Collecting Prospects – Hit of Miss?

Topps’ inclusion of Prospect cards in their Bowman branded products over the last several years has added a whole new dimension to player collecting!

Although not true Rookie cards, Topps have placed the ‘1st Bowman Card’ stamp somewhere on each card to let us all know exactly what we’re getting, and in a lot of instances collectors are taking to these Prospect cards as a player’s first official Baseball card release, overshadowing their ‘true’ Rookie card which is released after a player makes their MLB debut.

On a personal level I don’t have anything against Prospect cards, although I do wish they were assigned to their own product rather than being mixed into the Bowman products as an insert. I just feel that it makes things a lot neater that way 🙂

But given the emerging popularity and status of the Prospect card over a players Rookie card, the notion of collecting Prospects has intrigued me more and more over the last couple of years.

The thing is… Where do you start? Do you try and collect as many prospect cards as possible? Do you go for a selection of players to concentrate on, possibly from your favourite team(s)? Do you choose one particular player and try and collect all the variations and parallels that exist for said player?

And that’s before we even start looking at the autographed parallels, which are usually valued infinitely higher than their standard, non-autographed counterparts!!

There are easily over 200 Prospect cards released across the Bowman brands each year and it’s worth bearing in mind that only a limited number of these will go on to have successful MLB careers. Even the promise of a highly touted Prospect does not always guarantee that college or Minor League success will carry over into success in the Big Leagues.

I came across this article by Tim McCullough, in a St Louis Cardinals community forum, Viva El Birdos, earlier this morning and it’s well worth a read as it uses a couple of recent  player examples to highlight the need to keep things in perspective when setting expectations for Baseball Prospects. It a really short piece and Tim makes some good points.

What Makes a Prospect Successful?

So this prompted me to don my research hat and do some more digging around to see just how successful Prospects are when they reach the Majors, and to see if this success might have an effect on the way that collectors chase after Prospect cards.

Well, it didn’t take me too long to find the following article written by Scott McKinney back in February 2011. Scott, a resident of NYC, is a columnist for Beyond the Box Score and a regular contributor to the Royals Review. You can also find him on Twitter @ScottMcKinney1

In his article Success and Failure Rates of Top MLB Prospects Scott recognises that the failure of top Prospects is extremely commonplace and looks at historical precedent to ascertain what can be expected from “various kinds of highly regarded prospects”. He attempts to answer his question by looking at the Top 100 Prospects from previous years and looked at how well they performed in the Majors, rating by rank, position, time period and organization. For his population sample Scott used the lists published by Baseball America for the Top 100 Prospects from 1990 to 2003, and looks at each player’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating to gauge how ‘successful’ a player has been.

Now, I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of work that Scott put into this, and I feel like a bit of a cheat for piggy-backing all the detailed and meticulous research that he did, but his findings make for some really interesting and surprising reading. Please click on the link to the article itself to explore Scott’s methodology further, but he’s a quick summary of his conclusions…

  • About 70% of Baseball America top 100 prospects fail
  • Position player prospects succeed much more often than pitching prospects
  • About 60% of position players ranked in Baseball America’s top 20 succeed in the majors
  • About 40% of pitchers ranked in the top 20 succeed in the majors
  • About 30% of position players ranked 21-100 succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 36% to about 25%)
  • About 20% of pitchers ranked 21-100 succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 22% to about 15%)
  • The success rate of prospects (both position player and pitchers) is nearly flat and relatively undifferentiated for players ranked 41-100, and especially those ranked 61-100.
  • Corner infield prospects and catchers are the most likely to succeed in the majors, but outfielders, third basemen and shortstops are the most likely to become stars. Second basemen and pitchers are the least likely prospects to succeed in the majors or to become stars
  • Prospect success rates have not improved much over time and there is little data to support the contention that prospects are more likely to succeed now than they have in the past

As with most statistical analysis these findings should be looked at with several caveats in mind, as Scott himself points out in his article. For instance, Scott has used a specific criteria for what he considers to be a ‘success’, a ‘failure’ or a ‘bust’, and this may well be open to interpretation when compiling a case-study like this.

That said, the conclusions that he arrived at are pretty amazing, and you can make of them what you will!!

So, how do these findings help us in determining whether it’s worthwhile collecting Prospects or not? I guess if you look at things on the surface your gut reaction might be ‘why bother?’.

Over here in the UK the majority of us have no real ties to college players or Minor League Baseball. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that it isn’t usually until a player begins his MLB career that he even appears on the radar at all. Naturally there are exceptions to this rule, with names like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper standing out as recent examples of pre-MLB hype transferring over into MLB success. However for someone in the US there might be several different reasons that a collector might follow a certain specific prospect – for instance, they might have gone to the same high school/college; they might come from the same home town; they might play for their nearby Minor League team, and so on…

There’s also another aspect to Prospect collecting that I’ve not even touched on yet, and that’s the financial element! Prospecting in Prospect cards can quite a lucrative business, whether you’re in it for the short term by buying a shed-load of new product and ‘flipping’ the current ‘hot’ Prospects to invest in more boxes/cases or to build your own PC, or whether you buy up lots of cheaper Prospect cards and store them away in the hope that they will eventually go on to become major stars. All it takes is for a player to have one break out season and the value of his cards can rocket, turning a once humble collection into a relative gold mine!

For example, over three years ago scouts were predicting that a 6’2″, 190lbs  17-year old out of Millville High School, NJ, had the skills to become the Angels’ CF of the future when he was drafted with the 25th pick in the first round of the 2009 amateur draft, but none could have anticipated that, in 2012, Mike Trout would go on to have one of the best Rookie seasons in Baseball history! And I can imagine that there are some collectors out there that are sitting on his 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospect card, giggling inanely to themselves right now… That’s if they haven’t sold it already for a quick buck!

But perhaps there’s a much more simpler aspect to collecting Prospect cards – fun! Surely there’s a great feeling of satisfaction of picking out one or two Prospects and simply following their career through Baseball cards, irrespective of whether they go on to have great success or not.

I suppose what it all boils down to is why you’d want to collect Prospects in the first place and what you would want to get out of it! If it’s for the quick turnaround then it’s worth bearing in mind that you can spend an awful amount of money and end up with no return whatsoever on your investment if you don’t get the big ‘hit’ or ‘hits’. However if you’re collecting with a long-term strategy in mind then just be mindful of Scott’s figures and embrace the fact that the majority of Prospects will never have a successful MLB career.

So from a personal point of view, would I ever collect Prospects to make money from it? Hell no!! Too much risk outweighs any kind of potential reward!

But if you eye up a top Prospect as a player you might want to consider collecting, as you may have decided that his potential to succeed is higher than most, then go for it. But bear in mind that the chances are he’s already been spotted by other collectors and you’ll be paying a premium for his cards even at this early stage in his career!

I recently pulled a Corey Seager autographed Prospect card from a box of 2012 Bowman Draft! A very nice card of a popular 2012 first round draft pick! I may even consider picking up a few more Seager cards over the coming months… because, you never know do you?

He just might be the one!!

So, are there any other Prospect collectors out there? If there are I’d love to hear from you and get your thoughts on how you approach Prospect collecting and what you get out of it!

Take care, Andy

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