Fantasy 101: Picking Amateurs

Let's talk about amateur stats, Golden Spikes, and how to evaluate the talent of amateurs from ages 16 to 24.

So, your league has an amateur draft.

This means every year a group of hundreds of 17- to 24-year-olds must be evaluated on the same playing field for strengths and weaknesses. Evaluating minor leaguers is hard enough, but how do you evaluate players before they even become minor leaguers?

How do you equate teenagers versus college seniors? MLB teams can’t even really seem to do this with an analytics team, scouts, a general manager, and a president of baseball operations. Still, here you are trying to do it all by yourself. You’re either a masochist or a narcissist. Let’s find out which.


Do Not Draft According to Slot


Prospect lists are all over the place, but beware of them. I’m not trying to knock lists. They are some of my favorite things to write. I am warning you against using them exclusively. Most of the time, dynasty managers lean on mock drafts and prospect lists because they are unwilling to do the work of researching prospects. That’s why you see the top 10 picks in an amateur draft come off the same as the MLB draft. Don’t be the guy who picks the same guy the Marlins picked because you have the same slot.

I’m not saying you need to go down to the Dominican Republic and scout Jasson Dominguez, but it couldn’t hurt to research his tools and watch video of his swing. Video is readily available for anyone willing to view on YouTube. Look for specific things: Does he keep his head still during his swing? Does he keep his hands still before he swings? Does he use his lower body? Does he clear his hips early? Does he give up on breaking pitches?

When I mean research, I mean look at Fangraphs’ scouting live chats, or read MiLB scouting reports, or watch college baseball, or follow the 18U National Team. Any of these activities will give you an advantage over other managers. At the very least, review multiple prospect lists and aggregate them to find your own priorities. Once you’ve done the research, start a top 100 spreadsheet of your own and don’t deviate from it.


Do Not Draft to Fill Roster Needs


This is actually worse than drafting to slot — because drafting to slot is just lazy, but drafting a prospect because he fills a current roster need combines arrogance and naiveté. It’s arrogant because you believe you can find a good enough player to fill a role exactly when you need one. And it’s naive because it shows a complete misunderstanding of how quickly prospects become major leaguers.

Even in the best-case scenario (top 10 picks of MLB draft from 2010-2015) it takes players drafted out of college 2+ years to make their major league debut:

Prospect Experience #Made MLB Debuts/Total Avg. MiLB IP Before Debut Avg. MiLB GP Before Debut
College 27/34 (79%) 168 214

For high schoolers, the averages are nearly double that amount. By that time, what is your roster going to look like? Hopefully not what it looks like now, or you’re probably in trouble. Hopefully in two years you’ll have found a plug to your roster hole via trade or free agency. That is what those two options are for. The draft is for picking futures; not plugging holes.


Draft Players Who Get on Base


All too often managers get caught up in the “Five-Tool Player” mindset, where they drool over athletes. Nothing is wrong with drafting athletes — as long as they can get on base. The ability to get on base is the most important tool you can have. If you have a four-tool player who can’t get on base, you don’t have a starter. You can draft the fastest, strongest prospects available, but if they can’t get on base, you end up with Billy Hamilton and Wily Mo Peña. However, you can have a one-tool player who’s only good at getting on base and you have Luis Arráez, who is good enough to be an above-average MLB starter.

It doesn’t matter how a prospect gets on base, as long as they do. Sure, if your league is batting average (AVG) instead of on-base percentage (OBP), you’ll want to prioritize a player who piles up the hits. On the other hand, if a player can get 100 walks in a year, he will score enough runs to be relevant.

“How much will this prospect’s on-base ability improve?” That should be the most important question you ask when picking an amateur, because that will accentuate his power and/or his speed.


Avoid Player Comps


Do not fall for this. At best, player comps are lazy. Usually, a writer gives you a player comp because of a specific skill that player has and then finds another player he likes with that skill — without taking into consideration the rest of the skills of both players. At worst, player comps are completely wrong and based on looking only at statistics. I don’t mind making player comparisons if we’re talking about two major leaguers, but saying “this guy can be the next Derek Jeter” about a prospect is just irresponsible. The thing with player comps is that writers have to compare prospects to current or recent players. Also, they have to pick players that most people have heard of, which means they have to pick good players. Most prospects will not become good players. Therein lies our problem. So don’t pay attention to the comps, just pay attention to the performance and the video you see. Also, only read writers who talk in specifics about a prospect’s skill. For example, if a writer comments about a prospect’s pitch selection and mentions more than his BB:K ratio (like his ability to go the other way, how many pitches he sees per at bat, etc), that writer should have your attention.




A quick primer on amateur statistics:

  • Do not use high school statistics. They are often wrong, basically for the simple reason that they aren’t updated much. Also, high school statistics don’t tell us much. If a high school pitcher is picked in the first three rounds, we know he’s going to have dominant statistics. What we don’t know is what kind of competition he faced. For high schoolers, it is much better to look for a few things: Were they selected for the 18U National Team? What were their scouting reports coming out of large/national showcases like The Area Codes?
  • College statistics are more representative of a prospect’s ability compared to his peers and history. They are also religiously updated. Where it gets tricky is if a player isn’t playing in a Power 5 conference (SEC, ACC, PAC-12, Big Ten, Big 12). If a player doesn’t play for one of these conferences, it is more difficult to judge his performance because he played against inferior competition. This isn’t to say that you should not pick those players. If that were true, you’d miss out on the Paul Goldschmidts (Texas Southern) and Justin Verlanders (Old Dominion) of the world. It just means you should do more research if you find a guy you like from a smaller school.


Buy Golden Spikes


The Golden Spikes Award is bestowed upon the top amateur player every year. The players who win this award are usually under-drafted for one reason or another, but tend to produce right away. It turns out USA Baseball, which facilitates the award, is very good at predicting who will be a good Major League Baseball player. Here are the winners since 2001:

Golden Spikes Award Winners Since 2001

Note that all but two from 2001-2013 went on to be an All-Star at least once. Meanwhile, three won MVP Awards, two won Cy Young Awards, and two won Rookie of the Year. Something else about Golden Spikes recipients: They make it to the majors much quicker than normal draft picks. Above, I wrote about college players picked in the first 10 picks of the MLB Draft having relatively short windows before making MLB debuts (2 years). Well, Golden Spikes winners are usually in the major leagues almost a calendar year after being drafted:

Prospect Experience #Made MLB Debuts/Total Avg. MiLB IP Before Debut Avg. MiLB GP Before Debut
High School 12/26 (50%) 321 333
College 27/34 (79%) 168 214
Golden Spikes 15/15 91 135

From 2001-2013, Golden Spikes winners have outperformed the eventual first pick of the following year’s MLB Draft in terms of how many eventually were called up to majors, the rate at which they debuted, and All-Star appearances. It has been the most reliable way to predict the success of prospects, as far as I can tell. Will that continue? We’ll find out.


Be the First to Pick International


A little information about international prospects (also known as J2 because they can’t sign contracts until July 2 every year): They can be as young as 16 and as old as 24. Most of the international prospects signed, however, are 16. That means when you pick an international player, you likely will not see him on your team for 4 years at the earliestTwenty years old is incredibly young to make a debut. Below are the best J2 prospects from 2013-2017, and only one made his debut as a teenager, while four were 20.

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Eloy Jiménez Anderson Espinoza Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Luis Robert Shohei Ohtani
Gleyber Torres Franklin Perez Juan Soto Adrian Morejon Wander Franco
Rafael Devers Fernando Tatís Jr. Randy Arozarena Julio Rodríguez

As you can see, some of the best young players/prospects today are on this list. In this five-year stretch, there are 10 potential All-Stars, and maybe even more in some of the deeper years like 2013, 2015, and 2017. There was definitely a down year in 2014, but that can be said in the MLB draft as well. Do not shy away from picking these teenagers. In fact, be the first to grab the top-ranked prospect every year. It will yield an MLB player often.


Basically, Always Draft the Best Player


This seems like the most obvious statement, but you’d be surprised how many managers talk themselves into a clearly inferior player. Usually, it’s for one of the reasons above in blue. I know I’ve been guilty of thinking something like “I can’t draft another third base prospect. You can only play one,” like every one of my picks is going to be a starter. Even if that were the case, how is that a problem?

If you take one lesson from this article it should be: take the best player — all the time. If this creates a problem down the road, that problem is always better than the problems stemming from picking the worse player.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcommr on Twitter)

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

2 responses to “Fantasy 101: Picking Amateurs”

  1. Brett Adkisson says:

    Great article. I don’t know how many times I’ve drafted a position of need, instead of the best player available, and it bit me in the you know what. I have another rule that I stick to. Do not draft relief pitchers/future closers. I’ve learned over my 25 years of playing fantasy baseball that the closer position is the most unsecure position in baseball. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve picked that type of player, and he never became the closer, or was the closer for a short time, and eventually lost the closer title.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Travis Sherer says:

      Thanks for reading! While I like your rule, I would amend it to: “It’s OK to draft fringe starting prospects.” You may not want to draft reliever prospects, but drafting a starter who could wind up a reliever isn’t such a bad idea. That is how many of the top relievers are developed.

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