I posed the same question on Twitter yesterday, and as expected, a majority picked Jeurys Familia. It seemed to be an obvious choice for many: Familia is a top pitching prospect, ranked in the top 100 on most prospect lists this winter. Familia throws hard, he’s young (22), exciting, and coming off an impressive season in the minor leagues. Dillon Gee, on the other hand, is going to be 26 in April, looks to be in his mid-30s, lacks a blow-away fastball, has inexplicably decided to spout awful facial hair, and is coming off an unimpressive season as a fifth starter on a poor major league team. It seems that the live-armed prospect, Familia, should be taken over the known mediocrity, Gee, and the choice should be instantaneous. And this is exactly what my gut is telling me when I think about it.
I also think my gut is wrong — or at least hungry – as it so often is, and Dillon Gee is the better pick. It’s not anything against Familia in particular, who is and remains an excellent pitching prospect. I’m just starting to suspect that baseball fans, particularly myself, have begun to overestimate the value and potential of all pitching prospects, even the excellent ones.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Familia is a good pitching prospect – through four seasons in the minor leagues, Familia owns the following statistics:
Those numbers are good — three good seasons, one bad one — and the scouting reports back them up. He’s a good pitcher.
But Dillon Gee is a better pitcher, at least right now. Familia remains a prospect – a potential major leaguer — while Gee already is a major leaguer. Gee is already doing what fans hope Familia will someday be able to do, and if one of the two had to pitch a game for my soul, today I’d take Gee.
So if we’re picking between the two, we really want to know the chances that Familia becomes better at getting out major league hitters than Dillon Gee in the near future. And the short answer, based on comparable pitchers, does not favor Familia.
Let’s deal with Familia’s comparable pitchers first – and some of this originally appeared on Tuesday. Familia has been consistently ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball this winter: Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com ranked him #90, Kevin Goldstein ranked Familia at #89, and Keith Law ranked him just outside the Top 100, mentioning Familia as a near miss. Familia is a top prospect, but appearing near the lower end of top 100 lists.
Between 1997-2008, Baseball America listed 51 pitchers between #85-95 on their top prospect list – pitchers who, at the time, were valued similar to how Familia is valued today. Those players are with whom we’ll be comparing Familia. We want to know how those pitching prospects ultimately fared, in order to get an idea about Familia’s chances at success. And of those 51 pitchers similar to Familia . . .
- 10 never pitched in the majors
- 14 pitched in the majors, but finished below-replacement level
- Seven were middling relievers (fewer than 1.0 career WAR)
- Seven became useful relievers (more than 1.0 WAR: Danys Baez, Guillermo Mota)
- Nine became Pelfreys (Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny)
- One became a top reliever (Jonathan Papelbon)
- One became a quality starting pitcher (Ricky Romero)
- One became a good starting pitcher (Erik Bedard)
- One became an ace starting pitcher (Matt Cain)
And then lumping those smaller groups into bigger groups:
- 61% are disappointments: sub-replacement level, poor relievers, and the pitchers who never make it to the majors
- 31% become useful pitchers: decent relievers and Pelfreys
- 8% become good pitchers: top relievers or good starting pitchers
Maybe those odds are fair to put on Jeurys Familia, and maybe they’re not. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have higher expectations for Familia right now, but I’m also sure that 12 years ago fans had higher expectations for Grant Roberts (#84 prospect in 2000). Whether you think Familia should be ranked higher or lower, that’s how the pitching prospects ranked similarly to Familia ultimately fared.
The 8% chance for Familia to become a good pitcher — a “good” pitcher being one with more than 10 wins above replacement for his career — may sound low. But consider that there are exactly 100 active pitchers in baseball who would fit that criteria. (And all 100 do not peak at once: Five pitched for the Mets last season – Chris Capuano, Chris Young, Miguel Batista, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jason Isringhausen – while a sixth, Johan Santana, missed the season on the disabled list.) There are around 110-130 pitchers each decade who meet that criteria, so about four per team per decade. They’re rare. Good pitchers are rare. Between Familia, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Jennry Mejia, the Mets have a good shot at hitting on at least one.
But the odds of any particular pitching prospect hitting are low, and that’s the important point here.
How about a pitcher like Dillon Gee? How do pitchers who begin their major league careers in a fashion similar to Dillon Gee ultimately progress? And are those pitchers more valuable than prospects like Familia?
As with Familia, we can look up a group of pitchers similar to Dillon Gee. We’re looking for starting pitchers similar to Gee in age and experience, and with ERAs and strikeout-to-walk ratios similar to Gee’s rates:
|162 Game Avg.||15||8||4.04||36||32||197||178||96||88||20||87||133||14||93|
I don’t know why this table included Gee’s minor league statistics, but it did for some reason. I think I like it better this way; we’ll keep it.
Gee was 24 years old in 2010 and 25 in 2011, has a career 93 ERA+ in the majors, and three strikeouts for every two walks. For his comparable pitchers I choose to look up starting pitchers
- between the ages of 23-26
- in their first and second major league season
- pitching in at least 30 games
- with an ERA+ between 83-103
- and a strikeout-to-walk ratio between 1.25-1.75.
That search brings up a list of 65 pitchers comparable to Dillon Gee. (It actually brings up 70 pitchers, but one is Gee and the other four are contemporaries.) Of those 65 pitchers . . .
- 21 pitchers were at or below replacement level over the next five seasons
- Five were replacement-level starters or middling relievers (less than 1.0 WAR: e.g., Bobby M. Jones)
- 14 became useful relievers or sixth starters (less than 5.0 WAR: Zach Duke, Daniel Cabrera)
- 12 became Pelfreys (less than 10.0 WAR: Esteban Loaiza, Matt Clement)
- Seven became quality starting pitchers (less than 15.0 WAR: Ron Darling, Russ Ortiz)
- Six became good starting pitchers (less than 20.0 WAR: Aaron Harang, Charles Nagy)
Lumping Gee’s comparable players into the same three groups as Familia’s comparable players, Gee’s friends look like this:
- 40% disappointed: sub-replacement level, replacement level, or middling relievers
- 40% became useful pitchers: swingmen, good relievers, Pelfreys
- 20% became good pitchers: innings eaters, all-stars, and Randy Johnson
The average career wins above replacement for Familia’s comparisons was 2.5 wins; the average wins above replacement (over just the next five seasons) for Gee’s comparisons is 4.7 wins.
This is not to overstate Gee’s case: Dillon Gee is not a great major league pitcher, and a high percentage of comparable pitchers, about two in every five, ultimately wash out. But about one in every five takes a big step forward – though most appear to do so in their late 20s or early 30s — and about two in every five remain useful major league pitchers. Compare those results to Familia’s comparable pitchers, where three in every five wash out, only three in ten become useful pitchers, and one in ten becomes a star. The pitchers comparable to Gee found major league success at a rate 50% higher than the pitchers comparable to Familia, became stars at a rate over 100% higher, and were more valuable on average.
Pitchers comparable to Dillon Gee, at this point in his career, outperform pitchers comparable to Jeurys Familia, at this point in his career, in just about every way.
Now it’s certainly possible that all this is wrong, and given the choice of just one, Jeurys Familia is a better pick than Dillon Gee. But for that to be true, either Familia must be significantly better than all the other pitching prospects ranked similarly to him in the past, or Gee must be significantly worse than all the pitchers with similar careers (or some combination of both). Maybe there is an argument for both cases, but I don’t see it.
I think, what it comes down to, is that it’s easy to overestimate the value of prospects. Top prospects, both pitchers and hitters, are generally the best players in the minor leagues. They’re above-average for their levels, and because they’re more skilled than their competition, it’s easy to focus on their possibilities, to talk about what they can do and what they could be. Familia can throw a live fastball. He could be a #3 starter or an ace relief pitcher. He has potential, and it’s easy to imagine the possibilities as he beats up on his present minor league competition.
Meanwhile, it’s equally easy to focus on the shortcomings of major league players who are good enough to become major league players, but not quite good enough to become above-average major league players. Dillon Gee doesn’t have a great fastball. He doesn’t have enough quality pitches. He gets hit too hard. He is a less skilled baseball player than a majority of his competition, and it’s easy to think about what Gee cannot do as he struggles through a four run, six innings performance.
But the major leagues are much harder than the minor leagues. The best players in the world play in the majors, and a player performing poorly in the major leagues is generally better than a player performing well in the minor leagues. Familia had his success last season pitching at levels two and three steps below the major leagues. He still needs to prove that he can be above-average in Double-A, and then above-average in Triple-A, before he even gets a shot to prove he’s a better player than Gee at the major league level. And a whopping 61% of the pitchers ranked as highly as Familia ultimately fall short of that goal.
Again, maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me that given the fictitious choice between Dillon Gee and Jeurys Familia, the Mets should at least pause and give Gee serious consideration. Known mediocrity, as unexciting as it may be, is sometimes the better choice over unknown potential.