Searching for Value with Latin American Pitchers: An Overview
Everyone wants to know who the hot new sleepers are, which in the age of the internet is a bit funny because the minute someone becomes a sleeper their value normally starts to disappear. But I still want to talk about sleepers and most of this series will be about naming names, but I do hope you walk away with how to apply this to more than the specific players mentioned. The key with sleepers is value, the idea being that you are taking a player at a value you think they will become in the near future. Most people think of this in terms of obscure or unknown players bursting onto the scene, but in many ways if a top player is going below their value that is just as valuable as an unknown sleeper, they just lack the unknown part of our definition. But I am going to talk about those guys off the radar.
One of the most untapped markets for assets gaining sudden value in a dynasty league is Latin American pitching. It is a strategy that loses some of its value the shallower the league because you lose the large talent pool to operate that allows for expansion to more risky prospects. The idea being that you can find unknown players to acquire for practically nothing and then either stick with them to major league value or flip them at a higher value in trade. It is not an easy strategy but one that allows you to churn through prospects because you know you can acquire their replacements for next to nothing. This first post is going to talk general strategy and then subsequent posts will go division by division looking at specific players.
Know the Player’s Stuff:
If I told you no other context except that there was a pitcher who put up the following stat line in his 18 year old season in the Venezuelan Summer League:
14 GS 80.2 IP 1.56 ERA 0.843 WHIP 67 H 1 BB 78 K
You are certainly interested in this player and are waiting for me to tell you his name so you can run out and acquire him. Now I am going to give you a second player:
LHP 6’0″ 177 lbs Fastball 85-87mph
As you expected, it is the same player (Ranger Suarez). The point being, stat lines are not enough here to judge a player, you need to know that a player has major league stuff.
Projection. Because you are going to be dealing with teenagers projection is key. Look for players with frames that suggest the ability to add more muscle and are inconsistently showing a higher velocity range. A good buying opportunity exists when a player is about to make a velocity jump from a number closer to average up into the plus or plus plus range.
Stuff Isn’t Everything:
Unless you are in a league that rewards relievers, starters are more valuable than a reliever both in roster and trade value. Look for pitchers with a feel for pitching, this can be fastball command, sequencing, or feel for their secondary arsenals. In order to advance through the minors, pitchers have to get outs, the results may not always be consistent or pretty, but they need to be able to go log innings. In my experience the more feel a pitcher has for their arsenal the better their chances to stick in the rotation long term. We can get sucked into the allure of a prospect’s ceiling, but they need to move towards achieving a ceiling in order to build value. Part of this is that a pitcher’s arsenal sets itself up, a pitcher with good feel for fastball command can work their breaking ball around it and knows how it works into how they pitch, a pitcher with a good changeup can continue to grow the pitch unto a real weapon. This isn’t to say that pitchers never gain feel, but you will be much safer going with pitchers who already have demonstrated feel for their arsenal.
The big allure of seeking Latin pitching prospects for me is the unknown. We often think of top Latin prospects being signed on July 2 for lots of money, and there are interesting pitchers signed all the time and we should pay attention to them, but the big draw is those taking the lesser road. Most top Latin prospects are signed at age 16, a time that draft eligible players are still in high school, by the time a player is 18 they are old and unwanted, and by 20 they are downright ancient. If we take a step back from our view on Latin prospects and put them into an American system and think of the pop up high school pitching draft prospects, the 18 year olds don’t look so old. If we look at the 20 year olds and put them in the context of someone like Kyle Freeland (#8 overall pick of 2014 draft) where he was 85-88 out of high school, but then in the Cape Cod League last summer at about age 20 he showed a jump to 89-93 touching up to 96, the velocity jump is not unprecedented. In America these pitchers are often correctly valued because of the draft and access to information, for Latin prospects this development is happening well beyond the reach of publicly available data. Beyond Latin players being signed at early levels, the thing to give up on is bonuses as a form of evaluations. They can be somewhat helpful for J2 signings, but even then they only tell you so much, but when it comes to players signed later, throw away the bonus. The scouting report is going to much more reliable in trying to find the right players because it will give you the why. But most importantly, many of the older players are going to sign for cheaper because of their age, you shouldn’t hold that against them.
Stuff Trumps Age:
You can extrapolate this to all pitchers. Age matters for pitching because it can be a harbinger of future growth potential or of potential decline. However, unlike hitters where feel for hitting at a young age puts you ahead of the curve, stuff rules pitching, you can either get outs or you can’t. Don’t be thrown off by a players age relative to a level in either direction, instead look at the stuff. An older pitcher may be dominating a lower level because he has feel and a offspeed pitch, but no fastball, or he could be harnessing an arsenal late due to injury or position switch, the context is more important. Something like fastball velocity is not something a player grows at each level, feel and control might, but a pitcher with good enough stuff can make jumps regardless of age or experience. Also don’t count a young pitcher to necessarily just get better because they are young, not every adds velocity or breaking ball, a young pitcher has more time to do so, but their experience vs a level is less important than the arsenal. Don’t write off anyone because of age, pitching is too volatile, little things can make big differences, watch the arsenal.
Expand Your Knowledge Base:
Talent evaluators love to talk about exciting things they see, they want to tell the world and brag about it. Unfortunately, unless you are well-connected you don’t have scouts calling you to tell you about the exciting things they have seen, so we have to turn to the internet. Twitter is a great resource, follow guys who see games, I like to follow guys in Arizona and Florida because they are seeing the rawest talent, but you may need to tailor who you listen to based on the depth of your league. Beyond Twitter you need read the little comments on prospect sites. For instance Miguel Castro was the Blue Jays #26 prospect last year according to Baseball America, he was a guy who threw 91-92 when he signed but was 93-96 last year, and then buried in Baseball America’s Top 20 VSL/DSL prospects was the fact that he routinely was hitting triple digits and had been clocked as high as 103. He is now their #9 prospect this offseason. If Baseball Prospectus is your source of choice, look in the Ten Packs, that is usually the first spot a player will appear. If you really want to go deep you need to go team specific, and for that I give you the ultimate time waster, the list of prospect sites for all 30 teams as compiled by Pirates Prospects this spring. It is a ton of work, but you need to know a guy before he is big.
Overall it is a ton of work, but as you see the payoff can be big. From here I am going to go division by division and give some examples of guys who have already broken out, players who might be a sleeper in a more shallow league, and for those of you out there like me who play in leagues with hundreds of players owned, some really deep guys you have never heard of before.
Great article, Matt! Who are your favorite follows on twitter for identifying these prospects?
I would follow all of the BP, BA, MiLB, and Fangraphs prospect guys, also @billazbbphotog. There are a ton of guys overall though. It might be a future project to compile a full list.