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May 27, 2014

Baseball Therapy

The Annual Amateur Draft Guessing Game

by Russell A. Carleton


Next week is going to be a big one for all 30 teams in Major League Baseball. It’s draft week! The Rule 4 Draft (which is the fancy name for the amateur draft) will take place from June 5th through June 7th. There will be pageantry (which is a fancy name for people trying to make a boring administrative event into a less-boring administrative event). There will be Hall of Famers representing teams. And the end result of a year of hard work by your favorite team’s scouting staff will come to fruition in the form of 30 teams making a bunch of wild guesses.

Every general manager has to deal with at least one “you could have had this guy, but you drafted the other guy and he never made it!” complaint. I think they all involve the 2009 Draft and Mike Trout. The draft is an inexact science. Unlike the NFL and NBA, where draftees are put directly into the starting lineup, it’s going to be a while before a team sees the fruits, whether luscious or rotten, of their draft. You have to project what a guy who only recently attained the right to vote will look like at age 27. Every year, there are can’t-miss prospects who end up missing and “he’s a nice org guy” picks who turn into really good players.

But how good are teams at predicting the future? All 30 teams have a scouting department filled with people who are experts at evaluating amateur talent, many whom measure their experience in decades. They get access to all sorts of extra information that is not public. They have cross-checkers and big secret meetings. They have every incentive to get this right because, at the end of the day, someone will be cutting checks with a lot of zeroes in them. They’d better get it right.

In a perfect world, the team that picks first should take the player who will eventually provide the most major-league value. The team picking second should take the guy who will provide the second-most value. But then, in the past, the draft was a game that was half proper draft and half auction. Teams with high picks would pass on players whom they believed to be more talented, but whom they saw as wanting too much money. For example, in 2001, the Minnesota Twins drafted Joe Mauer no. 1 overall and gave him a signing bonus of $4 million. The no. 2 overall pick was Mark Prior, who actually got more money ($4.6 million), as did no. 4 pick Gavin Floyd at $4.2 million. The Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays got Dewon Brazelton for the bargain price of $2.5 million at no. 3. (I guess you get what you pay for.) Then again, for that same $2.5M figure, the Rangers got Mark Teixeira two spots later. The market might be efficient, but the shoppers might be fools.

It’s been said that if you want to know how much a team really values a draft pick, don’t look at his overall position, but instead look at his signing bonus. Like everything else in life, follow the money. But if that price tag is the end result of months of research and high-level discussion among the best experts available, how good is that process?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
I obtained data on signing bonuses here. Data were fairly complete beginning in the year 2003, and there were generally data for the first 10 rounds. I examined how well teams performed in the 2003 to 2008 drafts, as the players picked in later drafts haven’t yet had a full chance to develop and to make their major-league selves known yet. I got career data from Baseball-Reference, who had their draft data set up so nicely for my purposes.

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Related Content:  Scouting,  Drafting,  Amateur Draft,  Rule 4 Draft

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