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June 10, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Can Draft Lightning Be Bottled?

by Russell A. Carleton


It was a boring weekend for baseball rumors on the major league side, because all of the front-office sources that your favorite columnist goes to were busy with the draft. Maybe you kept yourself entertained by getting to know the names that will be gracing your favorite team’s roster five years from now, and hopefully, that knowledge will come in handy. Unless those guys flame out in Double-A. That happens too.

Of course, in five years, some of those front-office sources your chosen columnist relies on will no longer be working for the same teams, maybe because too many promising players did flame out in Double-A, and their successors will have to live with the results of those drafts. Then again, the flip side is that there are plenty of people in front offices right now who are feasting on the fruits of previous administrations who didn’t survive long enough to see them ripen. Baseball is a cruel game.

At this point, just about every team swears that they are a “draft and develop” team (or some variant of that). It’s for good reason. Players who are drafted (or signed internationally) come with six years of cost-control, and that value generally comes at about half the price of wins on the free agent market. In fact, I’ve previously estimated that the average player development system, league-wide, is worth about 10 wins of value—and that’s just the average. Having a good drafting and development system can be the difference between a playoff appearance and a participation trophy.

However, when I looked back at the drafts of 2003-2008 a couple weeks ago, I found that the league as a whole showed only moderate ability to pick out which players would end up being the good ones (or even the minimally useful ones) in the first round of the draft. By the second round, they were doing no better than chance. The “draft” part of “draft and develop” is a bit random, or perhaps the “develop” part is much more important than we had initially thought. It seems unfair that what can be something of a grab bag has such a big influence on a team’s chances. In 2006, a bunch of smart people had pitchers Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow, Andrew Miller, and Clayton Kershaw all bunched together in their rankings before the draft. They were picked in that order. We now know how well that turned out. Of course, the team that drafts the best—or maybe we should say the team that gets the luckiest in the draft—is going to have a big advantage. So, how good (or lucky) in the draft were teams during that six-year period?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Again, we’re going to look at the drafts from 2003-2008, because those players have had a chance to mature and make their mark in the big leagues. We have signing bonus data from BP, and career WAR totals from Baseball Reference.

First, I looked at how efficient teams were in spending their money. For example, we can look at the total percentage of money that teams spent in signing bonuses on players who did make it to the majors versus those who didn’t. Looking at the raw percentages of players who made it versus those who didn’t is misleading. After all, if a team had the second pick in the draft (and picked a player who likely got a bigger signing bonus) they should have higher hopes for him than the player picked 22nd. We shouldn’t penalize teams for having low picks and being stuck with whichever player happened to fall to them. Nor should we give them too much credit for the $1000 bonus guy who somehow made it to the bigs. The team didn’t think too much of him back then, and they got a little lucky.

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Related Content:  Luck,  Amateur Draft

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