MLB Draft 2011: What Makes a Successful Draft for PItchers?

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MLB Draft 2011: What Makes a Successful Draft for PItchers?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg, 2009's number one overall pick, was a pitcher. He may prove to be an anomaly.

 In my last piece, I looked at what contributes to a successful draft as far as drafting hitters goes. Today, I’m investigating the obvious follow-up: What type of success can you expect out of pitching draft picks?

I used the same process as with the hitters: I sorted through each of the last 11 seasons on Baseball-Reference.com to find the 15 pitchers with the most Wins Above Replacement per season and then found what round and overall number they were drafted.

Again, there are a few things that I noticed:

1. Very few of the pitchers represented were No. 1 overall picks.

Part of that is a function of fewer pitchers going No. 1 overall, but the number isn’t quite as skewed as it might seem. My study included 175 seasons over the last 11 years; only two of them came from former No. 1 picks (those being Kris Benson in 2000 and David Price in 2010).

Looking at the pitchers drafted No. 1 overall, it’s odd to think that some of them were ever considered top talent—players such as Luke Hochevar, Bryan Bullington, Paul Wilson and Matt Anderson. Hochevar, Bullington and Anderson were the most recent of those four players, but each has an odd story.

Anderson was a relief pitcher (which seems to indicate an organizational failure, in my opinion—taking a pitcher who will only throw a handful of innings max each year first?). Hochevar turned down a first-round slot the year before he was drafted No. 1 and spent a year pitching in an independent league. Bullington was drafted for money reasons.

Honestly, I’m not sure if this is indicative of drafting pitchers in general or if these three are bizarre exceptions. However, between Price and a hopefully healthy Stephen Strasburg, we may figure out which side is more accurate.

 

2. Round 1 overall was still important, but the first 10 picks were nowhere near as important as they were for hitters.

Nineteen of the 175 seasons studied came from former top-10 picks, good for about 10.9 percent (an average of 1.7 seasons per year). Meanwhile, the first round as a whole contributed 54 individual seasons, good for 30.9 percent (an average of 4.9 seasons per year). So really, the first 10 picks are only slightly more important than the rest of the first round for pitchers, if recent history is any indication.

 

3. Rounds 2 through 5 weren’t too shabby either.
 

The four rounds contributed 38 seasons, an average of 3.5 per season, and 21.7 percent of the total seasons examined. Granted, this did encompass four rounds, but when one considers that the drop-off for hitters was nearly 22 percent, the nine percent drop-off for pitchers seems much more reasonable.


4. Pitchers have much more late-round success than hitters. 
 

With hitters, I just marked everything after the fifth round as “Other.” However, I quickly noticed that with the pitchers, the group was much, much larger than any of the other groups, so I split it up into “Rounds 6 through 10” and “Other.” Rounds 6 through 10 contributed 23 of the top seasons, an average of about 2.1 per season and about 13.1 of the overall percentage.

Thus, it had one extra round compared to the group before it, yet it only experienced an 8.6 percent drop. Not bad, considering the group wasn’t significant enough for me to consider splitting when I looked at the hitters. (For reference, this group would have had 16 seasons if I had split it up for hitters, good for about 4.9 percent of their seasons.)

 

5. Other still showed up frequently despite taking away Rounds 6 through 10.

Twenty-five “Other” seasons showed up, more representation than there was for Rounds 6 through 10. That’s good for 14.3 percent and an average of 2.3 seasons per year. Granted, it does have by far the most rounds out of any grouping on this article (the latest round number I encountered was Darrell May’s Round 46, but considering it only 36 rounds would still be cutting it short).

This is a fairly significant percentage, as only 44 seasons like this came up for the hitters (and Albert Pujols provided 10 of them, and Jim Thome and Jorge Posada provided four each). That would have been around 15 percent, but again, that’s without accounting for the oddity that is Pujols.

 

6. And the International Free Agents.

In case you’ve been adding up, in the last 35 seasons 20 percent comes from international free agents. That averages to about 3.2 per year. Like I said in the hitters article, though, that is an entirely different concept to study, so this is more trivia.

 

7. MLB teams appear to be getting better at this.
 

Really, the most interesting way to look at it is to see how the numbers change over the decade. Each line is the number of players from that round grouping who made the top players list by year, with each number being a year. Each line starts at 2000 and moves forward.

Round 1: 5, 4, 3, 7, 2, 5, 5, 2, 5, 7, 9
Rounds 2-5: 7, 4, 4, 1, 2, 2, 4, 4, 4, 4
Rounds 6-10: 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 2, 3, 3, 1, 0, 1
Other: 1, 3, 5, 1, 2, 5, 2, 4, 1, 0, 1

Generally, Round 1 seems to be trending up, Rounds 2-5 are mostly constant, Rounds 6-10 have trended downward slightly and Other seems to have dipped from its high point in the middle of the decade (which just so happened to coincide with a dip in former Round 1 picks).

What does this say about drafting pitchers? Well, first off, MLB seems to be getting better at drafting the best pitching talent early. However, even then, pitching still seems much more difficult to accurately project than hitting.

Overall, this leads me to the theory that, all else being equal, the ideal strategy is to draft a hitter in the first round or two before moving on to pitchers, just due to the uncertainty of predicting pitching.

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