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The Macro Draft

As the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft approaches, the odds of any particular draftee making the MLB have been swirling in my mind. There are several different ways to look at draft value, in order to judge a team’s overall draft, a player’s performance and legacy, or even one draft’s particular strength versus another (see 2006 vs. 2009, for instance). But these measurements do not usually weigh the force of approximately 1200-1400 picks against (maybe) 200 (or so) MLB players in each draft; looking at any given draft, these MLB players may even be counted across several drafts, as many players begin as later-round high schoolers and then resurface as higher-round collegians. What seems to be clear is that the amount of MLB talent in any given draft is quite scarce, which should in some sense be weighed against other arguments about a draft pick’s value.

For demonstration, take Bruce Seid’s 2009 draft, which was driven (according to popular arguments) either by great late round value or astonishing early round missteps. Any way one slices it, Seid ended up with three 2.5+ WARP players (“Fastballer” Mike Fiers, “Khrush” Davis, and Scooter “Scoots McGee” Gennett. Incidentally three of my favorite Brewers). That former GM Doug Melvin was unable to transform the 2013-2015 Brewers into strikingly consistent contenders with this supporting cast is less an indictment of these players than an indictment of the front office’s miscalculations (or failures of imagination) during those years. Complain all you like about the early round failures, that’s an astonishingly good draft (interestingly enough, the draft return will be even better once one incorporates the trade returns for deals involving Fiers and Davis, respectively).

Alternately, take Scoots McGee’s predecessor, Rickie Weeks, arguably one of the greatest Brewers of all time and (probably quite easily) the organization’s best second baseman. One of the commonly cited “Core Players” drafted by Jack Zduriencik, Weeks easily lands among the top third of MLB players from the 2003 First Round. The median player from that round (according to bWAR) was outfielder Mitch Maier (1.5 career WARP accumulated from 2006-2012). Of course, by now everyone knows that Weeks’s career was derailed by misguided prospect hype, which unfortunately makes the Brewers’ franchise second baseman a “bust” in many fans’ eyes. Nevermind that he’s nearly 12x more valuable than the median player drafted in the 2003 First Round; one of the very best players drafted in 2003 overall; or a better-than-median overall 2nd pick in the history of the draft: Many Brewers fans prefer to side with hype over their beloved power/speed franchise second baseman.

These drafts are merely two organizational examples of the extremes that populate draft analysis. One of the basic reasons that these types of analytical and narrative shortcomings exist is that fans and analysts alike “dismiss” as a truism the fact that the striking majority of players in every draft will never make the MLB: such a fact is taken to be so clearly true on the surface that its impact is not seriously considered.

To counter this analytical blindspot, one can simply look at the median player value for each round in each draft. For this exercise, I wanted to focus on drafts that are mostly “finished,” since more recent drafts would require judging players by value metrics, organizational depth charts, and prospect rankings. By beginning a decade out (with the fantastic 2006 draft), one can find a rather clear model for how player talent may populate the rounds of an MLB draft. To construct the chart below, I began in 1999 and stopped at 2008, since I understand that even aspects of the 2009 draft remain unsettled (take Davis, Gennett, and Fiers, for instance: their careers still hang in the balance, so it’s not really safe to say that their overall value can reasonably be measured).

The spoiler alert is that due to the overwhelming or daunting fact that most drafted players simply fail to reach the MLB, by the third round of the draft the solidly median player value is “Did Not Reach MLB” (DNRM for short). One should not necessarily dismiss this as nonsense, as one must consider that teams are still (mostly) drafting within the Top 100 in the third round. So, if a team is drafting median talent that fails to reach the MLB as early as the first, second, or third round, one can use that metric to evaluate draft day approaches, expectations, risk assessment and management, bonus assessment and analysis, player profiles, hype, etc. (that’s for another day). The purpose of this chart is to simply begin the analysis, starting with the first five rounds:

MedianWAR (MLB Players) 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 1-5 MLB(%1st Round)
1999 DNRM (24) DNRM (16) DNRM (12) DNRM (8) DNRM (11) 71 (33.8)
2000 -1.5 (23) -1.2 (17) DNRM (7) DNRM (12) DNRM (7) 63 (36.5)
2001 -1.0 (26) DNRM (15) DNRM (14) DNRM (12) DNRM (12) 79 (32.9)
2002 0.1 (27) -0.2 (19) DNRM (8) DNRM (11) DNRM (8*) 73 (37.0)
2003 1.4 (27) -0.8 (17) -1.5 (16) DNRM (9) DNRM (4) 73 (37.0)
2004 0.5 (33) -1.3 (15) DNRM (14) DNRM (14) DNRM (11) 87 (37.9)
2005 0.5 (37) DNRM (12) DNRM (14) -0.9 (16) DNRM (7) 86 (43.0)
2006 0.25 (33) -0.95 (17) DNRM (12) DNRM (7) DNRM (14) 83 (39.8)
2007 -0.2 (41) DNRM (13) -1.2 (15) DNRM (11) DNRM (14) 94 (43.6)
2008 0.5 (37) -0.6 (16) -1.6 (18) DNRM (10) DNRM (11) 92 (40.2)
Round Median 0.5 -1.25 DNRM DNRM DNRM

In the most straightforward terms, this chart means that for theĀ first five rounds, at least 16 players (per round) fail to make the MLB.

Incidentally, the importance of the first round should not be understated: in recent drafts, it is likely that somewhere around 20 percent of all MLB players from a given draft will reside within the first round of that given draft. So, in this sense one can weigh first round misses much more heavily than others, since that is the most likely spot to find an MLB’er (like Rickie Weeks, even, as noted above).

This lends some credence to criticisms of Seid’s early drafts, although one still must deal with the pushback from that excellent late round value (some teams failed to land 10.0+ WARP in the entire 2009 draft, let alone after the fifth round, which should increase the considered value of Davis, Fiers, and Gennett). Successful depth drafting places Seid’s efforts in the top half of MLB draft value in 2009.

One should also note how the increase in supplemental first round picks (and therefore overall first round picks) spiked the MLB player totals (especially in the 2005, 2007, and 2008 drafts). It stands to reason that the basic institutional fact of higher draft bonuses in the first round accounts for those steep MLB player totals; judging by the sheer number of replacement level players available in the first round, one might question whether an 11th or 15th or 20th round organizational player would have an equal shot at reaching the MLB as replacement depth if their bonuses were as high as first rounders. Even a replacement player bumps a club’s first round efforts into “successfully produced an MLB,” which must be a much more favorable return on investment in the eyes of that organization.

Who are these median players? For fun, let’s highlight the best median talent from the first through fifth rounds of the 1999-2008 MLB drafts:

Best Median Draftees in Top 5 Rounds Player 1 (Pick) Player 2 (Pick) Player 3 (Pick) Player 4 (Pick)
2003 1st Round C Mitch Maier (1.30) n/a n/a n/a
2004 1st Round RHP Kyle Waldrop (1.25) n/a n/a n/a
2005 1st Round OF John Mayberry (1.19) RHP Lance Broadway (1.15) n/a n/a
2008 1st Round 3B Conor Gillaspie (1s.37) RHP Ryan Perry (1.21) n/a n/a
2006 1st Round RHP Cory Rasmus (1s.38) OF Chris Parmelee (1.20) n/a n/a
2002 1st Round C Jeremy Brown (1s.35) n/a n/a n/a
2007 1st Round RHP Eddie Kunz (1s.42) 3B Matt Mangini (1s.52) LHP Nick Hagadone (1s.55) RHP Trystan Magnuson (1s.56)
2002 2nd Round RHP Brian Slocum (2.63) n/a n/a n/a
2008 2nd Round 3B James Darnell (2.69) n/a n/a n/a
2003 2nd Round RHP Josh Banks (2.50) n/a n/a n/a

Building a narrative and analysis of the draft, one can take two steps.

  • First, one must heavily weigh the “DNRM” reality and build a comprehensive analysis of scouting profiles, player backgrounds, player competitive levels, pre-draft hype, and various aspects of organizational ideologies (mechanical & statistical analytical tools, risk assessment, bonus pool strategies, etc.). There is one sense in which all players that fail to reach the MLB are equal, but the institutional factors of signing bonuses and scarcity of elite talent render first round failures more problematic than, say, 20th round failures.
  • Second, one can mine the profiles, backgrounds, hype, and organizational ideologies involving successful “median” drafted players as well, in order to effectively recognize additional replacement talent within any given system, and ultimately build an effective account of how talent is dispersed throughout a draft. In this sense, the profiles of “median” first or second round players (like Eddie Kunz or James Darnell) can potentially serve as guideposts to other replacements or depth talent within an organization.

Of course, one might eventually opt to celebrate the careers of the likes of Josh Banks or John Mayberry, etc., in order to further appreciate the weight of reaching the MLB. Even at the margins of the draft, there is talent that can help an organization in some regard. Should organizations wish to push ahead with current cost-cutting measures, thereby enhancing and maintaining their revenue shares, and extract ultimate value from the draft, they may find valuable lessons by wading through the draft median and DNRM.

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