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June 3, 2003

Touring The Minors

Draft Day

by Keith Scherer

In his Monday column, Peter Gammons raised a point that illustrates why the MLB draft is more fun than the draft for the NBA or NFL:
"One club that has done extensive predictability studies offers this stat: a team has as good a chance of getting a major-league pitcher selecting a high school pitcher in the 20th round as the first, and in the case of college pitchers, the sixth round is as likely to produce a major-league pitcher as the first."

The success of Michael Lewis's Moneyball has brought more attention to the draft and to the debate between the organizations who rely on subjective scouting, and those who focus on performance. This debate is essentially being presented as computers vs. scouts, collegians vs. high schoolers. Gammons raises this point too:

"Another club rated the 50 best pitchers in baseball in terms of value, and came up with this rating: College 20, high school 10, Latin America 10, junior and community Colleges 6 and Asia/Australia 4."

The breadth of the draft allows everyone--including the fans--plenty of room to work out their theories. And it gives us armchair GMs a chance to learn that it's not as easy as it looks. As a fan, I don't know what GMs or scouts know. I don't get to watch high school baseball, and the only college ball I see is when ESPN runs the College World Series. The good news is that my eyes won't fool me. The bad news is that I don't know anything about a player's mental or mechanical defects, his signing demands, or injuries.

I have the numbers, though, and I know how to read them. It's true that numbers can be made to lie, and they can be misunderstood. The variances of league, park, and competition make high school numbers notoriously untrustworthy. If you're going to scout the high schools, you have to rely far more on scouts' observations than data. If you're a frequent visitor to this website, you're highly suspicious of wholly subjective analysis. You'd be more comfortable if you could play with some numbers too. So you prefer to look at college players.

College numbers are difficult to interpret, but not as hard as some people think. If we account for strength of competition, strength of conference, age, and park factors, we can get a crude but helpful idea of a player's projectable skills. Until recently these factors have been hard to come by, but Boyd Nation has revolutionized the processing of college baseball data. Using Boyd's rankings and comprehensive collection of hyperlinks, we can make substantial adjustments for context. We could use these sources to collect our field of draftables, or we could use them to modify Baseball America's many lists. BA is second to none in its coverage of the draft, but if you lean toward performance over tools, you're bound to be dissatisfied with some of BA's conclusions. Even so, its subjective observations are often invaluable.

So with Boyd's rankings and hyperlinks, and BA's multiform coverage, you settle in for the draft. You know that Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, Tim Stauffer, and Kyle Sleeth are going right up top. You know that Vince Sinisi will probably fall a bit because of the Boras factor. By draft day, a lot of the drama has already been diffused. But there are choices to make:

  • If you were a general manager and free to make 50 draft selections over the next 48 hours, would you spend one on a college senior who scored 68 runs in 58 games? Let's say this player is an outfielder who drew 48 walks, was hit by 14 pitches, and had a .525 on-base percentage. Assume he managed 19 steals, committed no errors, and registered four assists. And say he did all this against strong competition, and did nearly as well last summer using a wooden bat in the Cape Cod League. If you imagine yourself as Billy Beane or J.P. Ricciardi, and you care about performance, you might take this kid based on this data alone--but where? This player has warts: he's smaller than David Eckstein. You're worried that major league pitchers will knock the bat out of his hands. So if you take him, you don't take him high, but maybe he's someone you take a flyer on, later, thinking that at worst he would be an organizational soldier who can play an entertaining role for your minor league affiliates for a few years.

  • According to Baseball America, the best college prospect in Florida is a right-handed college pitcher who has a fastball in the low 90s, a splitter, changeup and hard slider. He struck out more than a batter per inning and had a strikeout/walk ratio of better than 4-to-1. You prefer strikeout pitchers and you need pitchers who can advance quickly, so this guy looks like an early pick. He's from a low-profile program, but it's one of the better ones of its kind, and has a strength of schedule that ranks in the nation's top 40 percent. A more serious problem is that he developed a blister this year. It's keeping him from throwing his best secondary pitch, and you're worried that blisters tend to recur. You have to downgrade him, too.

  • You notice that other GMs are ignoring the Big Ten's batting leader because he has diabetes and can't play defense very well. You know that he was a Cape Cod League all-star last summer, and that this year he led the Big Ten in average, on-base percentage, and slugging (.412/.513/.703). He drew walks in 15% of his plate appearances and walked more often than he struck out. You'd probably have to move him from third base to first--his fielding percentage was .901 at third--but a guy who can hit like this has to be on your board. You know his numbers were inflated a bit because he faced a soft schedule and played half his games in a batters' haven. You don't need to take him before the 10th round.

  • Another guy no one is talking about is the first baseman who led the Big 12 in walks and homers. He wasn't on anyone's watch list coming into the year, but he came on strong and won the conference's Player of the Year award. Good team, tough schedule. Pimples: as a fifth-year senior he's already 24, he has a history of injuries, and he got into several on-field scrapes this season (which tells you he might be a head case). If he's still around, maybe you take him after the 10th round and slam him into advanced-A competition and see if can prove it. But you might have a sleeper here.

Most of the talk leading up to the draft focuses on the first round, but as Gammons points out, more and more teams are becoming aware of the bargains that can be found later in the draft. The search for sleepers appeals to our vanity. And it's fun. For the fans, who have the luxury of knowing their job security doesn't rely on the choices they make, this is where it gets fun. For GMs, even the later picks are as thrilling and portentous as a jury verdict. It's not as easy as it looks, but it's more fun than football. Pull up a chair and enjoy.

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