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June 28, 2007

Future Shock

The Draft Spectrum, Part Two

by Kevin Goldstein

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Last week, I began to delve into the concept of the draft spectrum. To recap: I decided to try going through today's players to see if we could identify any trends when it comes to where a player plays and how he entered the pro game (the term I'm using is "source"). The player pool I'm using here consists of 254 players, defined in this exercise as starters, chosen by selecting the player on each team with the most playing time at each defensive position. So 30 x 8 = 240 + 14 designated hitters = 254. Then I identified their source of entry into the pro game. Admittedly, this is a quick-and-dirty system. There are players who are normally starters but are not counted due to injury, and there have already been job changes that will lead to the pool having a turnover somewhere in the 10-20 percent range at the end of the season.

Now let's look at the numbers position-by-position.

First Basemen

High School:    10 (7)
College:        17 (7)
Junior College: 2
Latin America:  1

The parentheses represent the number of first round picks.

Question: With Carlos Delgado (originally signed as a catcher), as the only international player manning the position, as Albert Pujols is technically a junior college pick, why the glaring lack of foreign talent?

Answer: My hypothesis here revolves around athleticism. When you are talking about signing 16-year-olds, it's all about projection, and the athletes are the players that are going to get the big money, if not simply any attention at all. It's not worth it, in the eyes of international scouts, to sign a player who really has only one path to the big leagues--that of a one-dimensional slugger whose value comes purely from his bat.

Question: But doesn't that go completely against what we are seeing in the draft, as 14 of the 29 first baseman who entered the game through the draft are first-round picks, the second highest percentage of any position?

Answer: It might. It's important to note that the strong majority of these first-round picks are not conversions, or even if they are, the conversion happened early in their career and was anticipated by scouts before signing.

Here are the 14:

Lance Berkman     1997  HOU  OF  MLB  29
Prince Fielder    2002  MIL  1B
Nomar Garciaparra 1994  BOS  SS  MLB  32
Adrian Gonzalez   2000  FLA  1B
Scott Hatteberg   1991  BOS   C  MLB  31
Todd Helton       1995  COL  1B
Conor Jackson     2003  ARZ  3B  AAA  23
Paul Konerko      1994  LAD   C   AA  20
Casey Kotchman    2001  LAA  1B
Derrek Lee        1993   SD  1B
Carlos Pena       1998  TEX  1B
Mark Teixiera     2001  TEX  3B  MLB  23
Scott Thorman     2000  ATL  3B    A  20
Dmitri Young      1991  STL  3B   AA  19

So six of the 14 were drafted as first baseman, and only Berkman, Garciaparra and Hatteberg had significant portions of their big-league careers at other positions. From 2000-2004, every first-round first baseman drafted has reached the big leagues as a starter other than Cleveland's Michael Aubrey, whose career had been derailed by a never-ending string of injuries. This shouldn't be a huge surprise. To be considered worth a first-round pick as a first basmean, a player's offensive ceiling has to be through the roof. For those players defined in that way, success has come reliably.

This takes us back to the dichotomy of the international market. Big-time bat-only players have a solid track record of success out of the draft, but seemingly are getting ignored in Latin America. Are they getting passed up? Are teams are missing out on the next David Ortiz? Do they even exist? Are there 16-year olds in the Dominican where the only tool is their bat?

Interestingly enough, we saw two get signed this year with catcher Jesus Montero of the Yankees and third baseman Angel Villalona of the Giants. Both have big-time hit/power tools but project as no more than first baseman in the end. Their success--of lack thereof--could shape similar players' future.

Left Field

High School:    8 (3)
College:       15 (6)
Junior College: 4
Latin America:  2
Asia:           1

Question: Why is this pattern so similar to what we saw at first base?

Answer: Once again, there is very little Latin American talent, as the only two players from that category (Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee) both began their career as infielders. It's not surprising really, as the position is one whose value revolves solely around an ability to hit.

Right Field

High School:   12 (9)
College:       10 (4)
Junior College: 2 (1)
Latin America:  6

Question: Why do things start to turn here?

Answer: Most players enter professional baseball as teenagers, and for players who entered the game via the draft, right field has the highest percentage (14 of 24) of first rounders. Surprisingly, most of the players here are not converted center fielders. Most of them started off as players with plus arm strength and athleticism, but not enough speed to play up the middle. It's also the first position where tools beyond the bat matter, so we see the first group of Latin American players. Those six players, unlike the drafted players, are all players who have (or at least had) plus speed and some time in the minors or majors in center field. Once again, when it comes to signing 16-year-olds, it's all about tools.

Third Basemen

High School:    9 (4)
College:       12 (3)
Junior College: 2
Latin America:  7

Question: What can we learn about the first infield position on the spectrum?

Answer: The hot corner is the first infield position on the spectrum, and patterns change a bit here. First off, we have a much lower than average percentage of first-round picks. In addition, there are far fewer conversions than I expected. Only three of the nine high-school draftees are converted shortstops, and just two of the college draftees started elsewhere on the diamond, showing that third base might be more of a starting point and less of an ending point than one might think. Once again, the Latin American talent is unique, as four of the seven player began at shortstops or outfielders, showing that once again, the Latin American scouting contingents seem to care more about tools and athleticism (for better or worse) than their North American brethren.

Center Field

High School:   11 (4)
College:       10 (3)
Junior College: 5
Latin America:  3
Asia:           1

Question: We have our first speed position here, and our first tools-heavy position as well, and the numbers don't flip as much as we would think. So where is the international talent?

Answer: It's the usual mix of near 50/50 high school and college players, but a much lower than average rate of first-round picks. The only Latin players are two five-tool scouting studs in Andrew Jones and Felix Pie, and one 80 runner in Willy Tavares. So if what we were talking about the Latin America market before is true, why aren't they in center field? Well, as we learned in the right-field section, they end up there, as the Latin American talent had a higher rate of moving to right field than the draft talent. As to why that is, we still have an unanswered question.

Second Basemen

High School:    7 (3)
College:       14 (6)
Junior College: 5
Latin America:  3
Asia:           1

Question: Why is second base is the position where college has the greatest advantage over high school?

Answer: The majority of those college-sourced players were shortstops in college, but they lacked the speed and athleticism to stay on the left side in the big leagues. So while they may have been passed up out of high school because scouts questioned their defensive skills, they nonetheless developed enough hitting talent to still be of value. The fact that second baseman are made, not born, is proven out by the fact that of the nine first-round picks currently starting at second base, only two (Rickie Weeks and Chase Utley) were drafted at the position.

Question: Why are there only three Latin American second basemen when they have such a dominant hold over the shortstop position (see below)?

Answer: Good question. If half (or more) of starting shortstops are from Latin America, should a large number of conversions end up on the other side of the bag? One team official theorized that many of the Latin American players have more glove than bat, while many of the draft players are the opposite, relegating the failed Latin American shortstops to utility status in the end if they can't start at shortstop.

Shortstop

High School:    5 (2)
College:        9 (5)
Junior College: 1
Latin America: 15

Question: What happened to the high school shortstop?

Answer: Good question! There are a whopping two first-round high school shortstops currently starting in the big leagues, and they're both veterans (Derek Jeter and Royce Clayton). Jeter was drafted 15 years ago, and Clayton was selected at the end of the Reagan administration. Here are the high school shortstops drafted in the first round from 1993-2001, in chronological order:

Alex Rodriguez*
Matt Brunson
Josh Booty
Mark Farris
Hirm Bocachica
Kevin Witt
Chad Hermansen
Ryan Jaroncyk
Michael Barrett*
Matt Halloran
Joe Lawerence
Troy Cameron
Felipe Lopez*
Josh McKinley
Corey Myers
Luis Montanez
David Espinosa
Corey Smith
Josh Burrus

* MLB starter at other position.

There was much discussion in this year's draft about the lack of high school infielders, with the only high school shortstop selected in the first round being Peter Kozma, who was seen by many as a bit of an overdraft by the Cardinals at 18. Looking at the above list...does it matter?

Catcher

High School:   11 (3)
College:        6 (1)
Junior College: 3
Latin America:  9
Asia:           1

Question: So those high school catchers are way too risky, huh?

Answer: On the surface, that looked like the smart-alecky question to ask here, as there are very few college catchers currently starting, and the only college-drafted first-round pick currently holding down a job is the aging Jason Varitek, selected 13 years ago. This seems on the surface like an indictment of college catching, as opposed to the long standing thoughts about high school backstops, but in reality, the question revolves around why there aren't any good college catchers at all. After Varitek, only three college catchers were selected in the first round over the next ten years: Eric Munson, Mitch Maier and Landon Powell.

Question: Isn't it a little strange to see that the second most Latin-dominated position after shortstop is catcher?

Answer: A little bit, yes. Teams simply aren't finding good talent behind the plate in the draft, so like shortstop, they're focusing elsewhere. I know of one team that actually does not draft shortstops in general, knowing they'll find them in Latin America. Could that same logic be moving over to catcher as well? It's worth looking into.

Next time around, I'll add things together, come up with general assumptions, and show how an age spectrum somewhat corresponds to the defensive spectrum.

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

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