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I’ve been thinking a lot about the defensive spectrum lately; I’m really not sure why. I’ve also been thinking about the draft quite a bit–that’s more understandable. This week I got to thinking about both, together, like those old Reese’s peanut butter cup ads. “Your draft fell onto my defensive spectrum,” or some such. Basically, I was wondering if there were any patterns if you matched the two up, and the answer is yes there is, kind of, maybe, if you squint your eyes funny and crook your head the right way.

As most of you know, the defensive spectrum goes like this:

1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS

It’s my personal preference to leave catchers off the list, as catching involves such a unique and often non-transferable set of skills. The spectrum works well on a player development level with a term I often use: offensive expectations. Basically, the further a guy is on the left side of the spectrum, the more he has to hit, and the less important glove work is; as you move to the right the balance tips, but it should be noted, now never changes. Unlike the game of 20 or more years ago, where zero-hit defensive stalwarts like Mark Belanger were not only starters, but considered among the best players at their positions, everyone has to hit in today’s game, even the shortstop. It’s a highly simplistic way of looking at things, and our own Nate Silver took a stab this spring at creating a better model, and I liked the results.

I’m not really sure what I was even trying to figure out, which is either a horrible or a brilliant way to do research. 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. In addition, sourcing has its own issues at times–a player like Albert Pujols, who on the surface would seem like an international player, is in fact a junior college draftee. Nonetheless, let’s look at some data.

The Basics

Here are the raw totals for the 254 starters:

Draft, High School:    78  30.7%
Draft, College:        96  37.8%
Draft, JUCO            28  11.0%
FA - Latin America     48  18.9%
FA - Asia               4   1.6%

No big surprises here, really. College holds a small lead over high school, but it’s hardly any sort of strong support for the all-college style of drafting that some teams employ. It’s also interesting to note that of the 202 players that came into the pros as draft-eligible, 74 of those players (36.6 percent) were first-round picks. Before getting into to the positional splits however, I took a quick diversion into the elite talent and where it comes from.

Crapshoot My Ass

One of those statements that gets thrown around way too often is the assumption that the draft is a crapshoot. Yes, it’s a riskier proposition than both the NFL and NBA versions, where players come right into stardom, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything but a totally blind throw of a dart. Looking at the top 50 hitters in the game, as measured by VORP, one gets this:

Draft, High School:    17  34.0%
Draft, College:        14  28.0%
Draft, JUCO             5  10.0%
FA - Latin America     12  24.0%
FA - Asia               2   4.0%

Now you understand why teams like those high-ceiling high school players. In addition, of those 17 players in the VORP top 50 who got drafted out of high school, a whopping 14 of them were drafted in the first round. In addition, of the three who were not, one (Jimmy Rollins) was a second-round pick, while the remaining two (Grady Sizemore and Matt Holliday) were first-round talents who fell because of football commitments, and wound up getting big money in the end anyway.

Even with the 14 college draftees in the top 50, the strong majority (eight) were first-round selections; of the six who are not, you have one second-round pick, one third-rounder, two eighth-rounders, one 11th, and one 20th-round pick–Mike Lowell.

The lesson? Scouts aren’t a bunch of cigar-chomping, panama hat-wearing idiots. In fact, they’re pretty damn good at watching people play baseball at a very young age and then figuring out which ones will be future stars.

Next week I’ll come back with a look at this data by position, where talent up the middle shows some unique patterns.

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