Astros Prospects: The Great DDJ Debate

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After debuting at the back end of prospect lists in 2012 and posting an improved offensive season in 2013, Delino DeShields Jr. has dropped on most national prospect rankings this season. CRPerry13 explores this and entreats Astros' fans to ignore that noise and focus on reality.

While I appreciate the fact that Baseball Prospectus' recently-published Top 101 prospect list is different from everybody else's lists, the non-inclusion of Astros outfield prospect Delino DeShields Jr. baffles me. Internally, TCB writers have beaten this subject to death, but for the rest of you: what exactly does DDJ have to do to earn recognition for what he's done over the past two seasons?

The story sort of began last season when DDJ entered the conversation at #99 on Baseball America's Top 100 list after he hit .287/.389/.428 with 12 home runs, 101 stolen bases, and a wRC+ around 120 in 2012 as a 19-year-old in Single-A ball, and #101 on Baseball Prospectus' list (Stat glossary below). Fast-forward to 2013, and at age 20 in A+ ball (league-average age is 23), DeShields hit .317/.405/.468 with 5 HR and 51 SB, with a wRC+ of 133, while decreasing his strikeout rate -- unarguably a better offensive season than the one prior, and against stiffer competition.

And while DDJ ranked 66th on MLB.com's Top 100, he dropped entirely off of Baseball Prospectus' Top 101. In fact, he dropped off the Astros' Top-10 lists from both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America, with no explanation given except some vague and unsubstantiated comment about his enthusiasm, as if that's a measurable skill that actually translates to baseball. (Hint: It doesn't, unless it's to the point of making a player unplayable.)

This season, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton ranked #1 overall on everybody's Top 100 lists. I submit the following comparison, to further my argument that DeShields is being overlooked by most national prospectors.

DeShields: Age 20, A+ ball, .317/.405/.468 with 5 HR and 51/18 SB/CS (534 PA) 133 wRC+

Buxton: Age 19, A+ ball, .326/.415/.472 with 4 HR and 23/8 SB/CS (253 PA) 155 wRC+

Obviiously, Buxton is younger and is a better player, so I'm certainly not going to argue that DDJ is as good a prospect as Buxton. Because he isn't. But do the differences in those lines really explain how Buxton is #1 and DDJ didn't make the cut at all? For players with at least 200 Plate Appearances (PA) at A+ this season, Buxton is 4th in wRC+, and his age makes that even more impressive. But had DDJ qualified at OF instead of 2B, he would have been ranked 13th*, and would have been the 2nd-youngest player on the top 15, after Buxton.

Here is a run-through of some outfield prospects that made the list ahead of DeShields, despite that they have a dubious case at being better prospects than him:

  • Billy Hamilton - #49 - .256/.308/.343 (82 wRC+) at age 23 in AAA
  • Michael Choice - #79 - .302/.390/.445 (125 wRC+) at age 24 in AAA
  • Brian Goodwin - #86 - .252/.355/.407 at AA, in his age-22 season, 115 wRC+
  • Raimel Tapia - #97 - 141 wRC+, in his 3rd season of Rookie-level ball.
  • Jorge Bonifacio - #99 - 118 wRC+ at A+ in 2013, same age as DDJ
  • David Dahl - #100 - .275/.310/.425, 109 wRC+ at A ball (4.8 BB%!)

It. Just. Doesn't. Make. Sense.

In fact, prospect guru and former Baseball America writer Jim Callis recently penned a convincing breakdownhighlighting the differences between DeShields and #49 prospect Hamilton, the player DDJ is most often (and erroneously) compared to. Spoiler: Callis thinks DeShields' will become a better major league baseball player.

Since BP's loss of Kevin Goldstein became the Astros' gain, the new prospecting crew at BP, led by the talented writer Jason Parks, has made no secret of the fact they prefer athleticism and youth over actual performance. Conversations in their articles and podcasts continually involve the terms #want and #rig to describe a player's drive to excel at baseball (as perceived by the observer, a questionable method for evaluation in the first place) and his athletic tools. But those same articles typically eschew statistics like wRC+, which is especially formulated for the purpose of comparing a player to his peers of the same level of competition based on actual performance.

DeShields has been punished for his so-called lack of "#want". But if DeShields performed at less than his full capability in 2013, the results were still better than most other outfield prospects.

One of the drawbacks of "national-level" prospecting is that exposure to individual prospects must be by nature limited due to the vast number of prospects that must be evaluated. So national prospectors must rely on video and reports from 1st- and often 2nd-hand sources and formulate the bulk of their rankings and opinions based on those. They also, having a human tendency to unconsciously gravitate towards their own preferences, will tend to focus on prospects that have certain skills or habits that they like above others (such as #want and #rig), and will elevate those players accordingly in written publication. This is old news - scouts have done this since the beginnings of professional baseball.

Luckily, we at TCB share that same basic tendency of human nature, and express it by focusing solely on Astros' prospects to the point where we go 80-deep on our own internal Astros-only ratings. That doesn't make our rankings better, and we strive to put aside any rose-colored glasses, but when it comes to prospects behind the extremely-well-covered top two or three, TCB stands a good chance of having a better feel for players' abilities and shortcomings within the system than do a majority of national-level public prospecting media outlets, because we care enough about our team to look more closely at the non-elite players. Luckily, one of our own writers lives in an area that allows him to view the Lancaster Jethawks on a regular basis. Anthony has this to say about Deshields, and his first-hand opinion is more valuable to us fans than are the musings of east-coast-based national writers who formulate their opinions primarily with YouTube videos and reports from scouts that may have seen the player only a couple times.

One thing I can safely say is that I saw DDJ as much as anyone who is not either A) employed by the Lancaster Jethawks, or B) a Jethawks season ticket holder.

I saw him more than opposing teams saw him. I saw him more than any individual scout saw him. I can say this with certainty.

In my opinion – while, yes, DeShields showed a visible lack of effort at times, and coupled that with severe mental lapses at particularly-inopportune times – I was still really impressed by him as a player. DeShields works hard in practice, and is a student of the game. He and Tyler Heineman knew as much about opposing pitchers and baserunners as anyone on the team, aside from the coaches.

He’s also an invested teammate – when he was benched in favor of Carlos Perdomo during the Jethawks’ playoff run, he was hanging off the dugout railing – the first one to his feet to congratulate a teammate. I’ve also seen him stay hours after games to sign autographs and take pictures.

It reminds me of Randy Moss’s early playing days, when he was accused of taking plays off. DeShields takes plays off. It’s frustrating. Don’t get me wrong – it’s incredibly frustrating. But it makes him neither a bad player nor a bad prospect. He’s still generating results… and if he can learn to increase his focus and control the mental lapses, he can only get better.

--Anthony Boyer

Anthony's evaluation is fair in that it highlight's Deshields' shortcomings without giving an overblown weight to them in order to enforce a prior perception passed along to him 2nd- or 3rd-hand.

Despite improved performance at an age three years younger than league average, DeShields apparently has been punished for his so-called lack of "#want". Prospect rankings seem to ignore that if in 2013 DeShields performed at a level less than his full capability, as some seem to suggest, he still generated results better than most other outfield prospects who rank above him on national lists.

National writers also cite DeShields' recent positional switch from 2B to outfield as being negative to his prospect value. No mention is made of the fact that #49 prospect Billy Hamilton just switched to the outfield after failing spectacularly as a defensive short stop, nor that DeShields played outfield during his entire amateur career and only moved to 2nd after the Astros drafted him at 8th overall in 2010.

My main point in this post is not to change the minds of the hard-working folks at Baseball Prospectus, whose opinions are as valid as anybody in the non-MLB-affiliated world. Rather, it is to remind Astros fans that despite the senseless tarnishing of DeShields' reputation by the narrative-inflating words of national prospect-philes, he remains one of the very best-hitting outfield prospects in the minor leagues, one who consistently outperforms older competition, and one who still has the ceiling of a star-level left- or center-fielder.

There has been noise from some fans that DDJ should be traded due to the Astros organizational outfield depth and Jose Altuve's extension at second base. For myself, I hope the Astros hang onto DeShields and that he becomes a top-tier outfielder for the Astros, as he is currently on track to do. Maybe because he's been around a while and didn't burst out of the gate the way Buxton did, but for some reason, people have forgotten that Delino DeShields Jr. has the draft pedigree, the bloodlines, and now the results to be named a Top 100 prospect on anybody's list.

* * *

*Incidentally, Preston Tucker, at age 22, was also one of the younger players on the Top 15 at A+ ball, and ranked 8th by wRC+. No love for him either, not that it shocks me. But he's another outfielder that fans should have anticipation for.

Glossary:

wRC+ -- a measure of a player's offensive ability that includes on-base and base running skills. wRC+ is on a scale where 100 is an average player in the same level of competition. A wRC+ of 133 means a player performed 33% better offensively than an average hitter in the same competition level.

"Slash" Stats AVG/OBP/SLG -- Average / On-Base / Slugging% -- (On-Base is Hits and Walks per Plate Appearances; Slugging% is total bases per At-Bats)

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