February 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
I guess at some point we had to take the bear on instead of poking it in the comments. You often hear the familiar trope, “age ain’t nothin’ but a number” and it’s often applied to the case of Evan Gattis by hopeful Braves fans, and perhaps even some talent evaluators who follow the Braves. In some sense they’re right, all it is is a number, but as it turns out, it’s a very important number. Today we’re going to discuss that number, what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and how it affects our evaluation of Gattis.
One charge we often get at Capitol Avenue Club is that we overplay the importance of age as the be all and end all of prospect evaluation, and we need to get our heads out of the birth certificates and WATCH THE GAMES. Evan Gattis is a beast they say, pummeling fourth world countries into near oblivion with home run power not seen the side of Giancarlo Stanton. Gattis has an interesting story they say, it’s not that he was a failed prospect, it’s that he was outside of baseball for several years, so we shouldn’t hold his age against him they say.
Let’s first observe how age changes the perception of a prospect. Rany Jazayerli laid out the importance of age very profoundly in his excellent piece in Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus. The entire book is excellent, but Rany’s chapter was incredibly relevant, well written and well researched. What Rany found is that even MLB scouts, who are well aware of how important age is in evaluation, even they wildly under appreciate the impact of age on draftees.
Rany’s study first looked at high school draftees, what Rany found is that controlling for the spot a player was drafted in, the five youngest player’s in a draft year produced 117 percent more value for their draft spot than the 5 oldest players in the draft. 117 Percent. That’s over twice as good.
Now, first you might think “well, that is the five youngest versus the five oldest, pretty extreme right?” Consider that this is for high school draftees only. So the five youngest players in the draft were barely a year younger than the five oldest. What we see is that a difference between 7-11 months in age when a player is drafted can mean that scouts undervalue their talent level by 117 percent.
On the flip side of that, we have the effect popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success: The fact that Major League baseball players are disproportionately often born in August, and rarely are they born in July. Far from being some sort of astrological effect, it’s an effect of the cutoff age for schools, little leagues and AAU traveling leagues. What we find is that players who are born just after the cutoff date more often make it to being drafted by a Major League team than players born just before the cutoff. Those players are amongst the oldest for their level. Isn’t this in direct opposition to what Rany found above? Is it better to be young or old for your level when it comes to baseball?
The answer is no, these seemingly disparate trends actually point in the same direction, and for the same exact reason. And it’s neither good nor bad, as far as skill goes, to be young or old for your level. The reason why is that age doesn’t affect ultimate skill level (ie what a player will ultimately become), it affects perception.
Remember what Rany found wasn’t necessarily that the younger players ended up being better players than the older players. He found that, given where they were drafted, they ended up being much better than you would have expected. That is, that they were underrated. Conversely, he found that the older players were overrated, and ended up being much worse than would have been expected, given where they were drafted. People often confuse underrated with good and overrated with bad. When I tell people that I think BB King was overrated, it’s not that I think he was a bad guitarist, I think he was fantastic, it’s that I think he wasn’t as good as Freddie King, Albert King, not to mention a whole host of other great bluesmen not named King.
Similarly, the reason why kids who are ‘old for their level’ are more likely to be drafted is simply because they’re overrated, because they’re using an extra year of physical development to fool scouts as to their true projectable level.
Thus far we’ve been talking about the draft. However, the same principle applies throughout minor league development as well. Players who are old for their level will often beat up on less physically developed players, and fool you with regards to their talent level, if you’re not careful. Conversely, a player who is young for his level, but succeeds anyway, is an incredibly special player indeed. The most remarkable thing about Heyward’s rookie season wasn’t the raw numbers. It was that he put those numbers up as a twenty year old. Incidentally, it’s quite possible that the only reason Heyward fell to the Braves where he did was that he, like Mike Trout, was young for his level when drafted out of high school. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of teams are now wishing they had taken Heyward and Trout instead of letting them fall to the later portions of the first round.
Evan Gattis has primarily drawn attention through three avenues. First, his story is interesting. Sports writers like narratives. They like writing about how Gattis wandered the great southwest with spiritual advisers as he worked odd jobs. Secondly, Gattis is a large dude. Especially when he’s standing next to a bunch of gangly 19 year olds in A ball, the disparity can be stunning. Finally, he’s been incredibly productive in the minor leagues. He’s put up wRC+’s of 108 (rookie ball), 165 (low A), 240 (high A) and 139 (AA). The problem is that NONE of these tell us all that much.
The fact that Gattis taking several years off of baseball is often cited as a positive for his career arc is stupefying to me. I don’t fully comprehend how, from a pure baseball standpoint, those years can be viewed as anything other than years of lost development. Those were years when he wasn’t refining his defensive skills, when he wasn’t learning to pick up on the difference between a fastball and a slider earlier in the pitch’s flight, when he wasn’t learning how to take more efficient routes to fly balls. They’re years of development he can never get back. However, when you bring up his age, you’re inevitably greeted with some form of “well, but he took all that time off, so his age doesn’t matter.”
The fact that Gattis is such a physically developed man, especially in comparison to his teammates and competition in low A, high A and AA also isn’t a plus. What we’re doing is seeing his physical domination of those less physically developed players, and confusing it with him being a player with better upside. Essentially, Evan Gattis is currently as physically good at baseball as he will ever be, so putting up huge numbers in the lower and mid minors doesn’t tell us much of anything, other than what we already knew, which is that he’s more physically developed than his competition.
I’d love to see Evan Gattis succeed. I’d love nothing more than for him to defy all odds and become a productive major leaguer. However, I also have to understand that Gattis is already at his peak, and he’s never even seen a major league pitcher yet. He could very well be a bench player this year, but unlike other, younger players, he will most likely never get any better. Next year he will be 27 years old, and will already be in the physical decline portion of his career. It’s more likely than not that he will be out of baseball by the age of 30. I hope he proves me wrong, but I also understand that it’s just blind hope at an extreme long shot, because the most likely reality is simply what the number tells us, that he’s too old to end up being a productive major leaguer for very long. If being old for your level often fools even major league scouts, who should absolutely know better, we certainly have to be extremely careful that it doesn’t fool us.