2013 MLB Draft: Does drafting pitchers early really payoff?
By Jeff Ellis
April 19, 2013
As the 2013 MLB Draft approaches, I have been a bit surprised by the amount of fans who want to push the draft in a certain direction based on need. I would say at this point 90% of the questions I field are based on pitching and how the Indians have to draft pitching because they lack impact pitching in the system.
The two big pitching names in this draft are Mark Appel of Stanford and Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma. The issue is neither of those players will be on the board for the Tribe. Anyone who says otherwise is just dreaming as it just won't happen. Most experts expect them to go one and two in this draft. The only other pitcher who I would even consider near the top five is prep right handed pitcher Kohl Stewart. He is a guy who if drafted is years and years away, and fans want someone RIGHT NOW.
All this talk led me to think about the old saying that "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect" and I decided there was only one way to really judge the truth of this. I took 16 years of draft data from 1988 to 2003, for a total of 16 drafts and 240 players. I figured this would give enough years and players to give a solid sample size. I went with the first 15 prospects figuring those would typically also be the top players in each draft, the guys who teams thought had the best chance to excel. These are the guys teams scout the most and have the most upside with the least risk.
The final break down was of those 240 players selected, 116 were pitchers which equals about 48%, while there were 124 hitters taken which equals of course 52%. So over that time there was just about a 50-50 spilt for pitchers and hitters taken over that period.
The big question is how do you judge players who have been successful in the majors while comparing players across multiple positions. I finally settled on using WAR as I have used it on other draft pieces and it does allow for direct comparison of players regardless of position.
The next question was to decide what players counted as successes and who counted as busts. After some time I settled on a player who had a WAR of 10 or better would be a success. The thought being to be a 10 WAR player a guy must have had at least four good years.
A guy who fell under this total for instance was former Twins lefty and journeymen pitcher Mark Redman. A guy who made a single all star team yet never played three full seasons with any team. On the other side would be Adam Everett who was mostly known for his defense but was a pretty solid shortstop for four years before turning into a reliable utility guy.
I mentioned earlier that over those 16 drafts there were 124 hitters taken. Of those 124 players only 49 of them became 10 WAR players for their careers. This was about 40% of the hitters taken went on to be solid regulars or better. This might seem like a low pay off on value, but this is nothing when compared to the pitchers.
As mentioned before there were 116 pitchers taken over the same 16 years, and of those only 30 became 10 WAR players. This came out to only 26%, so roughly one in every four pitchers taken in the top half of the first round become even useful players. This is a pretty high difference between hitters and pitchers.
This led me to think a team might be smart to never draft pitchers early. The rationale is, the payoff is much more likely when you draft a hitter. Then a team could always trade this talent later on for pitching. The idea being to get the best talent possible, as it is always best to maximize the talent in the system. Look at it like a business transaction; hitters have a better payoff, so why take the risk on a worse investment which is pitching?
When you look at the numbers the chances of a pitcher becoming successful versus a hitter is basically 15%. Over this 16 year period a team that drafted only hitters would have produced two more contributors than a team that drafted only pitchers.
For those who might be wondering, the Indians' last 30 picks in the top 15 have produced exactly three players who met or exceeded the 10 WAR value. Those players are Kelly Gruber, Greg Swindell, and Manny Ramirez. This timeframe takes the Indians from 2007 with Beau Mills all the way to John Bonnet in 1979. If you think that is depressing, if you take every first rounder since 1965 - over 50 players - only eight have managed to be 10 WAR or better players and two never played for the Tribe for extended periods.
When it comes to the draft the idea is to take the best talent, then either the player will fit in later or be traded to fill a need. Even a college players takes two to three years to develop and by that time a lot can change. Teams will sign free agents, make trades, and draft more players, so this is why you never look for a need.
This data made me think that if you are a team that you should always lean towards drafting hitters. The flameout rate of pitching is so very high. Look at it another way that over 16 years 74% of pitchers drafted in the first half of the first round failed to become even solid contributors. These are the most scouted, most seen, and best known players every year and the overwhelming majority of them will fail.
How this all relates to this year's draft is that there is absolutely no reason to ever take a lesser talent just because they are a pitcher. The Indians desperately need pitching but drafting one does not mean the pitcher will succeed. The high failure rate means that for a team picking high and who needs to cash in on their pick, all things being equal they should consider avoiding taking an arm. I am still going to trust my eyes and what I see scouting, but if an arm and a bat carry an equal grade or near even, then I for one would lean hitter.
In the end, drafting pitching early just doesn't pay off. They seem to be the scratch off ticket of the baseball world. You dream big and imagine what winnings are coming your way, but end up a few dollars poorer with nothing to show for it.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
As an exercise, try to figure out the '06 draft. Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow, and Andrew Miller were taken in order before Kershaw, Lincecum, and Scherzer. Add to the mix that Longoria was taken third behind Hochevar & Reynolds. Lots of talent in that draft & some big misses.
That's an interesting point, the reward of taking pitchers. The author says:
"As mentioned before there were 116 pitchers taken over the same 16 years, and of those only 30 became 10 WAR players. This came out to only 26%, so roughly one in every four pitchers taken in the top half of the first round become even useful players. This is a pretty high difference between hitters and pitchers."
I would be interested to see...of those 30 pitchers who did end up as 10 WAR or better players...what was their career WAR? What was their peak WAR? Something tells me that a good number of those pitchers end up as 40+ WAR players over the course of their career, which would indicate that if you do get it right, you're finding yourself an incredibly valuable commodity.
OK, drafting pitchers is risky, but considering the REWARD it may still make sense when considering their scarcity. The payoff is likely to be far greater when you hit on a pitcher.
I'm not so sure this as such an inefficient market where teams stupidly keep drafting SP's and failing. When you look at risk alone it may appear so, but reward is just as important of a variable.
Even if drafting a pitcher in the top half of the draft is more risky overall, a player drafted in the first round has a significantly better chance of reaching the majors than one drafted in the second round or later. Research supports that.
So as is always the case, it comes down to a risk-reward analysis. What's the risk of taking a college pitcher #5 overall vs. the risk of waiting until #79 overall to draft one? One way or another, we have to infuse this system with impact pitching talent and your chances of doing that go down substantially if you don't take one at #5.
It's very likely that Gray and Appel are gone before we draft, but Stanek and Manaea are both very good pitching prospects who I would be glad to see us take. Any of those 4 would instantly be one of our top 2 prospects overall, assuming Bauer graduates from prospect status in the near future.
They simply cannot do it; they fail time and time again. When was the last time the Indians have developed a homegrown starting pitcher? I'm being serious, I can't think of the last homegrown pitcher was who made a start; let alone one of significance. How embarrassing.....
It's the most important position in baseball, yet it seems they're happy with the status quo. Best teams in baseball have the most starting pitching depth.