Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo…

Within minutes after compiling this year’s (2006) draft order and noticing that the San Francisco Giants pick 10th overall, the e-mail jokes were already starting to circulate amongst my friends:

“Sabean’s already got the nighttime terror sweats because he can’t give away his first-round pick.”

“Nah, he’ll just draft someone and not sign him; that way he can get a lower pick the year after.”

“Sure, his drafting strategery is unorthodox, but one more clever trade like Nathan and Liriano on the Twins for one year of a catcher nobody can stand, and he’ll be back on top!”

For the last two seasons, the San Francisco Giants and their general manager, Brian Sabean, have signed a free agent before the arbitration deadline, obligating the Giants to pay compensation to the free agent’s former team. That compensation takes the form of the signing team’s first-round pick in the upcoming amateur draft. The reason the Giants have done this is to save money; first-rounders, even between 20th and 30th overall where the Giants are usually picking, command a signing bonus of $1 to $1.5 million. Sabean has stated that he feels that money is better spent elsewhere, and he’d rather not have that pick. Now Sabean believes this even though the best study on this topic to date (by Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus) has shown that the value of a first-round pick in that range is somewhere between $3-9 million depending on the pick.

For the Giants’ 2006 draft, though, the question of whether to forfeit the pick is moot. Where the signing team picks 15th or higher, then the second-round pick is forfeited instead. So the Giants will be “stuck” with their 10th overall pick no matter what they do. If the Giants pick a player but do not sign him, then they will receive a supplemental pick after the first round in the 2007 draft as compensation. However, under MLB rules the Giants cannot trade the pick or the player drafted until one year after the player signs his first pro contract.

Why did Sabean come to believe that the first-round pick was a millstone, rather than the boon that Nate Silver’s analysis shows it to be? Surely just picking up a mock draft and using that to make a first-rounder would benefit the Giants, given the value of picks in that range. There are answers, I think, in the first-round draft results the Giants have had under Sabean. Here is what the Giants have done in the draft’s first round (including supplemental first-round picks) since 1992:

1992 Calvin Murray
[Sabean joins the Giants as VP of scouting and player personnel for the 1993 season]
1993 Steve Soderstrom
1994 Dante Powell, Jacob Cruz
1995 Joe Fontenot
1996 Matt White
[Sabean became the General Manager at the end of the 1996 season]
1997 Jason Grilli, Dan McKinley
1998 Tony Torcato, Nate Bump, Arturo McDowell, Chris Jones, Jeff Urban
1999 Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams
2000 Boof Bonser
2001 Brad Hennessey, Noah Lowery, Todd Linden
2002 Matt Cain
2003 David Aardsma, Craig Whitaker
2004 No first round pick
2005 No first round pick

Well no wonder Sabean decided that a first-round pick was “highly speculative” and therefore not worth the million-dollar bonuses he was spending on them. The Giants, for whatever reason, have sucked at drafting first-rounders. They’ve done all right below the first round, but their first-round picks have been terrible. The Giants have derived almost no value on the field from the 21 first-rounders they have picked since Sabean joined the organization as the head of amateur scouting.

It takes guts to admit that you don’t know how to do something that everyone else is doing and change how you operate accordingly. Sabean leaves himself open to criticism from everyone because he plays by his own rules, and he doesn’t count on protection from the herd to justify his decisions. As Studes showed last winter in looking at Sabean’s thirst for really old players, he does some counterintuitive things that make sense. Likewise with the first-rounders; Sabean seems to have admitted to himself that he and his organization are terrible at picking from the top of the talent pool, so rather than spend the money, he’ll take his chances with what’s available further down. The Giants may not be better for it, but at least it’s a direction. At least it’s a GM thinking about process rather than just following the herd.

Contrary to what some might say, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that you’re just really bad at picking from the most sought-after prospects. It isn’t an admission that you can’t scout amateur talent; the Giants under Sabean have never been great shakes at drafting and developing but they aren’t the worst team at it. In any case, dumping the first-rounder is not writing off the draft. It’s instead focusing on what you do well, and de-emphasizing what you do badly—similar to what we always say about picking ballplayers—focus on the things a player does well, try to look past the bad or put them in a scenario where it doesn’t hurt as much. In short, if you think the million-plus dollars are better spent elsewhere, more power to you. I think it’s the wrong strategy, of course—I firmly believe that putting someone’s “top 50 prospects” list on a dartboard and throwing the scouting director’s pointy head at it is a viable strategy to get value from the draft’s top prospects given their return, and the Giants have just been unlucky. Maybe someone in the Giants’ front office will have read that Prospectus article and will try to change the big guy’s mind.

It will be interesting to see what Sabean does with the 10th overall pick in next year’s amateur draft. But then, it’s always interesting to see what Sabean does.

References & Resources
Thanks to The Baseball Cube for its great draft database, and to Barry Bonds for missing the year, making this experiment possible.

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