Like performance in the playoffs, success in the amateur draft is close enough to a crapshoot that we have a hard time distinguishing true talent from luck. The draft requires teams to make judgments about players who are neither physically nor mentally mature, who have faced uneven competition, who might not tell scouts the truth, and who in some cases are years away from contributing, even if everything proceeds as planned. We know how many teams make regrettable moves on the free-agent market, even though they’re bidding on established players who are expected to start earning their money immediately; it’s no surprise, then, that they err even more often when trying to predict the distant futures of players who haven’t yet played professionally.
Some evidence suggests that teams have gotten better at assessing amateur talent, but projecting college and (particularly) high school players remains the baseball equivalent of the meteorologist’s 10-day forecast — a pretty tall order, given that we’ve all gotten soaked when the same-day forecast called for sunshine. The old saw about baseball being a game of failure applies to scouting directors much more so than to any big-league batter.
Russell Carleton summed up the situation last month in a Baseball Prospectus column entitled “The Annual Amateur Draft Guessing Game,” writing, “In the first round, we see some reasonable correlation between signing bonus (our proxy for how much teams value each player) and what they end up becoming. By the second round, teams are guessing.” And when the second round is over, there are 38 left to go.
A team with a history of picks that panned out might simply have had luck on its side, or a combination of luck and losing at the major-league level, which leads to high picks. (Sound familiar, football fans?) In some cases, of course, there’s skill behind the success, but drafting talent is tenuous: It can bleed away as the churn of scouts and executives redistributes front-office talent, funneling key personnel from standout teams into retirement or prominent positions with other organizations. In addition, it’s difficult to isolate the impact of player development; while we tend to credit or blame scouts for the success or failure of a team’s selections, the same player might succeed in one minor-league system but not in another, purely because of a difference in the quality of coaching.
Whether or not a run of drafting success is attributable to skill, and whether or not it’s likely to last, it can be a big boon to a team. Successful draftees can mature into homegrown stars who deliver baseball’s most valuable commodity: Cost-controlled wins. Alternatively, they can turn into trade chips who bring back proven performers. So as we wait a few days to see this year’s selections (and then wait a few years to see whether this year’s selections work out), it’s worth looking back at the teams whose drafts have proved most fruitful in the recent past. Some of the standouts are exactly the clubs you’d expect; others might make you do a double-take.
The chart below lists the number of players who’ve appeared in the majors this season, broken down by the club that drafted them (pitchers in red, batters in blue). If a player was drafted multiple times, we assigned him to the team that took him last. For the purposes of this exercise, it doesn’t matter what happened to the players after they entered the professional ranks; whether they stayed with the same team or moved on to another, they still show up on their original organization’s ledger.
Surprise, surprise: The St. Louis Cardinals have drafted more active major leaguers than any other team. Many of them are currently Cardinals, which helps explain the team’s winning ways: Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Kevin Siegrist, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Kolten Wong and others have never known another organization. The Cards have also exported drafted talent in judicious trades: Colby Rasmus went to Toronto in 2011 in a swap that sent St. Louis to a Wild Card win (by one game) and then on to a World Series title. However, even the Cardinals make mistakes: They surrendered Luke Gregerson as a player to be named later in the ill-fated Khalil Greene trade, and they allowed the Rockies to select 2006 first-rounder Adam Ottavino off waivers in April of 2012. Both pitchers have gone on to be among the most valuable setup men in baseball.
The Padres, Royals and Rangers rank right below St. Louis. The Padres, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, have minted the second-most active major leaguers, but some of those players have hurt more than they’ve helped (more on that in a moment). The Royals’ problem clearly hasn’t been graduating draftees to the majors; it’s been how little those homegrown prospects have progressed after their promotions. And while the Rangers have exported some of their star draftees, including Chris Davis and Ian Kinsler, they’ve compensated by being active on the international market, which isn’t reflected here.
Let’s turn our attention to the bottom end. The Rays, despite their well-deserved reputation for smarts, have amassed the third-fewest debuts, in part because they move their players up the ladder slowly, but also because they haven’t struck gold as often as they did when they routinely drafted in the first few picks. The Orioles have popped their fair share of notable position players, including Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis (and, way back when, Jayson Werth), but they’ve had little luck unearthing impact pitching. Aside from Kevin Gausman, who has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, the list of 2014 major-league arms who were Baltimore draftees is light on valuable arms: Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Pedro Beato. That’s an area in which they hope Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey will help.
The Astros have had similar problems, which is part of the reason why they reached the point where a complete teardown made sense; from 1998 through 2007, their best first-round picks were Chris Burke and Brian Bogusevic. However, thanks in part to three consecutive no. 1 picks, they’re on the way up: Houston draftee Dallas Keuchel has salvaged his career, and highly regarded prospect Mike Foltynewicz is on the George Springer/Jon Singleton fast track to Houston. In a year or two, the Astros’ bar might be where the Royals’ is now.
Of course, quantity isn’t everything. More major leaguers is nice, but one superstar is worth a lot of relievers. Here’s what happens when we rank the teams not by number of 2014 big leaguers drafted, but by Wins Above Replacement Player (technically, PWARP and BWARP, or WARP by pitchers and position players, respectively) produced by their draftees:
Now the Padres and Rays have switched places, with San Diego the only team whose draftees collectively rate below replacement level. The Padres’ positive production (including that of Corey Kluber, whom they traded to Cleveland in the 2010 Ryan Ludwick deal) is weighed down by the offensive inadequacy of Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley and 2006 draftee David Freese, among others, and they’ve suffered some glaring first-round misses. Tampa Bay, however, has Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake McGee and Wade Davis to brag about.
The Red Sox narrowly take the top spot, but many of their position player draftees have changed allegiances, including Jed Lowrie, Anthony Rizzo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brandon Moss. The Rockies, as one would expect, have the most lopsided batter-pitcher breakdown, with sub-replacement pitching draftees drowned out by the combined offensive firepower of Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. On the other end of the spectrum, the totals for the White Sox and pick-forfeiting Phillies confirm those teams’ reputation for being short on homegrown, high-ceiling talent; the A’s, who own baseball’s best run differential, owe more of their success to astutely raiding other teams’ talent than they do to drafting and developing their own. Only five other teams have received fewer plate appearances from homegrown hitters this year, and only one has extracted fewer innings from homegrown pitchers.
One of the most surprising results on the chart is the Yankees’ placement toward the positive end. No team has drafted more of this season’s big-league pitchers than the pitching-starved Yanks, although most of those arms are back-of-the-rotation or bullpen guys and some have made the majors only because of New York’s injury issues.
Let’s pull back a bit and look at the totals from 2010–14, again beginning with the number of major leaguers drafted by each organization and then tallying the WARP they produced.
Scan from left to right on the 2010–14 draft WARP graph, and you’ll notice that the teams tend to get worse as you go. On the far left, you’ll see the Reds and Red Sox, two teams with a combined four playoff appearances (plus a World Series win) from 2010–14 and five-year winning percentages of .528 and .545, respectively; on the far right, you’ll find the White Sox and Indians, who’ve combined for one playoff appearance and five-year winning percentages of .487 and .477, respectively. Even though this method counts contributions by players who are no longer helping their original organization, even though it disregards other routes to talent acquisition (such as international signings), and even though the more successful the team, the lower the draft position, the smaller the bonus pool, and the more meager the expected outcome, there was still a .41 correlation between winning percentage and WARP produced by draftees in this period.
Hitting the amateur talent jackpot isn’t a prerequisite for aspiring contenders. As clubs like the Yankees and A’s have shown, it’s possible to win by outspending or outsmarting teams that draw stronger hands on draft day. However, it helps to have a head start. And that’s why every team has spent months digging in for the draft’s three difficult days.
Thanks to Andrew Koo and Rob McQuown for research assistance.