watched by many in the organization:  scouts, minor league instructors, analysts, and high performance and front office staff.  Cherington adds:

We’d get input from coaches, high performance, analytics, and front office.  More specifically, we’d be looking for how they are progressing on priority goals, how strong are their routines/work ethic/teammate behaviors, what their underlying performance measures say about whether they are appropriately challenged by the level they are at (that is we’d like players to be challenged but not overwhelmed by the level they are at), and finally we’d look at roster/secondary implications of the move, re who loses out on playing time, who gains it, etc..

 Consensus is an important factor in this process:  a player doesn’t move up unless all of the decision makers feel he’s ready.  Organization solidarity is important in all phases of a player’s development.  As Jason Parks, in an essay titled, “How Are Players Scouted, Acquired, and Developed?” observed:

 You can’t teach a baseball player to play baseball (your brand of baseball) with a chorus of voices singing different songs at different times for different reasons.  The developmental hierarchy has to communicate in order to develop the best possible plan for the player in question.  It’s a team effort and when it loses that consensus, the player suffers.

The player almost all fans are clamoring to be promoted, of course, is New Hampshire 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is currently laying waste to Eastern League pitching.  But as we’ve known all along, Guerrero’s bat is not the issue, and he likely will only marginally improve his offensive skills at AAA, because the jump between the two levels tends not to be significant.  Prior to this season, Guerrero had played less that 200 games at Third, a position the team switched him to after signing him.  The high performance staff has instituted a program to improve his first-step quickness, and the instructional staff has developed a regimen of drills to improve the other aspects of his defensive game.  And all of those take time – it takes months to see the results from full-time training.  Throw in playing 5-6 games per week, and the time frame expands.  When will Vlad move to AAA?  When he’s checked the boxes on the developmental list.  He must be close to doing so, but obviously the Blue Jays feel he still has some benchmarks to hit.

Teams do want to challenge their players, and the fear of leaving a player too long at one spot and letting him stagnate is probably always present.  And the landscape is littered with players pushed too far too soon.  Travis Snider was promoted to the bigs with just over 300 games of minor league experience.  Dalton Pompey and Daniel Norris made their debuts in 2015 after whirlwind minor league seasons; all have struggled to establish themselves as Major League regulars since that time – Snider is playing Indy ball this year.

At this point, the process of promoting a player is more art than science, although the balance is moving toward the latter.  There still is a highly intuitive aspect to it in the form of the opinions of the people involved.  It’s a process that is constantly developing Cherington admits, when he says, “We’re not perfect at it and continue to learn.”

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When is it time to Promote a Prospect?

You can’t see it unless you’re there, but there is a wide array of data being collected at each and every minor league game.  Behind home plate sit scouts with notebooks and radar guns, as well as last night’s Pitcher, who is charting pitches.  Further up, somewhere in the press box level is a Trackman sensor that can capture upwards of 27 different and unique measurements grouped by release point, pitch movement, plate location, and batted ball.  In the dugout, the Manager and coaching staff are taking mental notes to include in the post game report they file for the affiliate’s MLB parent.  In addition, there are the observations from the club’s roving instructors, training staff, and front office staff that are compiled on a regular basis.  Depending on the time of year, front office staff may be in attendance, taking notes. As fans, we don’t get to see this, but there is a mountain of information collected every game.

For fans whose actual exposure to a minor league prospect consists of looking up their stats on milb.com while clamoring for the promotion of that player, they’re looking at the tip of the developmental iceberg, missing the bulk of that player’s characteristics which lies below the surface.

Promoting a player to the big leagues is a process that can be fraught with hazards.  In the words of Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus,

Grant promotions too early or too often, and they risk jeopardizing his future by burying him on the bench or subjecting him to the mental and physical rigors of major-league life before he’s equipped to handle them. Delay advancement too long, and they threaten to sabotage his development in a different way, blunting his talents against inferior competition while more expensive players with shorter shelf lives take up space on the big-league roster.

We could be talking about any minor leaguer, but of course, we’re mainly discussing Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is shredding AA pitching at the tender age of 19.  The media has been full of suggestions that it’s time to promote the youngster, and Blue Jays-related social media has been circling the bases multiple times with that idea.

But as GM Ross Atkins told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, there’s more to promoting a player than his numbers:

“That’s just offence, right, when you say statistically,” the Blue Jays GM says in an interview. “There are so many more aspects of the game. And it’s only a month of performance above A-ball, as well. Look, man, we’re elated that he’s having this type of performance and it doesn’t look like this performance is going away, the way he’s doing it.

Atkins did not come out and say that Guerrero, who has played less than 200 games at 3B, needs more reps, but he certainly did suggest it:

“It’s really two things,” Atkins said of the developmental priorities for Guerrero, “it’s first-step quickness and how that impacts his defence, and best possible teammate, because he has the potential to be a leader.”

When it comes down to evaluating whether a prospect is ready for a promotion, teams go far beyond their stats (although minor league numbers, of course, tend to be a good indicator of future MLB success).  Everyone involved with the team’s minor league system has a say in whether a player is ready from a competitive and emotional standpoint for the next level.  For the Blue Jays, that line starts with VP of Baseball Ops Ben Cherington, whose focus with the team is on player development and their minor league system, through Atkins,  and includes Director of Player Personnel Gil Kim,  Director or Minor League Ops Charlie Wilson, High Performance Director Angus Mugford, Analytics Staff, Roving Instructors, Minor League team staff, and likely Special Assistant Tim Raines.  Gathering consensus from such a large group is probably quite difficult, but all have a say, and a player generally doesn’t move forward until it’s reached.  Atkins confirmed that process:

(W)e work through a very detailed process to understand all of the risk factors, all of the objective and subjective information in and around what’s best for a player’s development,” said Atkins. “That’s thinking about the complete player, factoring in environment, factoring in competition level, factoring in resources such as coaches, who he’ll be playing alongside of and what that means for putting the best possible challenge in front of our players in the best possible environment. It’s not about the right time. We’re constantly doing that. We’re constantly factoring in all of those factors.”

The biggest pitfall in promoting a player is that he proves not to be ready for that level, and many teams tend to err on the side of caution in that regard.  The Blue Jays have proven that they don’t mind being aggressive with their prospect promotions, but they have developed a one-step-at-a-time template that they widely adhere to.  Each level of the minors has its own developmental challenges for players, and the Blue Jays see value in spending time at each one – including AAA –  as Cherington told Sportsnet:

“We do feel like it’s important for players to play at the triple-A level. It’s an important development challenge to be here,” Cherington said. “We’ve got players here right now who we really believe in and believe are going to be good major-league players. They are being challenged by this level. This is an important level to be at for some period of time.

“It’s a different level of competition than double-A is,” he added. “Different kind of players you’re facing, different matchups, different game-planning strategies — it’s just a different level of play.”