Evolving Draft Strategies

Last Tuesday, 1,502 young ballplayers were selected in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft. A few talented guys will move quickly through farm systems and contribute to a major league team as soon as next year. Many more will spend the next several years refining their skills in the lower minor leagues, and the vast majority of those players will never wear a big league uniform. Some of the younger players will elect to go to junior college or a four-year program, in hopes of improving their draft position in a future draft.

Plenty of pundits have opinions on which organizations did well last week, but I would rather build on last week’s discussion of organizational strategies and tendencies.

The New Draft Plot

In last week’s article, I used an analytical technique called correspondence analysis to explore organizational draft strategies. This approach yields a scatter plot that describes the relationship between two sets of variables. The most recent draft data can give us a more complete and current picture of different organizations’ approach to the draft:
2006 baseball draft correspondence analysis plot
I only looked at the first five rounds of recent drafts, and only included organizations with some stability in the scouting department for at least two years. The additional year’s worth of data allowed me to include seven more teams than I was able to last week.

The first dimension, or the x-axis, once again represents teams’ preference for high school or college players. Teams on the far left side of the plot draft more high school players than most other teams, while teams on the far right side of the plot draft more college players than most other teams. The y-axis mostly reflects whether or not the organizations take risks with high school pitchers. A number of people wrote to me last week to ask if the variables were mislabeled, because they expected both college and high school pitchers to be positioned on the same half of the plot. This isn’t the case. The data show that some organizations (such as the Athletics and Giants) prefer college hitters and occasionally draft high school pitchers, but almost never draft high school hitters. Similarly, some teams prefer high school hitting and college pitching. The plot simply reflects these tendencies.

No Absolutes is the New Absolute

The teams with the most exaggerated preferences for college players or high school players all ventured away from their familiar drafting practices in the early rounds of this draft. Toronto broke tradition when they selected high school outfielder Travis Snider in the first round of the draft. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim continued to focus on 17- and 18-year old players out of high school, but they also selected 20-year-old junior college pitcher Kenneth Herndon with their fifth round pick. The Dodgers and Braves still draft more high school pitchers than most other teams, but both organizations also drafted a college pitcher in the first hour of this year’s draft.

Some teams do continue to demonstrate clear preferences for high school or college players, but this recent draft provides more evidence that major league organizations do not focus on a certain type of player in the first-year player draft.

Central Tendencies

Milwaukee was the most central, or ‘”typical”, team according to last week’s plot, but that all changed when they drafted three high school players with their first four selections of the 2006 draft. The Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals now appear to have the most central profiles. The Red Sox have developed a reputation for preferring college players over the years, but the organization has also selected high school hitters and pitchers in the first five rounds of the past two drafts. Detroit’s director of scouting David Chadd reportedly left the Red Sox two years ago due to some internal conflicts related to his traditional approach to scouting, and the front office’s reliance on performance-based assessment of players. Interestingly enough, the early rounds of Chadd’s drafts with the Tigers have almost exclusively consisted of college player selections, while his replacement in Boston, Jason McLeod, has facilitated a more balanced draft in terms of player position and experience.

Other New Additions

Besides Detroit and Boston, several other teams with two-year-old scouting directors appear on this most recent plot. For the second year in a row, Baltimore’s Joe Jordan selected a high school slugger and a more polished pitcher in the first round of the draft. Jordan does not seem committed to any particular type of player in the draft, but the Orioles have selected a hgh proportion of high school hitters in the early rounds of the draft. These results may be a reflection of Jordan’s scouting philosophy, but the outcomes could also be partially explained by their organizational need for young infielders, and the dearth of hitters in this most recent draft class.

The Yankees’ Damon Oppenheimer has focused almost exclusively on college players in the early rounds of the draft, but that’s not the case later in the draft. The Yankees appear to be rebuilding their farm system by drafting polished players in the first few rounds of the draft, and digging into their deep pockets to lure high-upside high school players (such as Austin Jackson) to the system in the later rounds of the draft.

The Cardinals appear to like college players. In fact, they only selected one high school player in the first twelve rounds of the draft. Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals’ VP of “Player Procurement”, has only been on the job for two years, so it’s too soon to tell if this represents a major shift in drafting strategy for the Cardinals organization. Last year’s draft was more balanced all-around.

Trends in the First Round

At this point, it might be helpful to consider the overall trends in baseball’s first-year player draft. The following line graph represents the proportion of high school and college hitters and pitchers selected in the first round (including the supplemental round) of the past five drafts:

There’s a lot of noise here, but that is to be expected, given the always-changing makeup of the top tier of draft-eligible talent. It does seem that college pitchers have been exceptionally popular in the first round of the past three drafts. High school pitchers have consistently represented about one-fifth of the first round draftees, while college and high school hitters’ popularity has fluctuated from year to year. Is this indicative of a general shift in drafting strategies?

The Makeup of the First Five Rounds

Let’s take a look at the 841 players selected in the first five rounds of the last five drafts:

This is a lot less noisy and probably a more useful way to gauge real trends in draft strategies. Although Oakland has recently dipped into the pool of high school pitchers, college pitchers’ popularity rocketed in the aftermath of Moneyball. The focus on college pitchers has been complimented by declining interest in high school pitchers. After the top pitching talent is selected in the first round, teams have only invested about 15% of their picks on high school pitching in the second through fifth rounds since 2003.

Teams may have recognized an over-emphasis on college hitters shortly after 2003. While nearly one-third of the early draft picks consisted of college hitters four years ago, only 26% of the early picks in this year’s draft were college hitters. Consequently, teams are taking more and more chances on high school hitters.

Conclusions

While many scouts described this year’s draft class as relatively deep in college pitching, it seems that the drafts of this decade may be characterized by a more persistent focus on college pitchers.

The longitudinal trends are clear and the correspondence analysis plots describing organizational strategies are particularly crowded in the upper right quadrant, near the “college pitchers” variable. At the same time, it seems that more and more teams are breaking rigid patterns and recognizing a need to look at many different types of players in the early rounds of the first-year player draft. Will teams continue to draft college pitching, and are they paying more attention to young high school hitters? What kind of player will your favorite team draft next year? This exploratory analysis provides some clues, but as usual we’ll have to wait ’til next year to hear the answers.

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