Toolshed: Prospect projections gone right

Preseason outlooks nailed Ohtani (the pitcher), Bieber, Kingery

Shane Bieber ended up being a solid contributor for the AL Central champion Indians, as Steamer expected. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 2, 2018 10:00 AM

We used to have so many questions. Now, we have a lot of answers to work through.

Back in January, MiLB.com used FanGraphs' Steamer600 projections to look at how some of the game's most prominent prospects were expected to perform over a full season. For this exercise, a full season was defined as 600 plate appearances for a position player, 450 plate appearances for a catcher, 200 innings for a starting pitcher and 65 innings for a reliever. Of course, few players who are considered prospects in the spring reach those marks in the Majors -- Brian Anderson and Miguel Andújar were the only rookie position players to eclipse the 600 plate appearance mark in 2018 -- but it makes it easier for comparison to put everyone on the same plane.

Eight months later, it's time to revisit those predictions with the Major League regular season coming to a close. In this edition, Toolshed turns to what Steamer600 got right back in the spring, and on Friday, we'll look back at what the projections got wrong.

For reference, the division-by-division preseason projection breakdowns can be found here: AL East | AL Central | AL West | NL East | NL Central | NL West

Shohei Ohtani, the pitcher -- It might be a while before the game sees Ohtani on the mound as the preseason No. 1 overall prospect underwent Tommy John surgery Monday. But the way he did pitch over his 10 outings -- nine of which came from April 1-June 6 -- lined up quite nicely with Steamer's expectations of a 3.49 ERA, 3.56 FIP and 11.1 K/9 over 200 innings. His actual numbers over 51 2/3 frames: 3.31 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 11.0 K/9. Yes, that's about a quarter of the target sample size, but that level of accuracy is notable, considering Steamer didn't have Minor League data and was basing its projections on Ohtani's numbers from Japan. It also highlights what we thought then might still be possible; if Ohtani is healthy, he could be one of the game's most exciting arms. As for the bat, check back Friday.

Offseason MiLB include

Scott Kingery -- When the NL East portion of this series ran on Jan. 9, Kingery appeared to figure in the Phillies' plans at some point in 2018 but seemed prime to open at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Despite his breakout 2017 season in which he hit 26 homers and added 29 steals, Steamer advised that opening in the Minors might have been the best course, projecting him to hit .257/.304/.406 with 16 homers and a below-average 84 wRC+ if he were given 600 plate appearances. Philadelphia, as was often the case in 2018, went an unorthodox route of signing Kingery to a Major League contract and extension before the season even began, ensuring that the 24-year-old would open in the big leagues. Despite playing all but six games in the Minors at second base, the Phillies moved Kingery to shortstop primarily but also gave him time at third base, all three outfield spots and, yes, second. (He even pitched 1 1/3 innings in the year of the position player pitching.) But as much as the NL East contenders tried to keep Kingery in the lineup, he ended up being even worse at the plate than Steamer imagined, hitting .226/.267/.338 with eight homers and a 62 wRC+ over 484 plate appearances. That might seem like a projection that Steamer got wrong, but it gets points here for being more realistic on the former top-100 prospect than most others in the Minor League community last winter.

A.J. Minter -- Minter showed some potential out of the Major League bullpen with a 3.00 ERA, 26 strikeouts and two walks in 15 innings during the 2017 season, making him a slam-dunk option to return to Atlanta to open 2018. Steamer expected some regression but still expected him to be a solid contributor with a projection of a 3.17 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 11.9 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 over 65 frames. If anything, the 25-year-old left-hander may have beaten those expectations, finishing with a 3.23 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 10.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, and the Braves trusted him enough to pitch late innings as he picked up 15 saves on the way to an NL East title. There were questions about whether Minter could stay healthy three years removed from Tommy John surgery, which had limited him in the Minors. But even in that category, Steamer was almost dead-on; Minter finished the regular season with 61 1/3 innings pitched.

Jake Bauers -- If anyone said at the beginning of the season that the Rays would post a 90-win season and rely on young, versatile talent to do so, Bauers' name would've been mentioned as a reason why. Steamer, however, put the brakes on looking for big things from the young first baseman/outfielder before the season began, and even with everything that went well for Tampa Bay this summer, Bauers was just so-so. The left-handed slugger was projected to hit .243/.327/.382 with 14 homers and a 93 wRC+ over 600 plate appearances, and that was fairly close as he finished with a .201/.316/.384 line, 11 homers and a 96 wRC+ over 388 PA's. Sure, the 2013 seventh-rounder had his moments, like the 12th-inning walkoff homer against the Yankees on June 24, and for a club trying to stay young, there's no reason to be down on a former top prospect who was a league-average hitter in the Majors in his age-22 season. If anything, Bauers' season is a reminder that prospect fatigue can be real but that the process of development doesn't stop the day of a Major League debut.

Shane Bieber -- Steamer nailed the right-hander's ERA (4.49 projection, 4.55 actual), BB/9 (1.8 both) and WHIP (1.29 projection, 1.33 actual) and had him pegged to be Cleveland's fourth-best starting option before he had even made his Triple-A debut, based on his elite control. In truth, he was actually the Tribe's No. 5 starter behind Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger, but that's a really deep group. What Steamer didn't predict was that Bieber would miss bats at a really good rate -- his 9.3 K/9 was significantly better than his 6.3 projection -- and the difference in FIP (4.46 vs. 3.23) can be explained by that discrepancy. Still, give Steamer credit for being this high on Bieber after he entered the 2018 season with only nine Double-A starts on his resume.

Greg Allen -- A shoulder injury to Bradley Zimmer meant the Indians had to rely on Allen more than they would've liked. The speedy outfielder was projected to be a below-average hitter with a .244/.311/.344 line and 74 wRC+ over 600 plate appearances, though he was expected to provide value with 24 stolen bases. He fit that description almost perfectly, hitting .257/.310/.343 with a 75 wRC+ while adding 21 thefts in 91 games (291 plate appearances). Despite the speed, he didn't provide much value in the field and finished with a -0.1 WAR. Allen still has a future as a fourth outfielder -- he moved to that role after the Tribe acquired Josh Donaldson and moved around Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis -- but that's what most anticipated for him to begin 2018 anyway.

David Fletcher -- A lot of people could've gotten excited about Fletcher's major power jump at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he had 36 extra-base hits and posted a .559 slugging percentage in 58 games before getting the call in June, and expected big things for the 2015 sixth-rounder. As it turned out, Steamer's preseason projections, which didn't have a chance to take in that increase in pop, proved closer to the real thing once Fletcher no longer called the hitter's haven that is Smith's Ballpark home. Steamer thought Fletcher would hit .248/.285/.325 with five homers over 600 plate appearances. He got half of that playing time but managed to hit just .275/.316/.363 with one homer over 307 plate appearances. His ISO dropped from .209 in the Pacific Coast League to .088 in the Majors. If you only paid attention to his Triple-A numbers, that might have come as a shock. According to Steamer and most scouting reports, it wasn't. One quick note: Fletcher finished with 1.9 WAR, mostly on the strength of his defense at second and third base, and Steamer, which doesn't have adequate Minor League fielding data, didn't take that into account for its 0.1 WAR projection.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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