Player Comparisons Paint A Picture For Scouts
See also: Four players who draw a whole lot of comps
Ryan Anderson was supposed to be the next Randy Johnson, Ruben Rivera was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle, and Andy Marte was supposed to be the next Miguel Cabrera.
Even though none of those scenarios panned out, player comparisons are still a valuable tool for scouts.
"In scouting, that's all we do," Phillies Northeast area scout Eric Valent said about making comparisons. "Especially with the amateur prospects, the good guys are compared with major leaguers, but even the lower guys, I might be comparing them with someone in our minor league system."
Valent offers a unique perspective on comparisons. As a player coming out of UCLA in 1998, he was compared to Mark Kotsay—a common comparison for outfielders with polished skills and gamer mentalities rather than flashy tools.
"The more games you play or the more tournaments you go to, the more guys you see and they just remind you of certain guys," Valent said.
That's why experience is so valuable when it comes to scouting, and why scouts are typically former players, former coaches, or both.
"I think scouting is all about comparisons," Twins scouting director Deron Johnson said. "Experience in scouting is all about what I call your scout database. And yeah, we use it all the time, whether it's with another big leaguer or with a guy from a previous draft. You'd like to use a big leaguer, obviously, but if there are some negative traits, you might bring up a guy who didn't make it to the big leagues."
That being said, there's no such thing as a perfect comparison. Player comps often serve as a thumbnail sketch for crosscheckers and scouting directors, so they have an idea what to expect when they may only get one brief look at a prospect.
Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt said he asks his scouts to note a comparable player in their reports, but only if it comes to them naturally.
"What we ask for is, 'Who is he comparable to?' " Schmidt said. "It might be physically or his actions remind you of somebody. Those are all things you do to help paint a picture for someone who hasn't seen the player."
Players who are outliers for one reason or another—whether it's a unique body type or an atypical skillset for their position—are frequently used as comparisons.
"Things don't work out for a lot of different reasons," Schmidt said. "People are always going to use the one that had success, but they're not going to talk about the 9 million of them that didn't make it. It's the same with a sub 6-foot pitcher. If one out of 100 makes it, they're going to talk about the one that makes it, instead of the 99 that don't."
As much as player comparisons can be helpful, they can also be misleading, and some scouting directors like them more than others.
"The difficulty is, you're comparing a 17- or 18-year-old person to somebody who has established a major league career," Indians scouting director Brad Grant said. "It's often easy to just say, 'Well, this guy has this tool set, so he's going to be this type of player.' It's an easy thing to say, but it's a more difficult thing for that person to become. There's a balancing act to it. By using player comps, if you compare someone to an all-star, you put that person on a pedestal to become something that is very difficult to reach. You put a picture in your mind of what this player is, and that's not always a fair thing to do to an amateur player.
"You're comparing people to people. It's human beings and everyone is different. You want to be compared to somebody, but you're often very different from that comparison as well."
By nature, most comparisons will wind up looking bad, simply because most players are compared to established big leaguers, often all-star players. Regardless of a prospect's tools, the odds are just stacked against him. A small percentage of minor league players even make it to the big leagues, let alone have any sort of a lengthy career.
With more than 6,000 minor leaguers dreaming of the show last year, just 239 made their major league debut. Of the 211 players who debuted in 2007, just 99 of them also played in the big leagues in 2011. Stretch that span out to 10 years and the likelihood gets cut in half—49 of the 204 players to debut in 2002 also played in the big leagues in 2011. That number isn't an aberration, either. Sixty-seven of the 192 players who debuted in 1991 were still in the big leagues in 2000; 53 of the 146 players to debut in 1981 were still in the bigs in 1990, and 40 of the 113 players who debuted in 1971 were still in the majors in 1980. Not all minor leaguers are equal, but strictly in terms of probability, these numbers show that the chance that a minor league player has a 10-year big league career is less than 1 percent.