DIGGING DATA: The Curious Case of Kolby Allard

In 2015 the Braves made high school lefty Kolby Allard their 1st round choice (#14 overall) in the Rule 4 draft. Picking a high school arm early is kind of the Braves thing. In 2015 they also selected Mike Soroka in the 1st round. In 2016 they selected Ian Anderson in the 1st, Joey Wentz in the CBA, and Kyle Muller in the 2nd. In 2018 they went with highly touted high school arm Carter Stewart, but miscalculated something along the way (did they really miss the medical issue?) as they failed to sign him and it looks like he’s now headed to pitch in college for Mississippi State. At any rate, the Braves strategy seems to be based on identifying and developing high school arms with a good chance at rising quickly through the system and one day experiencing MLB success.

However, recently Kolby Allard has taken a tumble on many top prospect lists. In our latest ‘Plum Prospect’ Top-100, which aggregates some of the top fantasy baseball prospect lists, Allard fell completely off the list. He was ranked #55 in the same aggregated Plum Prospects list this spring before the season started. Since that time, Allard has earned a spring training invite and has pitched well for the Braves AAA-affiliate as a 20-year-old.

So what explains the curious case of Kolby Allard?

SCOUTING VS STATS

ESPN’s Keith Law was interviewed by Braves prospect site Talking Chop about this very topic. Law had removed Allard (and fellow Braves prospect Kyle Wright) from his prospect top-100 list prior to the season. You can certainly take Law’s Top-100 rankings with a grain of salt (I don’t even look at them anymore). But his reasoning behind moving Allard off his list points to two different approaches to ranking prospects:

“Question 1: Kolby Allard was consistently highly ranked last year by you- coming in 32, 25, and 26 on your three sets of rankings last year. Then he went out and had a very strong season in Double A as a teenager. We’re familiar with his strengths and weaknesses, but what can you tell us about the thought process for that kind of drop?

Law: His ability to hold his stuff, his upper 80s fastball, and his durability concerns(size and injury history) were the reasons for it. I still love his breaking ball, feel for pitching, and athleticsm, but a 45 grade fastball and questions about durability were too much. He was actually ranked higher on earlier versions of the list, but after talking with front office people who thought he should move down because they see a backend starter or lefty reliever, he ended up off the list. That’s not to say that there are only 100 good prospects in baseball, and that guys not on the Top 100 aren’t good prospects”

So Law is concerned about scouting on Allard since he’s pitched professionally. He’s worried that fastball velo in the upper 80s paired with Allard’s size and injury history necessitated the drop in rankings.

Law describes Allard’s fastball as ’45-grade’. Basically, he means a low-velo (88-89 mph), below-average fastball. He’s referring to the 20-80 scouting scale, which is explained extremely well by Fangraphs Eric Longenhagen here. Here’s a quick look at the scale (according to Longenhagen):

Ultimately, Law agrees with the evaluations that Allard’s 45-grade fastball will limit him to turning into a 45 FV pitcher in the future, that is, a #5 starter or lefty reliever out of the bullpen.

Law’s reasoning seems pretty sound (if we ignore the puzzler that he had ranked him as high as the #25 overall prospect in baseball previously…). It would be foolish to assign a lot of value to a prospect who basically has a ceiling of not being that valuable, either in real baseball (45 FV translates to about 1.5 WAR in a starting role) or fantasy baseball (backend starters are available on the waiver wire every day). But after reading this response, I began to wonder about what scouts have to say about Allard generally.

SCOUTING REPORTS

In AA ball at the end of 2017, 2080’s Ted Lekas put 55-grades on Allard’s fastball, curveball, and changeup. Regarding the fastball, Lekas notes that “in my viewing August 21, his fastball had average velocity, sitting mostly at 91 mph but in a range of 88-to-92 for the outing, and it had run and tail to both sides of the plate, with particular effectiveness seen with some boring action into righties.”

There’s a very good chance that Allard floats his fastball velocity around on purpose. A scouting report by Mike Axisa from River Ave Blues from 2016 notes Allard’s fastball velocity sitting in the 90-94 range with the ability to reach back for more. If we look back at Longenhagen’s 20-80 ‘Objective Tool Grades’ chart we can see that this is no small change in velocity. A fastball sitting at 94 earns a 65-grade on the scale!

Prospect evaluator (and occasional contributor to Baseball Farm) Jason Woodell also makes an excellent point in that “Allard also still has some projection physically which may lead to an uptick in velo going into 2018.” We shouldn’t be surprised that a kid who was 6’0″, 170 lbs. when drafted would add some strength and velocity as he develops.

Finally, we’ve got to remember that scouting reports are just a snapshot of a moment in time in a player’s development. Baseball America revealed this spring that Allard had worked on a new version of his changeup, which could be the difference maker for him moving forward. So why would we rely on scouting reports of outings prior to him using that new changeup?

STATS

Outside of the scouting reports, we’ve got to consider Allard’s statistical performance as well. When I look at the data, my biggest complaint with Allard is that his ability to miss bats has declined with each level in his professional career. In 11-starts at A-ball in 2016, Allard posted a 9.25 K/9 rate. In 27 starts at AA-ball in 2017, Allard posted a 7.74 K/9 rate. And in 17 starts in AAA-ball in 2018, Allard has posted a 6.99 K/9 rate. When a pitcher’s K/9 rate dips below 9.0, I do have questions about his ability to be anything but a back-end starter in the bigs.

But K/9 rate is just a starting point. I’m also fond of looking at a pitcher’s K/BB ratio. I’m always on the hunt for pitchers who post a K/BB greater than 3. These are potential future aces. However, I don’t rule out pitchers with a K/BB of anything above 2.5. A great control artist with a K/BB rate around 2.5 can be a very effective MLB pitcher. Allard’s K/BB ratio at AAA in 2018 is currently 2.61, which is usable.

Finally I check a pitcher’s FIP. FIP is a metric which estimates a pitcher’s ability to prevent runs independent of the defense playing behind them. I think of FIP as a pitcher’s ERA based just on his skills. Thus far in 2018, Allard’s FIP is 3.47.

Here’s Allard’s trends in K/9, K/BB, and FIP over the last 3 seasons:

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Obviously, these trend lines aren’t ideal. Ideally, your top prospect would have data trending in the other direction. However, we’ve got to consider one additional thing when analyzing this data: Allard’s age relative to his level.

An important factor to keep in mind when evaluating prospects is their age relative to the average age of the level they are competing in. A player who is far older than his competition deserves a statistical downgrade. A player who is far younger than his competition can be cut a little slack. This is especially true if it is a player’s first time playing at a particular level. In this case Allard, who doesn’t turn 21 until next month, has been pitching in AAA ball all season against competition who is, on average, around 28 years-old. He’s pitching against dudes in the International League who are fighting for baseball relevance, Quad-A guys who make their living feasting on young pitchers, big leaguers who are rehabbing for their return to the Show, and other top prospects who are good enough to hold their own at a higher level. While Allard’s stats seem like they are down, they have to be viewed through a lens of relativity. And in this case, it shows that Allard can more than hold his own against advanced competition.

CONCLUSION

Prospect projection is tough. You’ve got to come up with a system that incorporates both scouting and statistics and accounts for the future projection of both. In the case of Kolby Allard, we can review scouting reports and statistics that make him look like a back-end starter or reliever, but we can also review scouting reports and statistics that make him look like a promising young starting pitcher who is outpitching his age. I prefer an approach where I initially screen prospects using statistical filters like K/9, BB/K, FIP, and age relative to level. Then, I review scouting reports to point out what the statistics might be missing or my own bias when evaluating a prospect. Finally, at the end of the day, I come to the conclusion. Is Kolby Allard a Top-100 prospect? Or is he a future left-handed reliever?

For me, as a 20 years-old who is still developing but pitching effectively in AAA, Allard is still a Top-100 guy. But if I’m an Allard owner, I’m watching his K/9, K/BB, and velocity moving forward.

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