Proof that ‘low upside’ tag is misleading in MLB Draft

Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft commences next Monday, and this year, the Arizona Diamondbacks will have the pick of the litter. While this particular draft crop might not be as exciting as some others, there are a handful of interesting prospects, including the usual assortment of hard-throwing pitchers and toolsy high school kids who might be useful in five years. These are the guys who are going to draw the most attention and likely go at the top of the draft, as most of the focus remains on identifying and developing potential franchise players. 

However, not every draft pick is going to be oozing with upside, especially once you get out of the top half of the first round. After the top handful of players are off the board, teams have to start picking and choosing among guys with pretty notable flaws; maybe the hard-throwing guy has only a fastball at this point, or that impressive athlete hasn’t yet figured out how to hit. Or, as is the case for a large handful of draftees every summer, a lack of size and an inability to hit for power create the sense that a player is "low upside," profiling as a future utility player or bench guy. A lot of college middle infielders fit this profile, especially the ones who get picked after the first round. 

Only there’s something interesting going on in MLB right now; if you look at the majority of the best second basemen in baseball, they almost all were tagged with this "low upside" label in the draft. For example, here are a few of the draft profiles of some of today’€™s best middle infielders in baseball, courtesy of Baseball America. 

Dustin Pedroia, 2nd round pick in 2004

Pedroia’s tools are below-average across the board, but people have learned not to sell him short. Scouts expect him to be a big leaguer, and probably an everyday player. He’s not physically gifted at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but Pedroia is a classic overachiever and possibly the best player in college baseball. He has a great work ethic and exceptional sense of the game. He’s hard-nosed and competitive, and without peer as a team leader. He’s a blood-and-guts player who thrives under pressure and makes everyone around him better. Scouts question whether he can be an everyday shortstop on a good team because his arm and range are short, but he catches almost everything hit at him. He has sure hands, a quick release and excellent hand-eye coordination, and is adept at anticipating plays. He doesn’t profile any better as a second baseman, a more offensive position. While he led the Sun Devils with a .409 average and nine home runs, he doesn’t have a pretty swing and is a slap hitter. But he has good strike zone judgment and is a tough out. He struck only 11 times while drawing 43 walks. He compares to Angels shortstop David Eckstein, though Eckstein is a better runner. On tools, Pedroia is not a high-round pick but he’s a perfect fit for a performance-based organization like the Athletics, who have four of the first 40 picks.

Ben Zobrist, 6th round pick in 2004

He’s a 6-foot-3, 200-pound athlete who switch-hits and has a good approach at the plate. He also shows speed and arm strength.

Ian Kinsler, 17th round pick in 2003

Ian Kinsler and Zack Borowiak are fine defensive shortstops with strong arms. Both have improved at the plate this year. Kinsler, who hit .230 as a part-time player at Arizona State last year, carried a .337 average into the NCAA playoffs.

Jason Kipnis, 2nd round pick in 2009

Kipnis doesn’t have one standout tool, but can do a little bit of everything. He has a patient approach and a line-drive swing. He has shown he can hit quality pitching, though he doesn’t profile for big power with a wood bat, making him a potential tweener. While his defense in center field has improved, he doesn’t have the range to stay there long-term–yet he might not hit enough to man a corner spot. He may also get a chance to try second base.

Brian Dozier, 8th round pick in 2009

He was more of a solid college shortstop than a big pro prospect and fits better at second base, as a fringy runner with a fringe arm.

This list actually doesn’t even include Howie Kendrick (10th rounder) or Matt Carpenter (13th rounder) because neither player received a pre-draft report, as they weren’t seen as potential impact prospects given their size and tools. This isn’t to pick on Baseball America, as these write-ups reflected the industry consensus, which is why these guys weren’t drafted particularly highly by major-league teams. This isn’t BA getting things wrong; these guys have just dramatically exceeded expectations across the board. 

And even a couple of second baseman who were taken in the first round of the 2011 draft — Kolten Wong and Joe Panik — somewhat fit the mold. Both were successful college infielders who hit well with aluminum bats but weren’t expected to have much power in the big leagues, and were expected to be useful big leaguers without a lot of star potential. And while you don’t want to overreact to a few months of 2015 data, both Wong and Panik are showing significantly more power this year than was ever expected from them, with Wong slugging .464 while Panik is at .447. 

Outside of a small handful of international signings — one of whom, Jose Altuve, also was a low-power/low-ceiling prospect, and he signed for just $15,000 in 2007 — nearly every good second baseman in baseball right now shed this label on his way to becoming an impact major-league player. Of course, by selecting only the reports of the players who have already become good big leaguers, we’re introducing a significant selection bias, and we shouldn’t interpret this to mean that every low-powered middle infielder is going to dramatically outperform expectations. 

But I do think that recent history suggests that perhaps too much confidence is placed in our abilities to project how little power a player might hit for. It’s one thing to look at a guy like Wong or Panik and say that he won’t ever become Kris Bryant or Joey Gallo; that’s absolutely true, and born out by historical evidence, as guys this size just don’t become sluggers who hit 40 homers in a season. But on the lower end of the power spectrum, there’s a pretty significant difference between a guy like Pedroia and a true slap hitter like David Eckstein, and the difference in value that extra power can create can be the difference between a solid role player and a perennial All-Star. 

It’s easy to separate sluggers from non-sluggers, but I think it is much more difficult to isolate what category of non-slugger some of these "low ceiling" guys are going to fall into. If we look at every 5-foot-10 guy and see a utility player because he isn’t going to hit 20 or more homers a year, then that’s simply a blind spot, as many of the best middle infielders in baseball currently still are excelling with high contact and a lot of doubles. If you add speed and defense to the mix, as guys like Zobrist have, you can legitimately become an elite player; Zobrist ranks third in WAR among position players since the start of the 2009 season, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen. 

So while high-velocity hurlers and athletes who might be superstars if they figure out how to hit are likely to be the talk of the draft next week, keep an eye out for undersized guys who do everything except hit for power. It isn’t so clear that the "low ceiling" label is as accurate as is often portrayed, and perhaps that guy getting stuck with a utility player label has a better chance of turning into an All-Star than he’ll be given credit for.