On the morning of June 14, 2015, the Cleveland Indians were 29-32. They were in fourth place in a weak AL Central and eighth in line for a wild card berth. That night, the ninth-best prospect in baseball—shortstop Francisco Lindor—made his MLB debut for the Indians.
Sixteen months later, Cleveland was hosting Game 7 of the World Series.
This is not a coincidence. Plenty of (virtual) ink has been spilled detailing Lindor’s transformative effect on Cleveland’s defense (e.g., Grantland and FanGraphs). And he’s been stellar with the bat too. In all, Lindor looks like the type of a franchise-changing, cornerstone shortstop that some are already comparing to Derek Jeter (e.g., Scout and The Ringer).
Comparing a 23-year old Lindor to a likely first-ballot Hall-of-Fame inductee may be a tad premature. However, at the very least, Lindor seemingly represents the ideal player development outcome: an elite prospect whose call-up to the majors immediately transforms an entire franchise.
Just how transformative has the Lindor effect been on the Indians? It could be argued that, so far, the arrival of Francisco Lindor in Cleveland has been the most franchise-changing mid-season promotion of a top prospect in Major League Baseball over the last 30 years.
To evaluate the positive impact of a minor-league call-up on a franchise, it is proposed that a prospect must fulfill three characteristics:
- Have significant talent and long-term potential. MLB history is littered with fluky, short-term effects of minor-league call-ups (e.g., Shane Spencer).
- Individually perform at a high level immediately and over the course of a career.
- Team performance must demonstrate considerable improvement both immediately and over the long run.
To address the talent question, this analysis focuses on the top 25 prospects in baseball as ranked annually by Baseball America since 1990. Individual performance can be measured by wins above replacement (WAR); this study uses the Baseball-Reference version.
To evaluate the immediate impact of a prospect on team performance, this analysis simply compares the team’s winning percentage before and after the player’s MLB debut. This approach, however, requires an adequate sample of games before and after the prospect is added to the 25-man roster in order to be more confident of a causal impact. To those ends, this paper limits its analysis to top 25 prospects who made their MLB debut between June 1st and July 31st in the year in which they were ranked. While a requirement of a June or July debut substantially limits the sample of prospects, this is necessary to effectively measure the immediate impact on a team’s success given that it ensures a minimum of 50 games before, and 50 games after, a prospect’s call-up.
To measure the long-run impact of a prospect on team performance, this study compares a team’s winning percentage in the season before and after a prospect’s arrival. This comparison is complicated by the effect of roster turnover and the year-over-year development (or decline) of a team’s established players. While imperfect, this approach is nevertheless important to highlight long-term substantial gains potentially attributable to the arrival of a franchise-changing prospect. The use of a single year, as opposed to a five-year average, is required in this situation given that the prospect of interest—Francisco Lindor—has only had one full season in the majors.
Between 1990 and 2016, there were 79 players who made their MLB debut in June or July of the season in which they were ranked as top 25 prospects according to Baseball America. Table 1 (below) presents the top 10 players from this list, as sorted by their combined WARs in their first season-and-a-half in the majors.
Two things stand out in Table 1. First, among top 25 prospects since 1990, Francisco Lindor (10.3) trails only Mike Trout (11.5) in terms of WAR in their first season-and-a-half. Second, the Indians feature three of the 10 best-performing top prospects—Lindor, Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana—who were called up mid-season since 1990.
While Lindor’s WAR is only second on this list, Trout’s monstrous second season obscures the fact that he didn’t have much of an immediate impact on the Angels. Debuting on July 8, 2011, Trout hit .220 in 123 AB for the Angels that season, compiling just 0.7 WAR. While he can be excused for this mediocre performance—he was just 19 years old in his MLB debut, after all—Trout’s impact on the 2011 Angels was marginal, as the team’s winning percentage before (.528) and after (.534) his arrival are practically identical.
In contrast to Trout, Table 1 reflects that Lindor hit the ground running immediately upon his arrival to Cleveland. In addition to compiling 4.6 WAR in his debut season, the Indians’ winning percentage increased from .475 to .520 after his MLB debut. Further, the club’s winning percentage climbed from .525 in 2014—the year before Lindor’s debut—to a AL Central-winning .584 in 2016, the young shortstop’s first full season with the club.
This combination of individual and team success is rare. For example, while Carlos Correa accrued 4.1 WAR in his debut season, the 2015 Houston Astros experienced a considerable team downturn after his arrival that season. Similarly, Giancarlo Stanton posted a 4.1 WAR total in his first full season with the then-Florida Marlins in 2011, the club was considerable worse than it was in the year before his MLB debut.
To demonstrate the uniqueness of Lindor’s individual performance and positive team effect, this study has chosen to limit the sample of prospects to those with (a) at least 1 WAR in their debut season, (b) at least 2 WAR in their first full season, and (c) a minimum of a four percentage point gain in their team’s winning percentage—equating to roughly 6.5 wins on an annualized basis—both within the debut season and in a comparison of team success in the first full season before and after a player’s arrival. The result is outlined in Table 2 (below).
As presented in the table above, only three of Baseball America’s top 25 prospects have ever exhibited this caliber of individual performance and overall impact on team success—both immediate and long-term—since the annual rankings were first published in 1990. Of those three prospects, the only two position players on the list—Lindor and Santana—accomplished this feat while wearing a Cleveland uniform.
While there are three players listed in Table 2, Lindor’s individual performance—and contribution to a pennant—clearly establishes him as the top prospect whose mid-season call-up has had the most positive, transformative effect on his franchise in both the short- and long-run. But if Lindor is the new gold standard, how does his impact compare to the player perceived to be the ultimate franchise-changing cornerstone shortstop, Derek Jeter?
As Baseball America’s fourth-ranked prospect in 1995, Jeter made his MLB debut on May 29th of that season, just missing the June/July criteria used in this study. However, given that the 1995 campaign was shortened due to the lockout, the New York Yankees had played in just 27 games at that point (i.e., a small sample). However, while the Yankees were 13-14 (.481) the morning of his debut, Jeter’s arrival inspired the club to a 65-51 (.560) finish and a trip to the playoffs, the first in a postseason streak that would last for 13 consecutive seasons.
But the turnaround in New York is not necessarily an indicator that Jeter had an equivalent transformative effect on the Yankees that Lindor has seemingly had with the Indians. Comparing the two shortstops in Table 3 (below), Jeter rated as below replacement level in his debut campaign. And while his presence was correlated with a turnaround in the standings by New York in 1995, the Jeter-led club in 1996 posted a winning percentage (.568) considerably lower than the Yankees’ American League-leading .619 mark in the season before Jeter’s arrival.
The story presented in Table 3 is by no means an effort to disparage Jeter’s long-time, Hall-of-Fame worthy impact on the Yankees or on baseball as a whole. But the evidence supports the position that Francisco Lindor has had a considerably more transformative effect on the Indians in the early stages of his career when compared to Jeter’s performance and impact in New York.
Conclusions and Caveats
The national coming-out party for Francisco Lindor in the 2016 World Series highlighted something of which Indians fans were already aware: his arrival in Cleveland has had a transformative impact on this city’s baseball club. As outlined in this study, Lindor’s call-up in June 2015 represents the most franchise-changing impact of a mid-season promotion of an elite prospect since Baseball America first published its annual prospect rankings in 1990. While it’s too soon to compare Lindor to all-time greats—he is entering only his second full season in the majors—the start of his career has been seemingly unparalleled in Major League Baseball over the last three decades.
While this analysis highlights the positive impact of Francisco Lindor, its approach comes with some caveats. First, one of the goals of this study is to incorporate the immediate impact of a player upon their promotion. Thus, while some players—such as Jeter or Trout—may have enormous long-run impacts on their club, the analysis here was restricted only to those who made a measurable impact on day one. Second, focusing on overall team winning percentage is the equivalent of using a blunt instrument; it ignores conflating factors that are outside of a prospect’s control. While this would suggest limiting the analysis simply to a player’s individual contribution—as measured by WAR—this would ignore potential spillover effects to other players that would be necessarily for a single player to have a “transformative” effect. Finally, conditions requiring specific gains in a team’s winning percentage are easier to fulfill when a team isn’t good to begin with; for example, it would have been difficult for Lindor to have the same transformative impact on the Indians if the club was already winning 95+ games a season. That said, an improvement from say, 95 wins to 98 wins, would hardly be indicative of the “franchise-changing” impacts that represented the very heart of this study.
Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III via Flickr.com Creative Commons