You all know what happened this past Sunday. One of my — and the game’s — favorite players died. Selfishly, I was upset. I never knew the guy, and my team, the Atlanta Braves, had recently thrown at his head. But now he’s gone. He leaves behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten — Dave Cameron can’t wait to tell his children about Jose Fernandez, and the Marlins are going to retire his number so that little kids who attend games will forever ask their parents about Number 16 — but I think Max Frankel summed it up perfectly on Sunday: this sucks.
A few days have passed and baseball had its Jose Fernandez wake on Monday, and Dee Gordon hit the most important and magical home run of his life. But I still feel like Jose Fernandez is around. I am not going to try to do any sort of tribute article; I simply would not do a good job if I tried. Someone a year younger than me dying leaves me a bit scatterbrained.
Instead, I’ll try and write a baseball article, which I think will be difficult and awkward, but necessary. The realization crept into my head today that Jose Fernandez is going to appear on Cy Young ballots. The voters list their top three pitchers and Fernandez leads the Majors in fWAR, is second in strikeouts, and while he sits eighth in ERA, he actually leads the league in the two primary ERA predictors, FIP and xFIP. He was among the top handful of starting pitchers in the game in his first real season back from Tommy John.
Now, human voters, likely struggling through the same feelings I am, are going to be forced to wrestle with Fernandez’s place on the ballot.
If he were markedly better than his comrades, it would be an easy decision to honor him posthumously as the National League’s best pitcher. But it’s a great class again, and tragedy aside, it would still be a nail-biter of a vote.
So the voters are faced with an uncomfortable question: does symbolism have a place in Cy Young voting? If a writer felt that Fernandez had the second-best 2016, does he get a nod to the top in deference to the legacy?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I think. I think I know how I feel.
I feel that Fernandez deserves all the recognition. I’m not sure if it’s possible to separate Fernandez’s story from the Cy Young vote. Everyone’s story plays a role in awards voting — it’s just usually a subtext rather than a centerpiece. Fernandez’s story was already part of what made him so special. Were he alive, that story — his recovery from TJ surgery, and of course the accompanying charisma — would have played a meaningful role in the voting.
But now the “story” is a tragic centerpiece, not the subtext. Writers will have to grapple with that as they consider Fernandez’s candidacy alongside Max Scherzer’s dominance, and Clayton Kershaw’s perseverance.
In some way, Fernandez’s 2016 season deserves to be celebrated. It’s a situation that is sure to make for a somber and uncomfortable awards dinner. There will be someone missing no matter how the voting plays out.
One idea that keeps floating to the fore is a “Jose Fernandez Award.” It seems to make all the sense in the world and could help voters decouple their desire to honor the man from the sanctity of the Cy Young. But maybe the Cy Young isn’t some sacred award to be bestowed only upon the very best pitcher by given concrete metrics. No. The nuances and reasoning behind voting for a given player are subjective. Baseball, and particularly baseball voting, have a way of reflecting the circumstances of a particular year. Jose Fernandez’s story is now linked to this particular year.
So let’s give him the Cy Young. Let’s make an award in his honor, too. Who is really going to complain about that?
When the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Yasmany Tomas to a $60-million deal, many thought the Cuban “third baseman” would be an instant star. Little is known about Cuban players when they come over; their skills are often exaggerated and their numbers in the Cuban National Series inflated. While some players, such as Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu, do come over and become instant stars, others, such as Hector Olivera, simply don’t have what it takes to make it in the majors. For the better part of last year, Tomas seemed a lot closer to the bust category than major-league stardom. That assessment seems destined to change soon.
Too quick and binary is our collective assessment of players. They’re either good or bad and we know within the first weeks of April. We care little about their story, or struggles to adapt. It’s the Twitter era; context and nuance is dead.
That is the story of Yasmany Tomas. The Diamondbacks miscast Tomas as a third baseman and the metrics hated him there. They probably knew he was not a third baseman, but there he was. Unable to help the team defensively, and struggling a bit in his first offensive season at the major-league level, Tomas got a label. He was a bust, just another of the missteps in a reign of terror for a Diamondbacks front office that doesn’t even know the rules.
But that label loses all context. Craig Edwards reminded us about context with regards to Byron Buxton’s struggles. To paraphrase Edwards: Buxton has been really bad, but he’s also young and has plenty of time to figure it out. With Tomas, the story is similar. Yes, Tomas was a -1.3 bWAR and -1.4 fWAR player in 2015, but reducing a player to a single number does him an injustice. He was actually a positive contributor on offense. As a starter (non-pinch-hitter) he had a 103 OPS+. That’s not bad. He was also just 24. Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler are just 24 this year and we think of them as young players. Why are we so unforgiving with Tomas?
Fast-forward to this year and Tomas is still not very well regarded in baseball circles. He’s at 0.2 bWAR, -1.1 wins above average, and 0.6 fWAR. He still grades out as a very average player, but is now around 10% better than league average offensively according to the advanced stats. He’s got 26 homers (24th in the league) and a .519 slugging (30th in the league), both better than Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Beltran and Giancarlo Stanton.
Those raw numbers suggest that Tomas is already among the top-30 or so sluggers in the league. He even gets on base at a non-Trumbonian clip. But my early season introduction to xSLGBB said that Tomas was due for some improvement in his slugging percentage based on his batted-ball profile. Andrew Perpetua’s set of stats based on batted-ball information (the Google doc at the bottom of the post, also available on xstats.org) appears to show that Tomas has leveled. Perpetua’s xSLG stat shows Tomas’ expected slugging percentage at .549. Such a mark would tie him with Josh Donaldson.
I appreciate Perpetua’s stats, but I made up my own (xSLGBB), just for these types of analysis. I ran the numbers and by my xSLGBB, based on the league-wide expected set of outcomes from when I ran this the first time in May, Tomas is expected to improve by a grand total of .005 points of slugging.
Still, even if he has already normalized to the stats that we would expect based on his batted-ball profile, a 25-year-old with 26 home runs and a top-30 slugging percentage is pretty darn good. Yes, he has deficiencies in his game, but Tomas still has room for improvement. He’s never going to be Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, or one of the other MVP-type of young stars in the game, but he’s quietly hitting himself out of the bad label that we too quickly stuck him with.
Over the weekend, the Atlanta Braves swapped their bad infielder embroiled in a domestic violence incident, Hector Olivera, for nice-guy outfielder Matt Kemp. The deal was largely panned within the industry, and many felt the Padres benefited most by ridding themselves of Kemp while he still had value. Olivera’s involvement in the deal was a purely financial exchange, as he was immediately designated for assignment, and he may never play in the majors again amid the stink of mediocrity and domestic violence. But the complex financials of the deal effectively mean that to land Kemp, the Braves’ bank account will be light just $30M or so over the next three years. Forgetting for a moment the enormous misstep the Braves made in acquiring Olivera in the first place, this Kemp acquisition is unbelievably impressive considering the price other teams are paying for defensively-challenged power-hitting outfielders.
Take Jay Bruce. One of the hottest names on the hot stove this July, he got moved on Monday for Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell. The interesting thing here is that Bruce is due $13M and signed only through next season, and the Mets had to give up real talent to acquire him. Herrera, the headliner going back to the Reds for Bruce, is a 22-year-old second baseman with a .790 OPS in AAA. But the kicker here is that Bruce isn’t good. He’s been worth six wins below average over the last three years.
Undoubtedly, Bruce has been the better player this year. His OPS+ is 20 points higher than Kemp’s, meaning he’s been about 20% better than Kemp. But let’s consider what that means for a moment. Purely in terms of slugging, it’s about 25 total bases over the course of 400 at bats. That’s an extra base every four games, or twice a week. I realize that baseball is made up of all those little differences — and that those differences are what separate the contenders and the pretenders — but we’re talking about a whole lot of luck when we’re talking about two extra bases a week.
So why does “the industry” value one of these guys so much more highly than the other? Perception. The Reds have spent the greater part of the last year building up Jay Bruce as a potential difference-maker for a playoff team desperate for power. They’ve subtly leaked rumors of his availability to the press. They’ve reminded everyone that he’s clocked 233 homers in his career, and they had to smile as Yoenis Cespedes proved last year that flawed players can bring teams over the hump.
But is Kemp really all that different from Bruce? Was Kemp available for 3/$30M to everyone? Do you realize what 3/$30M means in today’s baseball? Last offseason, Joakim Soria signed for 3/$25M while Gerardo Parra got 3/$27.5M. That type of money goes to 7th-inning relievers and 4th outfielders. Kemp doesn’t even have to be good to be worth that type of money; merely average.
But Sean, the Defense!
Eh. They’re both pretty bad at defense. Whether one guy is worth -20 runs while the other is worth -15 really doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it should, but it really doesn’t. That type of difference is similar to the white noise to which one can ascribe that one extra base per week.
So really, it comes down to a simple proposition. It’s not as glamorous as trying to pick between Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, or any other young superstar. You’ve got two guys. Both are power hitters and play bad defense. One might be better than the other this season, but he was way worse last year. That one costs a solid prospect, and is signed for one year at $13M. The other costs zero prospects, and is effectively signed through 2019 at ~$10M per.
Who do you take?
The 2016 baseball season is well underway and we’re seeing an even more drastic version of the trends that we saw last year: There are more strikeouts, more home runs, and more challenges. And, notably, there has also been a steady increase in velocity across the league, assisted by the guys I’ll be highlighting here.
A “steady increase in velocity” might not be reason to stop the presses, but just soak in this Tweet real quick:
% of total pitches 95 MPH+ in #MLB since 2008:2015 9.14%2014 6.87%2013 6.36%2012 5.59%2011 5.18%2010 5.45%2009 5.44%2008 4.82%
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 16, 2015
% of total pitches 95 MPH+ in #MLB since 2008:2015 9.14%2014 6.87%2013 6.36%2012 5.59%2011 5.18%2010 5.45%2009 5.44%2008 4.82%
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 16, 2015
We’re basically seeing twice as many pitches thrown 95+ as we were in 2008. ¡2008!
Even left-handers, typically a step behind (always a bit of a quirky species, lefties), are chucking it. Across the league, lefties are throwing the ball 95+ mph just around 7.5% of the time. That’s way more often than the stereotype of the Tom Glavine-y, soft-tossing corner-nibbler would have you believe, but it’s 2016 and elite velocity isn’t just left to the elite pitchers anymore (Chris Sale is joined in that 95+ lefty fastball club by some guy named Buddy Boshers out of the bullpen for the Twins).
So…I’m not just interested in guys that throw hard; I want guys who throw hard and make the ball move, and I want them to be left-handed. (Truth: that lefty requirement is mostly an excuse so I can hopefully talk about Danny Duffy more, James Paxton for the first time, and because I already covered the right-handed side of things with my Charlie Morton post from the start of the season (The Unbelievable Emergence of Charlie Morton), and basically because lefties are more fun.)
A common refrain among pitching coaches is that movement is just as important as velocity. Velocity can get you to the majors, but big-league hitters will turn around 95+ fast if it’s straight. But when combined with some movement (and even better, control/command) 95+ is a high value commodity.
I’m after what I want to dub the best lefty fastball. Let’s start with the simple stuff: Who out there is throwing it 95+ most frequently? Note that the percentages here are for all pitches thrown, including the off-speed stuff.
There are a number of relievers in there that I should probably get to know better. Zach Britton, Sean Doolittle, and Aroldis Chapman have all been flame-throwers for a while now; somehow their gas no longer brings the flicker to my eye that it once did. But Josh Osich and Enny Romero? Those are new guys that throw quite hard and are likely on their way to relevance.
The starters on the list are the most fun for me. James Paxton is there. Danny Duffy, too. But so are Carlos Rodon and Blake Snell. I’m not going to anoint any of these young guys just yet, but I’d venture that it’s been a long time since we’ve had four lefty starters out there throwing 95+ mph heaters at least 23% of the time. But…Carlos Rodon has a 4.16 ERA, and the other three all have fewer than 10 starts on the season. Let’s see if movement has anything to do with it.
We’re in search of the best lefty fastball and the best lefty fastball must move sideways, while also moving quickly. 10 inches of run seems like a pretty good place to set up camp.
Look at that: Mr. Rodon and his 4.16 ERA bring up the rear, while Snell and Duffy dropped right off. But man, James Paxton is still up top there just behind Jake Diekman. Diekman is a very good reliever, who seems to be realizing his potential since his trade to Texas. Basically, by exclusively pounding the zone with that hard, running fastball, he’s posted an ERA below 2.00 since getting out of Philly.
Oh! Chris Sale, how did I forget to include him in my love fest of the young lefty starters in the league? Sale has thrown 110 pitches at least 95 mph, and of those, 90 have moved at least 10 inches. That’s nuts. His stuff is incredible.
We also see Steven Matz creep in there as 6% of his pitches are these 95 mph fastballs that move an unfair amount. Matz and his 2.96 ERA definitely belong in that quartet of young insanely talented left-handed starting pitching that I talked about before. He’ll be the fifth member of that group, and we instantly have to expand our Mount Rushmore of tantalizing excellence.
This is starting to feel a bit like the NBA where so much Amazing is happening. But it’s true: there’s a lot of amazing happening across the MLB landscape right now. These lefty fastballs are but one, tiny iota of all that is going on.
Let’s refine the batch of fastballs once more to include only those that have at least 10 inches of vertical movement, too. This admittedly feels like a laughable exercise. There’s no way that pitchers are actually throwing pitches that go 95 mph, while also running and rising that much….
Oh. Damn. I see you Robbie Ray, James Paxton, and Enny Romero. I also see you Rest of League. That group included Danny Duffy, Sean Doolittle, Aroldis Chapman, Matt Moore, and Chris Sale. But really this is about those top three guys.
Ray was once a prospect known more for his feel and pitchability than a premier fastball. He’s starting for the Diamondbacks now and he’s striking out over 10 per game. His ERA sites at 4.59 and his WHIP is over 1.50, which are both significantly worse than his 2015 campaign, but still, if that pitchability from his earlier career outlook meets with his clearly impressive fastball, things could turn around quickly for the 24-year-old. I’m frankly surprised to see him here.
As for James Paxton, we know he’s throwing way harder now that he’s dropped his arm slot. I’ll save my full review of his stuff for the lengthier look that it deserves.
Then there’s Enny Romero. Romero isn’t well known in baseball circles just yet. He started a single game as a 22-year-old for the Rays back in 2013, spent 2014 throwing a 4.93 ERA in Triple-A, and hasn’t exactly torn things up in the majors since then. But he’s a young player, with a solid baseball name and a clearly electric fastball. He’s 25 and capable of figuring it out just like any other 25-year-old.
To be totally honest, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this group of pitchers. The guys atop this 95/10/10 club clearly have electric fastballs, but the electric fastball has not equated to big-league success so far. I guess that’s OK, and feeds back into the last bit of the the old pitching coach refrain: Velocity is nothing without movement…and control. But control is not sexy.
Speed is sexy, and all these guys throwing 95 are great, but Aroldis Chapman is the only one guy who’s ever thrown it 105 mph. He keeps the crown of best fastball. (All this talk of horizontal and vertical movement was really just an attempt to crown the best non-Chapman lefty fastball.)
So what is the takeaway?
This discussion mostly serves as a friendly reminder that we’re in the midst of a great revolution of left handed pitchers — all of whom make Clayton Kershaw old by comparison. These guys are throwing fastballs harder than we’ve ever seen before and there’s so many of them doing it.
Stat of the Day: I feel like I should also note that I unearthed an insane Andrew Miller pitch where he effectively threw a 95 mph slider on June 6th to some poor soul.
The MLB draft was about two weeks ago and the Blue Jays selected a lefty out of Division 3 Union College in the 30th round. At first blush, a pick like this sounds like when a team selects a notable name like football star Russell Wilson for some good publicity. The selection might lead you to believe that Jake Fishman is a little crafty lefty who tosses batting-practice fastballs.
Well, not exactly. Jake Fishman was the top pitching prospect in all of Division 3 heading into the year, and he finished his 2016 collegiate season with a 0.41 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 66 innings, while regularly running his fastball up into the 90s. The 6’3 lefty was heading to play in the Cape Cod League this summer before the Blue Jays plucked him, signed him, and started him down a whirlwind that hopefully ends in big-league success.
Over the last few days, Jake has been kind enough to exchange emails with me. We covered his draft process, adjusting to pro ball, some of his theories on pitching, and tardigrades. I’ll be rooting for Jake, even as a proud Vassar Baseball alum. He’s a nice guy, a good story, and clearly a hard worker. Enjoy the interview.
SM: I saw that you just signed, so Congrats! Vassar coach Jon Martin is probably happy with that decision. How did that process work? Can you walk me through the decision making that lead to signing and foregoing your senior year? Union College is a good school with a good reputation.
Jake: Thank you! The draft process is definitely hectic. For me, it was difficult to understand because I come from a family with no professional athletes and I went to a school where nobody has been drafted for baseball. Everything was new for us. So when scouts started to come around, my family and I started reaching out to anybody we could talk to that had gone through the process to get info on it. Eventually as the season progressed, a lot more teams reached out and watched me pitch. This went on until my season ended and we accumulated a hand full of teams that we could tell were more interested than the rest. I was invited to a few pre-draft workouts so I drove out and pitched for a couple teams before the draft.
When we finally reached the draft, we were waiting to hear (from) anybody. At the beginning of day 3 we got two phone calls from the Reds and the Blue Jays. I could have gone as early as the 10th round, but rounds 10-20 flew by very quickly and we hadn’t heard anything. I knew from the start that you can’t trust what the scouts tell you, but after round 20 hit I started to get really nervous.
The Blue Jays reached out again and said I was still on their draft board and they were thinking of taking me, while the Reds told us I would be a very late pick if they were to take me, and then they would watch me pitch in the Cape League to see how I did. Finally, when I was at the point of thinking I wasn’t going to get taken, the Blue Jays took me in the 30th round. It was the best feeling in the world.
Even though I went in the 30th round, they gave me a very reasonable offer for a kid like me. I expressed to the Blue Jays how important school was to me, and they offered to pay for my entire senior year of school. Tuition for next year is $65,000. If they didn’t offer to pay for school, I wouldn’t have signed. That was my biggest requirement. Before the draft, I spoke with my Dad so we could agree on a number. If push came to shove, I would accept a $50k signing bonus and all of school.
In the end, I was beyond happy with the offer they gave me because I had a lot of friends who are phenomenal players that didn’t get selected in the draft. I also think for the best opportunity to make it to the major leagues, I should start my career as soon as possible. As a deceptive lefty, there’s a chance I can move up the ranks fast, so if I have a great year in the minor leagues, they may look at me and say “let’s challenge this kid” and I would move up fast. And of course the Blue Jays were encouraging about getting me back to school in the fall to work towards finishing my degree. They might send me to a fall instructional league, but if they don’t then the timing works out perfectly with Union’s trimesters for me to get a fall term in before spring training starts.
SM: Okay that all seems to make a surprising amount of sense. I know that’s a nerve-racking process. I had a friend who actually went undrafted following his senior year after thinking he’d be picked up, and then wound up signing with the Yankees and has worked his way to high-A and is pitching well there, so draft position really isn’t all that important. My buddy Max actually wrote about Yankees’ farmhand Matt Marsh here and I did a follow up about the success he’s enjoying so far in 2016.
Anyway, your approach to the draft seems to align with the analytic approach I gleaned from your blog on pitching mechanics. You seem to have some strong opinions on pitching that have definitely helped you improve velo. So I guess two questions:
1) How’d you go from 84-86 as a freshman to 92 as a junior? A whole lot of us never make that jump.
2) You’re going to have a whole lot of new coaches and new perspectives. The Liberty League and [Union Head Coach] Paul Mounds are used to your kind of “heady” player. How are you going to handle it if the Jays make some adjustments to your mechanics or repertoire that don’t really make sense to you?
I tend to take an analytical approach with most things (except when I’m on the mound). But you’re definitely right about me having some strong opinions about pitching. I think that if somebody finds something that works for them, they should stick with it.
1) The big jump I made was from freshman to sophomore season in velocity. I put on 20 pounds and my strength shot through the roof. I’d always been a pretty fast kid, but I was scrawny. When I put on the weight I got bigger, stronger, faster and the velo followed.
I was around 88-90 my sophomore year (as long as it was warm), but I was a little shaky on the mound. It felt almost as if I had hit another big growth spurt and I didn’t have pinpoint control of my body. It took me until the summer, where I pitched for the Brockton Rox (of the collegiate summer league FCBL), to figure out my mechanics again. From then I’ve maintained my weight and kept my control. It’s been smooth sailing ever since then and I picked up a mph or two just from adding strength over this year.
2) It’s funny to me that you bring that up. The past three years, Coach Mound has accepted that I have my own philosophy behind the stuff I do and he was very open to letting me follow my routine. High school was the same way. The commonalities between the two is that I was pitching well. As long as I do well, my coaches have stayed away from changing me mechanically and philosophically. From what I can tell, the Blue Jays follow the same approach. After listening to our pitching coordinator here, he has been discussing a lot about his philosophies and what the ideal pitchers have done to make it to the big leagues. He’s been making suggestions to us that he thinks will help us. He doesn’t expect us to change, but if we start pitching poorly those suggestions are gonna have to be worked into our routine. So my take on that is I’ll just keep pitching well and there shouldn’t be an issue.
SM: It should be interesting to see how that plays out. I know different organizations tend to have different philosophies on how their pitchers should conduct themselves. Was it Daisuke Matsuzaka who threw 300-foot long toss between starts? That got shut down quickly by the Red Sox.
I also noticed that you had 5 unearned runs this year. How many of those were legit unearned? Did your ERA benefit from some friendly scorekeeping?
Yeah they shut down a lot of the stuff Matsuzaka did that seemed unusual for baseball in the United States. For now, they are just encouraging us to just go out there and pitch our game so they can see what we have and make adjustments from there.
Thinking back, maybe one of those unearned runs could be scored as an earned run. But at the same time, one of my earned runs could have turned out as unearned, so I think in the end it’s balanced itself out.
SM: Yeah, it’s just interesting to think about the difference between really good and great. I guess that difference gets that much tighter in affiliated ball.
I saw an awesome interview with Lance McCullers that really felt like a new-age way of thinking about attacking hitters. I’d love to hear your reaction to his theory of emphasizing spin over movement and velocity.
Jake: It really does. We got to see some big leaguers a couple days ago who were recovering. They threw an inning to our drafted position players and you could tell there was a difference but it’s such a small one. Everything’s just a little bit tighter.
I like his approach. As a former hitter in college, I can relate to what he’s talking about in terms of picking up the spin on the ball. Not being able to see the spin was what beat me most. It’s definitely new-age now that we can pick up spin rates of the ball and I think it can be an extremely useful tool to use.
I like his view on a lot of things he mentions in his interview like adjusting to the hitters’ mentalities whether they are being aggressive or patient at the plate and his changeup (because that’s how I throw my changeup). But at the same time, I think location of the pitch is just as important. Or maybe I should say it’s another way to fool the batter in combination of spin. I can see having spin rate as a priority though, because if you can’t see the spin you don’t know where the ball is going.
SM Exactly. Well I’m sure the Blue Jays will get some spin reads on you and you can start to use that information to your advantage.
Thanks so much for the exchange of emails. We’re definitely be looking out for you and I will likely reach back out in the offseason to see how things are going.
Now, it’s time for the rapid fire all-important questions. You must answer honestly and you’re only allowed to provide explanation for 2. No clarification from me of any kind will be provided.
Gold. Because you can go back to the Kanto region and Ho-oh is badass.
I love this. True.
Depends. What kind of drugs am I tripping on?
Chocolate chip cookie dough
Ah here we go again. The classic horse vs. a horse example. Everybody makes this mistake: you actually automatically lose.
It has bread. And meat in the middle. Gotta say yes.
The MLB Rule 4 amateur draft was last week and fans will clamor for any sort of information regarding their team’s new, shiny, sometimes 18-year old future stars. The draft gives fans a chance to dream on what will be in seasons to come, each team’s fans are hoping for their very own Mike Trout. But for every Mike Trout, there are plenty of players like Hank Congers or Zack Cox who were also selected at pick number 25 and who aren’t exactly rewriting the record books.
In doing research for my latest post on the awful Jim Bowden, I found a concerning lack of recent research on draft success. We have plenty of anecdotes, and plenty of information on top prospects busting, but very little in the way of what to expect from a team’s first-round draft pick. I found a good piece from 2012 from The View from the Bleachers on Success Rate of MLB Draft Picks by Slot and referenced that, but there’s definitely more here.
There have been nine drafts since the last draft referenced in that post. Scouting, sabermetrics, and our general collective baseball knowledge feels like it has been increasing exponentially in that time. Does draft success bear that out? Well, not exactly.
The first thing to set up here is to establish a “successful” player. I pondered it for a minute and settled on basically the same approach that Michael used way back in 2012. If the player hasn’t made the majors, or if they had a WAR of less than 1.5 per year when they got there, that first-rounder is a bust automatically. These players might be useful, but hardly the type that an organization should target in the first round. With that in mind, I established a simple calculation to assign a players success.
(500 AB / 25 G for pitchers)
I likely should have built in a separate “World’s Best” category for those players who are averaging 8+ WAR. Oh, that’s just Trout, OK.
The calculation feels like it makes sense on an anecdotal level, too. Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, and Wade Miley are labeled successful, but not superior. That feels right. These guys aren’t changing an organization. They’re good major league players, but not great.
The trick comes in assigning busts, especially when considering players from more modern drafts. Jameson Taillon has yet to achieve the mandatory 1.5 WAR, but he’s hardly a bust just yet. And what do we do with guys like Billy Butler? He’s officially a bust by my calculation, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Huston Street, James Loney, and Garrett Richards are all also busts. Ike Davis, and Pedro Alvarez, too. But the formulas are sound. A successful major leaguer should be able to produce 1.5 WAR per season. In 2015, Chase Headley, Nick Markakis, and Alcides Escobar all hit that threshold. It shouldn’t be too much to expect a first-rounder to perform at that level.
Besides, this is baseball and statistics. There’s no crying in baseball or statistics.
To the results!
First, how many of 1st rounders actually make the majors? That feels like some basic threshold of success. Is your organization capable of selecting a player in the first round that actually makes his way to the majors?
A few things jump out from the chart above. Of the 55 players selected in the top five between 2000 and 2010, 48 reached the major leagues. That seems like a really good rate. Teams were able to more or less successfully identify the best five players available in a given draft. Of course, there’s probably some bias here as teams are more likely to promote players they took at the very top of the draft to save face, even if they might not be perfectly qualified.
The pattern pretty much holds for the rest of the first round too. There’s more uncertainty as you get later and later in the draft but scouts seem to hit more than they miss. That’s a pretty low bar though. You would hope that scouts would be a bit better than 32/55 (58%) on picks 26-30, considering that there are hundreds and hundreds of players chosen.
Next, let’s look at the chance to find a successful player, as we defined it earlier, in the first round of the draft.
That’s pretty low. Our definition of a successful player was pretty narrow, to be sure, but it seems like 1.5 -2.5 WAR guys should be pretty prevalent. Guess not. Let’s see how front offices do on picking up superior players.
Pretty well actually! Superior players should be pretty rare, at least if we set the criteria correctly, but more than a quarter of top five picks are in that category. That seems pretty good.
I’m starting to wrap my head around a theory, let’s see if this next chart bears it out…
OK, here’s what I’ve got. It’s more likely than not that a first-round selection will be a bust. If he’s not a bust, though, it’s more likely than not that he’ll be a superior player. It seems like the chances of a first-rounder being merely successful — just a decent big-league player — are actually pretty small.
A reasonable conclusion then, is that scouts go for the proverbial home run in first-round selections. They take a bit more risk in order to try and unearth a truly unique talent. They then aim to fill out their system with more average players in the later rounds.
My research gives fans and scouts all the more reason to dream on their first-round picks from last week.
A last little bit of fun. For the recent draft, I wanted to point out which organizations were selecting in a spot that may not yield quite the results that they are hoping for. Yankees fans, shield your eyes.
So before you go getting all excited about the draft picks in the books, keep in mind that a majority of them are simply going to be busts. The ones that aren’t, though — they’ll probably be stars.