Stats versus scouts is an age-old dichotomy in baseball. It’s also an unfair one. There’s no scout that doesn’t use consult numbers in his reports, and there’s no sabermetrican that doesn’t watch games and supplement his analysis with first-hand accounts. There’s also no team in the game that doesn’t blend advanced analytics with old-school, on-the-ground scouting to best evaluate players.
That being said, there will always be some cases in which the eyes of the scout diverge far from what the numbers tend to say. There will always be big-time prospects with loud, showy tools whose pure performance in the lower minor leagues doesn’t match up with the big scouting grades. Think of an outfield prospect with huge raw power that he uses to dazzle during BP, a rocket for an arm, and prototypical size for a slugger, that nonetheless puts up weaker numbers than his raw tools would suggest.
The inverse can also still be true. There may be overlooked prospects, players who don’t get slapped with highly-graded tools or rankings at the top of prospect lists due to the physical characteristics they lack, in spite of production at every level they’ve faced. These can be the smaller, more contact-oriented hitters, speedy players that can take a walk, play swift defense, and put the ball in play, but can’t impress scouts with five-tool talent.
Each kind of prospect can work out. Jose Ramirez, the star infielder for the Cleveland Indians, never made a Top-100 prospect list due to his squat 5-foot-9 frame, but is now one of the best players on a great team. Conversely, Aaron Judge perennially appeared in the top half of top-100 lists, thanks to his very obvious and tremendous physical gifts, but in spite of a merely decent minor league career that saw him post a .273 batting average and .198 isolated slugging figure. Judge, you may have noticed, has made a name for himself in the bigs.
More in the vein of the Ramirez-type prospect is Twins outfielder Zack Granite. A lefty-swinging center fielder by trade, Granite played high school ball at Tottenville High School on Staten Island, and put in four years at Seton Hall. The Twins popped him in the 14th round of the 2013 draft.
Granite progressed through the lower minors without much fanfare, but began to make a mark in 2016. As a 23-year-old in Double-A, he posted a respectable .295/.347/.382 slash line and stole 56 bases, making use of his excellent raw speed. He fully broke out in Triple-A in 2017, raking to the tune of a .339/.395/.479 line and earning a 19-game cup of coffee with the big league club.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Granite is slight. His body does not suggest much raw power, and that’s been borne out on the field; his career minor league slugging percentage of .377 leaves something to be desired. It’s not hard to imagine why scouts wouldn’t put a shiny grade on him. With a slighter build, little raw power, and subtler skills that can go unnoticed much more easily than eye-popping power or fastball velocity, it probably isn’t a surprise that MLB Pipeline ranked him only the #25 prospect in Minnesota’s system prior the year.
Yet there is something to be said for the type of prospect Granite represents. Power hitters and power pitchers are the most obvious kinds of prospects that can grab headlines and eventually produce in the big leagues, but home runs and 98 mph fastballs aren’t the only route to being a good baseball player. Players that can run fast, field their position, and make contact have a chance to make an impact at the highest level, just like the players that can hit the ball 450 feet.
Over at FanGraphs, Carson Cistulli has actually made it a point to cherish these kinds of players, the ones whose potential tends to go overlooked. Cistulli publishes the Fringe Five, which highlights five prospects every week who haven’t shown up high on prospect lists, but nonetheless have displayed significant promise, due mostly to their quality numbers in the high minors, and proclivity for making contact and fielding a premium position.
Cistulli’s particular methods are not without merit. In 2014, Ramirez himself appeared very highly in the Fringe Five rankings, as did Dodgers super-utility-man Austin Barnes. In 2015, the Fringe Five sung the praises of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, whose stock rose markedly over the past two years, as well as Max Kepler, who has established himself as a starting outfielder in Minnesota.
Granite has rated well in the 2017 editions of the Fringe Five. This makes sense, as Granite has performed well in the high minors this year at a young age, plays at a premium defensive position, and has strong bat to ball skills. His big league stint represents a small sample size, but he posted a minuscule swinging strike rate at 2.5%, and made contact on 93% of his swings. He also showed some discipline, swinging at just 18% of pitches he saw outside the strike zone. That combo of contact skill and ability to play up-the middle should give Granite a high floor.
Indeed, the prospect-projecting KATOH system housed at FanGraphs agrees, using Granite’s numbers to forecast over nine WAR over his first six big league years, which puts him 16th on KATOH’s overall prospect list. A system like KATOH should be taken with several grains of salt; scouting just the statline, as KATOH does, is generally fool-hardy, and no one is suggesting Granite is among the best prospects in the game. Still, the numbers back up the idea that players in Granite’s mold have the potential to contribute at the highest level.
Being the contact-hitting, quality-defending prospect isn’t always glamorous. That profile has value, and often produces very good fourth outfielders and utilitymen, but it rarely portends stardom, the way the tools of a Rafael Devers or Yoan Moncada might. Players that are currently rating well in the Fringe Five, like Granite, the A’s Max Schrock, or the Phillies Scott Kingrey, will be hard-pressed to become All-Stars. But their chances of making the bigs and making an impact shouldn’t be discounted. Players without loud tools can still make noise, even if there isn’t much buzz surrounding their trips through the minors. Their skills may not be as obvious as Judge’s or Devers’, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth our admiration.