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March 7, 2006

Doctoring The Numbers

The Draft, Part Eight

by Rany Jazayerli

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Before we pick up the draft study where we left off, let's make a deal: I'll agree not to bring up the fact that it's been six months since Part 7 if you do. Deal.

Last time, we looked at the relative merits of high school players by position, ending with this chart:

  1984 - 1999           1992 - 1999
Pos     Overall       Pos     Overall

HS 3B   -  1.7%       HS 3B   + 31.1%
HS SS   -  6.7%       HS  C   + 17.2%
HS OF   - 31.4%       HS SS   - 16.3%
HS  C   - 41.5%       HS OF   - 31.8%
HS 1B   - 54.5%       HS 1B   - 52.9%
HS 2B   - 84.0%       HS 2B   - 89.7%
Generally speaking, players on the left side of the infield graded out best, players on the right side of the infield were (by far) the worst picks, and guys in the middle--outfielders and catchers--stayed in the middle in terms of their draft returns. The most surprising finding may have been the fact that, at least in the 1990s, high school catchers were better-than-average risks among prep talent, belying their reputation as the riskiest of draft picks.

Now for the analysis of college position players, where the calculus is significantly different.

Pos     Years    1st Rd    2nd Rd    3rd Rd    Overall

COL C   84-91    - 10.9%   +  6.1%   + 99.2%*  +  1.1%
COL C   92-99      SSS     - 10.5%*  + 63.9%*  + 88.0%
COL C   84-99    + 18.1%   +  1.5%   + 83.6%   + 18.9%

Years   Biggest Bargains                   Biggest Busts

84-91   Craig Biggio, Mike MacFarlane      Bob Caffrey, Scott Hemond
92-99   Charles Johnson, Jason Varitek     Tommy Davis, Sammy Serrano

Much like their high school counterparts, collegiate catchers improved their relative value significantly from the first half of the study to the second. Craig Biggio may be a Hall of Famer, but the quality falls off quickly--Kirt Manwaring was the 3rd-best draftee of that era. Still, a large number of draftees enjoyed long, if not particularly distinguished, careers, including Dan Wilson (the only college catcher in the whole study who was a Top 10 draft pick), Jorge Fabregas, Scott Hatteberg, Brent Mayne, and Scott Servais. Eric Wedge deserves a special mention, I suppose.

Since 1992, teams have become far more selective about picking college catchers, with far better results. There were 33 catchers taken among the top 100 picks between 1984 and 1991; that number dropped to just 16 between 1992 and 1999. Only two college catchers were taken in the first 40 picks--Charles Johnson and Jason Varitek, the two biggest bargains of the era. You can question the data here if you want--Brandon Inge is categorized as a catcher, but he had minimal experience at the position until the Tigers drafted him and put him behind the plate. I guess you could argue that Matt LeCroy has yet to play the position. But that would be cruel.

Pos     Years    1st Rd    2nd Rd    3rd Rd    Overall

COL 1B  84-91    +162.9%*  + 49.1%*  +573.2%*  +174.3%
COL 1B  92-99    +104.7%*    SSS     - 78.3%*  + 87.1%
COL 1B  84-99    +144.2%   + 97.0%*  +204.8%   +144.3%

Years   Biggest Bargains           Biggest Busts

84-91   See below                  Dave McCarty, Joe Vitiello
92-99   See below                  Eric Munson, Danny Peoples

I was at first reluctant to break down the draft by individual positions, thinking that the sample sizes might be so small as to render the data meaningless. But the chart above single-handedly justifies it. Hell, it justifies the whole draft study. If there's one piece of advice for GMs to take away from this entire study, it's this: college first basemen make GREAT draft picks.

Between 1984 and 1991, nine college first basemen were drafted in the first round. Two of them rank as the biggest busts in this era, Dave McCarty and Joe Vitiello. Scott Stahoviak was the Doug Mientkiewicz of his day, a great defensive first baseman (he played 41 games at third base in the majors, with an average fielding rating according to our DTs) who could get on base but had no pop, and was finished at age 28.

The other six players, in increasing order of draft value: Tino Martinez, Mo Vaughn, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, and Frank Thomas.

It's a very small sample size, but if you were drafting a first baseman out of college in the first round, you had a 2-in-3 chance of drafting a perennial All-Star, and a 4-in-9 chance of drafting a Hall of Famer or near-HoFer. Throw in John Olerud, who was a third-round pick because no one thought he was signable, and your odds of getting a star/superstar player out of the first round was 50-50.

The returns on first basemen dropped in the 90s, but they still ranked as one of the most underpriced commodities in the draft. Only 15 college first basemen were selected in the top 100 picks from 1992 to 1999, but they included Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, Sean Casey, and Carlos Pena. Helton and Berkman were both first-round picks, along with Pena and three washouts (Peoples, Munson--who was really more of a catcher in college--and Jeff Liefer). Taken as a whole there were 15 college first-rounders from 1984 to 1999, 16 if you count Olerud. If you ignore the voting implications of steroid or alleged steroid use, five of those 16 are likely Hall of Famers, three more (Vaughn, Olerud, Clark) had a case for being the best first baseman in the game at some point in time, and three more (Martinez, Casey, Pena) were average or above-average first basemen in their prime.

That's a hell of a return.

Because the sample size was so small--only 35 first basemen in the whole study--I decided to take a look at the first basemen drafted in the last five years to see whether the trend shows signs of holding up or not. Here are the first basemen taken in the top 100 picks between 2000 and 2005:

2000: None
2001: None (well, unless you count John VanBenschoten, Pittsburgh, #8)
2002: Larry Broadway, Montreal, #77; David Jensen, Kansas City, #78
2003: Michael Aubrey, Cleveland, #11; Vince Sinisi, Texas, #46
2004: Mike Ferris, St. Louis, #60; Adam Lind, Toronto, #82
2005: Stephen Head, Cleveland, #62

Gee, that wasn't very useful. In the last six years, only seven college first basemen have gone in the top 100 picks, and only one--Michael Aubrey--went in the first round. Aubrey's career got off on the right track--he was our #17 prospect a year ago--but he threw out his back last season, which is among the worst chronic injuries you can have if you're a first baseman.

Actually, there is one college first baseman who was selected even higher than Aubrey in the last six years. Unfortunately, the Pirates chose to send John Van Benschoten to the mound, even though the consensus throughout baseball was that he was a better hitting prospect than pitching prospect. Given the returns on college first basemen in the first round, you could argue that the Pirates made one of the most foolish draft-day decisions of all time. Especially now that it's his shoulder that's benschoten. (Thank you. I'll be here all week.)

Why have college first basemen proven to be such great investments, when their high school counterparts have been among the worst investments? I think it has to do with two things:

  1. A player who mans first base in high school is, almost by definition, unathletic. The increased quality of competition at the college level, particularly the elite conferences, means that it is possible to be quite athletic and still be "relegated" to playing first base.
  2. Even the best high school first basemen still require several years of refinement before they're ready for the majors, years in which their lack of athleticism inhibits their development. The best college first basemen, on the other hand, are essentially ready for the majors on draft day.

Of all the high school first basemen in our study, the one who probably had the most initial success as a pro was Jack Cust, who hit .334/.452/.651 as 20-year-old in the California League. Cust's downfall has been the fact that he has not improved one whit as a player since he was 20. (This does not bode well for Prince Fielder, incidentally.)

Contrast Cust with Will Clark, the highest-drafted college first baseman (#2 overall) in our study. Clark was considerably more athletic than Cust, capable of winning a Gold Glove at the position and a good baserunner, if not a good basestealer. Moreover, he needed all of 71 minor league games before he was called to The Show; he was one of the best first basemen in the game two years after he was drafted.

To put it succinctly: college first basemen are not only considerably further along in their offensive development than high school first baseman, but they are considerably more athletic as well, giving them more potential for improvement after they have signed. The ones who are not athletic, like Thomas or Vaughn, are such prodigious mashers that it really doesn't make any difference. Yeah, it's a shame that Frank Thomas essentially reached his peak as a 22-year-old rookie. But a 22-year-old rookie with a .345 EqA needs no improvement to produce a Hall of Fame career.

Mind you, the first baseman that mashes the ball so thoroughly in college that he's considered worthy of a first-round pick despite his limited positional value is rare indeed; in recent years, at least, no such player existed. The best college hitters in recent years have also had the athleticism to play other positions, such as third base (Mark Teixeira and Alex Gordon), shortstop (Stephen Drew), or even second base (Rickie Weeks).

This year's draft, which is considered to be particularly weak in college hitters, may be no different. But keep your eye on Matt LaPorta, who plays first base at Florida and who Baseball America states "is the draft's premier college power hitter." If history is any guide, he's going to make the team that selects him very happy indeed.


Pos     Years    1st Rd    2nd Rd    3rd Rd    Overall

COL 2B  84-91      SSS     - 80.0%*    SSS     + 30.4%
COL 2B  92-99      SSS     + 44.2%*    SSS     + 55.6%
COL 2B  84-99    + 91.0%*  - 21.5%   - 69.6%   + 41.0%

Years   Biggest Bargains                 Biggest Busts

84-91   Chuck Knoblauch, Luis Alicea     Ty Griffin, Mike Watters
92-99   Adam Kennedy, Marlon Anderson    Charles Abbott, Dan Cey
The story at second base is the story at first base, writ small. Just like first basemen, second basemen drafted out of college make excellent investments even though their high school counterparts have had the absolute worst returns of any position.

The reasoning is similar. Whereas playing second base at the high school level is a major red flag--how good a prospect can you be if you're not even the best middle infielder on your high school team?--that stigma is not there at the college level, where the standards are much higher. And as with first basemen, second basemen at the college level have had three additional years to develop their batting skills, which is relevant because most second basemen are drafted as offense-first players. (This makes sense; if these guys were considered great defensive second basemen, they would have been playing at shortstop.)

Yes, Chuck Knoblauch won a Gold Glove at second base, but 1) he wasn't considered a great defensive player coming out of college, and 2) according to our defensive metrics, he was a below-average player defensively for the bulk of his career. Of the other guys above, only Adam Kennedy has a strong defensive reputation. (And the two other players who have provided the most returns are legendary iron gloves Mark Bellhorn and Todd Walker.) If you're drafting a collegiate second baseman with a high draft pick, you're probably drafting him because you think he can hit well enough to carry his glove--and by and large, that has been a wise and successful strategy. (Cub fans are permitted to disagree; I think Will Carroll is still holding out hope that Ty Griffin can make a comeback. And bring Gary Scott back with him.)

As at the high school level, relatively few second basemen in college make for elite draft picks--only 21 players were selected in the 16 years of our study. Let's look at the years from 2000 to 2005 again; this time, there's some useful insight to be gleaned here:

2000: Chase Utley, Philadelphia, #15; Dominic Rich, Toronto, #58
2001: Chris Burke, Houston, #10; Mike Fontenot, Baltimore, #19; Michael Woods, Detroit, #32; Richard Lewis, Atlanta, #40
2002: None
2003: Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee, #2; Tim Moss, Philadelphia, #85
2004: None
2005: Jed Lowrie, Boston, #45

That's a pretty impressive list. Not only has Chase Utley emerged as an elite player, but he did so coming out of the 2000 draft that ranks as probably the weakest draft in the last 25 years. (The only other established major leaguer out of the first round that year is Rocco Baldelli.) Rickie Weeks, by far the highest-drafted second baseman ever, is a trendy breakout pick this year. Chris Burke--who is listed in the Baseball America database as a 2B/SS in college--was a disappointment last season after being touted as a Rookie of the Year candidate, but there's still time.

These recent draft picks confirm the notion that collegiate second basemen are drafted for their bats--none of these guys was considered a stellar glove man in college. Interestingly, most of them have stayed at second base as pros; having already spent a draft pick on the players, the teams that drafted them have already accepted the fact that their defense is going to be a liability, and are not as eager to move them down the defensive spectrum as you might expect.

The other thing that stands out is that almost every one of these draft picks, even failed picks like Woods and Lewis, possess secondary skills in abundance. For the most part, none of them hit for a good average, but they all draw a bunch of walks, and most of them have above-average power and speed. I don't know if it's a coincidence or a reflection of the type of player that teams are looking for at the position.

This year, there may not be a college second baseman drafted in the first 100 picks; the top-rated player, Adam Davis, is ranked by Baseball America as the 32nd-best college hitter available. Coincidentally, Davis is teammates with Matt LaPorta at Florida. He definitely fits the mold--he only hit .306 as a sophomore, but with 12 homers in 294 AB (despite checking in at 5'9"), 40 walks, and 24 steals.

Back next week--I promise--with the rest of the college hitters.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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