If you missed it a few days ago, I wrote a very lengthy piece expressing my views on the MLB draft, why its flawed, and how to fix it. Obviously I don’t expect my ideas to be used, or even accepted by the masses, and the debates on how to fix the draft will go on for as long as the draft remains the mess it is today. But I’ve been thinking more about the upcoming draft, and past drafts, and I thought I’d write another piece, because I think maybe we’re missing the mark with our draft analysis and reactions. Check below for more…
As I was walking to work this morning, I was actually reading a few comments here on the site, and the first comment in the box score roundup post is what prompted me to think more about the draft, and about this article I’m about to write. This was the comment
Well, at least we’ve all calmed down from the first week of the season and realized that Anthony Hewitt is, in fact, still a bust.
This commenter isn’t speaking for himself only, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the pick at the time, and I was certainly at the front of the line. This is what I wrote in my draft review, way back on June 5th, 2008
Well, really what can you say here that hasn’t been said. The Phillies were linked to Hewitt a few weeks ago, and from Day 1, it seemed like a Phillies type pick. When you pick near the end of the first round, and you adhere to the slotting bonuses the Commish institutes, you’re really at the mercy of the board and the players taken ahead of you. At 24, the Phillies really had two options; take a lower ceiling college player, or take a toolsy, risky high school player. I don’t have a real problem going the latter route, but the problem is, they took a player that didn’t make a lot of sense, considering the board. We’d heard that they really liked Casey Kelly. Most publications had Kelly ranked higher than 24th, and a lot of mock drafts had him going in the 10-20 range. Wolever commented how the Phillies loved the two sport guys because of their athleticism and what they can bring to the table. It seemed like a perfect fit. Instead, the Phillies took Hewitt. Hewitt, as you may have read, has trouble hitting a baseball. Well, thats probably going to be a problem. No one questions his athleticism and raw physical tools. But the Phillies aren’t training for a decathlon, they are attempting to win baseball games, and unless you’re a pitcher, you should probably be able to hit a baseball. The Phillies are of course talking about how great he was in their private workouts, but the reality is, he’s older than most every high school player being taken, and hes played against inferior competition during his school season. On the showcase circuit last summer, he was horrid and most every evaluator is questioning whether or not he will be able to hit at all, let alone hit professional breaking balls.
Pros; Hewitt has massive tools, in case you haven’t heard. He can run, he has great power potential, and he should be able to play a premium position, whether it be SS, CF, or 3B.
Cons; Everything else? His baseball instincts appear to be very unrefined, he’s already 19, he hasn’t played against good competition, and most troubling, when he has faced quality pitchers, he’s basically done nothing at all. He’s Greg Golson, but 20 times more raw than Golson was when drafted. Its a scary scary thought.
Overview; Is this the worst pick of the round? Actually, no, I think Jason Castro to the Astros was downright stupefying. But is this a good pick? All things considered, I don’t think it is. If Hewitt makes it, you could be looking at a Ken Griffey Jr type player. But the odds of him making it are extremely remote, and if he does make it, it will likely be 5-6 years from now, meaning his career will be shorter than “toolsheds” like Justin and BJ Upton.
So yeah. But here’s the thing. Hewitt could have gone on to become a star. And that brings me to…
1. The MLB draft is, on the biggest scale, a farce. Every year, the draft runs 50 rounds deep. Some teams make more than 50 picks because of compensation picks. But most teams don’t sign 50 players. Some teams don’t sign their first pick, or their last pick, or 30 other picks. When you look at it from this perspective, its really strange right? You spend lots of time and money scouting these players, and you select 15-20 players every year that you know you have less than 1% chance to sign, just because of the mechanics of the draft. Here is the breakdown of the number of players the Phillies have drafted in each draft from 2001 to 2005, and then how many of those players have played in the majors (with any team, not just the Phillies)
2001: 46 drafted, 4 made it to MLB (Floyd R1, Howard R5, Roberson R9, Cherry R10)
2002: 48 drafted, 5 made it to MLB (Hamels R1, Segovia R2, Beam R11, Mathieson R17, Korecky R19)
2003: 48 drafted, 3 made it to MLB (Bourn R4, Kendrick R7, Ziegler R20)
2004: 50 drafted, 5 made it to MLB (Golson R1, Jaramillo R2, Happ R3, Marson R4, Bisenius R12)
2005: 49 drafted, 4 made it to MLB (Maloney R3, Outman R10, Zagurski R12, Huff R19)
This is 5 drafts worth of players, 242 in all. Of that 242, 21 have played in the majors, or 8.7%. And its not exclusive to the Phillies. Here’s a small sampling, with the same criteria as above
Mets: 246 drafted, 17 made it to MLB (6.9%)
Twins: 258 drafted, 21 made it to MLB (8.1%)
Red Sox: 250 drafted, 22 made it to MLB (8.8%)
Marlins: 254 drafted, 23 made it to MLB (9.1%)
You get the idea. If you can find a team that has significantly outperformed this trend, let me know. And remember, this isn’t just guys who have been developed by their team are in their original organization, this counts guys who’ve been traded/released and made it. Of course, this isn’t super scientific. Its a 5 year crosscut. Some of the guys drafted in 2005 will make it eventually for a cup of coffee and the numbers will improve. But the general point is easily made. As soon as you are drafted, you are a longshot to ever play in the majors, let alone be a star. Which brings me to…
2. The very concept of scouting. Baseball scouting is nearly a year round practice. No matter what time of year, there is normally baseball to be played, whether its in the minors, college baseball in February, winter ball in Latin America, the Indy leagues, you name it, guys are out there watching people play baseball. On the amateur side of the game, before guys enter the minors/majors, scouts are out there trying to watch. Some outlets begin to put together profiles on guys when they are boys, 12-13 years old, which is kind of creepy really, but its the business. When you’re a freshman in high school, there’s a good chance scouts know how you are, and by the time you’re a senior, some scouts will have books filled with information about you. And you’ll be 18. If you bypass the pro game and head to college, more scouts will come watch you for 3 years. Sometimes they’ll follow you in the summer when you’re pitching in a summer league. Sometimes they follow you around with Team USA. If you bypass the draft again, they’ll follow you for your final college season. These guys get paid to watch you play baseball. Every time you step on the mound, you know that someone is probably watching, even if they aren’t there to watch just you. But what does that tell you? Scouts get hired and fired every year. Some scouts are apparently better than others. And at the core, they are all doing the same thing, from age 13 till the time you retire. They are determining what you’re doing right now, and what you’re going to do. Which brings me to…
3. Projection is just guessing. This applies more to high school guys than college guys, but its similar even at the college level. A scout looks at an 18 year old and tries to figure out what that player will be in 7 years. Think about that for a second. Some people have a hard enough time figuring out which tomato will still be ripe in 5 days. Yet scouts are being paid by MLB teams to figure out which 18 year old kid who now throws 88 will throw 95 in 5 years. Stephen Strasburg, the greatest prospect in draft history, went undrafted out of high school. Were the scouts who watched him all bad at their job? Or did Strasburg’s body and attitude just change so drastically in 3 years that none of them could have ever foreseen the transformation? Strasburg isn’t unique in this distinction. Plenty of good prospects were never drafted out of high school, and they went on to become great players in the majors. Plenty of great MLB players were taken after the first round. On the Phillies alone, just look at Ryan Howard. Some teams seem to consistently hit on projects like this, but there isn’t one team out there consistently drafting guys in the 40th round, signing them, and turning them into stars. It just doesn’t happen. Draft picks are often referred to as lottery tickets, and in essence, they are.
4. Building on this, every team works differently in the draft, and every team has a different draft board. Every year, if you read the experts at the various draft coverage sites, you will hear that “Player X is a polarizing guy, some teams love him, others hate him”, and this was the scenario with Anthony Hewitt above. If the Phillies hadn’t taken him 24th, there’s a decent chance one of the teams right behind the Phillies would have. In every draft, there will be a very small handful of guys that everyone agrees on. In 2009 it was Stephen Strasburg, who basically no one had anything bad to say about. This year, even the clear cut best prospect, catcher Bryce Harper, has had a fair amount of criticism thrown at him. Each team has a network of scouts, most of them assigned to particular states/areas. These scouts file their reports for the team. Above these scouts, teams have what they call “crosscheckers”, most times responsible for a larger region, like the west coast, the southeast, the northeast, etc etc. These crosscheckers read all of the reports that the area scouts turn in, and then they will go and watch the player who was written up. They will then file a report, and this report is compared to the report filed by the area scout. The director of scouting will then look at these reports and try to spot trends or discrepancies, and all of this info is essentially placed into a big data bank, from which teams will construct draft boards. Along the way, the director of scouting has to talk to the GM, who then has to talk to the President, and a budget/draft plan has to be agreed on. Its easy to rank players 1-30 based on your personal preference on their talent level, but to know how much player X will cost you adds another layer. The construction of these draft boards differs in every organization. In some organizations, the Texas scout might carry a bit more weight, or if a crosschecker in the midwest turns in a glowing report, it might carry more weight when the director of scouting starts to fill in the board. In some cases (see the Ricky Romero/Tulo debacle in Toronto) the GM just takes the guy he wants, even if his scouts disagree. But at the end of the day, no matter how much you love player X, he simply might not be there when you pick. Draft position is key. I touched on this in my previous piece. Because of the mechanics of the draft, teams cannot trade picks. If the team picking at #12 really wants player X, but the team 2 spots ahead of them wants that player, they are out of luck. Conversely, if a team is picking 12th and the 11 guys they really loved are gone, leaving them with less desirable guys, they still have to take one of those guys.
5. At the end of the day, you have to be a lot more lucky than good. As far as I can tell, there are no teams out there who completely disregard scouting. They’d be fools to give it up. But at the same time, the cold hard fact is that baseball is really difficult, and most guys won’t make it, no matter how great they are projected to become, or how highly the scouting community feels about their chances. If you are bored sometime, I highly recommend you go to baseball-reference and look at their draft resources. You can start here. Its amazing the things you will find. 9 teams passed on Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft. In other words, 9 teams felt that there were better players available at their pick, because Lincecum signed for a slot bonus, he wasn’t dropping because of money concerns. Those teams that passed on him? The Royals, Rockies, Rays, Pirates, Mariners, Tigers, Dodgers, Reds and Orioles. There were some great players taken ahead of him; Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw…..and well that’s really it. A few guys still have potential, Brandon Morrow and Drew Stubbs in particular, and maybe Luke Hochevar, who went #1 overall. But what were the Orioles thinking passing on him? What were the Tigers thinking? Well the scouts loved Andrew Miller, who the Tigers took 6th overall, and later traded to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. But I bet you all of the teams above, except maybe the Rays, would take Tim Lincecum if they had to do it over again. Were the Giants that much smarter than everyone else? What did they see that everyone else didn’t? This is just one of hundreds of examples. In the 2007 draft, 13 players were taken above Jason Heyward. And I bet quite a few of those teams would take Heyward if they had a do over. Again, what did everyone miss? All of this brings me to…
6. Trying to figure out what the ideal draft plan is. There are lots of theories out there. Some of them include;
a. Draft all college guys, because you have more of a track record
b. Draft all high school guys, because they have the highest ceilings
c. Draft college guys first, then high school guys later
d. Spend a ton of money on the best prospects, no matter what the commissioner recommends
You could successfully argue for any of these. Which is why none of them are really the correct answer. Generally speaking, the guys who are perceived as the best players are going to require the best money. In the Anthony Hewitt scenario above, the Phillies liked Casey Kelly, but the Red Sox ended up drafting him, and had to pay him essentially the same money that a top 2 or 3 pick would get, in order to keep him away from college. Right now, he looks well worth the money, but he’s only in AA, and there are still many roads to cross. The big question, which every team asks themselves, is “what is the right mix?”. And because there is no perfect answer, teams continue to fail/succeed at varying rates.
The further down in the draft you go, the higher the beta/risk/volatility in your pick. The Nationals, last season, knew what they were getting in Stephen Strasburg. He was as low risk a pick as you could make. The consensus had him pegged as the clear best prospect in the draft, and one of the best prospects in draft history. In 30 years, when people are writing blog posts or tweets, or whatever is popular at the time, no one is going to say “how on Earth did they come to the decision to take that guy!!”, they will discuss what Strasburg has done, and why he did it. Once you make the draft pick, its essentially out of your hands. The goal is to make the best pick, with what you know at the time, and what you reasonably expect to happen in the future.
Going back to the Hewitt pick. He was a polarizing guy. The big question was whether or not he’d hit at the big league level. Lets say that things went differently. Lets say that he got to instructional league after the 2008 draft, the Phillies tweaked his swing, he really took to the changes, he was seeing the ball better, and the Phillies decide to give him a shot at Lakewood in 2009. He comes out, puts up a .290/.375/.550 line, with 75 walks, 85 K, and 25 HR. This year he moves up to Clearwater and again puts up stellar numbers, all while playing a gold glove caliber 3B. No one is asking how the Phillies could have possibly taken him, instead, we’re saying “how could 23 other teams miss on him?” and thanking the brilliance of our front office. But of course Hewitt didn’t translate his raw tools into baseball skills. Yet. Which brings me to…
7. The big finish. As fans, we want instant gratification. We want to see big results, and we want to see them right away. Already, people are calling the return on the Cliff Lee trade a waste, just as some people are already writing off the players we traded for Cliff Lee. We have a general idea of how things are supposed to go. 18 year old high school kids go to the GCL after being drafted. Some of them then go to the NYPL as 19 year olds, the more advanced guys go to Low A. Then you go to A+, then AA, then AAA, and when you’re 23 or 24, you go to the majors and become a star. Except that really only works for the elite, best of the best prospects. The ultra-mega elite speed up this timetable and reach the majors at 20, 21, or 22 and become stars. But baseball is a game of outliers. In this game, a 47 year old pitcher throwing 81 mph can completely dominate a lineup full of younger players with better raw athletic abilities. In this game, a 5’10 pitcher can win back to back Cy Young awards while a 6’5 guy with the “classic pitcher’s frame” can’t get out of A ball, despite being a high first round pick. Guys like David Eckstein carve out big league careers despite looking more like the bat boy. Its a funny game, and one that sometimes makes no sense. Some guys toil away in the minors for years and don’t get a chance until their late 20’s, when they should be in their “peak” and they prove they belong in the majors. Other guys get their chance and fail, despite always carrying the “potential” or “projection” tag on them.
Maybe, as fans, we have to concede that we don’t really know all that much about the draft. I’m sure I’ll write a bunch of stuff in the next month about guys I like, based on a 45 second video clip. And I’ll no doubt be reading all of the people who get paid (and some who don’t) to write about the draft. And I’ll try and care about which guys the Phillies take. But ultimately, none of us will know how these guys are going to turn out, in some cases, for 8 or 9 years. We get really into it because we’re fans. And because these guys are new to us. Its like Christmas time, getting new toys. In our case, new guys to follow in the box scores, new guys to dream on and imagine stardom. Or in some cases, guys to complain about and label busts after 2 seasons worth of AB’s. Such is the life of a baseball prospect.