Yoan Moncada is a universally beloved prospect, as far as scouts are concerned. The Red Sox spent over $60 million to sign him, once you include the penalties for exceeding their international budget, and he's considered a top-10 prospect by most -- even as high as third overall by Baseball America.
ZiPS is not a scout, though. ZiPS is a projection system developed by Dan Szymborski, and it has a prospect list of its own that ESPN unveiled on Monday. ZiPS ranked the top 100 prospects in the game using its own criteria, and while it certainly lines up with ESPN's primary prospect list -- Keith Law's top-100 -- on more than a few occasions, there are some rankings that stick out for their oddness.
The one that might jump off the page the most is Moncada's ranking, as he is listed as the number 63 prospect in baseball, whereas he was 17th for Law: that puts Moncada behind, in ZiPS' metaphorical eyes, potential back-end starting pitching prospect and fellow Sox farmhand Brian Johnson.
This is going to require some explanation. First, know that ZiPS doesn't "hate" Moncada, and not just because ZiPS is more spreadsheet than sentient creature out to crush your dreams. ZiPS maybe just doesn't quite understand Moncada, and while we can't teach it to without changing what ZiPS is, we can try to see things from the projection system's perspective. At the least, you'll know why you disagree with ZiPS' ranking of Boston's best prospect.
It's worth remembering that it wasn't Szymborski who ranked Moncada at 63 -- it was his projection system. "I was surprised he was that low, honestly. It's hard to extract out the exact reason other than the very general risk from players in very low minors," Szymborski told Over the Monster. "I certainly think he ought to rank higher, but if I put my thumb on the scale, it's no longer measuring weight!"
Moncada is beloved by scouts because of what he will likely become, but all ZiPS -- and any projection system for that matter -- has to go on is what Moncada currently is. What he is happens to be a 21-year-old headed to High-A after half of a great season in Low-A. Moncada's season line was .278/.380/.438, which is good, but it's not going to pop off the page for ZiPS the same way that, say, Rafael Devers' .288/.329/.443 would, because Devers managed that in the same league as Moncada, but while two years younger. Devers rated number 19 on the ZiPS list,
It's not like Moncada's numbers from his time in Cuba are extraordinary, either: he wasn't a prospect there, necessarily, at least not in the way we think of them for MLB. He was still a teenager, though, who had yet to become what he could, and that reflects in his numbers.
So, ZiPS is impressed by Moncada -- enough to place him on this list in the first place -- but not to the degree scouts are. ZiPS can't see the progress he made in the second half from a scouting perspective, progress that helped him bat .314/.422/.514 over his final 48 games and 226 plate appearances. If Moncada hits like that at High-A as a 21-year-old -- and with a bit of Double-A in there as well, probably -- you can be sure that ZiPS will notice and Moncada will fly up the rankings in time for 2017.
As for why Brian Johnson ranks ahead of him, coming in at 58, that has a lot to do with how ZiPS views potentially league-average players. Szymborski states that, "generally speaking, ZiPS will be relatively more interested in higher floor candidates than human evaluators. And I'm not sure it's actually wrong either -- average players are fairly expensive to acquire. So ZiPS tends to be higher on players like Kolten Wong."
Johnson is already in Triple-A, and made his big-league debut in 2015 before an elbow injury shut him down. He has a career 2.32 ERA in the minors, and was still striking out nearly three times as many hitters at Triple-A as he was walking, and posted a 2.53 ERA in the process. ZiPS doesn't necessarily know that Johnson is going to have to thrive on command and control to achieve big-league success, but it does understand that there is a lot to like here given his success to this point.
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Maybe Johnson isn't a league-average starter, or maybe he isn't a starter at all. That's fine, though: a homegrown back-end starter can be hugely valuable -- have you forgotten about Ian Kennedy's $70 million contract already? -- and as a lefty with control of an array of pitches, Johnson could probably be a hell of a reliever if given the chance. ZiPS likely sees him as a safer bet -- a better bet to be a major-league contributor, not necessarily a better player -- than Moncada given his longer track record and proximity to the majors. That's just how, generally speaking, as Szymborski said, ZiPS views prospects.
If Moncada had another year behind him in the minors, he probably would have ranked around where he usually does on these lists -- it's not like ZiPS distrusts youth, it just isn't going to give extra credit to a 20-year-old with 50 games of greatness to his name. So, while ZiPS recognizes that there is something here, the projection system isn't at the point where it's ready to declare him the next big thing just yet. Scouts aren't as interested in numbers, instead seeing what Moncada's tools say about his future, and all they've said to this point are good -- maybe great -- things.
You wouldn't want to rely on ZiPS, or any projection system, for that matter, for all your prospect needs. Prospect rankings created by stats can be an intriguing complement to those developed by scouts, though, so long as you don't lean too heavily on them. Just think of ZiPS projection as an especially conservative one, and know that if Moncada has the kind of year we all think he can -- scouts, too -- in 2016, that his ranking this time next year is going to make a whole lot more sense without the need for explanation.