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May 14, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The One They Missed

by Sam Miller

The Braves’ 50th pick in the 2008 draft, and the 1493rd pick overall, was a guy named Dylan Lightell. I don’t know much about Dylan Lightell. I don’t believe he pitched professionally. I think he has a profile at an electronic dance music site, with the personal statement “all add’d out,” which I guess makes Derek Lowe a good comp for him. And I know that major-league baseball teams thought 1,492 draft-eligible amateurs, but not 1,493 draft-eligible amateurs, were better than he was in 2008.

But, in 2008, I would have known even less about Brandon Beachy, who wasn’t drafted at all. Thirty teams, 50 rounds, 1,504 picks, and Beachy was untouched. Major-league baseball teams thought that at least 1,504 amateurs were better than he was in 2008, but for all we know they thought 1,504,000 amateurs were better than him. They might have thought he was the very worst baseball player in the world. There is no limit to how bad they might have thought he was, because he was drafted just as much as a non-physical entity, like, say, senioritis was drafted. Brandon Beachy has a 1.60 ERA.

Undrafted free agents are one of baseball’s great miracles. By the third day of the First-Year Player Draft, it feels like they’re just making names up. Teams draft the spawn of anybody associated with the sport. They use picks for feel-good stories. Pretty sure they draft players, sight unseen, for subliminal reasons they’re not fully aware of. In 2008, more Americans got $1,000 stimulus checks from Major League Baseball than from the U.S. government. And, at the end of it, there are a few nerds left on the sidelines, unpicked, left to play Magic: The Gathering until the end of recess. Brandon Beachy has a 1.60 ERA.

Of the 3,700 games started by American-born pitchers in 2011, just 35 were started by undrafteds. Alan Johnson and Brandon Dickson started one apiece. Chris Jakubauskas started eight. The rest were started by Beachy, who had the same ERA+ in those starts as Zack Greinke had in his, a better strikeout rate than any starting pitcher in the majors, and more WARP than all the 2008 draft picks in rounds eight through 50 combined. There are players like Mark Buehrle, Ted Lilly, and Kyle Lohse who were drafted late, but drafted. “You are one of us, and a lesser one of us,” they were told. The undrafteds are closer to one of us, though, and when one of us makes it, it raises some questions.

The first is how Beachy could have not been drafted. He wasn’t a pitcher in high school—he says he threw about six innings as a prep athlete—and he wasn’t primarily a pitcher in college. As a third baseman his junior year, he wasn’t a bad hitter, and he knew how to take a walk, but he had little power. I couldn’t find his junior stats compiled, but going through his box scores it looks like he hit about .270/.360/.410. (Allow some margin for error on those numbers.) He wasn’t any sort of offensive prospect. That answers the first question.

And raises the second question: How was Brandon Beachy not pitching for Indiana Wesleyan, a school that has produced just two draft picks in its history? The answer is that he actually was, for a while. Beachy closed during his sophomore year. He had a biceps strain and shoulder tendinitis his junior year and couldn’t pitch regularly, so he made some starts, made some relief appearances, and focused on his hitting. He made 12 appearances, including three starts, and you can sort of see Brandon Beachy in there: 27 strikeouts and five walks in 27 innings. Two disaster outings—nine runs in 1 ⅓ innings in one, seven runs without getting an out in another—ruined his junior-year line. He finished with a 7.09 ERA.

Interesting fact: when Beachy was finally signed as a free agent, after working as a reliever in a summer league, Braves scout Gene Kerns didn’t offer him a $1,000 bonus like most players chosen after the 20th round receive. Kerns offered him $20,000. Just a month after Beachy went undrafted, he was being treated like a 12th-round pick. You can stare at Beachy’s history and not quite tell whether he should have been drafted fairly high or shouldn’t have been, whether he should have been pitching for Indiana Wesleyan or shouldn’t have been, whether he was good or bad. I think the answers are yes, yes, and good, but the whole thing almost feels like a hoax.

Which all goes to the third question: How, exactly, do major-league players happen? Are they the result of years of hard work, mental preparation, thousands of innings, excellent coaching? Or are they just the men born with the right combination of tendons, reflexes, and eyesight?

Brandon Beachy suggests it’s the latter. Beachy isn’t a great pitcher because he spent his entire life working toward being a great pitcher. He isn’t a great pitcher because he has more experience than everybody else. He isn’t a great pitcher because he worked out all of his flaws through 15 years of play. Beachy is a great pitcher because he has a great arm. When he was 22, he discovered that great arm, like the first time Evie Garland put her two index fingers together. Just so easy.

Brandon Beachy also suggests it’s the former. Beachy’s success is attributed to his make-up as much as any pitcher in the league. “That kid has it all figured out,” Fredi Gonzalez said of him. “A strong kid with a great work ethic,” said Roger McDowell, his pitching coach. “A great student … and a great leader on the team,” said a former college coach. “He does things the right way,” said a former high school coach. Everybody says good things about everybody, but everybody really says good things about Beachy.

Beachy won’t keep the 1.60 ERA, unless he really wants to screw with us. The smart guys predicted some regression for him (and his strikeout rate), and his strikeout rate has regressed. His whiff rate has gone way down, and he’s on the final page of the leaderboard in whiffs this year. He’s getting by right now on pretty good peripherals, a .220 BABIP, and one home run allowed out of about 50 fly balls. All the pieces are there for him to get worse, and for him to stay pretty good. Brandon Beachy. You know how it goes.

Tim Beckham was the first pick in the 2008 draft. The very first pick. He might never play a game in the majors. Brandon Beachy was passed over for Dylan Lightell. So, yeah. You know how it goes. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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