Get ’Em Young, Get ’Em Throwing: How Two Recent MLB Draft Trends Can Help Us Anticipate This Year’s ResultsRich Schultz/Getty Images
Monday, June 8, marks the beginning of the 2015 MLB amateur draft, the sports draft of choice for fans of delayed gratification. Although baseball’s annual meat market has become more popular since the years when the whole thing transpired via speakerphone,1 it’s still as anticlimactic for casual fans as it is riveting for dedicated dynasty leaguers and prospect obsessives.
The draft’s big drawback as a spectator event remains a shortage of near-term impact players. Roughly 70 percent of first-rounders make the majors, but fewer than 40 percent stick there for at least three years. Those modest success rates decline precipitously in subsequent rounds. Worse, even ideal draftees usually take years to debut in the big leagues, which means most teams draft based on best-available talent instead of immediate major league needs. Since fans can’t tune in expecting to see next season’s savior, many don’t tune in at all.
If you don’t tune in Monday, you’ll miss a draft that’s shaping up to be a weird one. “I’ve been covering the draft since 2009, and this is easily the weakest class in terms of quality at the top and quantity overall that I’ve covered,” Christopher Crawford, Baseball Prospectus’s new senior prospect writer, told me via email. “[ESPN analyst Keith Law] and I have both joked that we’d prefer to just skip this year and combine it with next year, which — on paper — is the best I’ve seen.”
Although the real draft can be a dud for those who don’t like to take the long view, mock drafts pick up some of the excitement slack. At best, draft day offers a moment of euphoria, followed by years of digging through minor league box scores and squinting at grainy video shot from oblique angles; mock drafts, however, are delicious, uncut speculation and anticipation. A minor drawback to mock drafts, though: They’re always wrong, often overwhelmingly so. So while they’re a fun way to familiarize oneself with the year’s top talent, they’re of dubious value as a predictive tool.
In his six mock drafts as Baseball Prospectus’s lead prospect writer from 2007 to 2012, current Astros pro scouting director Kevin Goldstein got only 18 picks right — 13 if we exclude players who went first overall. In 2010, Goldstein went oh-for-the-first-round after getting the gimme top pick, Bryce Harper. Those are great results compared to, say, throwing a dart at a board containing the names of every eligible high school and college player, but they aren’t great if the goal is to do better than an outsider who knows nothing but the draft order and the consensus top talents. The point isn’t to criticize Goldstein, who always acknowledged the futility of the exercise (and who probably won’t be worrying about what messed up his mock draft in 2010 while he’s sitting in the Astros’ actual draft room next week). The point is that consistently predicting picks is impossible: Goldstein was well connected and smart, and even so he was way off. It only takes one unpredictable pick to damage a mock draft irreparably, and because of the ripple effect of previous picks, even the real-life decision-makers for each organization don’t know in advance which name they’ll tell the commissioner to call when it’s their team’s turn.
Mock drafts are fueled by Iraqi-yellowcake-quality intelligence, a mélange of industry rumors about teams’ opinions of players based on loose lips, executive sightings, and leaked misinformation. In theory, though, they also rely on some awareness of each team’s demonstrated past preferences for certain profiles or positions. The problem is that these preferences change. Not only do the GMs, scouting directors, scouts, and other personnel responsible for picks regularly rotate from team to team and into retirement, but the rules and guidelines that govern draft strategy shift, as they did after the institution of strict spending limits in the current CBA. It wouldn’t make sense to treat a team’s 50-year draft record as a coherent whole, but focusing on a shorter time frame can provide a more accurate glimpse into a franchise’s current mind-set. So what, if any, team tendencies can we identify from the last five drafts alone?
According to data from Baseball Prospectus, 4,649 out of 5,991 draftees (77.6 percent) over the past five seasons have signed instead of returning to school or giving up baseball. Teams often have some indication of a player’s signability before drafting him, so we’ll assume that the players who actually signed are a better indication of what teams were trying to get out of the draft than the overall pool of draftees (which includes all of the more speculative picks made outside the top 20 rounds, where the signing rates are much lower). We’ll also focus on the positions at which players were drafted, not the positions they’ve primarily played as pros. In other words, Baltimore’s third overall pick in 2010, Manny Machado, is a shortstop for the purposes of this article, even though the Orioles moved him to third base to get his glove into the big league lineup in 2012.
Let’s establish some baselines. The graph below shows the five-year breakdown of signed picks by position.
Naturally, pitchers are picked more frequently than players at any other single position. For position players, the frequency of picks roughly adheres to the defensive spectrum, with players at premium defensive positions the quickest to come off the board. Catchers, who have the most specialized defensive skill set, are the most prized position players, followed by shortstops, who are often the most athletically gifted and the most capable of shifting to other positions without problems (as Machado did). Second-base prospects are both scarce and rarely successful, so it makes sense that scouting directors tend to pass over them. Second basemen are commonly on the small side, with low offensive ceilings, and there’s usually little upside in a middling hitter who lacks the ability to handle a more demanding position at the amateur level.
If you chose 2015 as your year to get into the draft, you picked the worst possible time. But if you’re already hooked, here are two key team trends to monitor.
More Pitchers, Please
All else being equal, the occupation’s elevated injury risk always makes pitchers more likely than position players to be busts. This being baseball, though, pitcher is still a pretty important position, so at some point, it makes sense to start taking pitchers even if any individual pitcher pick is less likely to work out than one for a similarly skilled position player. One could even argue that it makes more sense to load up on pitchers, going full doomsday survivalist and stockpiling enough arms to weather the inevitable attrition. Baseball Prospectus doesn’t have draft data broken down by signed and unsigned players from before 2007, but the percentage of all picks that were pitchers in each draft has clearly risen over time.
That trend probably reflects changing patterns in pitcher usage: As the numbers of pitchers per roster and pitchers per game have risen, the influx of arms from the draft has also climbed, with even career relievers becoming viable early-round candidates.
There’s just one problem: “This is the weakest group of prep pitching I’ve seen — many I’ve spoken with believe it’s the worst of the century — and there’s not the group of elite college pitching prospects that we’ve had the last few years,” Crawford says. “There are always diamonds in the rough in every draft, but at least on paper, this is a weak group.”
Still, amassing pitching talent is far too vital for franchises to ignore, even in a weak year. One team, in particular, has been at the forefront of the trend toward favoring pitching in the draft: the Texas Rangers, who’ve learned the value of pitching redundancy the hard way during an injury-plagued season-plus.
On average, teams have selected and signed 81 pitchers over the past five drafts, accounting for 52.7 percent of their picks; the Rangers have drafted and signed 92 pitchers, accounting for 62.2 percent of their picks. Many of those pitchers now play for the Chicago Cubs, including Kyle Hendricks, C.J. Edwards, and Justin Grimm, all of whom went to Chicago in the Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza trades. Most of the fresh, homegrown arms remaining in Texas have yet to distinguish themselves, although the team has a promising cohort of pitching prospects at Double-A or above, including Chi Chi Gonzalez, a 2013 first-rounder who made his major league debut last Saturday.
The Rangers’ extra pitcher picks have come at the expense of infielders, with the team’s percentages of picks allotted to every infield position except catcher all below the league average. As Kate Morrison noted in March, though, Texas has filled its infield needs by being aggressive on the Latin American market, which has freed the team to concentrate on pitching in the draft. The Rangers pick fourth next week, and Law’s latest mock draft has them taking — surprise! — a pitcher, 6-foot-2 UC Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate, with another righty, Vanderbilt’s Walker Buehler, listed as a secondary option. On the whole, though, this draft class doesn’t favor the Rangers’ approach.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are on the extreme end of the “fewer pitchers” side of the scale, with pitchers accounting for 45.6 percent of their signees over the past five drafts. The composition of this year’s class plays into their apparent preference. “The strength of the class is that there’s some depth at shortstop for the first time in a while, and in fact you could argue that the top three players in the class2 will play short at the big league level,” Crawford says. The Diamondbacks pick first this draft, and Law has them taking one of those shortstops, Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson.
High School Strikes Back
If you’ve read Moneyball, you probably remember that college players have historically been safer bets due to their proximity to the majors. However, the prep ranks produce plenty of high-ceiling players with eye-catching tools, some of whom eventually translate those tools into usable skills at the MLB level. In the aggregate, the percentage of picks (signed and unsigned combined) devoted to high school players has declined since the early days of the draft, but the downward progression has been interrupted by two bumps back up, one of which we’re still experiencing.
During the mid-1980s, which Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli once called “the Golden Age for college draft picks,” superstars like Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, and Mark McGwire went to college despite having been prospects in high school. The ’90s were a more productive time for high schoolers, both in terms of quantity and quality. But in the early 2000s, Moneyball helped produce a run on college players that sent the percentage of picks spent on high schoolers to an all-time low — so low, in fact, that the inefficiency flipped. In 2006, Jazayerli wrote, “Now, for perhaps the first time in draft history, a compelling argument can be made that high school players are underrated.” Teams evidently agreed, because a few years later, the percentage of high school picks spiked and kept climbing to its current level, which is as high as it’s been since the ’70s. Rany concluded that “the platonic ideal is about a 50/50 breakdown between college and high school talent,” and that’s essentially where we are today, although because prep players often choose to stay in school, the proportion of signed picks still slants heavily toward college players.
In the aftermath of Moneyball, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays were among the quickest teams to copy Oakland’s college-centric approach. Over the last five years, though, they’ve been the two teams with the lowest percentage of college signees: 65.4 percent for Toronto and 68.1 percent for Boston. “I think Toronto really values upside — especially early [in the draft] — and preps somewhat obviously offer the most in terms of ceiling,” Crawford says. The Jays have been particularly aggressive with prep pitchers — historically, the riskiest category of amateur player — who’ve accounted for 37.7 percent of their drafted and signed pitchers from 2010 to 2014. No other team has had even 30 percent of its signed pitchers come out of high school, and the average is only 13.9 percent. High school players have grown easier to scout over time, thanks to travel teams and showcases, and the Jays have beefed up their scouting department in recent years, giving them greater coverage. Jays starters Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, and (earlier this season) Daniel Norris are all high school draftees, so their tactics have served them fairly well.
The Washington Nationals are the anti-Jays, with 91.9 percent of their picks coming from college. “Washington I think would prefer to take a BPA approach (Best Player Available), but they’ve been constricted by the draft allocation rules, and also it just so happened collegiate guys have been the top guys on the board at the time,” Crawford says. In other words, when potential no. 1 draft pick Anthony Rendon falls to sixth overall, a smart team takes him. The Tigers and A’s rank second and third at 87.4 percent and 86.5 percent college picks, respectively: Detroit and Oakland lean toward college pitchers, while Washington has gone hard after college hitters. Although the A’s have deviated at times from the draft strategy Michael Lewis made known — “moneyball” is the commitment to pursuing whatever the undervalued commodities are today, not whatever they were in 2002 — they’ve stayed out of the recent migration back toward high school hitters.
Neither the Jays nor the Nats has a first-round pick this year, although Baseball America reports that, true to form, Toronto is considering two right-handed high school pitchers with its pick in the supplemental round. According to Crawford, “intriguing high school bats” could be considered a strength of the current class, which might be music to the ears of the Minnesota Twins, who’ve drafted an MLB-high 35.4 percent of their signed position players out of high school.
In a five-year sample, it’s harder to determine team preferences by position. Nearly a quarter of the position players the Royals and Indians have signed have been outfielders; the league average for outfielders is only 13.5 percent of position players. The Astros have signed the lowest percentage of shortstops — but they also used their first overall pick in 2012 on one (Carlos Correa), and Law’s mock says they might do the same this season. We could peer further into the past, but if we did, the Astros regime doing the drafting for much of our sample wouldn’t have anything to do with the one doing the drafting today. The more granular we get, the more likely an apparent “trend” is to be an artifact of the talent that happened to be available in certain spots, or the vagaries of signability.
The draft is largely a mystery: While some teams have greater success over certain spans, randomness and player development often sway the results, and even a smart drafting team can have an off year. But as we wrap up a down season for amateur talent, remember that leaguewide trends and macro-level team preferences for pitchers over position players and for high school players over more mature collegians can give us some clues about which names commissioner Rob Manfred might read on Monday. Adjust your meaningless mock drafts accordingly.