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June 4, 2003
Imitation and Condemnation
Maybe it wasn't a revolution--although it wasn't televised, either--but it sure looked like one.
In the first round of yesterday's First-Year Player Draft, 10 college hitters were selected, while just three high-school pitchers went. It was a complete turnaround from recent seasons, as you can see from the chart below:
Year HS H HS P Coll. H Coll. P JC H JC P ------------------------------------------------------- 2003 9 3 10 7 0 1 2002 9 7 5 8 0 1 2001 3 9 7 11 0 0 2000 10 8 3 7 0 2 1999 7 8 3 12 0 0 1998 10 3 6 11 0 0I don't mean to overstate this; it is just one year, and it's possible that next year we'll be back to business as usual. I don't think that will happen, though. There are twin trends--the recognition that high school pitchers are enormous risks, and the realization that you can use performance analysis and data-driven skills analysis to evaluate college players--at work here, and neither is likely to reverse itself anytime soon. It will vary a bit from year to year depending on the draft pool, but it is entirely possible that high-school pitchers will never again have the prominence they once did on draft day.
As with any trend, it's not happening evenly across the game. The Dodgers took high-school players with their first eight picks, five of them pitchers, and 16 high schoolers in their first 20. The Devil Rays opened with six high-school players. It's fairly easy to spot who's on board, though: The Blue Jays opened with 18 straight college players; the A's 20 straight; the Red Sox 17 of their first 18; the Royals (!) 17 of 21.
Some people are pointing to the recent release of Moneyball as a cause. In Michael Lewis' book, he goes into detail about the Oakland A's approach to the draft, and in particular, the thought process leading up to their selections in the 2002 draft. While I think it's fair to say that the A's are being imitated, I think it has less to do with the book and more to do with three playoff appearances and 296 wins from 2000-2002, while spending less on payroll than 80% of teams in baseball.
Book or no book, that kind of performance is going to lead to imitation. We saw the beginnings of that yesterday afternoon, and it will be interesting to see if the new style of drafting--especially if the dichotomy between the two schools within the game grows--has an impact on the standings over a period of years. It amounts to an active experiment within baseball, and it's perhaps the most interesting one to come around in years.
Sammy Sosa was ejected from yesterday's game with the Devil Rays for using a corked bat. The lumber broke on a grounder to second base in the first inning, and after examining the fragment, crew chief Tim McClelland ejected Sosa.
Almost immediately, speculation began that perhaps Sosa was cheating all along, that his 505 career home runs, his MVP award, his All-Star appearances, and his status as a baseball icon were all the result of cork. Like the steroid story that persisted through last summer, it's just another way for the media to tear down a player, to point and say, "he's not that good."
The fact is, there's no evidence that Sosa used a corked bat in any at-bat other than his first one last night. Sosa has broken many bats over the years, and never once has he been caught with an illegal one. His success is the product of tremendous growth as a hitter, from skinny, undisciplined hacker to strong slugger with a healthy respect for the strike zone. To say that last night's fiasco taints all his achievements is a high point in the history of evidence-free convictions.
Moreover, there is pretty good evidence that a corked bat does little for a hitter. Robert Adair addresses the issue in his book The Physics of Baseball and concludes that there's no benefit to corking; the increase in bat speed is cancelled by the loss of mass in the bat.
Is Sosa a cheater? Well, he was caught cheating once, and we can go around on whether one incident should brand a person for life. Certainly, baseball has a long history of winking at activities not entirely sanctioned by the rule book, corked bats included, so to intimate that Sosa's entire body of work should be diminished by one event is inconsistent with both the game's history and the available evidence.
Even if you want to brand him with the beige "C," though, know that you're condemning his action, and not his entire career. Sammy Sosa got where he is today through talent and hard work, not by cheating.