Thursday, February 23, 2012

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Hindsight and the MLB Draft

No complaints on McCutchen

Buried Treasure is expanding!  No, I didn't buy a warehouse.  Yes, I did add a new author.  Please welcome KentuckyPirate to Buried Treasure.  Although this is posted under my name, this is his first article for Buried Treasure.  Personally, I'm very excited to add such a knowledgeable Pirates fan to the site.  Make sure to check back regularly for new content from him, especially if you hate my writing. Welcome him here!

One of the most common complaints levied against the Pirates’ much maligned management lately has been their big “misses” in the Rule IV Draft, namely Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez. If only the team had been smart and drafted instead either Eric Hosmer or Buster Posey and then Shelby Miller  we’d be a playoff team right now! While it may be too early to really pass judgment on any of those picks you could at least make the argument that, given the amount of money the Pirates have invested in the draft recently, it wouldn’t be totally unfair to hope for a better overall product to this point. Having said that, I don’t think the best way to critique a team’s draft strategy is by cherry picking specific selections and playing a hindsight-aided game of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” The problem with this type of analysis is since you are able to seek out handful of guys in a given draft who really hit it big you are bound to come up with several teams who wound up with a bust instead. The baseball draft is a crapshoot and there is probably not a single team in baseball that doesn’t wish it had a mulligan or two.

To try and illustrate why these comparisons are misleading I decided to review ten years’ worth of Rule IV Drafts. I think it’s too early to really pass judgment on players from the most recent drafts so I looked at players drafted between 1997 and 2006. I also wanted focus on the most “impactful” draft picks so I limited my search to the first and second rounds. I don’t know if it’s fair to fault teams for passing on players in the later rounds because everybody has had several shots at the guy by that point. The Cardinals passed on Albert Pujols 15 times in the 1999 draft! They missed on him just as much as everybody else. Next, I had to determine what exactly constitutes a “missed opportunity?” I decided to use bWAR as to evaluate the players’ success because…well…this was the easiest way to sort it. For the first five years of the search (’97-’01), I found all of the players with a career bWAR of at least 20. For the last five years (’02-’06), I found all of the players with a career bWAR of at least 15. While it’s admittedly not a perfect solution, this at least gave me a way to account for active players who simply haven’t had time to accumulate 20 bWAR.

Finally, which teams should be faulted for not picking a given player? Should it be every team that
picked in front of him? Should the team picking 3rd be blamed for not taking a guy who went 83rd? I don’t think this is fair. To try and limit the pool to teams that were likely considering a given player, I only looked at the six picks (20% of the league) immediately before a player was taken. The teams holding those picks got docked for “missing” unless A) they were the team that wound up getting the player anyway, meaning the Reds were not faulted for missing Joey Votto with the 40th pick in ’02 since they got him with the 44th pick, or B) their selection had a career bWAR of at least 10 himself. Maybe it’s a little disappointing to wind up with a 10 win player instead of a 40 win player but the draft is hard enough that I’m not going to fault a team for getting a solid big-leaguer out of their pick.

So after that long-winded, convoluted and probably confusing explanation, what did my little research project turn up? Just as I expected, every team missed at least once during that 10 year stretch. The Atlanta Braves were the most successful as their only regret during that stretch was missing on Matt Cain in ’02 and they still wound up with Jeff Francoeur who wasn’t a complete disaster. Every other team missed at least twice and 80% of the teams in baseball missed at least three picks during that stretch. The Brewers were tops in the NL Central after only whiffing on Lance Berkman and Chase Utley. With seven mistakes - Garland, Sabathia, Zito, Votto, B.J. Upton, Jared Weaver, and Kershaw - the Pirates tied with St. Louis and Chicago for last in the division. Admittedly, those seven misses made the Pirates one of the worst offenders in baseball. What does that really tell us, though? The Pirates were tied with five other teams for the third most misses in that time span. The other teams were the Cardinals (who won the 2006 World Series right after finishing up that decade of draft day futility), the Padres (who won the NL in ’98), the Cubs (who were WS bound before the Bartman play) and small market icons Minnesota and Oakland. One of the two teams to miss more players than the Pirates is Kansas City. As good as their farm system is now, imagine how much easier Dayton Moore’s job would be if they had picked Jon Garland, Adam Dunn, J.D. Drew, Aaron Rowand, Barry Zito, Nick Markakis, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria.

In all fairness, this isn’t a perfect system. For one thing, it favors those teams who constantly pick at the bottom of a round (like the Yanks and Sox) because there is less of a chance that one of the next six picks winds up being a star. If you are a team like the Pirates or Royals, almost every one of your bad draft picks winds up on this list because odds are somebody picking after you will find a stud. Then again, the Rays were also picking at the top year after year and only missed on three players (Teixeira, Votto and Markakis) and they are a force in the tough AL East. Ultimately, I stand by my original contention. Just picking out the handful of selections where a team went wrong doesn’t paint the entire picture. The goal of the draft is to improve the system as a whole. If you do that by never missing with your top picks that’s great. If you can do the same thing by hitting big on several late-round picks that counts just as much. Ultimately, if there is a complaint to be made about the Pirates drafting it’s that the team has failed to find enough total talent in the draft, not that they missed out on “Player X.”

And if you were wondering, the worst team was the White Sox who missed on Lance Berkman, Randy Wolf, CC Sabathia, Brian Roberts, John Lackey, Chase Utley, Dan Haren, Brian McCann, Jeremy Guthrie and Dustin Pedroia.


  1. baseball is a total crapshoot. can't miss prospects bust and guys come out of nowhere to become pooholes. look at mike piazza last player taken and as a favor to his father. every team passed on him. only because of lasorda being his brothers god father, a flier was taken in the 62 round of the 1988 draft. guy blossoms into a first ballot hall of famer, the best hitting catcher ever. 62 round favor 1st ballot hof. who knew or knows.