Homo 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:
- 1965: Ken Plesha (#17, C). Topped out at Class-A in 1968.
- 1971: Danny Goodwin (#1, HS). Did not sign. Drafted again by the Angels in 1975, Goodwin played 252 games in the major leagues, none as a catcher. It turned out his arm had been left on the cutting-room floor, and he was utterly unable to throw out baserunners. Although he hit well in the minors, he never showed enough in the majors to earn a starting job at first base or designated hitter.
- 1973: Steve Swisher (#21 C). An abysmal hitter with a lifetime on-base percentage of .279, Swisher spent 509 games in the National League, mostly as a back-up. Given his hitting in the minors, it was a small miracle he even made it to the big leagues. The Sox traded him six months after drafting him, sending him to the Cubs with Steve Stone for a washed-up Ron Santo, who they asked to play second base after a Hall of Fame-worthy career at third. It wasn’t a good year for thinking on the South Side.
- 1979: Rick Seilheimer (#19, HS). Seilheimer was one of the first players from the 1979 draft to make it to the majors, appearing with the 1980 White Sox at the age of 19. He hit .212/.268/.365 with one home run in 57 plate appearances before returning to the minors for good. He never learned to hit for any kind of average. Seilheimer, who was drafted with a pick forfeited by the Orioles because they signed free agent Steve Stone (the Sox had reacquired him) was Chicago’s second pick of the draft. Picking ninth overall, the Sox chose high school infielder Steve Buechele. He did not sign. Another infielder, future All-Star Tim Wallach, went to the Expos with the next pick.
- 1982: Ron Karkovice (#14, HS). The Sox had Carlton Fisk by this point, but they just kept draftin’ receivers. “Karko the Barbarian” went one pick after the Phillies had drafted fellow catcher Jeff Russell and two picks before the Red Sox selected Sam Horn. A strong defensive catcher, Karkovice played more than 900 games in the majors despite an offensive game plan best described as “swing hard and miss.”
- 1985: Kurt Brown (#5, HS). By 1985, the White Sox had both Karko and Fisk, who was still going strong at the age of 37. Nonetheless, the Sox passed on (ahem) Barry Bonds, taken by the Pirates with the sixth pick of the draft, to get Brown, who never rose above Double-A. Other first-rounders selected after Brown: Pete Incaviglia, Walt Weiss, Tommy Greene, Brian McRae, Joe Magrane, Gregg Jefferies, Rafael Palmeiro and Joey Cora. The first overall pick, by the Brewers, was catcher B.J. Surhoff, who defied the odds, though he’s spent most of his career elsewhere on the diamond.
- 1994: Mark Johnson (#26, HS). Johnson was selected at the tail end of a nightmarish first round in which the talent was to be found in the middle rather than at either end. Paul Wilson was the first overall pick and a good one until the Mets pitched his arm off. He was followed by, among others, Ben Grieve, Dustin Hermanson, Josh Booty (one of the great draft busts of all time), McKay Christensen, C.J. Nitkowski, and Jaret Wright. Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, and Jason Varitek were selected with picks 12 through 14. Then the round slid off into irrelevance. Johnson has long been a sabermetric darling because of his patience, but he’s shown almost no aptitude for actual hitting.
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:
- 1971: New York Mets, Richard Puig(#14, HS). Reached the majors with the Mets at the age of 21 in 1974, went 0-for-10 with a walk and an error, then disappeared forever. Though he batted .292 with 14 home runs at Visalia of the California League at age 19, he followed this up with a prolonged bout of not hitting. The Red Sox took Jim Rice with the very next pick.
- 1974: San Francisco Giants, Terry Lee (#19, HS). Lee topped out at Triple-A, retiring in 1981. Rick Sutcliffe went to the Dodgers two picks later.
- 1986: St. Louis Cardinals, Luis Alicea (#23, C). You probably remember this guy. Alicea played 1,341 games in the majors. He never hit in the minors. As weak a hitter as he was in the majors, he was actually somewhat better than one would have been led to expect from his record. Curt Schilling, Kevin Tapani, Jamie Navarro, Jerome Walton, Dave Hansen, and Erik Hanson among others went off the board before the Cardinals picked again.
- 1988 Chicago Cubs, Ty Griffin (#9, C). Hero of the Pan-American Games, the Olympics, the Alamo, and co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon in “Return of the Jedi,” Griffin was picked one spot ahead of Robin Ventura despite the fact that with Ryne Sandberg on hand the Cubs needed a second baseman like a drowning man needs a chihuahua. Hit decently in the Midwest League after being drafted, slugging .480 in 296 at-bats. His bat suffered cardiac arrest directly thereafter and did not respond to heroic measures undertaken to revive it.
- 2000: Philadelphia Phillies, Chase Utley (#15, C). Currently forging his legend with the Phillies. Has power but only lukewarm plate discipline. He was drafted ahead of just one player who’s made a mark in the majors so far, Sean Burnett of the Pirates.
- 2001: Baltimore Orioles, Mike Fontenot (#19, C). Fontenot looks like he could be a good choice. The lefty hitter struggled at Class-A, then moved up to Double-A Bowie and hit .325/.399/.481, with 12 home runs in 449 at bats. At Triple-A Ottawa this season, Fontenot is struggling with a .273 OBP/.330 SLG, so it’s still an open question as to whether he heads up or down.
- 2003: Milwaukee Brewers, Rickie Weeks (#2, C). Currently slumping to beat the band at Double-A Huntsville. It’s way too early to read anything into that. Going into last year’s draft, the cognoscenti were split as to whether Weeks or Delmon Young was the better prospect. Tampa Bay, owners of the first pick, chose Young. Five years from now we should have a good idea of who got the Chilcott and who got the Jackson, if both got the Jackson, or both got the Chilcott.