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June 2, 2006

Doctoring The Numbers

The Draft, Part 11

by Rany Jazayerli

When this draft series started over a year ago (gulp), I tried to summarize my findings as handy Draft Rules, capitalized, that every team should obey. At least until it turned out that the calculus of the draft changed from the 1980s to the 1990s, and the new rules contradicted the old rules. Suddenly the Draft Rules were made to quietly disappear.

Now that we're done, it's safe to bring them out again. Starting from scratch, here is a summary of everything we've covered in the first 10 parts of this series. Consider this your pocket guide to the draft, especially if you happen to be on a conference call next Tuesday afternoon. Feel free to print out, laminate, and place in an attractive wood frame with gold trim.

Draft Rule #1: The greatest difference in value between consecutive draft picks is the difference between the first and second picks in a draft.

Historically, the #1 overall pick has returned at least 40% more value than any other draft slot. After the first pick, the typical return on a draft pick falls 4-5% per slot until approximately the 40th pick, and then drops by a little over 1% per slot until pick #100.

Draft Rule #2: College players are roughly 50% more likely to reach the major leagues than high-school players of equal draft caliber. This advantage has not changed over time.

Among players taken in the first 100 picks between 1984 and 1991 60% of college players drafted reached the majors, compared to 41% of high school players. Between 1992 and 1999, college players had a roughly equal edge, 57% to 39%.

Draft Rule #3: In a year where there is a clear superstar talent available in the ranks of high school hitters, it is a perfectly acceptable--if not mandatory--draft strategy to select that player with the #1 overall pick.

High school players selected #1 overall since 1984 include Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, and more recently, Joe Mauer. The best college player selected #1 overall since 1984 is probably Pat Burrell, although you could make a case for B.J. Surhoff or Andy Benes.

Draft Rule #4: While college players returned almost exactly double the return on investment that high school players did between 1984 and 1991, that advantage dropped dramatically, to approximately 25%, between 1992 and 1999.

Draft Rule #5: The increase in value of high-school players relative to their college counterparts occurred even though teams were more likely to use top draft picks on high-school players in the 1990s than in the 1980s.

The era of the mid-to-late 1980s was marked by an unusually large number of elite college players who were highly coveted as high school players but were not signed out of the draft. The massive increase in signing bonuses which occurred in the early 1990s meant that virtually all of the top high school players in any given year signed pro contracts, bolstering the crop of high school signees while simultaneously depleting the college ranks. This appears to be the primary reason why college players no longer enjoy the enormous advantage they once did. The improved quality of competition for elite high school players, who now frequently compete in tournaments against the best players from all over the country, has likely had an impact as well.

Draft Rule #6: The overall value of draft picks dropped about 15% from the 1984-1991 era to the 1992-1999 era.

This is almost certainly a reflection of the increasing importance of talent procurement from outside the draft. The percentage of major league players who were born in the Caribbean continues to increase, and since Hideo Nomo debuted in 1995, the majors have welcomed a not-insubstantial number of players from Japan, Korea, and other countries along the Pacific Rim. A few undrafted players have even emerged from the independent leagues, although this has had a very small impact.

Draft Rule #7: College hitters enjoy a sizeable advantage over every other class of draft pick, in both eras, and in every round.

Even from 1992 to 1999, collegiate hitters were anywhere from 51% to 62% more valuable than any other draft group. The gap was at least 32% in each of the first three rounds.

Draft Rule #8: There is virtually no difference whatsoever in the value of the other three groups of draft picks. In particular, it is no longer apparent that high school pitchers, even in the first round, are significantly riskier than either high school hitters or college pitchers.

From 1992 to 1999, pitchers out of college returned 14.6% less value than expected. Pitchers drafted out of high school were at -14.9%. High school hitters checked in at -20.9%.

Draft Rule #9: There is no evidence either way to suggest that Junior College draft picks fare better or worse than traditional college or high school picks.

For the draft study as a whole, JuCo hitters were +4.6, ranking comfortably between college and high school hitters. JuCo pitchers actually returned the highest value of any group of players at +53.9%, albeit in a very small sample size.

Draft Rule #10: The long-held bias against high school catchers is no longer appropriate.

While high school catchers were terrible picks (-72%) from 1984 to 1991, since 1992 they actually return positive value at +17%, better than any other high school position other than third base.

Draft Rule #11: Among high school hitters, players on the left side of the infield are the most valuable selections, and players on the right side of the infield are--by far--the least valuable selections, with outfielders and catchers ranking in the middle.

Here's a chart listing all high school positions:

  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%
Draft Rule #12: College first basemen are the most valuable group of draft picks by an enormous margin. College first basemen selected in the first round have gone on to have Hall of Fame-caliber careers approximately one-third of the time.

Over the course of the entire draft study, college first basemen have returned a ridiculous +144% in draft value. Thirteen first basemen were selected in the first 30 picks between 1984 and 1999, including Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Todd Helton, and Lance Berkman. John Olerud was a first-round talent who slipped to the third round because he was considered a tough sign.

Draft Rule #13: Among college hitters, after first basemen there is almost no difference between the other infield positions, including catcher. Collegiate outfielders trail all other positions by a significant margin, probably because of an overemphasis on "tools" guys with great athleticism but underdeveloped bats.

Here's the chart for college position players:

  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%
Draft Rule #14: There are minimal differences in the value of left-handed vs. right-handed pitching. Left-handed pitching may be slightly more valuable at the college level, particularly in the second and third round. Right-handed pitching may be slightly more valuable at the high school level, particularly in the first round. The differences are so slight that they're best off being ignored.

Draft Rule #15: It is too soon to tell whether the strategy of drafting college relievers is a wise strategy or not. Drafting one in the first five picks of the draft is probably a bad idea.

College relievers selected in the first five picks include Gregg Olson, but after him it goes Paul Shuey, Darren Dreifort, Braden Looper, Wayne Gomes, and Matt Anderson.

And--cue Tony Kornheiser--that's it! That's the whole list!

Except for one thing…every data point that we have looked at in the entire study has stopped after the 1999 season. While it's simply too early to analyze players drafted in the 2000s, are there any trends in the way teams have drafted over the past several years that we can use to extrapolate an analysis of which draft picks are the most valuable today?

There are. And before Tuesday's draft, in the final (thank God) installment of the Draft Series, we will.

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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