Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Draft

This isn't going to be a Pirates-centric post, but let me start with a Pirates-centric comment. Monday, in previewing the series with the Brewers, I wrote
The key would appear to be to strike early against the starters, since the Brewers bullpen's been up to the task of shutting down the opposition in late innings.
For the record: Scoring a total of one run over two games against the Brewers' starters, as the Pirates have done, does not constitute striking early. In fact, it violates the whole "strike early" premise.

Now, the baseball draft. It started Monday. It continues today. I'm not going to say anything about the players drafted, because I don't know the players drafted. Well, I've heard of some of them, but it's not like they're going to step onto the major league roster and have an impact immediately. 

Rather, I want to talk about the baseball draft, and how it differs from the draft in other sports. The NFL draft, is, of course, a spectacle, held at a major venue like Madison Square Garden, broadcast live on ESPN or a network, and the dominant topic on sports talk radio and TV for weeks in advance. The NBA draft is pretty much the same. The MLB draft--well, it goes on for three days, televised on MLB Network, which isn't included in many basic cable packages, and it's filmed in a studio. The MLB draft just isn't the event the NFL and NBA drafts are. Why not?

Here's the key, glaring difference: The NFL and the NBA outsource player development to the NCAA.

I've said this over and over. It explains a lot about the difference between the sports. It explains why MLB player salaries constitute a smaller percentage of team revenues than NFL and NBA player salaries. It explains why there's a thriving minor league system in baseball but not in football or basketball. And it explains why the MLB draft can't, won't, and never will compete with the NFL and NBA drafts.

There are two reasons the MLB draft is way, way different from the NFL and NBA drafts. First, one player in baseball can't turn around a franchise. The Chicago Bulls were 33-49, fourth in the NBA Central in 2007-08. The next year, after drafting Derrick Rose, they improved by eight games and took the 62-20 Celtics to the seventh game in the playoffs. The Indianapolis Colts were 2-14, last in the AFC South in 2011. The next year, after drafting Andrew Luck, the team went 11-5 and was beaten in the postseason by eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore. A superstar can turn around a franchise.

In baseball? The biggest impact rookie of late was Mike Trout, who was runner-up in the MVP vote in 2012. Without Trout in 2011, the Angels were 86-76, second in the American League West. With Trout the next year, they were 89-73 and third in the division. They won more games, but they still went home after the season ended. 

Now, granted, I'm being a little fast and loose, particularly with football. Basketball's a five-player game, so one player can have an enormous impact. The Cleveland Cavaliers went to the postseason five straight years with LeBron James with an average record of 54-28. The next four years, with James in Miami, they averaged 24-54. This year, with James back, they were 53-29. Football's a 22-player game, so one player doesn't have the same impact. But as the example of Luck illustrates, one player can, in specific circumstances, change a franchise's direction. In baseball, though? It just doesn't happen that way.
The second, and in my opinion more important, reason that baseball's draft doesn't have the impact of football's or baseball's is the time between drafting and playing. The best players in this year's NFL draft will start for their teams this fall. The best players in this year's NBA draft will start for their teams this winter. The best players in this year's MLB draft...well, we'll see them in a few years. There are exceptions--Brandon Finnegan played for TCU in the College World Series last summer and for the Kansas City Royals in the MLB World Series (albeit with a 10.50 postseason ERA) in October--but most drafted players won't appear in the majors for years. Literally, years. Let's look at the last five rookies of the year in each league. I'm going to list only domestic rookies of the year, since there isn't a functional international draft.

  • 2010: Buster Posey was a first-round pick in 2008 and spent two years in the minors. 
  • 2011: Craig Kimbrel was a third-round pick in 2008 and spent three years in the minors. Jeremy Hellickson was a fourth-round pick in 2005 and spent six years in the minors.
  • 2012: Bryce Harper was the first pick in 2010 and spent two years in the minors. Trout was a first-round pick in 2009 and spent three years in the minors.
  • 2013: Jose Fernandez was a first-round pick in 2011 and spent two years in the minors. Wil Myers was a third-round pick in 2009 and spent four years in the minors.
  • 2014: Jacob deGrom was a ninth-round pick in 2010 and spent three years (he was injured in 2011) in the minors. 
None of these top players were major-league regulars the year they were drafted. None of them were major-league regulars the year after they were drafted. Posey, Harper, and Fernandez were the only three who were major-league regulars two years after they were drafted.

Why is that? I'll go back to my main argument: The NFL and the NBA outsource player development to the NCAA. After playing college football or basketball, the best college football and basketball players are pretty much ready for the professional game. After playing college baseball, the best baseball players aren't ready for the professional game. The NCAA does a nice job of preparing football and basketball players for the big leagues; it doesn't do it for baseball. Part of it is caliber of competition, part of it is frequency of play, part of it how the game's played, part of it's the type and level of coaching--put all together, and almost every player selected in this year's, or any year's, baseball draft is going to require time in the minors. During those minor league seasons, some players will get hurt, Some will prove to be ineffective. Some will have a major weakness exposed as they face progressively better competition. All of these factors make the major league draft much, much more of a crapshoot than the other drafts. The 2009 baseball draft was fabulous, yet of the 24 players drafted before Trout, seven haven't made it out of the minors, three hitters have yet to appear in 100 games, and four pitchers have yet to appear in 50 games. That's 14 of 24 players, in a bumper year, who aren't yet major league regulars six years later

The baseball draft is just different. It's not going to be the spectacle the NFL and NBA drafts are, and it's not going to generate the franchise-changing talents the other drafts yield. 

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