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March 15, 2006

Doctoring The Numbers

The Draft, Part Nine

by Rany Jazayerli

Two quick things before we move on with the rest of the college position players:

  1. After giving it more thought, I have decided that in the case of a player who played one position in college but was immediately moved to another position as a pro--like Eric Munson, who was a collegiate catcher but a first baseman as a pro, or Brandon Inge, who was drafted as a catcher even though he had only played shortstop in college--the player should be classified according to his collegiate position. Even if he didn't play there professionally, it is on campus that a player is evaluated for the draft, and it stands to reason that we should evaluate the merits of a draft pick based on the position he plays when he is being evaluated for the draft.

    So I've gone back and re-run the numbers, moving Munson and Inge to their appropriate positions. This has the impact of making college first basemen look even better--Munson was one of the few first-round busts--while making college catchers look a little worse, as they are now saddled with Munson while losing Inge, who has produced good value after a shaky start. At the end of this piece we'll run the numbers for every position; just be aware that the numbers at catcher and first base differ from those presented in Part 8.

  2. I wrote last week that the top-rated collegiate second baseman was Adam Davis at the University of Florida. An intrepid reader checked and found that Davis has played exclusively shortstop for the Gators this season after playing mostly second base in 2005.

Speaking of shortstops…
Pos     Years    1st Rd    2nd Rd    3rd Rd    Overall

COL SS  84-91    + 51.5%*  + 16.2%   - 79.3%*  + 34.5%
COL SS  92-99    + 17.6%*  + 41.5%*    SSS     + 45.1%
COL SS  84-99    + 39.9%   + 22.7%   + 54.3%   + 37.9%

Years    Biggest Bargains                 Biggest Busts

84-91    Barry Larkin, Matt Williams      Monty Fariss, Gary Green
92-99    Nomar Garciaparra, Chris Gomez   Jason Dellaero, Brandon Larson

Nothing really pithy to say here; college shortstops are a good bet overall, but pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as college hitters go. The nice thing about this position is that you have a lot of positional leeway if your draftee can't handle shortstop as a pro. While a few draft picks have the leather to carry a sub-optimal bat (Walt Weiss, Adam Everett), far more college shortstops have major league bats but are forced to move down the defensive spectrum pretty quickly. Some still have the glove to shine at another key position, like second base (Brian Roberts, Alex Cora) or third base (Matt Williams). Others make you wonder how they ever played shortstop in the first place (Cory Snyder, Michael Tucker). If you draft the guy who can do both, as with Barry Larkin or an early-career Nomar Garciaparra, you've hit the jackpot.

The positional flexibility of shortstops stands in stark contrast to catchers, who with rare exceptions move to either first base--where the offensive demands are much greater--or third base, where the defensive demands are such that if you can't hack it behind the plate (and if you're being considered for a position switch, it's because of your defense), you probably aren't going to be a stud at the hot corner either. Think Todd Zeile.

The interesting case here is Inge, who was a shortstop in college and was made a catcher immediately after signing. Inge actually took to his new position extremely well, but his bat never came around, and it was only after he moved to third base that his offense perked up to the point where he has become a valuable player. If the Tigers had cut out the middleman and just moved him to third base from the start, he might have developed quicker.

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

COL 3B  84-91    +  5.1%*  - 57.0%*  +133.1%*  +  4.1%
COL 3B  92-99    + 13.4%*  +171.3%*    SSS     + 55.2%
COL 3B  84-99    +  8.7%   + 20.9%   +186.4%*  + 24.4%

Years     Biggest Bargains              Biggest Busts

84-91     Robin Ventura, Ken Caminiti   Tim Costo, Stan Royer
92-99     Jason Giambi, Aaron Boone     Antone Williamson, Gabe Alvarez
Troy Glaus and Pat Burrell would almost certainly surpass Aaron Boone on the list of recent bargains if 2005 data was included. Like catcher, third base is a position whose return on investment has increased markedly over the years. While Ventura and Caminiti were great draft picks, the return on third basemen from the 1980s was hit hard by five first-round busts from 1987-91. In chronological order: Chris Donnels, Royer, Eddie Zosky, Costo, and Eduardo Perez.

Only twelve college third basemen were selected in the top 100 from 1992 to 1999, but the dozen included Giambi, Boone, Glaus, and Burrell. Phil Nevin was a #1 overall selection who has almost earned his expected value, but with a career arc so delayed that the Astros received essentially nothing for him. As at second base and first base, the key to success at the hot corner seems to be to draft for the bat, and if the glove is a plus, that's a bonus. So while Ryan Zimmerman got off to a great start, chances are Alex Gordon will still prove to be the more valuable draft pick.

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

COL OF  84-91    -  0.3%   +103.7%   +168.9%   + 31.0%
COL OF  92-99    - 12.8%   + 34.0%   - 44.8%   -  5.3%
COL OF  84-99    -  6.4%   + 60.3%   + 75.5%   + 12.5%

Years     Biggest Bargains                Biggest Busts

84-91     Barry Bonds, Marquis Grissom    Donald Harris, Mike Kelly
92-99     J.D. Drew, Mark Kotsay          Chad Mottola, Chad Green
The "bargains" only scrape the tip of the iceberg; other guys drafted from 1984 to 1991 include Albert Belle, Tim Salmon, and Luis Gonzalez. From 1992 on, you can add Darin Erstad, Jacque Jones, and Brad Wilkerson to the list. It's interesting that the system tabs J.D. Drew as the best draft pick among college outfielders in the 1990s, given that a half-dozen teams passed on him in the draft solely because of his contract demands.

But the only reason there are so many bargains is that there are so many draft picks from the outfield ranks--outfielders have actually returned less value than any other college position. The four busts listed above give you a pretty strong clue as to why: while Chad Mottola was a well-regarded hitter who didn't hit, the other three were legendary tools guys who never converted their tools into production. Harris and Green in particular weren't impressive hitters in college, and more than a few heads were scratched when they were each drafted in the top 10.

Other college tools goofs who famously washed out as pros include Calvin Murray, the #7 overall pick in 1992; Ken Felder, the #12 pick the same year; Dante Powell (#22 in 1994). Shea Morenz (#27 in 1995). Keith Reed (#33 in 1999). And, of course, Jason Tyner (#21 in 1998). That's just a sampling. There have been a LOT of draft picks, particularly high first-rounders, that have been wasted on college outfielders. Chris Gwynn. Steve Hosey. Someone stop me…

The converse side of that is that the best draft picks out of college have been the guys who were already elite hitters; by and large, they didn't need a whole lot of projection to see them as quality major league hitters. No one was complaining about Barry Bonds' performance at Arizona State, or Albert Belle back when he was still known as Joey. Mark Kotsay's performance at Cal State-Fullerton was so impressive that he ended up being drafted #9 overall even though scouts were extremely lukewarm on his skills. Geoff Jenkins was a world-class masher at USC, and to this day Pete Incaviglia is one of the most legendary power hitters in NCAA history.

Not to belabor the point, but it's an important one to make: among college hitters, performance matters. The ability to hit against a strong level of collegiate competition is a very good indicator of one's ability to hit and be successful as a pro. The player whose tools have not translated into production at the college level is unlikely to learn how to turn the trick later on in life. Historically, most of the college players who have been drafted high on the basis of their "tools" have been outfielders, and not surprisingly outfielders have provided the least return on investment among all college hitters.

At the high school level, outfielders are pretty middle-of-the-pack in terms of value. This gets to the heart of the Scouts vs. Stats issue: you can't weigh scouting vs. statistical comparisons the same with an 18-year-old that you would with a 21-year-old. An 18-year-old who has tremendous athletic gifts but a questionable bat can reasonably be expected to learn how to hit as he matures. (Though it's still a gamble; hello, Reggie Taylor.) If you're still expecting a player to convert his tools into hitting ability when he's 21, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

The preseason favorite to be the first college hitter selected this year, Drew Stubbs from the University of Texas, may fit this profile. He has world-class speed and is considered a potential Gold Glover, but as one scouting director told Baseball America, "Stubbs can't hit. He never could hit, and he never will hit." While his .338/.449/.563 line to date is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is it the line of a player who is likely to go in the top half of the first round. (Especially since it's still an improvement over his .311/.384/.527 line as a sophomore.)

To sum up…here's a chart comparing the relative values of college hitters:


  1984 - 1999           1992 - 1999
Pos     Overall       Pos     Overall

COL 1B  +155.3%      COL 1B   +113.1%
COL 2B  + 41.0%      COL 2B   + 55.6%
COL SS  + 37.9%      COL 3B   + 55.2%
COL 3B  + 24.4%      COL C    + 49.8%
COL C   + 12.5%      COL SS   + 45.1%
COL OF  + 12.5%      COL OF   -  5.3%
Overall, this is a very different picture from the one we saw with high school hitters. At the high school level, you want to avoid first and second basemen like the plague; at the college level, they are the two most fruitful positions to draft from. High school outfielders are a reasonable risk overall, but at the college level they are clearly the riskiest position to draft from.

Back soon with a look at pitchers.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Outfielders,  College

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