Next week, with the 8th overall pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball amateur draft, the Colorado Rockies will select the next great player to someday don purple and stride the halls and base paths of Coors Field… or so the Rockies hope.
It’s not that quite that easy, of course. While every team – not to mention numerous media and other baseball-related organizations – employs very smart, talented, and capable folks whose sole job it is to identify the proverbial Next Great Player, the truth is, nobody knows for sure which young men ultimately will meet that destiny. And this is a good thing! If sports were that predictable – if the narratives attached to its participants were that rote and transparent – sports wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
Sports drafts are no doubt part of that fun. Not only because they serve as the opening chapter in so many of those human narratives, but because they offer us fans an opportunity to glimpse with hopeful eyes a vision of a more perfect future version of our favorite teams. The draft process also allows us fans the opportunity to criticize and second-guess our not-so-favorite local Powers Who Be, and that’s a whole lot of fun, too.
So let’s set the stage upon which our baseball visions will play out – for this year anyway – and with Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd yet to be cast in a role as Sage Hero or Oafish Villain. Next week, right before the picks start flying, I’ll discuss the Rockies past draft history under O’Dowd and the specific players in the Rockies sights this time around. This week, I’d like to focus on the draft in general, and what sorts of philosophies and strategies the Rockies have to choose from.
First, as an illustration of the challenge the draft represents to teams, I offer this analysis from Baseball America. The take-home point is that even the first overall pick results in an “impact” player only a little more often than half the time, and the success rate drops off rapidly from there. By the time we get to the Rockies’ slot this year, pick #8, the “impact” player rate is just 21%. Also, using career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the measure, a “typical” player drafted #8 produces a nice round (and, to me, hilarious) 0.0 WAR. In layman’s terms, this means that the #8 pick normally nets its team a perfectly replaceable player. By definition.
But it’s not all doom and gloom and “blah” and “well screw it then.” Any one of these picks may result in a transcendent player, as well. The Rockies even have a sunny history with this specific pick: a certain recently retired best player in franchise history was drafted #8 in 1995. And it’s not just first round picks, of course. Mike Piazza’s rise from draft afterthought and charity case to being the best hitting catcher ever is much celebrated. One of the best players of this era, Albert Pujols, got passed up all the way until a round that doesn’t even exist in the drafts of the other major professional sports. Bringing it back home, that emerging superstar we’ve got earning Gold Gloves over at third base was a second-rounder; makes sense, of course, being that he was a catcher with questionable defense.
If this sounds a bit like playing the lottery, well that’s because it’s a bit like playing the lottery. That doesn’t mean, however, that teams can’t or don’t approach the draft strategically.
The Philosophy That Isn’t: “Need” vs. “Best Player Available”
It might be tempting to think that teams should assess the status of their current roster and the nature of the prospects already on hand in their minor league organizations, and then focus on finding players that fit certain needs. Football and basketball teams often operate this way. Of course, draftees often fail in these sports, too, and the idea of “drafting for need” is often panned. However, with few exceptions, football and basketball draftees do nevertheless assume places on their teams’ rosters immediately. A player drafted for specific need in those two sports may not be filling that need well, but he is at least ostensibly filling a need from a pure roster perspective.
This doesn’t work even a little bit in baseball. Even highly touted players – guys who enter a system with skills already advanced relative to the norm – almost always require several years of additional development prior to being ready to help the team. That’s an eternity in sports. And given the volatility and unpredictability of baseball player development in general, even a holistic assessment of a positional strengths and weaknesses on an organization-wide basis becomes outdated and inaccurate in quite a hurry. I don’t believe any team in baseball drafts for positional need as a general rule. (Although the Rockies ventured into this territory once upon a time, and to predictably poor results as we’ll discuss next week.)
So if the classic “Need vs. Best Player Available” draft debate is moot in baseball, and it’s always the latter, what’s left? As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of nuance in baseball draft strategy that doesn’t in other sports. And even if we take for granted the fact that all teams consider total talent level above all else, there is plenty of room for these nuanced strategies to operate because baseball talent evaluation is so imprecise. In baseball, the concept of “Best Player Available” often applies to a range of players rather than an actual individual, especially as we move away from the very top of the draft. So how do teams select from that range of best players available?
Actual Draft Philosophy #1: Risk and Reward
One of the ways teams assess potential draft picks is by considering the amateur level from which he comes – college or high school, basically. College players are, all else being equal, “safer” bets because they’re more mature – physically and mentally – and because they’ve been demonstrating a certain level of performance in an environment that is slightly more akin to professional baseball. Make no mistake: even premier Division I college baseball conferences feature overall levels of competition that are, at best, equivalent to the lowest levels in the professional minor leagues. That being said, in an environment where all draftees are rightly considered “raw” talents in the grand scheme of things, college players are typically a little less so.
This cuts both ways, however. High school players come with a wider range of potential outcomes on both the high and low ends of the spectrum. At any given point in a draft, the most highly regarded high school player remaining on the board will typically have a higher talent ceiling than the most highly regarded college player remaining. That higher talent teenager remains available only because the higher risk is baked into that prospect cake along with the higher reward. These are generalities, of course – individual players each come with their own individual floors, ceilings, and probabilities of reaching either one – but in general, when all players available at a given point in the draft are believed to possess the same overall talent level, a team’s preference for high schoolers or collegians may tell you something about the team’s willingness to accept risk in pursuit of greater reward.
In 2011, the Rockies drafted college pitcher Tyler Anderson with their first round pick. Anderson was considered to be a “safe” selection at the time – a player with less upside than other first round picks, but also a guy thought to be a relative shoe-in to someday be a MLB-caliber pitcher. While his path to the majors has been longer than expected, Anderson is pretty much still that guy today. In stark contrast, two years earlier, the Rockies took Tyler Matzek in the first round. Other than their handedness, these two Tylers couldn’t be more different, and it may very well be that the Rockies’ first two years with Matzek – mostly bad, especially in the months immediately proceeding that 2011 draft - helped prod them to make the more conservative choice with Anderson.
Actual Draft Philosophy #2: Proximity to Majors
Another draft strategy that also falls largely along the high school/college divide – but for different reasons – has to do with a player’s age and perceived proximity to the majors. In other words, how long will it take this player to develop to the point that he’ll be able to help the team win games at the highest level? In general, college players, being older and typically further along the development curve, will be MLB-ready sooner than would a teenager out of high school. Alex Rodriguez happens only very rarely.
While “safer” and “closer” are often embodied in the same player, and “rawer” and “father away” also typically come in a package deal, I’m discussing each set of trade-offs separately because in analyzing any particular pick, we may be able to divine different intentions or motivations on the part of the team making that pick. For example, in many cases, a team will select an older college player over a similarly talented player from high school not in order to minimize its exposure to risk, but because the team wants to take a shot at a prospect who will be able to contribute at a certain point – in most cases what the team considers to be its next realistic contention window – perhaps as part of a larger “wave” of other prospects already on hand. Alternatively, a team may not have identified a particular contention window – or may not operate under that sort of philosophy in the first place (think Yankees and Red Sox) – and instead target a player who it anticipates will fit nicely into what the team believes is a current void in its development cycle.
I believe that the fact that Jon Gray is Rockie has a lot to do with the way the Astros made this calculus in last year’s draft. Both Gray and Mark Appel, the player the Astros ultimately selected first overall, were college pitchers with terrific upside. As far as baseball prospects go, they were both pretty flawless: rare combinations of upside and polish with profiles – that of Ace Pitcher – every team would kill for. However, the one knock on Gray – at least relative to Appel – was that, at the time, he only had two top-notch pitches whereas Appel had several. Not many people doubted that Gray would be able to fully develop that third pitch viable starter pitchers need, which is why he was in contention to be the first overall pick, but it would likely take him some time in the minors to do so. Appel, on the other hand, was already “there.” For an Astros team whose fan base was (and still is) getting increasing restless – and maybe worse: ambivalent – nobody blamed the Astros for taking the similarly talented pitcher who was closer to the majors, and who had a better chance to be an impact player at the same time as their other highly touted guys germinating in the upper minors. Of course, it may very well turn out that Gray beats Appel to The Show anyway – one of the reasons why Rockies fans should be so dang excited about Gray – but the decision made sense at the time.
Actual Draft Philosophy #3: Pitchers vs. Hitters
Looking at a team’s preference for pitchers versus position players is also an interesting way to analyze a team’s approach to the draft. I’m not talking about “need” here; but rather the general prospect value associated with each category of player. For a long time, pitching prospects have been considered the “currency” of the game. Quite literally every team in the sport has room for more and better pitching, and by extension, for more and better pitching prospects. With pitching prospects, a team needn’t worry about acquiring a player who is – or might someday be – “blocked” by another player at the same position who is already performing well at the major league level. The true value of a pitching prospect – while never completely knowable – can at least always be maximized by a savvy team, either by playing him or trading him.
While all of that is still fundamentally true, the “currency” represented by pitching prospects is somewhat undercut by the much higher injury risk – and among top prospects, the higher bust rate – of pitchers vis-à-vis position players. There is a well-known acronym in the prospecting community: TINSTAAPP. It stands for “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.” So to put all this another way: those pitchers a team takes in a draft may represent fungible baseball currency, but the fact that many of them get left in teams’ pockets on laundry day, or turn out to be counterfeit, weighs down the value of that currency. The injury factor is unfortunately trending higher and higher these days – injuries to pitchers, including and especially young ones, has been one of the biggest storylines of the 2014 season. This has led many to wonder if teams will start to focus more on maximizing position player value, which is a pendulum swing that may be long overdue to occur anyway.
Again referring to the top of last year’s draft, the Cubs, who were the only other team selecting ahead of the Rockies, also passed on Gray, and their decision may have been made along these lines. While the Cubs selection, third baseman Kris Bryant, had a lot of momentum heading into the draft, the consensus among prognosticators was that Gray and Appel would be the first two picks in one order or the other. Most Rockies fans, myself included, were already penciling Bryant into the system and wondering what position he might move to – first base or right field – once he hit the Arenado roadblock. But the Cubs shocked everyone by taking Bryant with the second selection. If any pick offered solid evidence that teams don’t draft for “need,” that pick was it. The Cubs system was – and still is - heavily tilted towards position prospects, and their current rotation suggests they need pitching prospects as much or more than every other team in the league. They took a position player anyway – a position player most believed was a grade below the pitcher. One pick doesn’t by itself suggest a trend – it could simply be that the Cubs had Bryant rated more highly on the board (and/or had Gray rated worse) than the league-wide consensus. Or maybe they simply decided they’d prefer a slugger to the ticking time bomb that every top-of-the-draft pitching prospect represents.
Actual Draft Philosophy #4: Signability
“Signability” is one of those fun words that exist almost entirely within the world of baseball. What this refers to is a player’s likelihood to accept the bonus offer a team extends. For high schoolers, the choice usually comes down to taking the sure money now, or accepting a college scholarship with the hope of playing well, re-entering the draft a few years later, and being offered an even larger bonus. For non-senior collegians, the choice is similar – making a bet they can play themselves into more money later – only with a shorter timeframe. For a college senior, there is less leverage, as the only viable alternatives to accepting the bonus offered are independent league ball or just sitting out entirely until the following year’s draft.
For most of the history of the draft, the approach teams took on this front was pretty straight-forward. Either you pay the kid enough to buy him out of those alternatives or you don’t draft him at all. Some teams might have taken this as an opportunity to be cheap, but I suspect this was rarely the case. For a while now, most teams have realized the bang-for-the-buck represented by hitting on a draft prospect exceeds that of a high-priced free agent veteran. I think that, more often than not, it just came down to whether the team could afford the players it wanted most. All of this had real impact on how the draft unfolded.
For example, a rich team – or any other team that could and did devote significant budget to the draft – could take a high-upside teenager later in the draft than his talent would suggest for the simple reason that that team could afford to pay him. In essence, once the draft reached a certain point, certain players were only available to be drafted by a subset of teams. That player often got a bonus far in excess of players taken ahead of him in the draft. Poorer teams couldn’t draft that player because they knew they’d be wasting that pick. Or at least they’d be deferring that pick until the following year under rules that did – and still do – make them whole. Even in that case, though, they’d be wasting their time by taking such a player.
The new draft rules changed the dynamic. Now, all teams are given a “budget” by MLB based on the number and placement of their picks in the first ten rounds. Each draft “slot” is assigned a certain bonus amount, those bonuses are added up together, and the team is barred – or severely penalized, at least – from exceeding that total amount on all combined bonuses awarded to its picks in those rounds. Reasonable minds disagree about whether this has been a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, and whether or not it actually advances the stated goal of encouraging greater competitive balance. What’s indisputable is that the rules have had unintended consequences. I don’t mean that in a bad way, though. Teams have essentially discovered a way to bring in a key element of the old system – namely, taking players later in the draft than their talent suggests they should have gone, and spending enough on the bonus to buy them out of their college alternatives – while still complying with the rules of the new system. The new rules have actually introduced a new bit of strategy that many teams, including – as I mentioned in an earlier piece about Colorado prospect Ryan McMahon – the Rockies, have already implemented.
Basically, it works like this: teams negotiate with a player – prior to the draft – a bonus amount less than that suggested by the “slot” in which the player is actually drafted. The player doesn’t “lose” anything – they’re getting a bonus commensurate with their talent – and for whatever its worth, they get the “honor” of being drafted higher than they otherwise would have. The team, which was given a budget for that pick in excess of the artificially lowered amount they ultimately paid, can then use those “savings” to pay over budget on a player later on. From the team’s perspective, they may pass on a better overall player with that higher pick – there’s a reason, after all, that player they did draft was willing to take less bonus money – but the team willingly does so because of the extra value they get back from that talented player drafted later whom they were able to sign away from college only because of their ability to “overpay” him. Maybe in the end the actual baseball value is a wash – a little less on the front end, a little more on the back end – but it’s just one more way a team can alter its approach to a draft. And it means that, unlike the other major sports, the draft order usually doesn’t equate to the actual perceived talent order.
It’s important to note that all of these philosophies will be in play to some extent for every team and with every pick. No team goes into a draft having decided that they will only draft high schoolers, only players with 2018 ETAs, only pitchers, and only players with low leverage in bonus negotiations. Almost every team’s draft all with include players of all these types in any given year. But that doesn’t mean that teams don’t show trends or preferences in specific drafts, or over certain time-frames and front office regimes.
Keeping these trade-offs in mind also helps us understand why each pick that was made and gives us some insight into what the team might have been thinking. It doesn’t mean that the team was correct in making that choice, of course, but no pick is ever made without some rationale behind it – rationale that goes beyond simply “that player is going to be good.” Speculating on our favorite team’s rationale – and throwing stones in cases where our own rationale differs – is also part of the fun.
To that end, next week we’ll pick out some of the Rockies greatest hits and misses over the last ten or so years, explore what they may have been thinking at the time – and what they may think about the art and science of drafting in general – and see what that might tell us about the players they’ll be taking this year. See you back in this space then!