Age and Long-Term Success: Correlation and Causation

I found this anecdote from Derrick Goold at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to be curious.

What age is too aged to be a prospect?

There is no real answer.

The St. Louis Cardinals, as described by farm director Jeff Luhnow, have studied how high-end players — the top-notch, elite, standout prospects — reach the majors in their early 20s, and how they excel because of that. Colby Rasmus, who was 22 for most of this last season (his rookie season), fits that model. That trend, Luhnow has said before, is part of the reason why the organization adopted a more aggressive promotion approach a few seasons ago, and why young players Eduardo Sanchez, Richard Castillo, Daryl Jones and a few others were pushed up a level. Even some of the Cardinals’ international signings have been hastened into a short-season club to see how well they adjust a more demanding level.

So, the Cardinals have noticed that elite players tend to reach the majors in their early twenties; thus, they are promoting prospects quickly in order to increase their chances of becoming elite players? I cannot believe that Jeff Luhnow actually believes this, at least not for the reason listed above. Of course, better players hit the majors at an age younger than most players. This is because their inherent talent allows them to be good enough to play at the major-league level earlier in their development than most other players. Simply moving a player along to the next level doesn’t make him better; in fact, I suspect it stunts growth when players struggle after being promoted too early.

I have nothing against promoting players who are ready to move up to the next level—and I hope that the Cardinals believe that promotions should only occur after meeting predetermined benchmarks—but I think it is highly unlikely that moving up causes a player to be better.

Looking at the performances of the prospects mentioned above, I don’t see much evidence of success from pushing prospects.

Eduardo Sanchez was promoted to double-A after blowing away high-A for only 25 innings. While this may seem quick, he did follow up on a nice 2008 season in low-A ball, so the promotion is not a total shock.

After playing in the Venezuela Summer League at 17, Richard Castillo started at high-A in 2008. But after 16 innings of decent, but not fantastic play—it’s hard to tell in so few innings—he was sent to low-A to finish out the season. He spent all of 2009 in high-A, pitching decent but not spectacular ball.

Daryl Jones was promoted to high-A in 2008 after a good season in low-A. He played well in high-A for the remainder of the year. He repeated high-A in 2009, and his performance wasn’t so hot.

And then there is Colby Rasmus, who followed up poor showing in triple-A with a stinker of a rookie season.

The fact that elite players hit the majors sooner than other players doesn’t mean their quick ascensions caused this. Ryan Howard and Wade Boggs were not worse for being held back. After watching the Braves push Kyle Davies and Jeff Francoeur, I believe it is best to wait too long. These guys are professional athletes who must have big egos to succeed. When things don’t go well, development may be damaged by taking short-cuts. I could be wrong. I can’t prove that Davies and Francoeur would be much better players if they had been held back any more than I can prove that Boggs and Howard excelled because they stayed in the minors longer. But, what damage does it do to let these guys play their way to the next level?

So, in answer to the question “What age is too aged to be a prospect?” It depends. The younger the player for his level, and the better the performance, the more likely it is that he will succeed. Bumping a player up to make him better is not a strategy that I advocate.

2 Responses “Age and Long-Term Success: Correlation and Causation”

  1. Cyril Morong says:

    I have the answer to poverty. Alot of people under 18 are in poverty and the poverty rate for married people is very low. How to get all those people under 18 out of poverty? Have them get married.

  2. Brian Walton says:

    I recently looked at in-season movement across the Cardinals system and found that the quantity of moves overall in 2009 were right on the organization’s five-year average and down from 2008.

    http://thecardinalnationblog.com/2009/10/16/how-aggressive-have-cardinals-minor-league-player-movements-really-been/