The glass half full

When the new Colective Bargaining Agreement was announced last November, changes to the draft were widely panned within the game. The new bonus pool system forced teams to rein in their spending, removing one of the few remaining arenas in which small-market teams could leverage their spending to remain competitive in the standings even when they can’t in payroll.

Seemingly, the reasoning behind the change was that it was simply another place major league owners could cut down on spending, and because the Players Association represents only current players, it would much rather hang draftees out to dry than reduce spending on major league talent. With revenues in baseball skyrocketing to new heights, thanks largely to the huge TV deals signed by a number of teams over the last few years, the change will have a minuscule impact on overall spending but may have much more significance for the ability of small-market teams to remain consistently competitive.

However, since these are the rules teams are going to be playing under for the next half-decade, it’s worth looking at them in a positive light rather than simply focusing on the detrimental parts. One change that most everyone in the game can agree was a step in the right direction was the earlier signing deadline. In 2011, draftees had to be signed by Aug. 15, giving teams a full two and a half months between the draft at the beginning of June and the signing deadline. In 2012, that deadline was moved up by a month, meaning teams now must sign their draftees by mid-July (the 13th this year).

In addition, the new slot bonus system encourages cost certainty. Because teams are trying to fit their early-round picks into their bonus pool, they need to know if a player is going to require an over-slot bonus and take a less expensive player in a later round to balance out their expenditures. Because teams largely knew what their signees were going to want before selecting them, many deals got done quickly after the draft with minimal posturing and fewer players holding out until the very last minute to squeeze out every possible dollar.

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**With the first overall pick, the Astros took high school shortstop Carlos Correa, paid him a $4.8 million signing bonus ($2.4 million below slot), and signed him a week after the draft, allowing him to pick up 204 minor league plate appearances.** (US Presswire)

As a result, most draftees inked much earlier than in previous years. To look at just how much of a difference the new CBA made, I’ve compared this year’s draftees’ number of plate appearances or innings pitched in the year they were drafted to last year’s draft class. I’ve limited the data to the first round and focused on regular season leagues, meaning the data includes rookie league games but not off-season leagues like the Arizona Fall League or Hawaii Winter League.

In 2011, the first round saw 17 pitchers taken. Those 17 pitchers averaged five innings pitched before the end of the 2011 season. Ten pitchers didn’t see a mound in a regular season league, with three of those going to the Arizona Fall League to start their professional careers, and the other seven taking nine months off between draft day in June 2011 and their first pro action in spring training 2012. In contrast, every one of the 12 pitchers drafted in the first round this year has already pitched for a club affiliate. Those pitchers averaged 19.1 innings pitched, meaning the new rules have allowed them to get their career underway much earlier than in the past.
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The numbers bear out similarly for the hitters. Last season, 12 first-round hitters averaged 94 plate appearances, and three didn’t see the field until 2012. The 18 first-round hitters this year averaged 200 plate appearances this season, with only the injured Victor Roache yet to step into the box as a pro.

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The most drastic, and possibly most impactful difference, is probably the experience gained by high school players. In 2011, 11 high school players went in the first round. Four didn’t play until 2012. Of the high schoolers who did play, Brandon Nimmo led hitters with 44 plate appearances, while Jose Fernandez paced the hurlers with 4.1 innings pitched. This season, 17 high schoolers were tabbed in the first round. Every one played in rookie ball, with five earning a promotion to an A-ball league.

Rockies outfielder David Dahl led hitters with 297 trips to the plate, while Lucas Sims of the Braves pitched 34 innings to lead the pitchers. Each first-round hitter stepped to the plate at least 142 times, nearly 100 more than any one did last year, and every pitcher besides Lucas Giolito (who pitched two innings and was sent for a Tommy John procedure) picked up more experience than Fernandez did in 2011.

I certainly can’t tell you what the impact of the early starts for these players will be long-term, but even without long-term evidence I’m pretty sure the teams are happy to have their draftees out on a professional diamond. I think most members of major lague development staffs would say, especially for the younger high school draftees, the single most important thing these players can do right now is get repetitions and begin to gain experience in affiliated baseball.

Teams want their pitchers building up arm strength by throwing fastballs and beginning to work on the fundamentals of mechanics and command under professional instruction. Similarly, hitters need to be seeing professional pitching and learning to hit against the better control, deception, and stuff that exists in pro ball. Giving players a taste of professional ball in their draft year allows them to get over the “shock” of their first pro experience, which can be overwhelming because of the huge jump in talent level from either high school or college to the pros.

Under the old rules, many players experienced that shock in the following year’s spring training. Now, with a little professional work under their belts, teams will likely feel much more comfortable giving these draftees a more aggressive assignment out of spring training next season. While the new CBA’s changes to the draft may not be ideal in many ways, the new rules are allowing players to taste professional baseball earlier than in the past, and for some of these players it could just bump their major league ETA up by as much as a season.

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Comments

  1. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    You view it as detrimental, I don’t.

    I don’t see how the bonus pool can be considered detrimental to the small market teams.  Before, they could not compete with the high revenue teams, and thus prospects (many of them Boras clients) gave strong messages of requiring large bonuses, causing the small market teams to bypass legitimate prospects, only to see teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Angels sign them to large contracts later in the draft.  Looking at this draft, just look at what Houston did with their picks.

    Given the poor success rate of prospects turning into good ballplayers, I think that cost control in this area is a good thing. 

    Plus, the main thing I’ve wanted to see is prospects signing earlier and getting more experience now than later.

  2. Doug Wachter said...

    OGC,
    Thanks for reading. My issues with the bonus pool basically stem from the fact that teams aren’t able to choose their own level of involvement in the draft. Of course, teams could decide to not spend their pools, but with a suggested dollar amount, they basically are going to spend close to their pool. This year, every team spent within a million dollars of their bonus pool with the exception of the Pirates (Mark Appel problems). I think a few teams saw the draft as one area where they could make up for their payroll gaps because dollars go such a long way if the team is able to find major league talent. If a team’s able to bring a player up and hold them through arbitration, they’re able to collect a ton of value, so even a signing bonus of $1-2M is easily recouped.

    That said, for every bonus paid that turns into a big leaguer, I totally agree that many won’t. I just think that teams like the Pirates, Royals, and Rays should have the option of using the draft as a centerpiece of their strategy, and although they still will they won’t be able to differentiate themselves enough from other teams purely through spending to make much of a difference, and instead must rely on hitting on picks at a higher rate than other teams through superior scouting and analytics (and maybe a few military drills).

  3. rubesandbabes said...

    Doug:

    Thanks nice article. Disagree where the rules with this new CBA agreement or previous agreement ‘helped’ the smaller market teams. Even in these flush times for baseball teams, just by their nature the ‘financially poor’ teams are always last in line for every opportunity. Best example: The teams that are fighting to get under the salary limitations are very serious about player development, much more so than the Pirates.

    ==

    The idea that the Pirates and Marlins will be less able to compete under the new draft laws is logical but so far unfounded. Basically, most all the 2012 draftees signed, except for Mark Appel, the Stanford guy. Wins all around.

    You get it exactly right when you say the amateurs were hung out to dry, but since the Scott Boras crowd did not react, calm will reign until the next Stephen Strassburg or Bryce Harper comes along.

    The system remains very against amateurs getting paid like Yoenis Cespedes or Yu Darvish, so it’s inevitable that the system will be challenged. It’s really been a long time since L’Affaire JD Drew.

    Whether or not Mark Appel made a good business decision not to sign when everyone else did, in true baseball financial value he was worth much more than $3mil, so it was always sorta lose-lose anyway. He was offered less than 10% of what Cespedes signed for.

    I like your making important guys getting going by pitching an average of 19 innings, but former minor league pitcher Scott Boras does not care about this one whit.

  4. rubesandbabes said...

    Yes, the other comment I would make is that we all get to watch and see whether any team breaks the draconian penalties for ‘overpaying’ for their prospects. The penalties are very severe.

  5. Doug Wachter said...

    I don’t think the Pirates (and others) can’t compete on the same level in the draft. I think the issue is that they can’t choose to leverage the draft as an opportunity to outspend other teams, like the Pirates did last year (Cole 1st overall, still went well over slot for Josh Bell). My issue is that the majority of teams that spent big on the draft over the past few years were teams outside of MLB’s upper revenue echelons (even when you adjust for talent/slots), and now that option is no longer available to those teams.

  6. Doug Wachter said...

    As for the penalties, I can’t imagine a team would willfully incur the loss of a draft pick, unless it was a decent team (unlikely to have a high pick in future years) with a shot at a generational talent, like Strasburg or Harper as you said.

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