Why Is Brandon Finnegan So Unique?

On September 30, Royals 2014 1st Round Draft Pick Brandon Finnegan was brought into the AL Wild Card Game against the Oakland A’s just under 4 months after being drafted out of Texas Christian University. Manager Ned Yost had little choice but to take a leap of faith with the rookie Finnegan, having used pitchers like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland already. Finnegan pitched very well, allowing 2 baserunners in 2.1 innings and striking out 3 Oakland batters. He was removed with a runner on base and was charged a run when the runner scored, but otherwise had a great outing.

I found it ironic and puzzling that the only team to utilize this approach of drafting a college pitcher, rushing him up the farm system, and giving him a shot at the postseason was the team that already had the likes of Herrera, Davis and Holland. After all, it seems like every playoff team could use some help out of the bullpen. When compared to other positions, predicting a relief pitcher’s success in the big leagues really doesn’t seem too hard either.

In 2014, 12 relievers pitched more than 60 innings with an FIP under 2.50. Aside from the sinker-oriented Steve Cishek and Pat Neshek, all of them averaged at least 92.5 mph on their fastballs. Everyone except Cishek generated swinging strikes at least 11% of the time, almost 2% more than the 9.4% league average. Simply put, pitchers with high velocity are safe bets when it comes to building a bullpen.

I can understand why a team might be stingy with its first-round draft pick. The first rounder is supposed to be the future of the franchise, the one who fans envision 25 years older, making his Hall of Fame induction speech. But looking at the 93 2nd round draft picks from 2006-2008 (an arbitrary time period which I felt gave players sufficient time to reach the big leagues), it is clear that players selected this late in the draft are no sure thing.

48 picks have yet to make their major league debut, and another 21 have career WAR’s equal to or less than 0*. There are exceptions like Giancarlo Stanton, Jordan Zimmermann and Freddie Freeman, but the data looks even worse after the 15th pick of the second round. Of the 48 picks in the 16-32 slots, only 8 players have career WAR’s greater than 0*. 29 have yet to make their MLB debut.

Since 2011, 10 relievers have posted FIP’s under 2.50 with at least 100 innings pitched. Of those drafted in the American amateur draft, only Sean Doolittle was picked before the 3rd round. He was drafted in the first round as a first baseman. While overpaying for an elite reliever can be appealing for teams like the Angels or Tigers, both teams in win-now mode, a possible fall back option is taking a chance on the best reliever available in the draft with the second-round pick. Chances are, that pitcher will still be on the board.

Of course, there are major-league relievers who can throw hard but still do not succeed at the big-league level. Also, stats like average fastball velocity and swinging strike rates might not be available for college players. The prior is virtually impossible without Pitch F/X. If this is the case, GMs can consider reverting to the eye test to determine how hard a pitcher throws and what his command and movement look like. Generally accepted measures of command such as K-BB% can be derived from box scores.

For traditional fans who still value the human element of baseball, there are ways to gauge an NCAA pitcher’s ability to pitch in the spotlight. Stats like opposing batting average with runners on base and inherited runners stranded can be determined by simply looking at play-by-play recaps. Both measure a pitcher’s ability to perform under pressure, even if only in a limited sample size. I do not know what kinds of information are given to baseball operations teams, but I would be surprised if a college pitcher’s WPA in high-leverage situations was available.

If I was Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski or Angels GM Jerry Dipoto circa July, I would make the trade for Joakim Soria or Huston Street without hesitation. Both teams, one could argue, were a bullpen arm away from being World Series favorites. But for teams who don’t have the resources Detroit and Los Angeles have or don’t want to give up too many prospects, the best mid season bullpen pickup might not have even thrown his first professional pitch yet.

*I had to use rWAR, not fWAR in the interest of time. Baseball Reference has the draft results with career WAR readily available. Of course, data not from FanGraphs was taken from baseball-reference.com.

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7 years ago

While teams might be (understandably) worried about throwing a new arm into a playoff race or the playoffs, there’s another good reason to just toss them onto the team: on average, pitchers just get worse as they age. Unless the guy needs an extra pitch or has some horrible habit that tips his pitches, are they really learning things that offset the cost of aging?

Velocity goes nothing but down after about 22-24. Injury risk is about the same for any given year, but cumulative injury risk obviously increases. And after an injury many players are never the same. Might as well play them rather than let them get injured in the minors instead.

Brandon Reppert
7 years ago

I like this point. Teams that are competing for the post-season and need an extra push can definitely look for established college relief arms to give it to them. I’d like to see some larger data on what the odds of a fire-balling successful college pitcher being successful in the major leagues is, but it seems a perfectly viable strategy. And then hey, you get to keep him for a bunch of years after that, too.