June 9, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Draft EditionHomo sapiens emerged from Neanderthal man about 38,000 BCE. It took another 31,500 years or so for the Sumerians to invent the wheel. There were 315 centuries of watching stones rolling downhill, fallen trees being pushed aside, dates falling off the table, before experience and observation could be transformed into principles (Hey! Round stuff rolls! Round stuff that rolls might be useful to have!) and those principles then put into practice (We should try to make round stuff that rolls!). Of course, as with all good ideas, some people never bought in. The Western Hemisphere did without the wheel until the Europeans showed up. Either the locals were too busy eating the corn to roll the cobs or they just didn't think much of wheels.
As with the wheel, so too with the amateur draft, which kicked off in 1965 as a way to finally bring down those annoyingly persistent Yankees. Many of the lessons that have been taken away the draft--high school pitchers are riskier bets as college pitchers, don't draft high school catchers, etc.--were there to be found after the first few drafts, but it took several more years before experience hardened into a set of principles.
DRAFT PLAYERS, NOT PREJUDICES
Then again, it shouldn't have taken experience to understand that high school catchers are a drag. All it takes is a bit of logic to realize that if you draft a center fielder and he's not capable of playing center, you can shift him to left or right field. This is why a lot of shortstops and center fielders get drafted in the first round. Teams know they can always relocate the player to a less demanding position. If a catcher can't catch, there's really nowhere else you can go. If the youngster in question has a bat like Roy Campanella's, maybe you move him to first base. Most have bats somewhere between those of Jim Sundberg and Joe Girardi, though. Putting Jim Sundberg at first base would be like putting Britney Spears in the Beatles. It's value subtracting.
A catcher who hits like a catcher but can't field the position is about as athletic and useful as a humpbacked penguin. Not only do such players go home, they also take their bonus money when they go, and the 10 teams drafting after you, who selected Will Clark, Paul Molitor, Tom Seaver, Rin Tin Tin, Sacco, Vanzetti, Batman and Robin, and Larry Bowa, all of whom were available to you when you drafted Lumpy the Hobbled Prep Backstop, spend the next 20 years laughing at you.
This is exactly what happened to the New York Mets, owners of the first overall pick in the infamous 1966 draft. The consensus top two players in the nation were lefty-swinging California high school catcher Steve Chilcott and Arizona State University sophomore outfielder Reginald Martinez Jackson, hereafter called Reggie. The Mets chose Chilcott. Seven injury-laden years later, Chilcott was exploring other career options while Jackson, who had been drafted second overall by the Kansas City A's, was on his way to 500 home runs and the Hall of Fame. Actually, it didn't take seven years for the Mets to find egg on their faces, because Jackson made his major league debut exactly a year after the draft.
The Mets' line was always that they had researched the situation thoroughly and simply came to the wrong conclusion. The choice is obvious only with hindsight, they said. They cited no less an authority than their recently retired manager Casey Stengel, now Mets Vice President of Western Scouting, who had seen Chilcott in one game and had recommended the pick. Moreover, they needed a catcher, so why not draft the best one available?
Reggie himself had other ideas about what motivated the pick. In the book he dictated to Mike Lupica, Jackson quotes Bobby Winkles as telling him that though he had hit a school-record 15 home runs, the Mets would not be drafting him. "They're concerned you have a white girlfriend." Racism once again rears its ugly head.
Now, Reggie Jackson is one of the most hyperbolic personalities in the history of baseball, and much of what he says has to be taken with a grain of salt. However, in this case it's tough not to buy his argument. George Weiss was still running the Mets and was known not to be fond of African-Americans. Casey Stengel was vice president in name only; he was, finally, retired. No doubt his blessing carried weight, but he was 76 years old and not necessarily on the cutting edge of things, not that businesses are known for taking the input of septuagenarian emeritus employees very seriously. Perhaps the Mets were the one business that did, but if Casey's input was so important, why wasn't he asked to go to Arizona and see Jackson as well?
There is even more of a circumstantial case. Chilcott was not the only catcher in the draft; countless others were taken, including Johnny Oates and Cliff Johnson. A few backstops were available in trade. The Mets also had Jerry Grote in the majors. Grote would prove to be a functional though unspectacular catcher for the next dozen years.
There is nothing about a catcher drafted in the first round that makes him a worse bet than a catcher selected in any other round, though given the high rate at which first-round catchers have failed, it can seem that way. Rather, not drafting a catcher with a high pick is a question of utility. Given the high failure rate of catchers in general, for the reasons outlined above, a player at a different position is the more prudent choice, particularly when choosing incorrectly in the first round means passing on some of the best young talent in the nation.
The Chicago White Sox have jumped at catchers in the first round more often than any other team, picking them seven times and coming away empty-handed every time. Remember, the team drafting in the first round is looking for a star:
SECOND BASE DRAFTEES SHOULD ALWAYS FINISH OUT THEIR COLLEGE DEGREES
Somehow what remains obscure about catchers has always been obvious about second basemen. Amateur keystone cops are almost never drafted in the first round. If a player can't field well enough to play second, chances are he can't defend shortstop either. If the player has a middle-infielder's bat, then he can't be moved to one of the corner positions, where power is abundantly available. As with catchers, second basemen are a high-risk, low-reward proposition in the first round.
While more than 80 catchers have been drafted in the first round, with five (Chilcott, Mike Ivie, Danny Goodwin, Danny Goodwin again, and B.J. Surhoff) being picked first overall, just seven second basemen have been picked in the entire history of the first round, and none first overall: